Fun fact: before Frank Miller apparently went bat-shit insane and became more famous for things like this or this, he was THE iconic Batman writer. Famous for saving the character from the annals of bad camp, Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was a ground-breaking piece in 1986, and he followed it up only a year later with an in-continuity Batman tale that was, if not groundbreaking, at least trend-setting. Batman: Year One was originally published in four issues of Batman in 1987, and it’s been republished in multiple collections ever since, a definitive origin story for DC’s most popular hero.
Praise for the book is endless. IGN called it the best Batman graphic novel of all time, saying
[N]o other book before or since has quite captured the realism, the grit and the humanity of Gordon and Batman so perfectly.
while Comicsbulletin called it “the single most important and high quality Bat-book that you should own.”
Now, the first time you see a magic trick, it doesn’t particularly matter if it’s done by a professional or by your dorky high school friend: it’ll probably look pretty cool. You don’t know how it’s done. You’ll figure it out eventually, but until you do, it’ll be interesting. The difference, then, between a truly gifted magician and your dorky high school friend who learned a few tricks from Wikipedia is one of variety, of invention, and sometimes, of sheer fucking showmanship. Frank Miller has in recent years demonstrated that variety, invention, and showmanship are not exactly his three strongest points.
It’s been a few years since I read Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. Though they were among the first comics I was ever given to read, and I definitely enjoyed it, in the intervening years I’ve been tempted less and less to revisit it. Since high school, after all, I’d read (and seen) Sin City and 300, which covers some of the same territory in a very similar way, and then later All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder, which covers the exact same territory in such an exaggerated, profoundly stupid manner I still can’t tell if Frank Miller was satirizing himself or not, I was concerned: knowing all of Miller’s tricks, knowing that all the women are whores and all the men are dour, hard-boiled bad-asses, having seen him pull the same damn rabbit out of the same damn hat time and time again, would Batman: Year One remain an exciting, visceral exploration of the Dark Knight’s earliest years? Or would I see it for what I’d so feared it had become: a dour, joyless exercise in combining 80’s grit with a colorful, cartoonish, decades-old hero?
The answer, thankfully, is that Batman: Year One remains an unquestionable classic in the Batman mythos. Though Miller has returned to the same few tricks over and over, it was rarely used to such great effect as it is here. Yes, we’ve seen dozens of grim, hardboiled cops commit shocking acts of violence/bad-assery over the years in Miller’s books – there doesn’t really seem to be such thing as a ‘good’ cop in Miller’s mind, just bad cops and evil cops – but watching Jim Gordon’s takedown of brawny, brutal detective Flass is a defining moment for an old character.
I think that a large part of the credit goes to Dave Mazuchelli. Mazuchelli has always been a supremely gifted artist, and his work with Frank Miller are among Miller’s greatest (Batman: Year One and Miller’s groundbreaking run on Daredevil, for example), but he has only recently fully received credit as the master that he genuinely is thanks to the excellent Asterios Polyp. Here, he gives Miller’s Batman noir a suitably dark look, but one that’s filled with a vitality and humanity that’s lacking from a lot of Miller’s later work – sure, Jim Lee can draw a bangin’ ass-shot and plenty of fantastically grim posing, but there’s not a page in all of All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder that has the simple humanity of the sparse, wordless panel of Bruce, collapsed at the grave of his parents early in “Year One”.
It would be unfair, however, to say that all the credit for the success of Daredevil and Batman: Year One went to Mazuchelli. The fact is, Miller came at the right time, found a collaborator who could see his vision through, and a character who was badly in need of revitalization. Tricks that now seem hoary and overused were still fresh and unpracticed. Though the characters were largely the same brutal, thuggish detectives that would later populate all his stories, here they retain some humanity – Gordon’s concern for the safety of his wife, his affair with a secretary, Bruce collapsing on the gravestone or utterly messing up his first outing. These aren’t the actions of the Goddamn Batman – they’re the actions of a guy trying way too hard to make something right.
Another part of the strength of the book is Miller’s strange restraint. Sure, we see the first signs of some villains – Batman: Year One does introduce both Harvey Dent and Selina Kyle – but the primary villains are the everyday thugs you can easily imagine Batman fighting. He doesn’t try to cram in recognizable big bads like the Joker, Two-Face, or Scarecrow. He doesn’t try to infuse every moment with iconic portent and a million references. This isn’t a book that longtime fans will read for all the winking nods to the origins of their favorite characters. It’s a bang-up detective story that focuses on precisely two people: James Gordon and Bruce Wayne, and how they became what they would eventually have to become to survive Gotham. It’s not about fighting supervillains. It’s about the long-standing, peculiar relationship between these two men.
And that’s important. It’s what, I think, might be lacking from a lot of Miller’s later work: understandable human relationships. Bruce and Dick are too cartoonish and exaggerated in All-Star to have a real human relationship. 300 is essentially an extended action scene that never really touches the close bonds between men at war. And there’s nothing of humanity in the citizens of Sin City. But in Batman: Year One, Miller and Mazuchelli don’t just show Bruce and Jim at their youngest and most powerful, but also at their most confused, alone, and vulnerable. It’s a powerful and rare examination of the origins of a superhero, made all the more so for all the pale imitations the years have spawned.
– Cal Cleary