“I shall become a bat” – Unpacking the enduring appeal of Batman: Year One

Officially, Batman turns 81 this month. When Detective Comics #27, which marked the Dark Knight Detective’s first ever appearance, first hit shelves, it was cover dated May 1939 – although that means it was probably available in late March of that year.

Technicalities aside, this seems like the perfect excuse for a feature devoted to one of pop culture’s most enduring icons, and – since we’re already talking about Batman’s real-world debut – to take a look back at Batman: Year One. Written by Frank Miller with art by David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis, Year One dramatically expanded and retooled the Caped Crusader’s origin as established by his creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger and built upon by successive creative teams over the decades that followed.

Unsurprisingly (or should that be “inevitably”?), this story arc ruffled a few feathers over the course of its four issue run back in 1987. Yet Year One was ultimately embraced by fans, critics and creators alike, and – along with Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – would go on to dominate how Batman was portrayed in comics and other media for the next 30 years, most notably directly inspiring Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy.

What explains Batman: Year One’s lasting popularity and influence? Read on to find out!

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

Batman: Year One opens with Bruce Wayne and Lieutenant Jim Gordon arriving back in Gotham City on the same chilly January morning. From the outset, Miller’s novel approach to these characters is clear: not only will he be charting the entire 12 month cycle implicit in Year One’s title (unusual in the superhero genre, which typically plays loose and fast with time), but he’s elevating Gordon – until now unequivocally a supporting player – to the position of co-lead alongside Batman himself.

“He’s a criminal. I’m a cop. It’s that simple.”

– Jim Gordon, Batman: Year One

Indeed, as we’ll get into later, the future Gotham City Police Commissioner comes perilously close to upstaging his pointy-eared ally, and events largely unfold from his more grounded viewpoint, as he slowly comes to accept Batman’s vigilante methods. However, Miller never forgets whose name it is in the title, and scenes like Bruce’s quasi-spiritual decision to adopt his nocturnal persona or his reputation-forging clash with a corrupt SWAT team leave no doubt who the real focus of this tale really is.

Even so, Year One is more than just the story of why an orphaned billionaire dedicates his life to fighting crime kitted out in a Halloween outfit. Instead, at its heart, it’s about two men – exceptional yet undeniably human – from different worlds and carrying their own emotional scars being brought together by their shared, incorruptible thirst for justice, and this is a key (and often overlooking) element of Batman: Year One’s abiding potency with readers.

A creative team at the peak of its powers

Less overlooked is the calibre of Year One’s creative team.

Frank Miller is a polarising figure today thanks to his ever-increasing emphasis on bold, archetypal storytelling (he doesn’t so much eschew subtlety as he does wipe his feet with it) and controversial political views (often branded a conservative, he identifies as a libertarian). Few would deny that Miller remains a potent creative force, but debate rages over the quality of his output in the years since he released his creator-owned Sin City series, with books like Holy Terror and All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder earning particularly scathing reviews.

By contrast, Miller was in red-hot form in the 1980s. Batman: Year One followed his seminal run on Marvel Comics’ Daredevil, as well as smash-hit mini-series Ronin and the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns at DC Comics. Like those books, Year One represents the perfect fusion of Miller’s passions (in this case, pulp novels and noir cinema) and arch-melodrama with just the right amount of self-restraint – an almost instinctive understanding how far mainstream characters and storytelling conventions can be bent out of shape before they break and lose their appeal.

With his more flamboyant impulses as a writer in firmly in check, Miller is able to better channel his righteous fury over the crime running rampant in New York City in the 1980s into Year One’s narrative in a way that truly resonates. Indeed, few comics (superhero or otherwise) before or since have so effectively captured the mood of the time in which they were conceived.

“Ladies. Gentlemen. You have eaten well. You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on… none of you are safe.”

– Batman, Batman: Year One

If there’s an area where Miller does indulge himself, it’s Year One’s first-person narration and dialogue – and this is no bad thing. From Batman’s tersely worded introduction to Gotham’s crooked ruling class or Jim Gordon’s bad ass internal monologue on what it takes to be a cop in Gotham City, Miller’s trademark hard boiled words prove a perfect fit for both characters, and the book remains as quotable today as it was 32 years ago.

Of course, comics is a visual medium, so not even the most meticulously crafted script is worth the paper it’s printed on if the artist involved isn’t up to the challenge. Fortunately, David Mazzucchelli happens to rank among the greatest comic book artists of all time, and it’s impossible to imagine anyone – not even Miller, himself one of the medium’s most celebrated draftsmen – matching his work on Batman: Year One.

True, Year One doesn’t boast the formalist experimentation of The Dark Knight Returns; there’s no attempts made to emulate cinematic techniques like slow motion within its pages. But that’s less to do with a lack of ability on Mazzucchelli’s part – as anyone familiar with the visual and narrative innovations showcased in the likes of Asterios Polyp can attest – and more a case of him respecting Year One’s more realistic (for want of a better term), almost documentary-esque sensibilities.

Thank heavens he did, as under Mazzucchelli’s pencil, this cast of larger-than-life heroes and villains display the kind of subtle emotions previously reserved for indie comics like Love and Rockets. They also have a real weight and dynamism; whereas the actions of most characters in the superhero genre are communicated through impressive, stylised poses that (no matter how well-rendered) leave them frozen in time, those who populate the world of Year One move in an uncannily vivid and lifelike manner.

Then there’s Richmond Lewis’ colours – or to be more specific, the enhanced, fully-painted colours included with every collected edition of Year One since its initial release. The muted palette employed by Lewis fits Mazzucchelli’s artwork like a glove and is instrumental in creating the suffocating atmosphere of what it means to live in Gotham City, from the cheap lipstick rouge and stale piss yellow neon lights of its red light district to the muddy drabness of its many low-income tenements.

A Gotham City of its time, for its time

Indeed, between Miller’s prose and Mazzucchelli and Lewis’ artwork, Gotham City arguably takes its first steps towards becoming comics most memorable fictional city. Sure, the groundwork had been laid by the likes of Dennis O’Neill – who devised key locales like Arkham Asylum and Crime Alley – around a decade earlier. But really, Gotham was still just a thinly veiled stand-in for New York City, barely distinguishable from Superman’s hometown (and fellow Big Apple surrogate) Metropolis.

Batman: Year One would irrevocably change this, with Miller taking the lawlessness he saw around him in New York and dialling it up to 11. His Gotham was a city without a pity: a contemporary dystopia where the downtrodden residents are preyed upon by the uncaring elite, corrupt police force and unchecked underworld element alike.

“Gotham City was cold shafts of concrete lit by cold moonlight, windswept and bottomless, fading to a cloud bank of city lights, a wet, white mist, miles below me.”

– Frank Miller, from his afterword to Batman: Year One

As already touched upon earlier, Mazzucchelli and Lewis match this oppressive tone in their artwork, creating an urban hellscape that’s all too recognisable with its grimy rain-spattered streets and dingy boarded-up crack dens. You can almost feel the grit of Gotham under your fingernails as you flip through the pages, which is as clear a sign as any that this once-generic setting has finally evolved from a mere backdrop to a living, breathing environment – a supporting character in its own right, and a victim as much in need of saving as its denizens.

Human heroes we can root for

It’s fitting then that the self-appointed champions of a city this broken should be suitably flawed themselves, and Batman and Jim Gordon are certainly that. These guys may be the stuff of modern myth, but in Batman: Year One, they remain disarmingly relatable. Much like in The Dark Knight Returns, Miller regularly contrasts Batman’s supernatural aura with the fallible man behind it. Unlike in that book – which saw a past-his-prime Bruce Wayne grappling with old age – here, the Caped Crusader is hobbled by inexperience.

Gone is the unstoppable superhero of public perception, whose judgement and athletic prowess borders on the superhuman, replaced by a rookie still trying to get the hang of this whole costumed vigilante thing, often with disastrous consequences. In short: he fails and fails often, which makes his ongoing struggles and eventual triumphs all the more compelling as a result.

This deconstruction of Batman is enough to make Year One noteworthy in and of itself, however, Miller’s crowning achievement has to be his masterful revamp of Commissioner Gordon’s characterisation. In a portrayal that has since become definitive, the Jim Gordon of Year One is a quick-witted, two-fisted ex-special forces police detective who is hard as nails and can’t be bought.

He’s not entirely without sin – an extra-marital affair dims Saint Jim’s halo somewhat – but he’s nevertheless somebody utterly committed to and capable of (as Miller puts it) “clean[ing] up a city that likes being dirty”, and fully deserving of Batman’s trust and respect.

And that’s yet another aspect of Batman: Year One that maybe doesn’t get discussed enough: just how much Miller uses his depictions of Batman, Gordon and their crimefighting partnership to finally make some sense of the Dark Knight’s inherently ridiculous world.

After all, in a city as downright rotten as Miller’s Gotham, it doesn’t seem so inconceivable that a brilliant yet tormented young man might decide the only logical way to find justice is to dress like an overgrown bat and confront crime head-on – or that a by-the-book cop might realise his only hope is to team up with such a man.

That Miller wraps Year One up by hinting at the craziness yet to come – the Joker’s arrival is teased in the very last panel, presaging the rise of out-and-out supervillainy within Gotham’s underworld – only serves to further reinforce the necessity of Batman’s alliance with Gordon, even as it beautifully signifies a transition away from Year One’s heightened realism towards the more outlandish escapades that the character is known for.

Not a reinvention but a reminder

By now it’s plain to see that, with Batman: Year One, Miller, Mazzucchelli and Lewis achieved something truly special and rarely seen in popular entertainment. Yet in DC Comics Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle, Miller downplays just how much heavy-lifting the creative team had to do to revitalise the character.

According to Miller, what existed already was “good enough”; all he needed to do was give the character’s rich history a slight face lift rather than full-blown reconstructive surgery – to put it bluntly, Batman was pretty great already. This might be the secret to Year One’s enduring appeal, then: rather than truly reinventing Batman, it simply reminds us of what we loved about him in the first place.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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