Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for February 11, 2007


Batman: Year One
Deluxe Edition

cover2007 - available in soft cover (re-issued manyy times over the years!)

Written by Frank Miller. Illustrated by David Mazzucchelli.
Colours: Richmond Lewis. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Dennis O'Neil.

144 pages

Additional material: sketchbook, promotional art, etc.

Published by DC Comics

Cover price: $14.99 USA

In the mid-1980s, hot, critically acclaimed writer-artist, Frank Miller, who had won accolades for his work at Marvel Comics on Daredevil, came over to DC Comics to write The Dark Knight Returns, a mini-series set in the near future chronicling a dark, gritty, "what if...?" future for the Batman. Coming out around the same time as The Watchmen, it was one of the most significant comics works of the decade. Around this time, DC Comics had also decided to overhaul and re-boot its entire line (claiming continuity had just become too complicated and muddled to follow). Various characters were re-introduced with revised origins, and Miller was tapped to do Batman, with Batman: Year One forming a kind of bookend with The Dark Knight Returns -- the Alpha and the Omega of the character (not that the Dark Knight returns was necessarily meant to be canonical).

Not only was Batman: Year One a seminal work, influencing many a creative team to come (sometimes with unfortunate results) -- but it still stands as a brilliant, powerful, richly textured piece of work. And once again (as of Feb. 2007) DC is re-releasing it in a new edition.

For those only familiar with Miller of the last decade or so, whether it be his over-the-top pulp noire homage, the Sin City stories, or his recent return to the world of Batman with his sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again!, and the retro series, All-Star Batman & Robin, it might be hard to reconcile "brilliant" and "richly textured" with Miller. But in the 1980s, Miller really was an extraordinary talent, capable of nuanced characterization and provocative themes, with a great sense of pacing and a knack for the "cool" scene. Miller's a writer whose work actually seems to get less mature as he gets older, his recent stuff seeming more the product of a 14 year old's mind set -- a talented 14 year old, in the case of Sin City, but a 14 year old nonetheless.

In Batman: Year One, Miller basically skips over the "origin" origin (a one page flashback to his parents murder) and focuses instead on the origin of the Batman persona. It begins with Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham City after years abroad, determined to begin his war on crime, initially not yet settled on the best method. Miller's take on Batman is a slightly unstable, obsessive man -- though still heroic and compassionate -- and the story is as much about police lieutenant James Gordon as it is Bruce Wayne. Both characters arrive in Gotham simultaneously, and the saga remains filtered through them, each narrating and, at times, is almost more about Gordon than it is Batman. Gordon is an honest cop in the corrupt Gotham, where every one up to the Commissioner is on the take. How Gordon tries to maintain his honour, and fight the forces of corruption, is as much a part of the drama as Batman finding his own way. And the evolution of how the two men realize they need each other to survive...and to triumph...is the core character arc. Along the way, Miller also throws in the origin of Catwoman -- not an equal character to Gordon and Batman, but omnipresent nonetheless. And by intertwining the origins of the three characters, it makes the relationships we know lie in the future more resonant.

And by setting the story against a backdrop of a corrupt Gotham, Miller creates a more intriguing, more plausible impetus for a vigilante than do most comics, as Batman is fighting not just street crime and mobsters, but the system itself -- at one point likened to Robin Hood.

As I said, this is Miller very near the top of his game, a Miller capable of some great, clever turns of phrase -- sometimes pointed, sometimes very witty -- yet also real, nuanced dialogue that can make even minor walk on characters seem like three dimensional people. The story is very talky, very character oriented, yet never lags or drags. Miller's talent for characters in the 1980s was that he let the characters be people -- Gordon has perhaps never been portrayed, before or since, as a more compelling, sympathetic figure; a hero in his own right, yet also a flawed man with feet of clay. He's also an apologetic Liberal -- something I doubt Miller would write today (in fact, having Batman fight a corrupt city government, Miller also presents a surprisingly Liberal seb-text, laying the blame for crime not, as crimestories often do, at the feet of civil liberty laws, but at the feet of a corrupt system). And the action scenes are striking and dramatic, Miller knowing how to stage a dramatic rescue or what have you. A sequence where Batman is cornered in a bombed out building by a rogue SWAT team is one of the most exciting in Batman's history, with a truly memorable escape -- so memorable, it was ripped off in the movie Batman Begins -- and wasn't nearly as effectively staged!

Perhaps the most intriguing stylistic thing about Year One is that it lives up to its name: it chronicles an entire year, and perhaps utilizes the comic book format in a way that no movie or novel could quite mimic. Miller tells a coherent narrative, yet skipping weeks between scenes (the scenes are labelled with dates) but without making it seem choppy or confusing as it would in a movie or novel. As such, though only about 90 pages, you come away feeling as though you've read a grand epic.

Miller also chooses to eschew much of the fantasy feel, utilizing, not super villains, but crooks and corrupt cops, giving the thing an edgy realism, without loosing the fantasy heroism. There are some big, dramatic "action sequences", yet the climax is a more intimate affair, the danger more personal -- and as exciting as any movie spectacle climax! In fact the story cleverly manages to play both sides at once. Batman is a man -- a guy in a suit, capable of being drop kicked and surprised, who "stages" dramatic appearances with his own spot lights -- yet also a super human figure, capable of dramatic rescues and awesome feats.

I've gone on and on about the story and plot and Miller's writing, but I shouldn't ignore the art by David Mazzucchelli. Mazzucchelli worked with Miller on his later Daredevil stories (notably the critically acclaimed Born Again story arc), where his style evolved rapidly into a dynamic stark realism, where everything is meant to look real, no heroic exaggerations for Mazzucchelli, but often rendered in a shadowy minamalism. The work suits the tone of the script brilliantly, capturing the dual tones of gritty reality and dramatic super heroism.

There is a slight "mature readers" undercurrent in themes, such as having Catwoman be a prostitute before she dons the cat-suit.

The only downside to Batman: Year One is that it's almost too good. Really! After first reading it two decades ago, I quickly found myself losing interest in comics, finding other stories just paled beside it, none offering the same mix of intellectual stimulation, emotional pull, and old fashioned adventure. It was many years before I slipped back into reading comics -- not because I found things to rival it, but more because I readjusted my expectations. At the same time, I realize that as compelling, as brilliant as this is, Miller's take on the Batman might not have been sustainable -- he's a little too off kilter (hence why Gordon emerges as a co-lead). It's a compelling characterization for this story...but might have got old in a monthly series. Though it does gel with Miller's Dark Knight Returns -- though this is a kinder, gentler take on that persona, more unimpeachably a hero.

As a work-unto-itself, Batman: Year One stands as one of the best Bat-sagas, building to suitably final finale. But, of course, as a "year one" story, it doesn't tie everything up tidily (Catwoman remains a peripheral character, never fully tying into the main plot), as it is supposed to be setting things up for the future. Not that it is directly continued into anything (although there have been subsequent attempts to do follow up stories, none really make you feel that, oh, this was the sequel Miller envisioned). As such, it remains intended as a "stand alone" read, albeit within the context of the Batman mythos.

It's a classic of the medium that remains classic.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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