“Gotham City. Maybe it’s all I deserve, now. Maybe it’s just my time in Hell…”
As an opening line, it’s right up there with the one about the dead dog in the alleyway that greets you as you first read ‘Watchmen’. Right away, you can tell that this book is something special. It just grabs you and steadfastly refuses to let go.
Ignoring the controversy caused by this particular reprinting (that’s a blog for another time), what we have here is an enduring graphic classic. It is a gritty piece of exquisitely rendered pulp-noir that has been in high demand since its first printing (in four single issues) back in 1987.
I’ll delve into the backstory, even though you probably know it all by now. In 1986, DC comics decided to revamp their entire line of characters and comic books. Following a monster comics event known as ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ the readers and creators found themselves with a veritable tabula rasa upon which to create new stories and furnish them with the rich tapestry of established DC comics concepts, characters and ideas. To this end, The Batman was given an expanded origin story that reflected the sombre, acidic, sometimes brutal nature of his more recent adventures.
Writer Frank Miller volunteered for this daunting task and hand picked rising young star David Mazzucchelli to tackle the art duties. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m not even going to bother to find faults or flaws with this masterful piece of pulp storytelling. I’m sure they are there, if you care to look for them, but I’m afraid that, when it comes to this volume, I’m like the old man who still swears that his aged wife is as beautiful and radiant as the day he married her. I don’t see flaws, only beauty.
Told largely from the point of view of young Lieutenant Jim Gordon (recently transferred to the Gotham Police Department from Chicago), ‘Batman: Year One’ follows both the Dark Knight and his greatest ally through their most formative 12 months. There are no supervillains; there is no Bat-signal, no Batmobile and no Robin. There are just two men who have embarked on individual missions to make this world a better place and happen to cross paths somewhere along the way.
Everything in this book is stripped back, stark and uncompromising. A freezing cold colour palette (although that depends on which version you read) amplifies the emotional alienation of both men, as Gordon becomes slowly separated from his Wife and Bruce Wayne becomes (arguably) annexed from his sanity.
The violence is savage, claustrophobic and hard hitting. A nihilistic riposte to the day-glo captions of the Adam West and Burt Ward TV show of the 60’s, its cartoon ‘BIFFS’ and ‘POWS’ rendered here as achingly wince inducing as possible.
Here, Batman is forced to rely on training and ingenuity, he makes mistakes, but he’s still Batman and that’s what counts.
Both men are stretched to breaking point throughout the course of this book, but, crucially, both men find ways to rise above it with single-minded, (some might say obsessive) determination and a staunch clarity of vision only possible in great works of fiction.
Mention this book to any seasoned comic reader, no matter how cynical and web-weary, and they’ll grow misty-eyed and nostalgic. It is, like a classic of cinema or an album that tethers one to a benighted, embellished youth, an experience to be savoured and enjoyed. Again and again.