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 is safe.
--the Batman, to assembled high-powered lowlifes.
Batman’s original Year One fell between 1939 and 1940. Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Gardner Fox gave life to a dark, frightening figure who pursued criminals in Manhattan. In his seventh appearance, we finally learned what drove him; he watched his parents die at the hands of a thug, and thereafter trained his body and mind, shaped himself into a living weapon. "Criminals," he thought, "are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible...." A bat flew through an open window; Wayne took this as an omen.
He gradually won the admiration of the public, though in his first year, he was wanted by the police. In these early stories, it was not Batman, but his alter-ego, wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne, who had a friendship with police commissioner James Gordon. Batman occasionally used a vehicle: a red (sometimes black) car with no special markings. He kept his costume in an old trunk; the Batcave came much later. Most of his adversaries were typical criminals, at least, as comic books knew them. Over time, the villains grew more grotesque. Mad scientist Hugo Strange himself turned street thugs into monsters with comic book science. The Mad Monk had supernatural powers. Finally, late in the year, Batman encountered the criminal but captivating Cat and the deformed and deadly Joker.
He lightened towards the end of the year and acquired a young partner, Robin, a trapeze artist also orphaned by crime. Over the years, the mythology grew and the bat-trapping multiplied. In 1941, his city became known as Gotham, after New York's old nickname. He became part of a world that included Superman and, later, battalions of superheroes1. He continued to grow less dark, and finally, fairly silly. In the 1970s and 80s, DC began to bring him back to the person who had first captured public attention.
In 1987, in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC decided to give Batman’s early years a new, official history.2 Frank Miller, who had already redefined Batman with The Dark Knight Returns, and artists David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis wrote and drew the four issues ultimately collected in Batman: Year One.
Title: Batman: Year One
Writing: Frank Miller.
Art: David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis
Bruce Wayne returns to corrupt, crime-ridden Gotham City, intent on waging war with the underworld. He has trained for years; he has "many methods" but believes something is missing. Meanwhile, police lieutenant James Gordon arrives in the same city, depressed at his prospects. Both men face overwelming odds, but both have determination, honor, and extraordinary fighting skills.
The story presents Bruce Wayne and James Gordon as flawed men with heroic ideals. Both make mistakes and poor choices-- they're learning--, but both continue to make a difference in Gotham. As in the original Batman stories, they only gradually become allies and friends. Whereas the original Gordon was principally a plot device, however, here he is a developed character, as interesting as the Dark Knight.
The story features Gordon and Wayne as narrators, anchors in a story with many two-dimensional characters. The technique generally works well. During Wayne's first-chapter walk through Gotham’s east side, the narration shows us the workings of the future hero's mind. Later in the story, it becomes excessive, sometimes repeating content and ideas the art has already communicated.
Overall, however, artists and writer do an admirable job of maintaining continuity over several interconnected plots. If each character has not been fully fleshed out, small details of the art convey attitudes effectively.
As the story develops, Batman and Gordon wage their wars and we gradually see their world changing. Criminals remain-- only now, they're frightened.
Batman's later adventures, set in DC's complex shared universe, can go places these "early years" stories cannot. However, the more limited setting of Year One has a power of its own. We don't have a world crowded with metahumans; we have one we can almost mistake for our own. The only other hero (at least, who rates mention) is "that fellow in Metropolis."
Indeed, Year One's gritty (that overused word) world comes as close to the real one as Batman can get. A higher level of verisimilitude would preclude the possibility of Batman existing at all. Batman and Gordon face ordinary criminals, mobsters and thugs, rather than the grotesque supervillains now associated with Gotham. We know they're coming; Selina Kyle becomes Catwoman in the background of Year One, a story later fleshed out by DC. Batman's example inspires her. The pimp Stan is a proto-Gotham grotesque, with impossible, whitish flesh. The comic is not above additional comic-book hyperbole: the portentious bat, for example, flies through a closed window, shattering glass.
In notes added to the 2005 edition, Mazzucchelli questions whether they veered too far into realisitic territory. Realism in comics, he writes, "exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre." My own example in Year One would be Gordon nearly deducing the connection between Bruce Wayne and Batman. He uses sound logic, and it seems probable that a good detective would draw these conclusions. However, like Clark Kent's glasses-as-disguise, this is something to which a comic should not call undue attention. We must nod at certain things if a superhero story is to work at all.
Miller understood how to keep the story and its protagonist dark while still maintaining his nobility, his heroism. This isn’t just dark, and it’s a far cry from much of Miller's later work, including All Star Batman and Robin. Scantily-clad prostitutes are kept to a reasonable minimum, and Batman has attitude without asking a traumatized child if he is "retarded" and declaring himself "the goddamn Batman."
This story gives us both the darkness associated with the character and the underlying optimism, and that combination makes him an appealing pop icon. We’re looking past the darkness in Year One. We’re seeing a deeply troubled world that wants to believe in heroism.
1. For myriad reasons, Batman had minimal interaction with heroes other than Robin and Superman until the 1960s.
2. Miller has declared Year One in continuity with Dark Knight Returns, but DC and fans regard it as more-or-less official DC canon, whereas Dark Knight Returns is an "Elseworlds." Some fans can debate for hours over which comics really happened.