NEW YORK • The opening panels of Dark Knight III: The Master Race depict a break-in at the Batcave. A display case containing the imposing costume of Batman, the DC vigilante, is smashed open and his emblematic cape and cowl are stolen, leaving only a bare mannequin.
This sequence can be seen as metaphor for the transformative effect that the Dark Knight comics, created by artist-writer Frank Miller, have had on the 76-year-old Batman superhero.
When his original series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was published in 1986, its depiction of an older Bruce Wayne, who had returned to fight crime after a period of retirement, reinvigorated the character. It was a shadowy hero for a new generation and it helped strip away the colourful affectations of the 1960s Batman TV show.
Beginning with Miller's comics and culminating in Christopher Nolan's multibillion-dollar Dark Knight movie franchise, this sombre Batman became the character's definitive incarnation.
Dark Knight III, a comic book series whose first issue will be released tomorrow, is an opportunity for Miller to revisit the dystopian world of his venerable crime-fighter and to reflect on the influential series he initiated on the cusp of his 30th birthday.
"I decided to make Batman impossibly old - I made him in his 50s," a wry Miller, 58, said in a recent interview. "It was a way to recharge the character creatively, but also make myself feel a bit younger in the process."
But Dark Knight III is being met with a mix of anticipation and wariness.
Some fans have soured on the strident, violent work of Miller, whose graphic novels have spawned hit movies such as 300 (2006) and Sin City (2005), and what they perceive as his reactionary politics.
Audiences also wonder if the new Dark Knight can have any effect in a cultural landscape saturated with moody, brooding takes on Batman.
"The downside of being so omnipresent is that people get sick of your story," said Glen Weldon, who wrote The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture, an upcoming Simon & Schuster book. "He could become cultural background noise."
Some readers also say that proliferating versions of the character have diminished what was special about the first Dark Knight.
At a time when Batman is so valuable to DC Entertainment (and its parent company, Time Warner), few meaningful chances can be taken with him.
In the mid-1980s, Miller's unique interpretation "was connected to the reality of what Batman was then, what he could become", said Tom Spurgeon, a writer who chronicles the comics industry at comicsreporter.com.
Now, he said: "He's one of the Batmans that we get. That's a much less considered effect and a less powerful pop-culture trigger."
Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, said keeping alive a roster of heroes published since the 1930s required bold reinventions from time to time. "It needs people coming in and redefining what these characters mean for the times they live in," said Lee, a prolific artist who worked with Miller on the comics series All Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder.
He said Miller and writer Brian Azzarello (who share story credit on Dark Knight III) were among the trusted talents who had earned the right to take these chances with DC's intellectual properties.
Even some readers who are sceptical of Dark Knight III say that a current environment of redundant and unadventurous Batmen could be just the right moment to do something subversive with the character.
Mr Jeff Lester, a comics critic and co-host of the Wait, What? comics podcast, pointed to a scene from Dark Knight III in which Batman fights with a group of police officers who have pointed their guns at a young black man. That sequence, he said, might be an encouraging indicator of a story that is striving for contemporary relevance.
"We may end up getting a more inclusive Batman that actually addresses the world we live in," He said. "It could very well feel like a radical act, at this point in which everything's very safe."
NEW YORK TIMES