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Batman: Year One, Part One

Frank Miller's celebrated graphic novel reinterpretation of Batman's origins.

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A Quick Tip by Count_Orlok_22

  • Oct 10, 2011
During the 1980s there was a real attempt in the comic book industry to cater to the interests, maturity, and cynicism of adults rather than to the naivete, innocence, and adventurous spirit of children. Many classic comic book superheroes were resurrected into the world of the '80s and given very grim contemporary story lines to make them more realistic and compelling. Perhaps one of the most compelling of these story lines is that written by Frank Miller. In the late '70s and into the early '80s, Miller had made a real name for himself while working at both Marvel and DC, and his revitalization of the Daredevil and Punisher characters for Marvel Comics had proven to be a major success with fans and critics. But perhaps Miller's greatest achievement in comics came when he created two very different and very dark depictions of Batman for DC Comics.

In the now legendary Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Miller turned Batman into a Dirty Harry-like vigilante, whose brutal methods were only matched by the brutality of the crumbling futuristic Gotham that he lived in. The book was somewhat controversial as it changed or rather embellished certain characteristics of the Batman and pushed the envelope as to the amount of violence and killing that could occur within mainstream superhero comics. Personally, I have not read this particular Batman tale since I don't care for some of Miller's overly authoritarian depictions of heroism, but I will admit that the man is a great talent, as both a writer and an artist, and that his macho-noir vision was groundbreaking in the comic book medium.

For me, Frank Miller's shining moment of creative genius came when he revisited Batman's past and how it was that he came to be the Dark Knight of Gotham City that we all know and love. As mentioned earlier, DC Comics wanted to update their characters by retelling their origin stories with a new level of depth and complexity in order to attract more intelligent and sophisticated readers. To do this, they often challenged the idealized version of the superhero which had been so prevalent in the past by placing them in corrupt societies where their methods of enforcing order became increasingly harsh and their morality began to wane. When writer/editor Denny O'Neil (who had, along with editor Julius Schwartz and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, reinvented many of DC Comics' great characters during the late '60s and '70s) asked some of the writers and artists at DC who would be interested in tackling Batman in a realistic and psychologically grounded story that would explore the character's past, it became clear that the job would have to go to a collaborative team that knew how to deal with the character.
Enter Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

In Batman: Year One, which was originally published as a four-issue miniseries before being collected into a bestselling graphic novel, Frank Miller told readers a tale of how Bruce Wayne became Batman in a way that was ultimately definitive. In terms of character origins, the story emphasized the psychology of the protagonists, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, and showed them as truly heroic albeit sometimes flawed figures. Miller took what had come before in comics and elaborated on it and in doing so established a new version of the Batman mythos which has been an inspiration and influence to almost every writer who has set out to tell a Batman story since.

David Mazzucchelli had been a talented artist with a very unique visual sense. Hand-picked by Miller, Mazzucchelli created a stunning depiction of Gotham replete with gothic settings, film noir atmosphere, and stark contrasts between light and shadows, monochrome and color. Mazzucchelli modeled his version of Bruce Wayne on young Gregory Peck and Jim Gordon is reminiscent of many of the iconic hard-boiled police and detective characters found in illustrated pulp magazines of the '30s and '40s. The cityscape of Gotham is a strangely believable combination of modern New York with a distinctly retro-noir look to it.

What sets Year One apart from other Batman stories is the way that it so efficiently juxtaposes Bruce Wayne's journey into becoming Batman with Jim Gordon's rise in the Gotham City Police Department as one of the few honest cops amidst all the corruption. I really love the fact that as much time is spent with Bruce Wayne/Batman as is spent learning about Gordon, who had up until this point never really been given the focus that he deserved as a character. The story itself is also unique since it doesn't rely on Batman's colorful enemies to flesh it out or engage readers. Selina Kyle, also known as the femme fatale Catwoman, is given an introduction as prostitute who turns to cat burglary and the last page of the comic introduces the Joker as a new threat to the citizens of Gotham, but all in all, there are no supervillains. This more down to earth approach allows for Miller to display Wayne's evolution as Batman and to show him learning how to apply his keen intelligence, martial arts training, and detective skills to costumed crime-fighting. Without the presence of theatrical megalomaniac villains, the focus returns to corrupt politicians and police officers, to street-level crime and poverty, which really shows the social crusader aspects of the Batman and Gordon characters brilliantly. My only complaint as far as the writing goes is that the Alfred character is so under-utilized and is left merely to make dry humorous comments and that Selina Kyle's appearances are so few. However, these are very minor qualms with what is truly a masterpiece of superhero fiction!


All in all, Batman: Year One is perhaps the best Batman graphic novel ever written in that it so carefully adheres to the moody detective roots of the character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, while injecting the world of Gotham City with a vitality that was both refreshingly modern and yet timeless. Of all Frank Miller's work, this manages to stand out in my memory as his most intelligently scripted, most dynamically drawn, and most memorably heroic.
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October 11, 2011
A fine supplement to this, Batman Annual #14 is a gritty Two-Face origin story in which Andy Helfer appropriated Miller's Year One narrative style, and Chris Sprouse and Steve Mitchell aped the character - if not the style - of Mazzucchelli's artwork to complete a skilled imitation. Frankly, I think it such a complement to Miller's vision that it should be included as a bonus story in TPB reissues of Year One.

Please do yourself a favor and read The Dark Knight Returns, the iconic superhero equivalent to Station to Station, Genji Monogatari, Haydn's CreationHamlet...Rape of Proserpina! Not only a great redemptive story of aging yet still vital characters that pulls no punches and cleverly utilizes deceptively organized two-page panel jumbles, it owes a tremendous, admitted stylistic debt to manga over a decade before counterfeit Takahashi and Otomo offerings were in vogue. Miller's Batman is obsessive by conditioned derangement, not authoritarian - he's bound by principle rather than law, and his combative relationship with Gotham's PD in the wake of Gordon's position emphasizes Miller's repeated view that Batman is no less a criminal for his heroism.
October 11, 2011
I would argue that any case in which an individual or individuals takes the law into their own hands, enforces their own dogmatic moral code, or establishes themselves as an alternative to the proper democratically empowered legal authorities would constitute as a form of authoritarianism.
October 11, 2011
By any definition, authoritarianism necessarily impedes personal freedom. Batman's criminal activities include assault, espionage and kidnapping, but his philosophy doesn't subordinate the personal freedom of anyone who isn't directly harming anyone else to his objectives, and certainly isn't so magisterial as the criminal code enforced in the United States. Miller's depiction of the character is more thoughtful and solidly moral than most, despite the emphasis of his torment. As far as I'm concerned, the realization of democracy is worthless when elected officials and the political class entire wage "wars" on terror, drugs, crime, etc. at the behest of moneyed special interests and expense of civil liberties. Mob rule doesn't obstruct such corruption because the majority of the mob is either ignorant of or indifferent to it, and doesn't qualify as legitimate government.
October 11, 2011
Yes, but he enforces this corruption by breaking the law and committing acts that are arguably as detrimental to society or worse, and in so doing offers the opportunity for escalation not only in terms of violence but also for further disregard of the law. Whether or not the system in which a society operates is corrupt or not, it does not mean that someone can vindicate their own corruption, violation of said society's laws, and through physical violence and intimidation enforce their own idealized version of reality. What it comes down to ultimately is that Batman goes from being an anarchic character, who is willing to devote himself and sacrifice himself to prevent crime and in particular murder, to becoming a fascist character, who regards himself as the ultimate authority and is willing to dole out judgment and death to establish his own form of order.
October 11, 2011
I agree that Batman's best accomplishments are often undermined by the negative aspects of his social influence, but I don't agree that he does much to either hamper or promote institutional corruption, which would exist with or without him. Voltaire says, "If you want good laws, burn those you have and make new ones." Sound advice, that, and in an urban area where crime is predominant and governmental paramilitary are inherently ineffectual as a deterrent to it, vigilantism isn't necessarily poor form in a limited context. Batman never expects his order to be adopted by society, nor does he commit murder. His flaw isn't that he's an authority, but that he won't accept that he enlivens and motivates crime and criminals at least as outlandish as he is.
BTW, nearly all of the points we've debated thus far are addressed by Miller in TDKR!

Although fascism is fashionably conflated in the Anglosphere as a synonym of authoritarianism, that equation is inaccurate. Fascism - be it Roman magistrate, mercantilist, twentieth-century nationalist, post-Keynesian - is necessarily a merger of moneyed interests (in modernity, always corporate) and state power that's always compensatory, patriotic, initially revolutionary, populist and trans-class. Batman's radical tendencies are all that link him with fascism, or a thousand other ideologies. He is not patriotic, not a revolutionary, unapologetically and independently wealthy though altruistic, and boldly individualistic. If Batman is an any way fascist, fascism is then all things to all people.
 
October 10, 2011
Good Quick tip! This definitely paved the way for more mature Batman stories....but, Denny O'Neil did several experiments under DETECTIVE COMICS with Bats as a mature character in the late 70's and early 80's before this ever went to print. Stories such "There is NO Hope for Crime Alley", the rise of Maxie Zeus and other stories actually opened the doors for this one. Mazzuchelli also did a great job as he did in the issues of Daredevil. Please don't compare this or even mention this with reference to Kane and Finger....
October 10, 2011
Oh, come on, a lot of the great early stories were by Bill Finger and established Batman as a dark detective character and a vigilante. I'm not saying that they were sophisticated or even particularly well done by today's standards, but back then they were writing for 5-12 year olds, so you can't hold the simplicity and naivete of the writing against them. As for Bob Kane, I personally don't think he was talented as an artist since my own art which never evolved or progressed as much as I'd hoped was still far above and beyond the art that he produced back in the '30s and '40s, but he does get credit for coming up with the perfect concept for a comic book hero and for inventing Batman's arch-rivals. But the creators of Batman and his enemies deserve credit for their innovation (comic books were in their infancy and thus infantile, but this was a necessary developmental stage and cannot be simply dismissed without acknowledging their historical relevance to the medium), and it was those early issues along with the books from the late '60s and early '70s that Miller and Mazzucchelli drew their inspiration from. Hell, Miller even acknowledged that Batman's wielding a gun in DKR came from the early Kane/Finger comics where Batman did use a gun and shot people, so those early issues, primitive as they may be, cannot go overlooked for their contributions.
And yeah, "There is No Hope in Crime Alley" was a masterpiece of an issue. I love the episode of Batman: The Animated Series entitled "Appointment in Crime Alley" which was inspired by that same story. And I absolutely agree, the Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams collaborations of the '70s were trailblazing works that set the tone and style for pretty much all great superhero stories that followed.
October 10, 2011
Don't forget the team of O'Neil and Giordano....way before Adams. Eh....I cannot stand the early Batman art....they looked like the work of a 6 year old.....and I don't care that I own a good number of them..they still suck! LOL
October 10, 2011
Yeah, and then there was the unfortunate collaboration between O'Neil and Sekowsky on Wonder Woman.

LOL! Even the brilliant O'Neil had his embarrassing moments. What's funny is that in recent years, in both television and comics, they have tried to do a similar modern update on Wonder Woman by giving her a more "street savvy" look that comes off a bit like Rogue's outfit during the Jim Lee period X-Men books.

For me, Brian Bolland is the quintessential Wonder Woman artist.
October 11, 2011
Wonder Woman also looks like she had a boob job at some point. LOL!
 
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More Batman: Year One (graphic nove... reviews
review by . May 10, 2005
When this miniseries first came out back in the eighties it left everyone breathless. David Mazzucchelli's art is some of the finest I've ever seen. It moves like a motion picture yet every still is ready to be framed (nice homage to the famous Hopper painting on the side: Gorden and Sgt. Essen having a late night coffee in a cafe called ... Hopper)  Frank Miller tells a story right from the beginning of the Batman saga. Bruce Wayne and Lieutenant Gordon discover they are both fighting …
review by . September 12, 2002
After deconstructing Batman in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and changing the way comics are written in the process, Frank Miller tackled the history of Batman by examining Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman in BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Personally, I enjoyed this novel much more than DKR. Gotham is a gritty place, full of corruption and slime. However, it is redeemable. Lieutenant Gordan (not yet the commissioner) and the new vigillante Batman illustrate that through the work they accomplish. However, though …
review by . April 25, 2002
Another example of a great comic book that definately isn't for kids.After the success of DARK KNIGHT we saw the sequel BATMAN YEAR ONE. I remember this one flying off the shelves at the comic store when the issues came out.We see a two new arrivals in Gotham. One a police lieutenant with a bit of a past who finds corruption rampart in the force and a fellow officer who he falls for creating corruption in his marriage.We also find a rich playboy who thinks he is ready to begin his revenge on the …
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Batman: Year One was published from February to May of 1987 and ran through issues #404-407 of the regular Batman comic book series. In 1985, DC Comics sought to streamline a shared continuity which had become bogged down by over sixty years worth of stories. This ambitious initiative culminated in a company wide "cosmic reboot" which took place in the twelve issue maxi series Crisis on Infinite Earths. As such, many of DC’s more infamous characters were provided with new, updated origins – Batman included.

Written by Frank Miller with artwork by Dave Mazzucchelli, Batman: Year One takes place approximately ten to twelve years in the past. The story is revealed from the perspective of young Lt. James Gordon, and begins on the night that he first arrives in Gotham City. It introduces several key characters including Detective Sarah Essen, who will later return to continuity as Gordon's second wife and future commissioner of Gotham City. It also introduces Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, Commissioner Gillian B. Loeb, and Detective Arnold John Flass – all of whom will become key characters in follow up storylines such as Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory. A modernized version of Catwoman is likewise introduced, revealing that prior to becoming a cat burglar and nemesis to the Batman she was a prostitute working in Gotham’s East End. The details surrounding Catwoman’s early years are expanded upon in greater ...

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Details

Editor: Dennis O'Neil
Author: Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
Genre: Superheroes, Comics & Graphic Novels, Batman
Publisher: DC
Date Published: February - May, 1987
ISBN: 0930289331
Format: Graphic novel
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