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 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.