Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Paperback Rack

by Brian MacDonald

Defining the Bat: Batman: Year One

Writer: Frank Miller

Batman: Year One cover

Illustrator: David Mazzucchelli

Colorist: Richmond Lewis

In the mid-1980s, following the Crisis on Infinite Earths,, DC wanted to revisit the origins of all their iconic characters. Some, like Wonder Woman, got total revamps. Others, like Superman, got new touches that added to the legend but didn't change the core of the character. With Batman, DC showed impressive editorial restraint, and realized that there was no need to change one of the best origin stories in all of comics. Still, some minor touching up was needed, and the story was due for a retelling, so DC turned to Frank Miller, who was fresh from the dramatic re-imagining of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. The result was Batman: Year One, a series that humanizes Batman without taking anything away from his original definition.

The title, Batman: Year One tells you exactly what you're in for up-front: This is the story of Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman, starting even before he dreams up the name and costume. The characterization of the young Batman is the best part of the book by far. At first, Bruce has a mission, but no method. He can fight crime effectively, but he doesn't know how to inspire fear to prevent crime. After he becomes Batman, he continually criticizes himself and his methods, accusing himself of relying on luck instead of skill. The contrast with the traditional portrayal of Batman as completely confident, supremely capable, and contemptuous of people who don't meet his standards, is striking, and still totally in character. After all, we're talking about a guy who's spent his whole life trying to make up for his "failure" to save his parents.

Batman: Year OneConveying Batman's feelings of inadequacy, though, involves getting inside his head, and since Batman isn't known for talking things out with his friends, Miller resorts to narrative boxes that constitute a running monologue of Batman's thoughts. He used the same device in The Dark Knight Returns, but it's less extensive here. Internal narrative was a clever device 15 years ago, but now that it has been used and abused so many times since, it looks a bit cliché in hindsight.

An interesting, and successful, choice that Miller made is to keep the Batman story to its absolute essentials. There's no Robin, no Batgirl, not even a Batmobile. Equally important, there's no Joker, no Penguin, no Two-Face. Batman takes on street-level crime at first, targeting thieves, prostitutes, and drug dealers, and then moves up to corrupt city officials and crime lords. Miller could have tried to cram all the fan-favorite elements into Batman's first year, but he chose to avoid most of them, and the story is stronger for it. Harvey Dent does appear briefly, but he's a good DA who's trying to put away the bad guys. Catwoman is the only other person in costume, and even her presence isn't essential. She only seems to be there to provide another point of view.

The other character sharing center stage with Batman is Jim Gordon, who arrives in Gotham at the same time that Bruce Wayne returns from abroad. The story is as much Jim Gordon: Year One as anything else -- the first page of the story opens on Gordon, not Bruce Wayne. Miller took the traditional character of Gordon as "good cop" and turned him into something more complicated. There are references to past transgressions that led Gordon to be transferred to Gotham, and his marriage definitely needs help. On the other hand, Gordon achieves "hero cop" status very quickly, and it shown to be capable of taking down a Green Beret in hand-to-hand combat. The stories of Batman and Gordon run in parallel, and the two men end up supporting each other, and helping each other to make a difference. It's a clever solution to the question of why a police commissioner would tolerate a vigilante in his city, much less think of him as a friend.

Batman: Year OneDavid Mazzucchelli's art deserves special mention, because it sets the tone of the story perfectly. Gotham is presented as a dingy, slimy, horrible place -- it's a town with no hope. Colorist Richmond Lewis uses a color scheme that's not simply black, it's bleak; browns, grays, and dark reds are everywhere. The most impressive part of Mazzucchelli's work, though, is his restraint. Most superhero stories, even most Batman stories, are larger-than-life, with art to match. This story is as close to plausible as it can get: One man, in a costume, taking on crime, and the art is more realistic than most superhero portrayals. There's a particularly effective scene set during Batman's first night in costume, where he surprises some thieves on a fire escape. Most artists would be unable to resist drawing Batman swooping down from above, cape spread wide like an angel of fury. Mazzucchelli draws the cape behaving the way capes do in the real world. It billows a bit when Batman lands, and then just hangs there limply on his back. Equally important, Batman doesn't tower over the thieves; he's about the same size. He doesn't look like a Mister Universe contestant, he looks like a fit guy wearing a costume. This isn't the way Batman should always be drawn; when he's with Superman, he needs to look like an equal. In this story, at this point in his career, however, the look is perfect.

As a trade paperback, this volume continues the "just the basics" theme of the story. The cover is simple, almost boring. There aren't any extras in the collected edition, not even a cover gallery. There is a short foreword from Frank Miller, but it doesn't provide much insight, except that Miller always thought Batman should be scary. The paper is high-quality glossy stock, which is essential; these colors would look muddy on low-quality paper. The best feature about this collection is that it reprints a great story for just $10.

Many other creators would have taken Batman's origin story and pulled out all the stops, creating a huge, action-packed story that doesn't tell the reader anything new. What makes this story great is that Miller was willing to keep it small. Everybody starts someplace, even superheroes, and they usually have to start small.

My vote: 9 out of 10

Batman: Year One is out of print at the moment, but many on-line shopping sites still have it available. You can purchase a copy at Amazon or bn.com.

Brian MacDonald is a freelance editor of computer books, who lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and son. He buys trade paperbacks whenever he has the money, especially if they feature the JLA.

 
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