Batman: Year One by Frank Miller
Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) completely reinvented Batman as an angry and bitter older man coming out of retirement to stem a rising tide of crime in Gotham City alongside Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. This was a dark vision of a complex and troubled soul driven to fight crime to avenge his parent’s senseless death, and it resonated with a new generation of readers and gained comics greater credibility among mainstream readers. Just one year later Miller produced a four-part story arc called Batman: Year One (1987). Though not as iconic as The Dark Knight Returns, this story of Batman and Jim Gordon’s early days is regarded by many as one of the best Batman stories ever told.
Origin stories are very popular in the comics world, and this is one is a finely-nuanced character study of two complex individuals. We all know that Batman’s parents were gunned down by a mugger outside a movie theater when he was a small boy. This traumatic event, along with an underground cave filled with bats and his lonely upbringing in his parents’ palatial and brooding Wayne Manor, led him to become the caped crusader who hunts down criminals in the dead of night. But what did Bruce Wayne do for the 18 years after being orphaned? And who would have thought that his first fumbling attempts to fight criminals would almost get him killed, again and again, before he settled on a costume to hide his identity and strike fear into his enemies’ hearts. In his early days, Batman gets beat up, stabbed, etc. in the process of trying to help others who don’t realize his intentions. Who would have thought doing good could be so punishing?
Batman: Year One really surprised me with how realistic, gritty, and crime noir the storyline was. It’s not well known that Batman was originally a detective, not a superhero. It’s always been a given that Gotham City is a crime-ridden version of New York, filled with hoodlums and thugs in every alley and dark corner. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the level of blatant corruption in the Gotham City police department, which Lieutenant James Gordon encounters from day one. Police commissioner Gillian Loeb, a loathsome and corrupt man, reminds Gordon that loyalty and teamwork (read: don’t rock the boat) are the keys to success on the force. Gordon quickly discovers that most of the cops on the force are on the take, involved in drug trades, shakedowns, kickbacks, and every other form of graft imaginable. No cop is above this, except the stubborn Gordon. As a result, he is hated by the other cops. I’m guessing this aspect of Gotham was not explored in the earlier Batman comics, though I could be wrong. Gordon has heard about the Batman, a strange vigilante preying on small-time criminals between midnight and 4am. The Batman is disrupting the established routine of the crooked cops, so Loeb orders Gordon to take him down. However, as Gordon learns more about Batman’s acts of heroism, he begins to wonder whether Batman really is a menace to society or not.
Miller does an excellent job of depicting a police force thoroughly corrupt at every level. I felt like I was watching Al Pacino’s Serpico, Kevin Costner’s Untouchables, or James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. And Gordon’s character stands out for his noble refusal to go along with things despite the backlash. So although Gordon does not know Batman’s true identity, he recognizes Batman has good intentions. It’s clear they will forge a strange alliance against all the criminals in Gotham City, both inside the police force and on the streets.
The recent GOTHAM TV series has really fueled my interest in Batman’s origins. It explores the early years of Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, as well as many of Batman’s most infamous enemies. It’s hard to imagine a series 20 years ago centering on so many villains, depicting them as often good-intentioned people who went astray due to bad circumstances. We get a glimpse of the early Penguin, Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Falcone, Maroni, Loeb, etc. It’s a fresh angle to the BATMAN story, and one worthy of its own review.
Batman: Year One by Frank Miller is my favorite Batman story because it does such a good job of giving us first-person narration of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon, both of whom are new at their jobs in Gotham. Bruce has just returned from his world travels and has yet to settle on the image of the bat for his costumed vigilante work, and Gordon, new to Gotham, is trying to figure out how to be a good cop on a corrupt police force. Everyone from his partner to the Commissioner is trying to get him to accept bribes and not rock the boat: Every police officer seems to like to get his graft in Batman: Year One. We also get to meet Catwoman, Harvey Dent pre-Two Face days, and the crime-boss Falcone. Basically, it’s a great introduction to Batman if you’ve never read a Batman comic in your life.
This comic book is made up of only four issues, and it is a great example of storytelling with economy. The first issue alone takes us up to Bruce’s deciding to become Batman: He goes out with a very bad disguise, gets in a fight with Catwoman, Catwoman’s pimp, and the police. It’s a disaster through the entire night for Bruce. The only success is his contemplating his failure back home at Wayne manor in his father’s study. Bruised and bleeding, Bruce watches as a bat comes crashing through the window in what is now an iconic scene. In seconds, Batman is born.
The first issue also tells the origin story of Gordon as a good cop in Gotham: At first, he watches as his partner accepts bribes and beats up young boys for no reason, and he is even beaten by his own fellow police officers for trying to stay straight as an honest cop. Police brutality is very much a topic addressed in Batman: Year One. But Gordon gives as good as he gets, and he makes clear to the reader that he will be the officer worthy of working with an equally idealistic young Batman. However, before they can work together, Gordon must go on the trail of this law-breaking vigilante, so Year One is also the story of Gordon and Batman learning to respect each other and finally coming together as partners in the fight against Gotham’s crime.
The rest of the comic book — issues two through four — is really about Gordon and Batman overcoming their failings as inherently flawed human beings. Gordon, who has just moved his pregnant wife to Gotham, is falling in love with a fellow police officer. Can he be a good man at the professional level while failing on a personal one? My favorite scenes with Gordon are those when he contemplates his need for violence, the use of guns, in contrast to his thoughts of new life as his son is born. These thoughts show that much of this story is about fathers and sons — the way Gordon’s son impacts him, and the way Bruce’s father continues to have a lasting influence long after his death.
Just as Gordon wrestles with failures, Bruce as the Batman also flails about in embarrassing ways as a new Hero: He almost ends up injuring, possibly even killing, young boys when he tries to stop a robbery, and Batman also must work to escape from the police when he is trapped in an abandoned building swarming with armed forces. The older Batman would not have been caught in the building in the first place of course, but his near capture allows for him to consider how much violence is acceptable for a Batman just starting to develop his code of honor: How much force should Batman use in trying to save the day, or even just to survive and escape capture?
Of course, the story has a plot thread that ends in a daring save, but the brilliance of the book is really in its narration and art. Gordon and Bruce’s thoughts as they grow into mature adults who must use violence yet deplore it is the work of Frank Miller at his best. And the art of David Mazzucchelli does justice in every way to this classic story. Whether you are new to Batman or an old fan, Batman: Year One is worth reading and rereading. Who wouldn’t give this classic five full stars?