by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
132 pages, Titan Books
Review by Pat Black
Batman’s pretty much the greatest, for me.
I remember one Christmas when I got a Bat-costume as a gift, and insisted on wearing it to the family dinner table.
Before that, I made do with my parka jacket with the hood up over my head, keeping my arms out of the sleeves, in order to replicate the Dark Knight’s cape-and-cowl look. I remember howling when my Bat-cycle toy broke, and I once got so excited when the Adam West-starring Batman movie came on TV that I was sick on the carpet.
I was 24 at the time of these events, but no matter.
There’s a perception that Batman is the “dark” comic book character. He does have his gothic roots in terms of origin and style, and he’s always been a creature of the night. But “dark” is a loaded description. Too often it can mean “moping” or just plain “immature”, for me. Teenagers sulking in bedrooms appreciate “dark”; it’s not necessarily the best quality for an all-action brawler.
So “dark” may not be the best description. Maybe “realistic” works better, because since the 1980s, Batman has operated in a much more realistic world than many of his comrades at DC, Marvel and elsewhere.
Although Batman had been tough before, he was never quite plausible with his bright blue cape and boots and yellow bat-sign. His road to maturity and modernity arguably started with The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. That story marked the end of the Batman myth, taking place in a futuristic Gotham City with a fifty-something Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to clean the city up once more.
Having plotted Batman’s end, Miller was persuaded to return to Gotham, this time to go back to the roots. These days, they call it a reboot, but Batman: Year One is as indispensable for Bat-fans as DKR. It redefined the character’s origins, but set him in a harder, harsher modern world.
Year One is as much Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s story as Bruce Wayne’s. Gordon arrives in Gotham from out of town, with his pregnant wife, to take a new job. This tough but principled man soon establishes himself as a hero cop, in the face of endemic corruption in Gotham Police force. He soon butts heads with fellow detectives and the Commissioner, receiving and then giving out beatings to fellow cops who do not like the idea of a clean, morally upright man in their midst.
Well... I say clean and morally upright, but Gordon is full of flaws. To my astonishment he embarks on an affair with a fellow officer while his wife is expecting their first child. I noted that the detective he gets it on with had a blatant likeness to Kim Basinger, who went on to star in the first Batman movie a year or so after this comic book came out. The affair is believable, and Gordon even emerges with a little credit in the way it all comes out in the wash, once his opponents on the police force discover and exploit his infidelity. Sometimes honesty comes at a higher price than deception.
But what of the headline act? Well, Bruce Wayne the billionaire is as he’s always been – rich and bland on the outside, driven and traumatised on the inside. As the “human” side of the masked hero, he’s always lagged far behind Clark Kent, Peter Parker or Bruce Banner; he’s only interesting when he has that costume on, clobbering baddies.
Wayne returns to Gotham at the same time as Gordon arrives. We’re never told where he’s been but it’s clear he has been in training to take on the criminal underbelly which accounted for his parents. His first attempts at crime-fighting are goofy, though. Unmasked, but with a “darkened” complexion and bearing a false scar, Wayne wanders into the red light zone and picks a fight with a pimp. Things turn even more farcical when he is knifed by the working girl he thought he was protecting. On top of this, he ends up getting shot for his troubles by the police. The crimefighter is lucky to survive and forced into a rethink.
The violence in this book is another concession – almost – to the real world. Wayne doesn’t start his career as Batman well; he gets shot a few times and takes a painful-looking kick in the chops as part of his learning curve. In this world, fistfights – including a macho face-off Jim Gordon has with his chief tormentor on the police force – can end in broken bones and disfigurement; we are a world away from KAPOW!! and SOCK!!
That said, Batman is a typically unbreakable Miller hero. In the course of this book we see Bruce Wayne karate-chopping chimneys, kicking trees into splinters, knocking over concrete columns despite a bullet in the leg and snapping handcuffs like they were elastic bands. Miller has always tended to showcase his heroes as being physically Olympian – you can kick them, shoot them and stab them, but they wear their wounds as lightly as silk. And God help you if they decide to hit you back.
There’s even a hint here and there that Batman perhaps enjoys it, the S and the M of it. Year One is not as stark as The Dark Knight Returns in addressing the idea that a man dressed as an animal and taking pleasure in violence must have a couple of kinks in his wires, but the idea is present.
Gordon quickly realises that rather than being the villain the press and police make him out to be, Batman is actually taking on corruption and crime in Gotham City. The lieutenant sees Batman rescue an old lady from a speeding truck at first-hand. Earlier, in a moment of epiphany, Batman also saves a crim who was taking a header off a fire escape, rather than letting him drop. Although he’s happy to turn their faces into modern art or stick them in a wheelchair for their troubles, Batman simply will not kill those he hunts. In Gordon – tough as nails, but unwilling to cross the line between law officer and criminal – Batman has found his soul-mate within the system.
The book ends with almost exactly the same framing as Batman Begins, with the all-new Bat-signal and Gordon worrying about some weirdo called The Joker. This is one of several moments those who’ve seen the Nolan films will find familiar.
We also find out how Batman decides to become something symbolic and frightening in order to make the fearful afraid – drawing on a moment of childhood trauma where the young Bruce Wayne was spooked by some bats. Batman Begins almost certainly took its inspiration from this idea. Miller being Miller, though, he focuses the young Wayne’s trauma on something big, muscular and monstrous; a giant bat, the same one we see in Dark Knight Returns, crashing through a window. It wouldn’t do to have Wayne frightened of something so silly and flimsy as an ickle bat, now, would it?
In Year One, Harvey Dent appears, too – a peripheral figure, but one who is on Batman’s side from the very start, even more so than Gordon. The Gotham District Attorney has not yet undergone his Mr. Hyde style metamorphosis into Two-Face, and he appears to be happy to feed Batman information regarding Gotham’s crime hierarchy.
Miller also introduces Selina Kyle, a dominatrix in Gotham’s vice scene who turns one of her working costumes into a familiar catsuit. Batman helps out a little with her vengeful night-time activities in a coincidental way, but he’s never quite happy with her being around. They make for intriguing, if uneasy bedfellows. I wonder if that storyline will be explored in the next Batman movie, with Anne Hathaway playing Catwoman?
So yes, if by “dark” we mean “more adult”, then this Batman is dark. I don’t believe that the caped crusader must be a nasty or overly-mature character. The concept of a masked crimefighter is inherently silly, so Miller and his art team have a lot of work to do to convince us that one could operate in the real world. Rather than just being a fuzzy who enjoys punching people.
They just about manage it. Though Adam West will always have a wee bit of my heart, I prefer the ultra-gritty style of Frank Miller’s Batman – the one that Christopher Nolan successfully brought to the big screen.
The book also has an excellent afterword by Mazzuchelli, in the same style as From Hell’s ironic comic book panels, in which he deconstructs the “realistic... but not too realistic” tone of Year One.
There are also some tremendous front covers and artwork appended, some of which I would be delighted to hang on my walls until someone gently suggests it’s time I grew up.