There was a time when Batman arrived at our house every month wrapped in plastic. My older brother was a Dark Knight obsessive, so while I got to read his monthly subscriptions, I always had to treat them with utmost care and respect. This was back in 1987, when Batman was still rocking a blue cape and cowl, and had a little yellow oval around the bat insignia on his chest. He’d just hit issue #400, a milestone. I was twelve years old.
Then, one cold day in February, an odd thing happened. Issue #404 came, and it was a whole different Batman. It’s difficult to convey the shock that Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, and Richmond Lewis gave me the winter of 1987 when Batman: Year One first appeared in our mailbox. They had done something to Batman that I would never have thought possible. They seemed to strip him of all the conventional superhero baggage (bright colors, flamboyant villains) and to distill him down to some earlier, purer state—a state in which, paradoxically, he had never really existed before. Miller wasn’t simply returning Batman to his roots. He was taking those roots, mixing them with 40s hardboiled fiction and 70s crime films, and creating a new Batman.
These reflections were brought on by the exciting news that Warner Brothers is releasing an animated feature of Year One in September. Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery, the film will be, in the words of screenwriter Tab Murphy, an “extremely reverential” adaptation of the original material. (See this Daily Blam link for a sneek peek at the character design and approach. The film is due to be screened at San Diego Comic-Con in July.) The fact that Miller isn’t a player in the production might bode rather well considering his recent cinematic track record (see The Spirit to understand what I mean—or better yet, don’t). The animation team at Warner’s has long since established itself as a passionate and intelligent custodian of the DC universe of characters, and its work on Batman (from Batman: The Animated Series up to Batman: Under the Red Hood) has been particularly good.
Still, adapting Batman: Year One is akin to John Huston adapting The Maltese Falcon. In other words, the source material is a landmark classic. For my seventy-five cents’ worth (1987’s cover price), comics peaked with Miller and Mazzucchelli. Year One reads and looks unlike any other comic I can think of. It was, in a word, revolutionary. Miller’s first radical idea was to look at Batman’s early days. He took the premise at face value: how does the traumatized son of murdered parents become a rodent-impersonating vigilante? Then Miller split the narrative into two first person points-of-view. On one hand, we get Lt. James Gordon, who—as many people have noted over the years—is actually the main character of the book. In previous portrayals, Gordon was the avuncular, pipe-smoking Commissioner of Gotham City, about as gritty and believable a lawman as Encyclopedia Brown’s dad. In Miller’s hands, however, Gordon became a hardboiled hero—it was as if Philip Marlowe had gotten married, joined the police force for a steady paycheck, and settled down in the worst city in the world. He smokes cigarettes like it’s 1945, cheats on his wife, and fights the good fight.
And then, Miller gave us the Batman we’d somehow always wanted without ever knowing it. Playboy Bruce Wayne is just the mask for the world, an ascetic impersonating a hedonist, imploring his butler to “Be a joy, and get some glasses for our guests.” The real man is the freak who stands out in the snow, relentlessly kicking a tree until it topples over. At first he’s sloppy. He gets in a tussle with a pimp and ends up stabbed in the leg by a thirteen-year old hooker and shot by a cop. He isn’t Batman yet. He’s just a man with a sense of mission.
In Year One, Miller seized on that idea of Batman as fanatic and built the emotional core of his story around it. The murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is the transformative event of their son’s life, the rallying cry to a one-man war. This isn’t nerd-turned-hero, nor alien-demigod turned American icon, this is victim-turned-crusader. In Miller’s hands, Bruce Wayne revisits the killing of his parents like a monk contemplating the death of Christ. He is an ordinary man, pushed and punished to perfection. And the Gotham he patrols at night is a cesspool of pimps and junkies and corrupt cops. There are no super villains here, just the kind of banal evil that ripped away his parents. As issue four announces on the first page, “He’s out to clean up a city that likes being dirty.”
Miller’s vision is brought to glorious fruition by the phenomenal artwork of David Mazzucchelli. Unburdening Batman of the normal comic book gloss, Mazzucchelli gives us visuals that seem to have more in common with Taxi Driver than comic books (indeed, in the scene where Bruce beats up the pimp, he’s dressed like Travis Bickle). In regular comics, heroes are essentially bodybuilders with suits that magically shrink-wrap every rippling muscle. Here, Batman looks like a guy in gray tights. Moreover, Gotham City never looked more like Gotham City—rainy, depressed, a terrible place to live. This effect owes no small debt to the often undervalued contribution of colorist Richmond Lewis. The color palette of this book is, once again, a radical departure from the norm. Devoid of primary colors, it’s got the diluted color scheme of something like Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Together, Mazzucchelli and Lewis create images so visceral and powerful they have the impact of great movie visuals.
Many experts point to Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns as the true turning point in comics. In terms of sheer impact, maybe it was. But Year One is the masterpiece of crime fiction, a human-scale epic that only gets better the more you revisit it. My brother was lucky I didn’t wear out his copy.
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Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor