Warning: Spoilers for Batman Year One.
Writer: Frank Miller
Illustrator: David Mazzucchelli
Colourist: Richard Lewis
Lettering: Todd Klein
I was asked to write about something I love that’s a little more “mainstream.” A popular character with a storyline that readers can relate to. And so, I went for the obvious: Batman.
He is the vigilante everyone knows, symbolic of courage in the face of corruption, making difficult decisions and taking decisive action. This shadowy character has been illuminated in countless cinemas across the globe and enjoyed worldwide recognition as Gotham’s Dark Knight. There’s a medieval chivalry to him that is as appealing as it always has been to myth and folk tale.
The Batman origin story hasn’t changed from one interpretation to the next. It is a narrative that is synonymous with the character, overall, a recipe that just works. Batman is a child marred by tragedy, orphaned by a cruel fate that propels him into action. Narrative of all sorts is littered with similar examples; Frodo Baggins, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Jessica Jones, Superman, Jane Eyre, the list could go on indefinitely with children whose tragedy shapes them into the characters they become. We appear to be fascinated with the orphan turned hero.
After re-reading Batman: Year One I realised that any “mainstream” assumption was a fairly haphazard one. While Batman has stood the test of time from Adam West to Ben Affleck, each comic strip, graphic novel, programme and film has offered its own interpretation of Gotham and its characters therein. There’s little “mainstream” about Batman who characterises the sort of social justice we secretly yearn for; often dark and aggressively moral, Batman takes action in ways that our “civilised” society can’t quite muster. To paraphrase Lt. James Gordon, he’s not the hero we deserve, he’s the one we need right now. And the hero that we need throughout time necessarily changes with us.
So, while Batman: Year One stays true to the Bruce Wayne origin story it sheds new light upon a number of Gotham’s well known characters. Most notably for me, James Gordon. It’s dark, gritty and satirical in a way that walks a delicate tight rope between our real-world experience and that of Gotham’s fictional inhabitants. Frank Miller has crafted a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognise. As readers, we connect with a man, who is only human, struggling against a Gotham that is as nightmarish and surreal as our own lived experience.
The term “only human” is first used by Flass during Gordon’s terrifying introduction to Gotham’s police force. The bar for human behaviour is set terribly low by a corrupt officer who is wholly abhorrent. He beats up a teenager for no other reason than to assert his dominance and excuses this animalistic behaviour as typically human. As an introduction to Gotham this feels apt and is gradually challenged by various examples of human behaviour throughout the novel. Frank Miller seems to suggest that perhaps, as humans, we can expect more from ourselves. The assumption that Flass represents our humanity is shattered by the time we reach the final panel.
In amongst this spectrum of humanity we have Gordon who struggles in his own transgression with Sgt. Essen and compares himself to the biblical Noah. It seems that even Gordon is prone to place himself upon a pedestal away from the human. As he and Essen kiss in an alley doorway he asserts ‘Now we know how Noah felt.’ Noah builds the ark to protect God’s chosen from the flood. The flood is, in effect, a culling of all those unworthy inhabitants of God’s green earth. So, is Gordon suggesting that he and Essen are above all those they police? Have they placed themselves so far above the inhabitants of Gotham?
In Year One Gordon is a little pious generally and is forced to revisit his assumptions of Gotham as he revisits his opinion of Batman. I was greatly tickled by the scene with Dent and Gordon (Batman concealed beneath the desk) where Dent asks Gordon: “Would you like to borrow my umbrella?” I think that this is a nod to Gordon’s Noah in that Dent suggests a different way to shelter from Gotham’s corruption; rather than float atop it why not walk amongst it shielded by an umbrella? The fact that Dent has offered his own umbrella makes a clear statement about what Dent has achieved. In the midst of Gotham’s corrupt social codes and customs he has reasoned with his own sense of morality and has found Batman as ally rather than adversary. He offers Gordon his umbrella in a symbolic act of offering some clarity amidst Gotham’s continual storm. Even Gordon needs a little help sometimes.
As a follower of Batman, from big screen through panels I must say that I struggled with Gordon in Year One the most. Of all wrongdoing in the narrative; the prostitution, kidnapping, burning “wino’s” alive, drug trafficking…. What I struggled with most was Gordon’s affair. I remember shouting at Gordon through the book before throwing it to the floor. “How dare he! Poor Barbra! She’s pregnant” amongst a torrent of profanity.
On reflection I understand why. To me Gordon has and always will be the moral backbone of Gotham. Gordon represents what Gotham could be. Through and through he is a good man who does the right thing. He often counsels Batman and grounds him lest he soar too high above Gotham’s mere mortals. So, for Gordon to transgress in this relatively small way in comparison to the other characters outraged me. It seems that Frank Miller was reminding me that even Gordon is “only human.” Gordon’s affair shows Gotham’s extraordinary ability to corrupt those we see as incorruptible. Perhaps we are reminded that characters like Flass may have begun as Gordon’s who instead of re-righting himself continued down a path of deceit.
Batman himself seems more human than ever despite being viewed as a superhuman-bat-cross-breed striking fear into the hearts of criminals across the city. During his first outing we see the valiant-to-be-Batman beating up a bunch of prostitutes (which is hardly hero-like behaviour). Then he is very nearly killed. Not only that, he almost gives up, bleeds out without a care for his continued existence. Here we see a man, “only human,” subsumed by fear and insecurity communicating with his dead father.
It’s hardly the grand origin story most readers imagine but it is far more realistic to both Gotham and our own lived experience. Batman does what we all yearn to do each time we fall; he gets back up. He makes mistakes, he falls and stumbles and gets back up again. The early Batman in Year One is far from the unstoppable colossus we see him as now. Frank Miller offers us Batman as the boy who fights to become his own hero. A Batman striving to create a better world where young Bruce would not be a victim.
I love this graphic novel. The story, the humour and the artwork are all spot on. It just works. I especially enjoyed the various subtext offered. ‘The Crime Blotter’ was a brilliant and humorous device to offer a way into Gotham City. The text is a journalist angry and exhausted with the hypocrisy they face and Slam Bradley offers no apologies for the thorough lapse of professionalism. It’s like reading the subtext of a left-wing paper that would love to shout “You can’t make this crap up!” in the same way as Bradley does. The small panels throughout the novel that depict a Gotham news channel are a real treat too. They offer some context around Gotham City media representation while acting as a clever segue into different scenes.
The Afterword by David Mazzuchelli offers a series of panels describing his own creative process and motivation behind the project. This afterword also includes the touching picture of Mazzuchelli’s very first comic strip of Batman drawn at 6 years old. On the back pages the reader can look through initial sketches and scripting for Year One following the process from conception to completion. This all gives the impression of artists who love their craft and their subject. Batman: Year One is an absolute gem.