Batman: Year One

(1986)
Writer: Frank Miller
Illustrator: David Mazzucchelli
Colorist: Richmond Lewis
Letterer: Todd Klien

Frank Miller's Batman: Year One was created as a follow-up to his enormously successful The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel which revolutionized comic books along with Allan Moore's The Watchmen. Charged with the task of re-writing Bruce Wayne's metamorphism into Batman from square one for the post-Crisis universe, Miller created a story of crime and human weakness. Year One traces Bruce Wayne's struggles against the corrupt Gotham City Police Department while becoming Batman. Running parallel to Wayne's journey is the story of James Gordon. Before he was Commissioner, Gordon was a lowly lieutenant recruited from Chicago to serve on the Gotham force. Throughout Year One the two men struggle against greed, apathy and their own very human natures.

This was the second Batman comic I read, after The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller's take on Batman isn't the most accessible to new readers, and I confess DKR threw me for a loop: I didn't know quite what to make of his treatment of Batman. Year One is a different kind of animal. Still written with Miller's trademark gritty urban feel and taste for violence, YR1 transcends the political criticism of DKR and instead focuses on the story of Bruce Wayne and Gordon, telling a simpler story about two men and their mission to clean up Gotham. Sadly, there are no mutants.

Gotham is as much a character in Y1 as Gordon or Wayne. Mazzucchelli's simplistic artwork doesn't feature many wide-panel shots of skylines or buildings (he tends to focus on facial expressions and character details) but the city takes life through bleak, grainy colors and a sort of 80s 'sleezeploitation' style that's hard to define and yet somehow pervasive. You know from the first panel, as James Gordon finds himself crammed onto an overcrowded, filthy train, that Gotham is a very dirty town. A tone of desperation sinks into the book from the start; we are immediately exposed to violence, vice and human misery. Bruce Wayne's undercover stroll into the East End is a tour of the red light district from hell, and the vivid coloring by Richmond Lewis is absolutely perfect for these scenes.

The idea of corrupt cops ruling a dirty town isn't new, and in crime fiction (as I think YR1 would be defined) we expect the bad guys to be brought to justice sooner or later. Miller complicates that scenario by presenting a town so rotted out with greed and apathy that it would have to clean up to be dirty. We're plunged immediately into the backroom deals and shady cops peopling Gotham's civic service institutions through Gordon; Bruce Wayne's world is far removed from the ugly realties of Gordon's world. We see Wayne exercise and search for a way to take to the streets and hand out justice in displays of physical prowess, but Gordon's story is the more interesting one.

James Gordon is trapped in a city he hates, working a job that is almost impossible to do honestly in Gotham City, and his wife's pregnancy is unwelcome. Gordon's plight is worse because he has an affair with the beautiful Sgt. Essen, and that weakness threatens the character's moral authority as he attempts to combat corrupt city officials like the Police Commissioner and the Mayor. The interplay between human weakness, Gordon and Wayne's mission to rid the city of crime, and intermediary characters like Selina Kyle who are neither good nor bad create an ambiguity that seems realistic and very sad in this superhero universe.

We see Bruce Wayne stumble and make mistakes in his quest to become Batman. Other images, such as the Wayne murder, have been copied and re-used several times by other artists when recreating Batman's formative moment. Iconic as these images are within the Batman mythos, Wayne's story still suffers because it lacks the human complexity of Gordon's problems. Were Year One to be filmed (as it was rumored would happen) James Gordon would be the lead.

Selina Kyle's entrance into the story, transformed from her pre-Crisis anmesiatic stewardess into a hard-bitten young prostitute and dominatrix, also steals attention from Bruce's story as she becomes inspired by Batman's exploits to don a mask herself. The excellent extension of her Year One story can be found in Her Sister's Keeper. Other characters, such as the devious Lt. Flass and ambitious young attorney Harvey Dent show up in later Bat tales.

There are a few remarkable set pieces in this book that distinguish it from other, lesser imitators. One is Batman's full-out battle against the entire GCPD as, wounded, he takes shelter in a building which quickly swarms with a S.W.A.T. team and a helicopter firebombing. This sequence was echoed in the 1994 movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which owes more than a little to Frank Miller's Year One. Visually well-plotted and narrated in tense first-person, the clash between Batman and Gotham's finest is a real tour-de-force. The conflict between Batman's war on crime and Gordon's oath to uphold law and order is played out well in these scenes, as Gordon comes to realize that working with the vigilante Batman might be better than working with the GCPD.

At its core, Year One is an attempt not to define Batman or Bruce Wayne but the characters and city around him. For a more in-depth psychological study of Batman in his first year, see Joe Casey's remarkable Tenses. But as far as action, imagery and character introductions go, Year One is hard to ignore. This one should be on everyone's reading list.


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