Birth of the Batman (Batman Canon I)

Batman: Year One (BATMAN #404-407) by Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli/Richmond Lewis

This four-part story is the point of origin for basically all of modern Batman. It deserves praise for that, sure, but I like it for a few reasons that I think many critics tend to gloss over.

Mazzucchelli’s vision of the Wayne murders, imitated often but rarely surpassed. The last frame is brilliant; Bruce is becoming the Batman right before your eyes.

The artist should get first credit on this comic. I don’t think I’ve read anything else illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, but I’d like to on the merits of his Year One artwork alone. Each and every line is rich and stunning, as if he hit “Ctrl+B” in his brain before setting the pencil on the paper. Anything lost in detail is more than made up for in the sheer strength of the images, complimented perfectly by Richmond Lewis’ vivid coloring and judicious use of contrast — especially in the derelict building scenes in Chapter Three. This is one comic where I’d say the artwork far outshines the writing, even to the point where I think some of the text could be left out and the same meanings would come across equally well, perhaps even more powerfully. Mazzucchelli was also apparently the first person in decades to draw Batman as if he’s a real person, with a simple, utilitarian black-and-gray costume that completely lacks the comically conspicuous musculature typical of the superhero genre. And Gotham City is a real place, too, where in this artist’s unique style, no single object in a scene is left as an afterthought, or mere “scenery,” right down to the layer of detritus lining Gotham’s streets and alleys.

Regarding the writing: this is Frank Miller’s most restrained and nuanced work with Batman. Where  in The Dark Knight Returns the character is 100% fatalist, full of merciless conviction and explosive anger, in Year One he defines himself for the coming revitalization of comic books: haunted, obsessive, and self-critical, but also altruistic, self-sacrificial, and utterly determined. He’s got a mean streak, but he channels it well and, more importantly, he keeps it in check. Year One is essentially free of the unabashed sadism that plagues DKR and its sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and mangles the character beyond recognition in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

All of this is to say: Batman: Year One is a great comic, but more so for its style and themes than for its actual plot. The pacing has always been a little off for me — I think it’s tough to tell a year’s worth of story in four monthly comics and still retain the immediacy and locality, two of the traits that make comic books so much fun. But the story is adequate to the task of propping up Miller and Mazzucchelli’s revamp of the Dark Knight, and it introduced the world to a few characters that would show up 20 years later in Batman Begins.

Stylistically and thematically, Year One is as realistic as superhero comics have ever been. The enemies Batman and Jim Gordon make for themselves in this comic all exist in real life. When I reread it recently, I also happened to be finishing up HBO’s The Wire (praised for its persistent and uncompromising realism), and I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance between Year One‘s Police Commissioner Loeb and his counterparts on the show. Barely a mention is made of the rest of DC’s pantheon in Year One; when Alfred pithily suggests to his employer, “Hmf. I suppose you’ll take up flying next– –like that fellow in Metropolis,” Bruce Wayne just grins. And fashions himself a Bat-hang-glider.

Gotham’s Finest.

More than just because it’s a great origin story, Year One appears in my collection of comics because the only thing that separates its gritty crime-noir setting from modern urban reality is its title character; lacking Batman, Year One would still read well as a grim tale of a good cop in a bad city (indeed, Jim Gordon often feels more like the central protagonist of the story than Bruce Wayne). Beyond declaring that Batman can be relevant to real life, this comic declares that we, the readers, are at odds with ourselves. Just by seeing the comic through to its conclusion, by acknowledging that Gordon, for all his hard work and integrity, can’t really go it alone, aren’t we implicitly agreeing that Batman should exist, that he needs to exist in Gotham City? And when Gotham is a fictional city in name only, aren’t we also tacitly approving of a real person donning the cape and cowl, despite whatever beliefs we think we hold regarding rule of law and due process and all the other social mores the Batman violates on a nightly basis?

In just four issues in 1986, Year One called for a new kind of comic book reader: one who’s eager to explore the complications of street justice and vigilantism, one who’s willing to confront these inherent contradictions without feeling put off and without retreating to the more traditional, fantastical sorts of comics because they’re “more exciting” or because their heroes have superpowers.

I still see this sort of audience as a work in progress; in recent years, DC continues to publish (and make truckloads of money on) some of its most far-fetched and fantastical adventures yet (see: Final Crisis or even Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne). And The Avengers movie has set the all-time opening weekend record for box office sales at over $207 million, but for films only appearing in 2-D, The Dark Knight Rises now holds that same record, stealing the mantle from its own predecessor The Dark Knight. So cheap thrills and flashy action still trump thematic depth and realism — but only barely, and if we adjust for the 18-25% price hike for 3-D tickets, Avengers and Dark Knight Rises (and Dark Knight, too) are probably on much more even footing than we realize.

Batman: Year One represents the intellectual predecessor to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a vein of comic book writing that firmly believes the medium can be about far more than some guy in tights who can lift up a car. With a rare exception, these are the sorts of comics I add to my library; these are the sorts of stories that keep me awake at night.

Next up: Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

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