Batman: Year One (2007)
Reprints Batman v1 #404-407
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli
I’ve immensely enjoyed going back to older DC Comics these last few years, and every once in a while, you’re reminded of how great a particular work is after it faded in your memory a little. Batman: Year One is a comics masterpiece. One thing I’ve liked to do is go to the DC Database, search an issue I’ve read and see what else was published that same month. It can give you a great picture of what the publisher felt like at the time. Batman #404, the opening chapter in this story, hit the stands in February 1987, almost one full year after the final issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths (March 1986) was published and a month before Legends wrapped up (April 1987). This was right in the middle of DC Comics reinventing itself as a modern comics company, trying to catch up with the headway Marvel had. Year One was sharing the comics rack with Byrne’s Superman run, Watchmen was halfway through its twelve-issue run, George Perez’s Wonder Woman #1, and a handful of mini-series and other comics attempting to inject some new life into these characters. Nothing came close to Batman: Year One.
Year One opens on Jim Gordon, newly arrived in Gotham City, and partnered with the immediately skeevy Flass. The narrative begins bouncing back and forth with Bruce Wayne, who returns to his home city with much more fanfare than Gordon’s arrival. Both men are clearly aware of the deep corruption of this broken system. Gordon steels himself in the letter of the law and believes he can use it to bring down evil in Gotham. Wayne does not think this is possible and begins acting extrajudicially, making himself a vigilante presence. Each man is pushed further down a dark path by the adversaries they encounter, often the same people, easily bribed cops & officials all under the thumb of Carmine Falcone. Eventually, Gordon and Wayne will meet, and at that moment, an alliance will be forged that begins to slightly chip away at the morass of Gotham City.
The story is only four parts, but they are incredibly dense with character, theme, and atmosphere. It’s no wonder that Year One has become such a profoundly influential element in modern Batman. If you’re fresh to comics, it might be hard to understand how revolutionary this presentation of the Batman mythos was at the time. You need only look at what was being published in Detective Comics at the same time to see how wildly different Miller’s take was. Writer Mike W. Barr and artist Alan Davis told stories inspired by the campy Batman 1966 series. In that book, you still had Batman referring to Robin as “old chum.” This didn’t necessarily come out of nowhere, though. In the summer of 1986, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had been published, which is an even wilder take on Batman. Fans would have anticipated this official reimagining of their hero’s origins and chomping at the bit.
Miller has no fat in this story; every scene plays into the greater narrative. You can see how he was following a noir storytelling style, using characters’ interior monologues to fill in gaps and help the reader get a strong understanding of them. This was the first comic to humanize Gordon outside of just being a cop. His daughter, Barbara, had operated as Batgirl, but within the comics stories, he’d mainly remained Batman’s link to the authorities without much agency of his own. Here we learn about his failing marriage, his affair with a colleague in the GCPD, and how his own child is targeted by the people who want him to give up trying to flush out corruption. I’d go so far as to argue this is the best Gordon story ever told more than Batman.
So often in Batman stories, the main character and the narrative itself are defined by the adversaries he’s facing. Absent from Miller’s retelling are garishly costumed villains with goofy gimmicks. We do get Catwoman, now a sex worker inspired by Batman’s brutality towards the people she sees as responsible for her inability to escape harm. But the chief baddies of this story are the aforementioned Carmine Falcone and Police Commissioner Loeb, members of the power elite in Gotham. So too, are we denied a happy ending. Instead, the finale centers on Gordon and Batman coming to an understanding of their individual roles in this violent, criminal world. There is no sense they believe they will overturn everything wrong with the city, but they want to be an ever-present pushback against these evil men. The final panel even foresees the Joker, which dampens any moment of victory that might be going on. Batman’s arrival ultimately will not save Gotham, rather the evil within Gotham’s systems will adapt to match Batman.
To understand this version of Batman, we have to interrogate Frank Miller’s personal politics. The type of story he’s telling here reflects his former and later work. He has been very consistent in his view of modern society. Miller is about as pure a reactionary you can get; he has no political opinions aside from opposition to others’ stances. He famously went on an internet tirade about Occupy Wall Street, calling them “an unruly mob” and even “rapists.” Then, there’s his infamous comic Holy Terror, a story he originally wanted to be about Batman killing Muslim terrorists, but DC wouldn’t go down that path. There’s no meaningful analysis in Miller’s work, simply rants and anger about what he sees as wrong in society, often equating people’s personal fashion sense with moral corruption. Miller was rabidly in support of the War on Terror post-9/11 and became rabid about punishing swaths of people who had nothing to do with the terrorist attack.
Despite his later apologies, which he blamed on alcohol consumption, his body of work remains as evidence that the liquor merely loosened his tongue to thoughts & ideas ever-present in his mind. Miller’s work consistently focuses on individuals against society. The flaws he sees in society often center around sexual looseness and often gross racial caricatures, especially of Black men. His heroes always resort to individual violence; operating collectively is apparently anathema to Miller. From Miller’s perspective, the solution to society’s ills is one person unwavering in their ideals (even if they aren’t materially coherent) against what they perceive as evil.
He’s as brain dead as any reactionary crank who opines for “the old way,” lost in a nostalgic haze for a past that never actually existed but was the lovely ignorance children experience. He’s voiced anger about such passive things as “technology,” citing smartphones and tablet computers but without following that thread to talk about the destructive nature of modern manufacturing or the loss of democracy through the intervention of the tech industry. Nope, it’s the masses just staring at their phones that is the problem. I suspect Miller is the type of person who likes to sit in his easy chair and rant at the tv while never deigning to do anything about these “problems” he sees. And, when people like Occupy Wall Street try to do something about it, can’t even offer a relevant critique about their action (of which there is plenty to critique) and instead resorts to wild ad hominem attacks that speak more to Miller’s personal psycho-sexual disorders than what any activist is doing.
Miller’s thoughts are fascistic. That’s pretty undeniable. Reactionaries sometimes make good art, though, and there is no denying the immense talent of this creator. When consuming Miller’s art, the key is never to separate the art from the artist. Instead, use his art as a means to understand a particular type of thinking we’d like to see fade away. Miller’s work always informs me about the right-wing psyche in America because he does such a remarkable job in expressing those thoughts. It’s also tremendously insightful to juxtapose a work like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, so often discussed in the same sentences but presenting wildly divergent views on vigilantism and the roots of society’s problems. I never forget that the American superhero is ultimately a very wrong-headed concept, but through analyzing the prolific art form, we can learn a lot about how our culture has changed and how it sadly still seems ossified in a reactionary mindset.