Batman #436 - cover by George PerezeBatman: Year Three

(1989 - 4 issues (Batman #436-439), DC Comics)

Script: Marv Wolfman. Pencils: Pat Broderick. Inks: John Beatty, with Michael Bair.

Okay, technically this isn't a mini-series. Like the previous Batman: Year __ stories it's a four part story published within one of the regular Batman titles (at that time, a number of Batman stories were published in that manner -- as a series within a series -- with the story logo featured on the cover, such as "Dark Night, Dark City", "The Mud Pact"...and others that were even collected as TPBs). But I'm including it in my mini-series review section just for the heckuva it!

Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two were both collected as TPBs, but Batman: Year Three never was. Also, Year One and Year Two were retroactive stories, whereas Year Three takes place within then-current Batman continuity...but with flashbacks to Batman's supposed third year, when he first took Robin, Dick Grayson, under his wing.

The story follows close on the heels of the Death in the Family storyline, wherein Jason Todd (Robin II) was killed. Batman is walking an edge, becoming a more brutal, slightly out-of-control vigilante. Concerned about his mentor, level-headed Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the original Robin) returns to Gotham -- unaware that Anthony Zucco, the man who killed Dick's parents, is about to be paroled from prison. And while this is going on...someone is murdering Gotham mobsters!

I re-read this after seeing the movie "Batman Begins". After being disappointed in a Batman movie -- yet again! -- I dug through my collection, trying to find something good to read, to wash away the memory of a mediocre film. I picked this story arc simply because I had little memory of it -- good or bad. Which might seem like an odd recommendation, but it's actually not a bad little tale. Not at all.

Granted this began the creative spiral of Batman becoming a one note fascist thug that too many modern writers (and I guess younger readers) seem to dig. But at least here it's supposed to have a context, as Batman is dealing, none-too-well, with the trauma of Jason's death -- and Batman's brutalness isn't as belaboured. And the idea of Batman investigating someone killing Gotham mobsters had already been done before (in Year Two even), and has been done a zillion times since (and is getting really old) it's a credit to Wolfman and company that the story works as well as it does.

The focus is kept on character, particularly Dick Grayson, as well as Alfred, Batman and so on, so that the story genuinely works on the level of a human drama. It's a suspense tale as much as a super hero adventure. Nightwing and Batman are people, not icons. In fact, the climax is surprisingly low-key...yet genuinely suspenseful for all that, more like something out of a Hitchcock thriller than a Burton/Schumacher/Nolan special effects intensive blockbuster.

And despite the hoary cliches of the plot, Wolfman manages some surprises -- like who is addressing Zucco's parole board in the initial chapter, or the climax of chapter three. The flashbacks to Robin/Nightwing's beginning remain more flashbacks than a fully developed story, but it serves to make the saga a little richer, a little more complex than you might expect, jumping between past and present, exploring the various characters and their emotions and motives (Alfred's concern about Zucco's release is particularly multi-layered).

Broderick's an artist liable to engender mixed reactions, with his over-muscled figures, and a certain cartooniness (particularly when drawing kids) but he tells the story well, with an enjoyable lack of razzle-dazzle that keeps the focus on the story and the characters.

I don't think this story is that well regarded -- I've read dismissive reviews of it, and it wasn't collected as a TPB like Year One or Year Two, or even like A Death in the Family and A Lonely Place of Dying -- two stories that it bridges (Tim Drake -- Robin III -- makes his first appearance here). And even I wasn't impressed with some of Wolfman's other Bat-scripts from this period. But I found it just a little refreshing after reading too many over produced, but under-developed Bat-sagas which tackle similar ideas (Batman as a too-grim avenger, mob slayings) but without half the attention to character and human emotion (The Long Halloween anyone?).

For completists, both as a "Year Three" story, and as a bridge between A Death in the Family and A Lonely Place of Dying, it's probably worth looking for...though like so many things, I'm not sure if its regarded as "in" continuity any more (I read a later Dick-Robin origin story in which Zucco died when Dick was still a boy). But more, it is relatively self-contained, like a mini-series, for those just looking for something to read, regardless of continuity.

A good story, boasting a refreshing emotional maturity.