Sunday, February 12, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Year One / Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, & Richmond Lewis

I've seen many takes on Batman's origin story--hell, I've privately tried writing my own, just to see if I could do a good job--and it's always a titanic undertaking.  You have to have the character down cold before you can really move along to plotting and interpreting everything else.  Batman: Year One, while not my absolute favorite re-telling of the Dark Knight's initial forays into crime-fighting, is nevertheless one of the milestone stories in the mythos.  It is also undeniably a damn good story overall, because it explores Jim Gordon's life as in-depth as it does Batman's.

Whatever problems I may have with Frank Miller personally--and make no mistake, I now despise that bitchy, sentience-less, ranting bastard--he wrote one hell of an origin story for Batman and Jim Gordon, who receive roughly equal emphasis as they begin their respective careers in Gotham.

Bruce Wayne, having been studying a range of skills abroad for the last dozen years or so, returns to Gotham to begin his war on crime and attain some measure of revenge for his parents' murder when he was a child.  Gordon has just transferred to Gotham from the Chicago police force, and quickly comes to understand that he's come to a highly corrupt--and dangerous--city.  As Bruce gradually evolves his identity as the Batman, Gordon soon receives orders from his superiors to bring the Batman in at any cost.  Using threats and blackmail against Gordon, whose own behavior hasn't been completely sterling, the top cops in the GCPD have a mob goon kidnap Gordon's newborn son.  While Gordon manages to catch up to and tussle with the mobster, Bruce manages to rescue the child from a fatal fall from a bridge.  He hands the baby to Gordon, and is not wearing his costume, but Gordon, who's lost his glasses, says he's "practically blind" without them, and urges Bruce to leave before the authorities arrive.  Soon after, as the corrupt Commissioner Loeb is slowly forced to resign from the police force, Gordon waits on the rooftops for a friend to help him solve a crime involving someone named the Joker.  It appears the alliance between Batman and Gordon has finally solidified, and Gotham will never be quite the same again.

While there are a virtually endless supply of things I could say about the writing here, this is one of those stories that I remember mainly for particular scenes in the narrative.  I'll go over just a few of my favorites and explain why I like them so much.

Assault and Counter-Assault: Gordon's attempts to clean up corruption do not go well on the GCPD.  His superior, Commissioner Loeb, orders Gordon's partner Detective Flass and several others to beat him up.  Flass personally threatens Gordon's pregnant wife Barbara.  What does Gordon do while he's recovering?  Instead of going to the hospital, he tracks down Flass, waits for him to leave alone, then hands him a baseball bat before beating the living snot out of him, taking his clothes, and leaving him naked and handcuffed in the snow.  The fact that Flass is younger, bigger, and a former Green Beret makes his beating at the hands of an injured and pissed-off Gordon all the more satisfying to watch.  After this scene, I perished any thoughts of Gordon being any kind of pushover, forever.

Dinnertime Debut: Wow.  While the corrupt fat cats wine and dine themselves at the mayor's mansion, Batman appears to them, crashing through a window and telling them that their long feast upon Gotham's wealth and spirit is nearing its end.  Just before that scene, you see Loeb telling Gordon that the Batman is not a high priority target for the police.  Now that he and his fellow fat cats and mob bosses have just been threatened by him, what does he say to Gordon in the next panels?  "No excuses... that vigilante goes under--instantly--or it's your job!"  Amazing what a little focus can do, isn't it?

Fight Against the GCPD: Deprived of his utility belt and trapped in an abandoned tenement by the Gotham Police, Batman is injured, cornered, and surrounded by a squad of heavily armed men.  Using his wits, resourcefulness, and more than a few lucky distractions, he turns the tables on the SWAT team, summons a swarm of bats and escapes from them, having only injured a couple of them.  This scene basically establishes that not only is Batman strong and physically intimidating, but also that he's cunning, intelligent and resourceful enough to take on an entire squadron of highly trained men.  After getting shot up by them, he makes the cops look like complete idiots.  Because that's just how bad-ass Batman actually is.

So, there's a few of the reasons that I like the writing in this story.  There are also touches that I didn't particularly care for.  Selina's origin, which didn't feel like it needed any tweaking before this story, comes to mind.  Not only do I find her former calling as a prostitute a little off-putting, but I'm just not sure she figures heavily enough into the narrative for that kind of interpretation.  I mean, really, how often does she appear?  She's on the sidelines for most of the story, and dons the Catwoman costume in a manner that strikes me as reactionary and trite.

Also, in the final action scene, why the hell is Bruce Wayne not in costume?  Perhaps I missed something important, but I don't recall any circumstance keeping him from donning the costume so he could rescue Gordon's family in anonymity.  He just shows up on a motorcycle, wearing body armor and a helmet, which of course falls off.  What was the reasoning there, Frank?

Art-wise, I'm only marginally impressed.  Mazzucchelli's style is fine for what it is, it's just not what I would consider a dynamic or very interesting one for superhero comics--though I suppose you could technically argue that this really isn't a superhero story.  It does feel very noir and gritty, with the bold lines and the liberal use of shadow, but the flat coloring and relatively simple line work feels like this is something we should have seen in the decades prior to the late 80s.  I won't deny that it supports this story wonderfully, it's just not my cup of tea personally.

Overall, Batman: Year One is an important piece of work in the Batman mythos, as well as comics in general.  I don't personally like some of Frank Miller's reinterpretations, but others are spot-on and really make the narrative pop with excitement.  Batman fans of all stripes need to read this story, and I think anyone who likes crime stories in generally will be pleasantly surprised at this comic book story.  Highly recommended.

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