01 August 2008

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #3: Batman: Year One

Comic trade paperback, ~144 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1987)

Borrowed from a friend
Read July 2008
Batman: Year One

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Colorist: Richmond Lewis
Lettering: Todd Klein

DC Universe Timeline: Thirteen Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 1986

(If this story doesn't take place in the 1980s-- when everything was grim and gritty all the time and they didn't have light-- then I don't know what the 1980s are. The year of publication seems like a good bet in that case. Though this would seem to make the present day 1999. So maybe it takes place in 1995, but I remember there being lightbulbs by then. Also, colors other than green and brown.)

So, Frank Miller. I've actually made a number of Frank Miller cracks over the past few years (i.e., "Name a female character in Sin City who's not just a sexual object."), but I'm actually not that familiar with his work. Comic-wise, all I've read is The Dark Knight Returns (which I remember appreciating more than enjoying) and whatever particularly egregious bits of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder that make their way onto Scans Daily. And I've seen the movie versions of 300 and Sin City. So, I actually don't have much real experience at all, and I was eager to remedy that-- as well as read one of the stories that allegedly inspired Batman Begins.

The thing is... it's not a very good Batman origin story. Oh, sure, Bruce Wayne makes his decision to become the Batman here, but it's not treated with very much depth. Bruce is sitting around, bemoaning the fact that he has botched his attempts at crimefighting and failed his father (we get a one-page flashback to the Wayne murders) when all of a sudden a bat crashes through his window! And so, he's Batman. Where have I seen all this before? Oh, that's right: Detective Comics #33. In 1939. Fortunately, there's not a "cowardly and superstitious lot" here. Actually, that might make it better.

Not to say that Frank Miller's Batman is bad; indeed, he's pretty much spot on. And by "spot on", I mean "owns everyone all the time". That's pretty much all chapter three is about, as Batman manages to take out nineteen hundred cops while he's cornered in a firebombed warehouse. And who says that he doesn't have superpowers?

But despite the constant extracts from Bruce Wayne's diary, we never really get inside his head, we never feel Batman's plight, Batman's dilemmas, not in the way that Batman Begins made us do. This Bruce Wayne, except for an early botched attempt, just is Batman, and the psychological complexity that drives the character in his best stories is just not there. As a Batman adventure, it's fine-- indeed it's better than fine, it's a very good example of its breed. But as an origin story, it falls short on anything other than a perfunctory basis. (It can't help that on every point I was constantly comparing it to Batman Begins. Of course I found it lacking. Most glaring, in my mind, was the lack of supporting characters-- Alfred is pretty much a nonentity in this story, and he's all there is. Aside from a certain someone that we'll get to soon.)

There's supposed to be a transition between Bruce Wayne's inexperience and Batman's experience as he gets the hang of crimefighting... but I just didn't feel it. In the beginning he struggles a lot, and he really messes up an attempt to stop some guys from stealing a television set. Then, all of a sudden, he's totally awesome all the time. I would say "why the transition?" but there isn't a transition-- first he's one way, then all of a sudden he's another. This makes it hard to swallow his early failures as anything other than plot contrivance, when there doesn't seem to be a reason for him to suddenly start succeeding.

So if it's not actually Batman: Year One, then what is it? Well, that's an easily answered question. What Frank Miller actually wrote here was Jim Gordon: Year One. Because 1986/1995 was not just Batman's first year in the city, it was Jim Gordon's. Running in parallel with Batman's story the entire time is Gordon's, also represented by what I assume to be diary extracts of some sort. And while Miller's Batman just is-- even when he's struggling, you don't really feel anything except maybe "awesome!"-- his Gordon is a man you can believe in. A guy trying to do right by his job, his duty, his city, and his family, even though he frequently fails at all of the above. You can't help but feel sympathy for this guy: while Batman just magically succeeds all the time, Gordon does his best, but it's hard to have an impact.

But of course it is. The opposition he faces is nearly overwhelming. There's a whole city out there that doesn't want Gordon to succeed, but damnit, he's pitted himself against it anyway. He even faces opposition from himself, as he keeps being drawn towards his leggy and blond coworker despite the fact that his wife's got a bun in the oven. But despite it all, he just keeps on going, dealing with the corruption and lack of support from his own department as best as he can. Usually his solution involves beating someone, but I suspect that other methods tend not to meet with much success in Gotham.

Whenever the story focused on Bruce/Batman, I found myself impatiently waiting for Gordon's next appearance. The fact that this story is really about Jim Gordon is made most explicit in the final chapter. What's the climax of the book? Not Batman defeating some supervillain or thwarting criminal enterprise forever-- the climax is Jim Gordon deciding to 1) trust Batman and 2) keep on fighting the good fight. That's the moment the book hinges on; Batman's battle is just window-dressing (and indeed, Wayne scarcely appears as Batman in the last chapter, performing his last-minute rescue sans costume).

Catwoman also appears in the book, but I don't really know why. She's a prostitute who decides to don a cat costume and become a burglar for no readily apparent reason. One of her cats gives away Batman's hiding place at one point, and later her intervention botches up one of his operations. I guess she's well-depicted; I'm not really a Catwoman person.

And then there's the art. I was already familiar with David Mazzucchelli from his work on Paul Auster's City of Glass, and I kept on thinking, "It's just not as good." But then I remembered: City of Glass is absolutely amazing, and not as good as that is still quite exceptional. And this art is. It's striking without being forced, grim without being over-the-top, dark without being muddy. It's everything you could ask for from a Batman story, and never disappoints. Always clear, always well-drawn. And his Bruce Wayne, Batman, and James Gordon all look just right. (Gordon even manages to look like Gary Oldman!) Richmond Lewis's use of color is also pitch-perfect.

There is a lot of Batman Begins in here, though-- the corrupt Gotham City Police Department, the bat-summoning device in the boot, the mob-controlled and crime-ridden city, and indeed the entire tone of the book. Though it's a not a very good Batman origin, it's easy to see how it could become one, which is exactly what Christopher Nolan went and did.

But do you know what? I don't mind that the book's more about Jim Gordon than Batman. Because Jim Gordon is awesome. Especially if you imagine that Gary Oldman is playing him. Overall, Batman: Year One is is a good Batman story, a poor Batman origin, an excellent Jim Gordon story, and an enjoyable comic story. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.