With the new upcoming Batman Begins making its way to theaters this summer it is safe to say that a renewed interest in the character is about to be sparked. Sales of Batman comics (or graphic literature/graphic novels for those who believe the word “comics” is too childish) will most likely rise as a result, with new fans looking to find out more about The Dark Knight as well as old fans coming back into the fold.
One of the graphic novels that they’ll be discovering (or rediscovering) is Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. It is widely considered to be one of the classics of the medium and for good reason.
Batman: Year One is a retelling of the caped crusader’s earliest adventures fighting crime. However, it doesn’t focus mainly on the Bruce Wayne/Batman character. The book is for the most part divided between two narratives: one centering around Bruce Wayne/Batman, the other around Jim Gordon, the man who would become commissioner of police in Gotham City.
The Jim Gordon part of the story is actually a little more interesting than Batman’s. This is probably because it’s pretty hard to tell Batman’s origin without treading familiar territory. Gordon’s back-story however, was never really fleshed out until this story came around. Gordon begins the tale as a lieutenant who has just moved to Gotham City. The corruption that he finds within the police force leaves him with much doubt and resentment toward his chosen profession, especially with a pregnant wife. He does not want to bring up a child in Gotham City the way it is. From his perspective we see how he can justify seeking the aid of a masked vigilante in fighting crime when he finally becomes the commissioner. Miller doesn’t shy away from writing a complex and vulnerable Jim Gordon. The character is humanized because he is portrayed as a good man with flaws instead of as a saint with perfect morals. This makes the events that happen to Gordon and his choices in handling them throughout the story pretty engaging. He becomes particularly likeable in a memorable scene where he shows corrupt colleague and bully Detective Flass that he’s not going to take his abuse.
The Bruce Wayne/Batman part of the story begins just as he is returning home after several years abroad. He has vowed to somehow fight crime on his own terms due to the death of his parents and has trained for years to be able to do so. However, he still isn’t quite sure exactly how to go about it. He is shown making various mistakes in the beginning, gradually learning how to be the imposing figure he eventually becomes. His reasoning for choosing to don the guise of a bat is also dealt with (in a scene that is truly iconic of the character). Miller cleverly shows how a human being with no special powers or abilities might become a living legend and how normal citizens might mistake him for being supernatural simply because of the power of gossip and a little bit of luck.
Miller keeps the two stories separate, inter-cutting between them while gradually bringing both characters into each other’s paths. Eventually both characters realize that they need each other in order to accomplish their mutual goal of cleaning up the city.
The only weak part of the story comes when Miller tries to sneak in a little bit of Catwoman’s origin in between. Her part in the story is fairly small and it’s a wonder why he included her. She seems to be little more than a cameo appearance, even if she does play a small role in the plot. But it’s only a minor flaw and it doesn’t bring down the story at all.
Even though the buildings and cars in the story seem modern the artwork by David Mazzucchelli with colors by Richmond Lewis give the story a realistic, yet slightly noir-like 1940s feel. This is enhanced by the narration of both characters. It works very much like voice-over narration would work in a movie. However, instead of being distracting like it would be in a movie it is not distracting at all to read because of Miller’s interesting prose.
The realistic tone is also enhanced by the fact that there is no main villain from Batman’s large rogues gallery. The only villains are the amateur hoodlums, the mob and the corrupt police officers. This is a plus since the purpose of the story is to focus on Batman and Gordon, not a diabolical plot from an insane villain. Also, since the story deals with how Batman learns to fight crime, throwing in a big villain would’ve weakened that concept since he’s not supposed to be ready for that yet.
Despite the fact that this book is based on the idea of a man dressing up like a bat it is meant for older audiences. This is a dark story. It features intense violence and mature subject matter, though without being gratuitous. Needless to say it is not for little children. It is the furthest it can be from the corny 60s Batman television show and the last two Joel Schumacher Batman films, which is refreshing.
There’s actually more character development and interesting things going on in this book than in both of Tim Burton’s Batman movies combined. Rumor has it that Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins will pay homage to some elements from Batman: Year One in its own retelling of the character’s origins. Whether it is successful in doing so remains to be seen. For now though, if you want a gritty tale dealing with who The Dark Knight is and how he came to be give Batman: Year One a try.