It’s been nearly twenty years since Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli gave the Bat-Man a new, grim and gritty origin. Everyone knew the original. Parents shot down in front of him at an early age, vows revenge, trains body and mind, ponders how to go about it, criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, bat flies through window, ba-doom, light bulb above head, puts on cape. And believe it or not, all it took Bob Kane- the creator of Bat-Man- to tell all that was just two pages (same for Siegel and Schuster, when they told Superman’s origin. Think about that the next time some super-hero movie makes you feel like you’ve wasted two and a half hours on what is nothing but an origin story. Yes, Mr. Ang Lee, I’m looking at you. Pay attention at the back).
But readers need a little more than what was -admittedly- a simple excuse to meet out some form of punishment. So, over the years, with different writers and artists, the origin grew larger. The murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents gained a name (Joe Chill) and the Bat-Man finally tracked him down (but did not achieve his revenge. Chill managed to connect his murder of the Wayne’s to Bruce and figure that Wayne and Bat-Man were one and the same. When the criminal underworld discovered this -though not Bat-Man’s true identity- they executed Chill for all the troubles the Bat-Man had inflicted upon them), Alfred was introduced, as was the discovery of the underground cavern beneath Wayne manor. Bruce’s parents were given names (Thomas and Martha) and became part of Gothams elite with enormous wealth. Dick Grayson was brought in to appeal to younger readers and with that the Bat-Man family grew to include Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-Mite, Ace (the Bat-Dog), a myriad of more colourful and comical villains, the lessening of the vigilante aspects, shark anti-repellent Bat-Spray (I don’t even have to see your faces to know what they look like after reading all this). All the silliness that had accumulated over the decades were somewhat washed away in the deconstruction/ Neal Adams period of the early ‘70’s with a return to a leaner, menacing look and socially aware feeling. But one thing always remained constant in the tale and was one the keys to Miller’s new origin. No murder, no Bat-Man.
Flushed from his success in telling the end of the Bat-Man’s life in The Dark Knight Returns, Miller also wrote his beginning, giving it a more realistic aspect by returning to the noir styling of his Daredevil days and adding more than a dash of the Scorsese Mean Streets/ Taxi Driver period. The story was told in four parts in the regular Batman title and together with Mazzucchelli; Miller defined the new origin for a new age. Although the cornerstone of no murder, no Bat-Man remained inviolate, the reasoning of Bruce Wayne changed. Miller considered vengeance to be less than a heroic ideal, and so he made Wayne someone who is not out for on his quest for personal reasons, Wayne is much bigger than that. Miller made the Bat-Man into someone who wanted to change the world into a place where there would be no repeat of what happened to him, that there would be no reason for the Bat-Man to exist. The Bat-Man simply wants the world to be a better place and for him and his like to disappear. It’s just his methods and the way he goes about it that gives people pause for thought.
But it’s method that Wayne doesn’t have at the beginning of the story. He knows he’s ready. He’s prepared and trained for the day he returns to Gotham City but his first recce into Gotham is a complete disaster. Miller shows here that you just can’t get powers, put on a cape and then expect it all to come together instantly, it takes time. Wayne decides to go into one of the worst parts of Gotham just to get a feel for the place. It couldn’t be worse. Gotham is a hell-hole, and although Miller and Mazzucchelli did not give a specific time period for their tale, it reflects everything bad of late ‘60’s/ early ‘70’s New York to the extreme. Mazzucchelli illustrates a spot-on recreation of Times Square during that period. Corruption, vice and decay abound. Disguised as an ex-vet Wayne is propositioned by a (very young) prostitute, when he gently rebuffs her advances she is laid upon by her pimp. Wayne then gets into a knife fight with him, some of his other girls and, in also her first new origin, Selina Kyle. The latest version of The Catwoman is a low-rent prostitute with a speciality in S & M and her first sentence is pure Miller:-
“You know what I hate most about men? Never met one.”
Over the years, DC has toned down Miller’s take on her but this was still radical at the time and proof that Miller was out to pull no punches. Its remains part of the Bat-Man canon, but has been pushed more into the background and these days Selina is more the lady thief that readers have known for longer.
Wayne is badly injured in the knife-fight and it’s made worse when he is shot by the cops. His journey back to the mansion, beautifully described and depicted by M & M makes him realised that his attackers and the police did not fear him. He was just another man looking for a fight and as he sits alone, bleeding to death, Wayne knows that it has come to the end. He needs a sign, he needs to make criminals fear him and he doesn’t know how to do it. But whereas Kane had a small bat flutter into Wayne’s view, here Miller makes it a primordial force- one that smashes through the windows, a demon from Hell. In conjunction with The Dark Knight Returns, when a similar incident makes Wayne put the suit back on again after a long retirement, Miller maybe putting across the suggestion that Wayne is at this point not entirely sane. It certainly feels that way and in the real world someone doing the same thing would be classified as such, but as I pointed out in my Avengers review, we are not in the real world and in his after word Mazzucchelli also ponders this. Both he and Miller had decided on grounding the origin tale in the real, a world that was recognizable to the readers. But both also realised that taking it too far would expose the absurdities of the genre, the more “realistic” heroes become the less believable they are. It is a delicate balance, but as Mazzucchelli succinctly points out: Superheroes are real when they’re drawn in ink.
When Mazzucchelli first collaborated with Miller on Daredevil: Born Again, he stuck closely to a Miller style that wouldn’t alienate too much Daredevil’s readers. With Year One he comes more into his own with a heavy line style more reminiscent of Alex Toth. Toth, considered to be the definitive Zorro artist, used black and white negative space to give shape and form. Mazzucchelli also uses this style to good effect and although Year One is in colour, which diminishes this slightly- though that is no slur on colourist Richmond Lewis whose palette is both subtle and garish when needed- you can see how effective it is in such scenes as the Wayne’s murder, or the Bat-Man announcing his intentions to the corrupt officials and mobsters of Gotham. Miller reigns back some of his operatic writing style to give the tenor of a more personal one. This is helped greatly in what was, at the time, something of a revelation in comics. With the aid of caption boxes in the style of journal or diary, Miller could eschew the use of thought balloons and at the same time give the characters more reasoning and motive for their actions. Though this effect was first seen in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and then bettered in Watchmen, it’s here in Year One that it matures.
Miller’s writing sparkles. Year One is full of excitement and witty dialogue. On first reading, being only a four part serial, it can seem brief with too much going on, but with re-reading you learn to appreciate the nuances and come to realise that this is not only the Bat-Man’s origin but James Gordon’s as well.
The Bat-Man’s first night out is not a total success. Lucky amateur is what Wayne calls himself and he soon comes to realise that he needs the help of others. Bringing the Assistant D.A. Harvey Dent on side is easy but Gordon is a more complex person. From the very start we know that Gordon is a good cop, an honest one, someone who stepped on too many toes in his old patch of Chicago:-
“Gotham City. Maybe it’s all I deserve now. Maybe it’s just my time in Hell……….This is no place to raise a family”.
Gordon knows that he should not support a vigilante like the Bat-Man, but after seeing him in action and knowing that he works in a city where the mayor and commissioner use cops as hired killers, his badge and gun feel a lot heavier in his hands. But Miller draws no comparisons between Wayne and Gordon. Neither man wants to be the other. Gordon may slightly envy the Bat-Mans ability to work outside the law in order to get results, but he loves being a cop and Wayne would certainly feel enclosed and restricted in his quest. Gordon has a family he feels he should be more responsible to whilst Wayne has none; he is justice rampant, obsessive to the point of insanity. In Year One, Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Returns Again, Miller questions just how far someone should go in a quest for justice before it becomes all consuming. Unfortunately, Miller cannot quite give the answer as he is too close to his subject and his methods. Therefore Gordon becomes the reasoning voice; the one who realises that justice also has it laws to stop it from becoming an oppressive force. The Bat-Man wants criminals to fear him, but how long would it be before he realises that people are the cause of crime and wants everyone to fear him. This view was put across well in Kingdom Come, wherein the Bat-Man has achieved a kind of crime-free Gotham, but at the cost of turning it into a police state.
This edition of Batman: Year One has no real good reason for it to be release except as a cynical ploy by DC to cash in on Batman Begins, the movie that it will closely resemble. But that shouldn’t stop you from buying a book that bristles with lines like:-
“I should have taken the train. I should be closer. I should see the enemy”
“And the man with the frightened, hollow eyes and a voice like glass being crushed…..since all sense left my life”.
“Lucky. Lucky amateur”.
“You’ve eaten Gothams wealth. It’s spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on…. None of you are safe”.
“He saved that old woman. He saved that cat. He even paid for that suit. The hunk of metal in my hands is heavier than ever…..”
“You can never escape me. Bullets don’t harm me. Nothing harms me. But I know pain. I know pain. Sometimes I share it. With someone like you”.
“I suppose you’ll take up flying next– Like that fellow in Metropolis”.
“I listen–the radiator hisses, spits water on the street–I don’t hear a human sound–I don’t hear my baby cry”.
And the last two, joyous final panels where James Gordon has finally given up the cigarettes and the light of his pipe glows upon his face in the falling snow:-
“As for me—well, there’s a real panic on. Somebody threaten to poison the Gotham reservoir. Calls himself the Joker. I’ve got a friend coming who might be able to help. Should be here any minute”.
Now that’s a good ending.
Year One is a good, taut, noir thriller. A precursor to Millers Sin City, with stylish artwork and a place in the comicdom Hall of Fame as the template for the Tim Burton movies and the latest Batman Begins. It brought a newer grim and gritty feel to the world of the Bat-Man that, although not utilised by other writers as much as it could have been, managed to renew the character whilst staying true to its roots.
Batman: Year One is by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. Published by DC Comics in hardback and priced £12.99. Available from all good book and comic book stores.