Well, I’ve officially made it past Crisis on Infinite Earths and all of the heartbreak that comic entailed. After a few lighter comics (The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl cures all) I was ready to delve back into the comics on “the shelf” and see where everything would pick up now that all of the worlds have been unified under a single universe.
It’s an interesting experience having Mistah J as my guide through the DC comics world. He is very careful to not give away spoilers, but at the same time he can’t hide his enthusiasm for certain stories, allowing me to discern which comics might be important or at least highly entertaining.
Batman: Year One was one such instance. Even when I was barely past the Golden Age, Mistah J was already excited for me to reach this trade. He wouldn’t tell me why, he just said it was a really important comic and he couldn’t wait for me to get to it.
Do you have any idea what that’s like? Imagine there’s a Christmas present sitting under the tree for you and someone keeps saying, “ohmygosh you’re definitely going to like what I got you. I can’t wait for you to open it!” while you’re just sitting there staring at the wrapped present, trying to figure out WHAT could make it so amazing and wishing you could just tear the wrappings off and find out already because COME ON I need to know already.
Yeah…it’s like that.
Luckily, my waiting paid off and I was finally allowed to read this particular comic.
I have to say…it was worth the wait.
Batman: Year One is a collection of Frank Miller’s first four Batman issues, spanning the first year that Bruce Wayne adopted the Batman persona. Bruce’s origin is touched upon, but the focus here is primarily how he created the Batman image and what trials he faced within Gotham when he first appeared on the scene.
The basic shell of the story is unchanged from the original Bill Finger stories from the 30’s and 40’s. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of his when he was a boy, leading him to develop his Batman alter-ego as a way of battling injustice. A number of key characters from the original stories are features in this collection, including Jim Gordon.
What has changed within these pages is the depth of character, as well as the overall tone. Characters who would have previously been labeled purely “good” are now shown to be flawed. Our hero is not a shining beacon of hope, but a tortured young man bent on fighting for justice even if he’s unsure how to do so.
If the good guys are more complex, the villains of the stories are downright twisted. None of the baddies here are technicolor tricksters employing elaborate gadgets and convoluted plans. Instead, the bad guys in these pages are entirely realistic, representing the seedy underbelly of a world until now unexplored in these comics.
Such dark imagery was no more apparent than when a disguised Bruce Wayne was solicited by a child prostitute:
This scene was jarring but extremely effective. I felt the impact of the world Wayne was living in very deeply. The young girl’s appearance is so straightforward, so matter-of-fact, that this must be taken as common on the streets of Gotham. Even Wayne himself, who has been away from Gotham for a number of years, seems unsurprised by this event. Reading this scene, it was obvious that we are no longer dealing with the Gotham we’ve grown familiar with. This newer version of Gotham is based in a much darker, grittier reality than previous incarnations.
It was clear while reading that Miller was trying to reimagine Batman’s world, casting a more ominous, threatening pallor over his story. This made me wonder if Batman himself would change, and if we would see another shift in the character.
To this I would say the answer is both yes and no.
The comic employs plenty of internal monologues to help the reader understand Wayne’s mindset as he adopts the Batman persona. At least in his earliest months, he is not certain of his place, and is instead fueled by some internal drive for justice. He knows what he wants to do, he’s just not entirely certain of how to do it.
That being said, there are still aspects of Batman’s character that remain unchanged. Most notable is his desire to preserve life and not be responsible for the deaths of those he’s fighting.
This image almost felt out of line with the rest of the comic, giving Batman a humanity that was noticeably missing in this world. Maintaining this core belief with the character, though, helps cement him as the hero of the story. Batman may operate outside of the normal laws, but he has his own moral code and strives to stick to it.
While most of the stories focus on corrupt city officials, one Batman villain makes her way into the pages of this comic:
Catwoman is introduced in these issues, and while her origin story is not entirely fleshed out (in this version she is a prostitute who decides to switch careers and become a thief instead) her character already feels right. I was struck by the panel above, surprised at how much this sly smile seemed to scream “Catwoman”. Certain heroes and villains feel inherently recognizable, generally due to a distinguishing characteristic or a bright costume. Here’s a character who’s memorable not because of her costume, but because of her own look and personality. While Catwoman’s appearances in this trade are relatively brief, I’m interested to see how her character develops moving forward. I never gave much thought to just how unique Catwoman was, but after this trade I’m starting to believe there’s much more to her than meets the eye.
Characters aside, I found the overall plot of the issues intriguing enough on their own. The idea of Batman fighting against political corruption is not new to me (we’ve all seen the “Dark Knight” trilogy) but here was where that idea got its start. I enjoy reading about Batman having to battle those who, in theory, should be on his side. It makes for a much more compelling read than a simple open-and-shut criminal case.
As the trade closes, we’re met with a summation from Jim Gordon about all the criminals Batman helped bring to justice, as he stands on a lonely rooftop. As he says, he’s “got a friend coming”.
I really enjoyed this ending. Not only does it set up the classic “lets have a secret meeting on the roof” trope, it also teases a future appearance by the Joker. After reading this trade, I can only imagine what sort of crazy, twisted schemes the Joker will get up to in this new world.
These four issues felt brief, and yet also seemed to be packed full of new information and characterization. The characters presented here, both good and bad alike, are compelling and make me want to keep reading. We’re no longer dealing with simple, by the book crimes. Instead, these stories are filled with shades of grey, corruption and deceit the likes of which I don’t think I’ve come across yet in comics. The stories feel realistic, making them that much more irresistible. Batman as a whole feels different, tossing aside the comical battles for a more serious tone with real-world issues.
I can’t wait to see how Batman fits into this new, dark world, and how he responds to situations that feel as though they’ve been pulled straight from our headlines.