For eighty years, Batman has remained a permanent fixture in the psyche of pop and mainstream culture.
And for good reason.
Mixing action with tragedy, introspection with struggle and typifying the ultimate loner fantasy of being secluded in a mansion with a sumptuous cave filled with gadgets, the legend of the Dark Knight has proved surprisingly enduring.
From the pulp 40’s, through to the sci-fi 50’s, camp 60's, gritty 70's and his rejuvenation at the hands of Frank Miller in the legendary Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, every generation finds something within Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation.
Crucially, what has always resonated with many is that the tale of Batman is a very human one. A child who blames himself for the death of his parents, his one man war on crime allows him a purpose and a never ending search for forgiveness.
Interestingly, however, Frank Miller doesn’t see him in that light as he claimed to Amazing Heroes in 1986 that Batman:
…wants the world to be a better place, where a young Bruce Wayne would not be a victim … In a way, he’s out to make himself unnecessary. Batman is a hero who wishes he didn’t have to exist.
Regardless, Miller (until 2001 at least) understood that there was much more to the character than just hitting people. Alongside Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman (among others), Miller helped revolutionise comics in the early 80’s to a stage where they could deal with more adult and philosophical themes, and him writing Batman turned out to be a pivotal moment in this period.
Published in the monthly Batman comic from February to May 1987 (scarcely a year after The Dark Knight Returns), Miller takes the reigns again and uses Year One to elaborate on this most human and personal of back-stories, allowing us to see how Bruce Wayne managed to become the Caped Crusader, with all the faltering steps in between.
Beginning with both Wayne and James Gordon arriving, separately, into Gotham City, the two men’s lives run parallel with their desire to dish out justice in a deeply corrupt and decaying city. Whereas Gordon must deal with a Commissioner and Mayor heavily involved in crime, Bruce Wayne must deal with his impatience and lack of preparation in order to become something that strikes fear in the hearts of those who commit crime.
Both stumble in their early steps at establishing themselves. Both end up making enemies among the corrupt Gotham City officials, and attempt to bring them down through brute force (Batman) or blackmail (Gordon). Eventually, Gordon accepts that Batman, while a vigilante, is one who can be relied upon more so that his own officials.
With Year One, Miller takes the standard trope of “cop and vigilante two sides of the same coin” and grounds it in the confines of the world of Gotham City. Both men are driven in their pursuit of justice but class and ideology separates them: Gordon resides in a small, scummy apartment with his pregnant wife while eternal bachelor has Wayne Manor to fall back on. Gordon is ultimately forced to work within the rules of his society, whereas Wayne operates outside them.
One of the most telling scenes in the comic occurs after an early attempt at passing for a Vietnam vet ends with Wayne being shot by police and stabbed by a teenage prostitute. Sitting in his mansion, bloodied and brooding, he asks himself:
Father … I’m afraid I may have to die tonight. I've tried to be patient. I've tried to wait. But I have to know. How, father? How do I do it? What do I use to make them afraid? If I ring this bell, Alfred will come. Another of your gifts, Father. I have wealth. The family manor nests above a huge cave that will be the perfect headquarters … yes father, I have everything but patience. But I'd rather die than wait another hour. I've already waited 18 years. Eighteen years since all sense left my life.
This intense monologue not only reveals the depth of Wayne’s quasi-suicidal obsession to avenge the death of his parents, but also indicates how this mania means that he views people as props for his own end (bear in mind that it was Alfred who raised him). Dehumanised, yet fighting for justice. It’s a fascinating combination. Whereas Gordon, about to become a father, never allows himself to fall into this trap.
Wayne also seems to be playing a kind of ‘Simon Says’ game with his father: if he dies, then he can go to his grave knowing that he attempted to avenge his parents’ death and the blame for his demise can be passed onto his father. If he is given a sign, then it is evidence that his mission has the implicit approval of his father. This battle (between feeling guilty and resenting the burden of his decision) is what sets Batman apart from many other comic book heroes, and demonstrates Miller’s ability to understand and tap into this existentialist strain without ever losing sight of the comic medium.
Another key moment sees Batman being chased and bombed by police after saving the life of a homeless woman. The scene in question manages to be tense, claustrophobic and epic in scale (quite impressive, I’m sure you’ll agree). Working as a typical ‘thriller’ moment, it acts as a realisation for both men: for Gordon it demonstrates that Batman is very much on his side, while it demonstrates to the Dark Knight that he still had a long way to go to become the slick crime fighter that he would become.
This very human, personal lineage that runs through Year One is the main reason why it’s such a success. The mistakes and frailties that both men exhibit allow for a more pointed insight into their characters. After all, we can only succeed through failure. So learning how these two titans struggled in their early days is quite an insight into what they would both become.
When Gordon narrates, the font of writing is very basic, procedural but with an element of the confessional. Like it was jotted down in a notebook. Very human. Wayne’s is written like a diary entry: cursive, staccato and insular.
David Mazzucchelli’s artwork is suitably grimy and depicts Gotham City as a fast decaying metropolis. While nowhere near as bleak and nihilistic as The Dark Knight Returns, it’s evident from the run down neighbourhoods, corrupt police officers and barren setting that the roots of something much more evil and encompassing are there. From the opening page’s depiction of a run-down subway, through to a private plane that seemingly offers little in the way of luxuries, the world of Year One is timeless.
The focus on eyes and faces in certain frames (such as the transition from childhood Wayne to adult Wayne) add a kind of Hitchcockesque, psychological aspect to the art which compliments the storyline perfectly. You cannot help but notice the emphasis on the grim determination of Wayne and Gordon.
A minor point of complaint would be that certain elements are not explored in the way that they should have been (such as the beginning of Catwoman). However, considering that Year One originated within the confines and limitations of the monthly Batman comic, these constraints are to be expected.
Overall, however, this is still a legendary tale within the canon of the Dark Knight that should be handed to those who want to explore a much darker, psychological realm without sacrificing the fantastical, visceral impact of the best comic books.
Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis. Batman: Year One DC Comics ISBN-13: 978-0290204890
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.