• Jake Wright

Batman: Year One - The Birth of the Batman: A Retrospective

To have one legendary Batman comic in your resume is something that many writers dream of but so few achieve, but to have two in the space of two years is just astonishing. Writer Frank Miller was at the height of his iconic career in the 80s with comics such as Ronin for DC and his infamous re-imaging of Daredevil over at Marvel, but after DC’s 1985 mega-event Crisis on Infinite Earths he was tasked with handling Batman’s updated origin story for the new continuity created after the Crisis.

Having already written the masterpiece that is Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, an elseworld story covering an older Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to deal with the chaos that was roaming the streets of Gotham since he hung up his cape, Miller returned Batman back to his dark and gritty routes as opposed to the more campy, lighter tone that superhero fans had been so used to seeing Batman feature in during the Silver Age of comic books, and everyone loved it.

After the success of The Dark Knight Returns Miller anxiously took on the task of updating and modernising the origin story of Bruce Wayne and his earliest adventures as the Caped Crusader. And in 1987, one year after Dark Knight Returns, he teamed up with artist David Mazzuchelli, colourist Richmond Lewis and letterer Todd Klein to produce his Batman: Year One story which ran from Batman #404-#407 and was overseen by legendary editor/writer Denny O’Neil.

The result? One of the greatest pieces of comic book storytelling for not only the character of Batman but any comic book character period. The story still holds up to this day (and will do so for many many years to come) and is often pointed towards as THE definitive origin story for Batman and one of the best stories told in DC Comics history.

He Will Become The World's Greatest Crimefighter The World Has Ever Known... It Won't Be Easy

The opening page of the first issue paints the picture of the tone of this comic straight away. January 4, a gritty Gotham from the point-of-view of our two antagonists; Jim Gordon, a newly transferred police officer arriving into the city by train; and Billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after years of training by a plane.

(via: DC Comics)

Gordon monologues how this city is no place to raise a family, he’s cautious, apprehensive as he wishes he flew in by a plane instead of a cramped, uncivilized coach train. This becomes instantly juxtaposed by Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham, isolated by the panel work, monologuing how he wishes he arrived by train to be closer to the enemy. This very beginning contrasts the two respective characters stories instantly and teases the element that these characters will be forever linked even before they are aware of one another.

The first issue does the perfect job in painting the picture of what is to come, intense action, dirty cops, interconnected storytelling, and a hero’s struggle to become the symbol he so desperately desires. It gives us iconic Batman panels like Bruce training at Wayne Manor and kicking down a tree, and Bruce in his drifter outfit scoping out the East End of Gotham. Already, Mazzuchelli and Lewis are able to flex their artistic muscles and let readers know what is to come by portraying dynamic figure work with beautiful colours that capture the gloomy skies, the sudden changes of texture and environment and the shadowy secrets of Gotham City.

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Right from the get-go, Miller shows us what exactly Gordon is up against in Gotham, not only is he fighting against the criminal underworld he also faces the corrupt and dirty cops of his own police department. Perfectly shown through Detective Flass (Gordon’s partner in crime) Miller displays how bad the GCPD really are, often beating on defenceless innocents, diving into drug deals and allying with mobsters, Gordon is up against his own precinct and faces possibly the toughest fight of his life so far.

The realism of this comic book is often shown through artist David Mazzuchelli as he crafts each character’s appearance carefully. Unusual to see in superhero comics, Batman is not the hulking brute most fans recognise him as, instead he is leaned out but still strong and touching on that realistic approach. His use of heavy lines on each character highlights the worn-out nature that this story and Gotham itself has on the characters themselves and paired well with the colours Lewis gives everyone’s clothes, it paints an untidy and gritty nature towards every person in the comic.

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In particular, his design for Batman’s suit. He simply looks like a man in a costume, giving him a certain vulnerability by his suit looking unarmoured, thin and made out of cloth, but then it can be contrasted by other panels that show us the mythical side to the Dark Knight, the imposing figure emerging from the shadows beating down on criminals and the corruption of the police, both physically and metaphorically.

The character work is carefully crafted by scribe Frank Miller giving every person a strong core and element of humanity to them. Take Gordon for example, a noble officer wanting to clean up the city, yet conflicted with thoughts and feelings surrounding his place in the town and even his marriage. Sarah Essen, fellow police officer, provides that one bright light for Gordan early on as although he is portrayed as a good man, he gives into temptation to ease his feelings about the city as they begin their affair. Both Essen and Gordon connect over the horrors of their job with Essen seemingly the only other person on the right side of the law thus establishing a brief connection with Gordan and understandably so.

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War is Declared

You’d not be mistaken for thinking that this comic is more of a Jim Gordan story than a Batman story, but Batman still gets his fair share of moments. Possibly the most iconic Batman line to date, Batman confronting Gotham’s elite, full of rich, wealthy and corrupt civilians, will forever be cemented in Batman’s history.

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“Ladies. Gentleman.” he says, “you’ve eaten well, you’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. It’s spirit. From this moment on, none of you are safe”.

This line sends chills down my spine, the vulnerability has been put on hold and placed on his own enemies, Batman states his claim as the protector of Gotham City by telling the whole of Gotham’s powerhouses that their time is up, but this couldn’t be done without him finding his purpose beforehand.

The end of issue #1 is perhaps one of the most important pages in the whole story. After dressing in his drifter gear and confronting a pimp, Bruce is severely injured and staggers back home. Sat in the Wayne Manor study, he reaches out to his deceased father for guidance as a last attempt to find what he is missing, and the call is answered…

CRASH! "Yes father, I shall become a bat".

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This page is the perfect moment of Bruce finally finding his way, the dialogue, the artwork showcasing a menacing bat, the bright yellow colour illustrating the awakening within Bruce Wayne to take on the symbol of the bat and strike fear into the hearts of criminals, possibly my favourite moment in the whole series.

The Cat & Co.

Another reason this legendary tale is so fondly remembered is that it brought Selina Kyle aka Catwoman back into the fold after Crisis on Infinite Earths as a sex worker who becomes inspired by the emergence of the Batman to dress up, seek thrills and supply her own needs. Although limited, the appearance of Selina Kyle does not fly under the radar and though her own story is unravelled over time jumps it keeps up with the pacing of the story as a whole and does enough work with such little exposition.

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Selina would then go onto receive a more detailed look into her character by featuring in stories such as Catwoman: Year One written by Mindy Newell and illustrated by Joe Brozowski, a four issue mini-series that is well-known for establishing her origin story based upon the work of Miller and Co. within Batman: Year One.

We also get to see a glimpse of her caring side for “strays” on the streets of Gotham, taking care of teenager Holly Robinson who, without Selina’s guidance would no doubt be set on a path of self-destruction later in her life. It’s such a simple yet effective way of showing why Selina is such a beloved character as although she has a tough exterior, deep down she has a kind heart and is eager to find the best way to express this.

A brand-new addition to the Batman mythos, we get the very first appearance of mobster Carmine Falcone with Miller supplying us with intricate character work setting up the Falcone family dilemma’s present throughout his criminal empire reign (most notably seen within Batman: The Long Halloween) and also displays the mysterious early link that himself and Selina Kyle have as she gives him his infamous three scratches on the cheek.

Another major Batman character with limited panel time is Harvey Dent, pre-Two-Face. His role is the assistant DA of Gotham City and even though his appearances are extremely limited, Miller sets up two important factors in Dent’s DA career; one, being one of the prime suspects for the identity of the Batman; and two, his partnership with Batman himself. A single panel relays the information that Dent’s partnership with Batman pre-dates even Gordon’s and makes way for the iconic trio to tackle crime in Batman’s early crusade.

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A Friend In Need

As stated earlier, the first page of issue #1 ties the characters of Jim Gordon and Batman together forever, and the climax of this series crosses the two paths over and cements the beginning of their partnership. Keeping with the theme of heightened realism, Miller does not provide the climax of this story with a spectacular supervillain battle but rather a simple confrontation that ends with Batman aiding Gordon in saving his new-born son thus restoring part of Gordon’s faith in Gotham.

As the comic comes to its conclusion, so does Gordon’s team. As he reflects on his first year in Gotham, he notes in someway things have gotten worse in regards to two major points. One of these is a reference to a member of the police force set to take over as Commissioner who is arguably worse the previous commish Gillian Loeb, and the other is a coy reference to the Joker, telling the audience that things are about to get a lot worse for Gotham and that the chaos has only just begun. But by mentioning that he is meeting a “friend” – a clear nod to Batman – just as the comic comes to a close, he still has that beacon of hope that shows him no matter how bad things get he is no longer isolated and alone.

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Batman Year One has a certain quality to it that can make it seem so small in scale – especially compared to the grand scale of Batman stories such as The Dark Knight Returns, Knightfall and No Man’s Land – despite the extent of the crusade taking place over a full year. But it is full credit to the team of Miller, Mazzuchelli, Lewis and Klein for making such an immersive Gotham layered with corruption, darkness, crime and depravity without the use of any of Batman’s iconic rogue’s gallery.

The book’s effect has been everlasting with many creators pinning it as the benchmark of many subsequent depictions of the Dark Knight through all lines of media, with many attempting to replicate its success. All credit goes to the creative team behind this book that was simply put, at the very heights of their power in delivering this vision for the character of the Batman. It will live long in the legacy of comic books and is a must read for any comic book aficionado.

If you are interested in purchasing Batman: Year One, you can do so through the links below:

UK - Forbidden Planet

US - Amazon

If you've read it, is Batman Year One your favourite Batman story? Would you rank it amongst the best DC stories of all time? Let us know in the comments below.

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