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.

Building a Better Batman Canon

Holy unnecessary alliteration, Batman!

The author is dead. So why am I talking about “canon,” which is eternally tangled up with the notion of authorship? Because in some media, it can still be a useful way of organizing how we think about the text(s). Put simply, “canon” is those works which a) originate with the creator of a given fiction, and/or b) are considered “official” by a fiction’s fan base. For example, Twilight is a part of Stephanie Meyer’s canon, while Twilight fan fiction is not. Revenge of the Sith is, sadly, official Star Wars canon, while anything that contradicts it is not. Such distinctions are relatively simple when the fiction has only one author from whom all the creative vision of the imagined universe stems.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1, written by Wolfm...

DC’s heroes meet their most bewildering foe yet: the dreaded Retcon of the Multiverse! See them whirl about in an interplanetary vortex of utter befuddlement!

But what about comics? Between Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and the current Bat-family of monthly magazines, literally hundreds of authors and illustrators have contributed to the Bat-mythology – nevermind the films, TV shows, novels, and newspaper strips external to DC’s ongoing continuity. Even the notion of a “creator” is meaningless; Bob Kane was only directly involved in DC’s monthly publications for roughly the first twenty of Batman’s 73 years thus far, and may or may not have actually done the creating anyway. And even after all that, DC has rewritten its own continuity several times, just to simplify (read: complicate) the internal chronology of their characters.

In comic books, then, it seems the only semi-solid conception we have of “canon” is that stamp of publisher’s approval, the indication of copyright: DC. Canon is as much proprietary as it is visionary. DC is owner, operator, and author all in one.

But wait! The author is dead! As dead as, say, Jason Todd on the wrong end of a crowbar!

Aha! So does that mean I don’t think the author is dead? Perhaps the author has  ascended to superhero status; perhaps he is become the Ghostwriter, aka the Worldly Word-Slinger, eternally reanimated by clamoring fanboys and falling comic book sales, whose only weakness is the inability to permanently kill anybody, ever, no matter how completely, totally done in they might at first appear!

Fuck that shit. In my Gotham City, Jason Todd still lies stone dead of Joker-inflicted crowbar whacks, despite trade paperbacks, despite animated movies starring Neil Patrick Harris, despite his ever-increasing prominence in DC’s current publications. Why? Because Jason Todd’s death added a new layer of meaning to Bruce Wayne’s nightly crusade, a new wound reopened by every mention of Jason’s name, every glance at Jason’s Robin uniform enshrined in the Batcave, every single subsequent encounter with the Joker. I am the master of my comic book collection, and I say BATMAN #635-641 and #645-650 never happened.

DC’s decisions begin and end with their bottom line. No surprise there – it’s why they killed Jason Todd, aka Robin II, in the first place. He had become unpopular with readers, and DC’s editors felt it was time for him to shuffle off his (im)mortal comic book coil. Further, DC even let the readers decide via 1-900 number whether A Death in the Family would really end in Jason’s death. Comic book fans rarely have such direct influence on the course of their favorite characters’ storylines, but this underscores a truth about popular media: the relationship between consumers, writers, and copyright holders occurs in a triangular rather than top-down fashion.

A page of “reader response” to the Dark Knight from BATMAN #250.

But why not ignore the authorial stamp of approval altogether? In a story printed in BATMAN #250 in 1973 (adapted twice into animated form, in The New Batman Adventures in 1998 and again in Gotham Knight in 2008), a trio of boys narrate to each other their impressions of the Batman, all of which differ so wildly that they are mutually exclusive. In the original 1973 story, the youngsters are supervised on a weekend retreat by none other than Bruce Wayne, who is understandably shocked by their wildly inaccurate claims (one wonders at his indignation here, given that he generally cultivates this sort of mysterious aura). According to Will Brooker in his book Batman Unmasked, “Bruce Wayne, of course, is in a position of authority here… because of his ‘authorship’ of the Batman – and is therefore viewed within this story as a ‘dominant’ source of official meaning” (18). But the kids don’t care; even when Bruce dons the real Bat-costume and jumps out of the darkness as the real Batman, “the authorial meaning is derided, mocked, exposed as just another ‘reading’ and a pretty feeble one at that” (Brooker 21). Brooker’s point is clear: in this story, Bruce is a stand-in for DC Comics, the owner/operator/author, and their interpretation of the Batman is just that  – an interpretation, no more valued by readers than they value their own readings of the character.

So in that spirit, I’ll merrily dance on the grave of Jason Todd as I present to you the vital chapters in my own “reading,” my own “canon” of the Batman, including what I find meaningful within each story and how I think it fits into a larger arc, the overall Legend of the Dark Knight.

BATMAN #655-658: Batman and Son (Grant Morrison: “I loved Angel Season 4!”)

Once upon a time there was a dark, avenging creature of the night who banged one of his erstwhile lady-foes in a (few?) moment(s?) of implausibly poor judgment. In a startlingly predictable turn of absolutely no dramatic significance, lady-foe-turned-S.O. has a baby. Since babies generally have a damping effect on tales of derring-do and, incidentally, demand a measure of responsibility and maturity utterly beyond the medium’s target audience, the youngster is hastily squirreled away in the writers’ undoubtedly overflowing and smelly communal footlocker labeled “shit to pull out later when we run out of cool ideas.” Somehow our hero, ostensibly a talented detective, seems to have no fucking clue that any of this is happening.

Well, eventually (some twenty years later in real-world time, about half that in DC Universe time) the youngster comes of age and turns up in our dark avenger’s stronghold, trendy medieval weapons in hand, and begins to fulfill his inevitable destiny of Being an Unbearable Teenage Nuisance, Lacking Character Depth, Attempting to Murder Our Hero’s Sidekicks, and just generally Fucking Our Hero’s Shit Up.

Cover of "Batman and Son"Somewhere amidst Hero Jr.’s insufferable douche-baggery and his attempts to spill everybody’s jugulars, I had to stop reading and just consider the facts that a) I had already watched the fourth season of Angel, and b) it sucked balls the first time. Sadly, this was not Angel. It was Batman and Son, a four-comic storyline by Grant Morrison appearing in BATMAN #655-658. After nearly twenty years of waiting for the other Bat-boot to drop, Batfans have finally started to suffer Batman’s (ahem) conception of an appallingly trite and totally unlikeable character.

Bewilderingly large supporting casts? Absurdly convoluted and complicated plots? A disturbingly detailed familiarity with the Joker’s most private thoughts? All these are things I’ve come to expect from Grant Morrison. But an astonishingly annoying genre trope? The only shocking thing about Batman and Son is that such an utterly cliched storyline would come from one of DC’s most acclaimed writers of recent years, a writer who is typically (for better or worse) pushing the boundaries of what’s believable and, sometimes, what’s even comprehensible in a comic book.

Further, has Grant Morrison ever, you know, read any Batman comics? Bruce Wayne already has sons. Three of them, in fact. Their names are Dick Grayson, Jason Todd* and Tim Drake.  Bruce has legally adopted all three of them. Along with Alfred, they are the three people he cares for most. He positively LOSES his SHIT every single time one of them may or may not be seriously injured or dead. Did we really need yet another ascendant Boy Wonder, this time bearing all the burdens and complications of heredity?

My initial response, obviously, is an emphatic no. Six years on, Damian Wayne still offers nothing significant to the ongoing Bat-stories, he’s still a spoiled little shit, and he still thinks it’s cool to kill people even though the goddamn Batman has repeatedly told him “Don’t fucking do that.” Maybe some new blood in the DC writing staff will come along someday and make a name for themselves by molding Damian into a 3-dimensional, likeable character; it’s happened before with characters less prominent in the Batman mythology (see: Mister Freeze in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice”). Until then, I’ll do my damnedest to completely ignore his existence.

And on that note, our next post will discuss comic books as a unique medium in which each and every fan can have complete control over his or her own canon, allowing us to jettison garbage like little Damian without a shred of remorse.

*Yes, Jason Todd was dead for a while, but now he’s not. Deal with it, and please address all complaints to one “Superboy-Prime,” who apparently spun the world backwards or altered history or some such fucking nonsense and somehow incidentally resurrected him right out of his grave.