Although the twenty-seventh issue of Detective Comics was cover-dated May 1939, the issue was actually released in March 1939, meaning that it was in this month that readers were first introduced to perhaps DC Comics’ most popular character, the Batman. With Batman returning to cinema screens this month, March is the perfect time to celebrate the Caped Crusader so I’ve been spending every Saturday doing just that!
Story Titles: “Chapter One: Who I Am – How I Come to Be”, “Chapter Two: War Is Declared”, “Chapter Three: Black Dawn”, and “Chapter Four: Friend in Need”
Published: February 1987 to May 1987
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Capitalising on the success of Clark Kent/Superman’s debut, artist Bob Kane drew up a design for a new masked crimefighter, the “Bat-Man”. Thanks to the tireless and long-suppressed work of artist Bill Finger, the Bat-Man was transformed into the figure who would become a mainstream cultural icon. Over the many years since his debut, however, Batman underwent significant changes and alterations to his character and supporting cast; he gained a young kid sidekick to appear more appealing to younger readers and was transformed into a much softer, more fantastical character. Indeed, although writers like Dennis O’Neil helped to rectify this in the 1970s, it’s safe to say that Batman’s image had been tainted somewhat by the glorious camp (and incredibly popular) 1960s television show. After wiping their continuity mostly clean in the Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1985 to 1986), DC Comics sought to retell the origins of many of their most popular characters, with Batman being chief among them. Following his mainstream success with his work on Daredevil, writer and artist Frank Miller signed a contract with DC Comics that led not only to his seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Miller, et al, 1986) but also a revamped origin for the Dark Knight. Assured he would be given full creative control, Miller expanded upon Batman’s original story to craft one of the most lauded and well-regarded Batman stories that would go on to influence numerous Batman films, stories, and interpretations for years to come.
Batman: Year One is as much a story about James “Jim” Gordon as it is about Bruce Wayne’s first appearance as the Batman. The story is split between the two men and their separate narratives, with each having their own distinct text boxes, perspectives, and experiences within Gotham City. This helps to show the parallels between the two and how they are both driven to extremes due to the city’s bleak, depressing, and corrupt nature and we see their differing perspectives right off the bat (no pun intended) with their respective arrivals in the city in January. Lieutenant Gordon, who has just transferred to Gotham and whose wife Barbara (not that Barbara) is currently pregnant with their first child, laments the state of the city, which he experiences first-hand by mistakenly arriving by train. Twenty-five-year-old Bruce, however, thinks the exact opposite; he wishes that he’d arrived by train to “see the enemy” rather than by air, where the city almost looks civilised. While Bruce is mobbed by reporters desperate for the story of his twelve year absence from Gotham, Gordon is met at the train station by the hulking Detective Arnold Flass, who assures him that “cops got it made in Gotham”.
While Gordon grits his teeth through his first meeting with the detestable Commissioner Gillian Loeb, Bruce returns to his familial home, Wayne Manor, and his faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Bruce spends the next month or so mentally preparing himself for the task ahead of him; physically, he’s well-trained and highly capable, able to smash through bricks and topple a tree with a single kick, but he feels something is missing for his plans for Gotham. Gordon, however, is immediately introduced to the ugly side of Gotham’s police force as Flass randomly assaults a group of youths for no good reason at all. Gordon keeps his opinions to himself but takes care to study Flass’ movements and physical capabilities for later, but soon finds himself under suspicion as Flass disagrees with his morals. Having brought this to Loeb’s attention, Flass is given permission to put a beating on Gordon in an effort to teach him how important it is to “fit in” in Gotham. Although Gordon has a military background, it has, in his words, “been a while” and, while he puts up a good fight, he takes a bit of a beating from a few masked assailants wielding baseball bats. Riled up, Gordon heads over to Flass’ favourite bar and runs his drunk-ass off the road. Tossing his gun aside, Gordon offers Flass a baseball bat as a “handicap” and sets about taking the big man to school. Beaten and left naked and cuffed in the snow, Gordon feels confident that he has taught Flass not to mess with him again.
Coincidentally enough, this occurs on the very first night that Bruce attempts to strike back at the city’s criminal underworld; disguising his identity with some make-up and a fake scar, he goes out looking for trouble in the Red Light District and ends up taking a beating of his own. Stabbed in the leg, mauled by a cat-like prostitute, and shot by some of Gotham’s finest, Bruce manages to escape police custody and, with his last ounce of strength, stumble back to Wayne Manor. Bleeding out, he contemplates his failures and begs his deceased father, Doctor Thomas Wayne, for guidance on how to do better and to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Tormented at having witnessed the brutal and random deaths of his parents as a small boy, he resolves to let himself die unless he can find the answer and, at that moment, a gigantic bat crashes through the window of his study. Just like that, Bruce has his answer and vows to “become a bat”. By April, Gordon has built up something of a reputation as a soft touch, which brings him into direct opposition with Sergeant Branden of Special Weapons and Tactics (S.W.A.T.) and the support of the press (which makes reprimanding him extremely difficult for Loeb). Gordon’s mounting aggravation and depression at bringing his wife and pregnant child to such a cesspit is interrupted by reports of a “giant bat” in the city as, across town, the Batman makes his dramatic first appearance. Thanks to his fearsome appearance and an animalistic growl, Batman is able to frighten a group of thieves a little too well as one of them topples over the edge of the balcony they’re on. So determined is Batman to keep the perp from falling to his death that he puts himself at risk to save the guy’s life and only manages to come out of it relatively unscathed due to his adaptability, strength, sheer for of will, and (as he chastises himself) a great deal of luck.
To ensure that the criminals and corrupt know that they are living on borrowed time, Batman makes a dramatic show of himself at a dinner function hosted by noted mob boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone and attended by corrupt commission Loeb. News of the Batman, of course, reaches the Gotham police department; Flass is just one of the officers to have encountered the vigilante, who is widely regarded as a horrific, winged demon. Ordered by Loeb to bring Batman in, Gordon’s efforts are met with failure; staged muggings go without incident and Falcone is left humiliated in his own chambers, and not just because of Batman’s wily prowess as Assistant District Attorney Harvey Dent has entered into a secret alliance with the Dark Knight. Batman and Gordon’s paths finally cross when the two both risk their lives to save a homeless woman from being run down by a truck. Despite Batman’s heroic actions, Gordon orders his men to take the vigilante alive; however, Batman receives a bullet to the leg and is quickly left trapped and wounded thanks to Branden laying waste to the building he’s hiding in. The spreading fires destroy Batman’s utility belt and leave him with only his wits and ninja training to survive, which are more than enough to pick off the S.W.A.T. team one by one despite his leg wound. Cornered and running out of tricks, however, Batman is barely able to avoid another round of gunfire but manages to elude capture by attracting a flock of bats all the way from Wayne Manor that cover his escape, leave many of the cops and bystanders in hospital, and go a long way to adding to the Batman’s dramatic mystique.
Humiliated by this incident, Gordon increases his efforts in trying to decipher the Batman’s true identity. Initially suspicious of Dent, it is Detective Sarah Essen who nudges his attentions towards Bruce Wayne because of his wealth and traumatic childhood. Over the course of the last few months and pages, the two have grown extremely close since Gordon is spending more and more time at work and trying to shield Barbara from the atrocities in Gotham. This leads to a passionate affair between the two that Gordon immediately hates himself for; his guilt is matched only by his confusion regarding Batman, who is clearly taking the law into his own hands and yet may very well be the most righteous and incorruptible person in the city. Bruce, however, is able to throw Gordon’s suspicions off by playing up the role of a wealthy, bored socialite but, after Batman’s efforts see Flass incarcerated for taking part in a massive drug operation, Loeb threatens to expose the Lieutenant’s affair to his wife.
Although he already ended the affair, Gordon decides to admit to his wrongdoings to his wife in order to begin repairing his marriage (something also aided by the birth of their son, James Junior) and to dispel any leverage the corrupt have over him. Batman’s world, however, becomes a little more complicated when the prostitute he countered on his first night, Selina Kyle, decides to craft a costumed identity of her own and begins targeting Falcone’s operation as Catwoman. After Catwoman scars his face, Falcone (who believes that the two are in cahoots) orders his men to kidnap James Jnr. Gordon arrives too late to save his son but is able to keep Barbara from harm; however, he also shoots and wounds Bruce (who is disguised in a motorcycle jacket and helmet) in the process. The two of them chase after Falcone’s goon and a fight breaks out on the bridge; overpowered by the thug, Gordon is helpless to keep his baby boy from falling to the cold, shallow water below. Luckily, Bruce dives after the boy and saves him, earning Gordon’s respect and gratitude. In the aftermath, Loeb is forced to resign after Flass spills the beans on all his dirty dealings and Sarah moves away to New York. As for Gordon, he and Barbara agree to attend marriage counselling, he is in line for a promotion to Captain, and he has found himself a friend to help tackle a manic named “The Joker” who has poisoned the city’s reservoir.
Of all the Batman stories crafted by Frank Miller, Batman: Year One is still my favourite. It’s a gritty, bleak, grounded reinterpretation of Batman’s origin and first year in Gotham City and paints him as a regular man (albeit one well trained and with more wealth than you or I) who isn’t yet the hyper-prepared, experienced vigilante with a network of allies and resources. The artwork is simple but gorgeous, with everything taking on a wash of waterpaint-like noir that emphasises deep shadows and harsh lights and has the majority of the story taking place in the dank, depressing darkness of night. One of the main reasons I dislike The Dark Knight Returns (and other Batman stories by Miller) is the dialogue (and the artwork). Miller has a very…shall we say “distinctive” way of having characters talk and likes to kind of just spit words and odd statements at the reader. For the most part, Year One is relatively light on these “Miller-isms” but they do still show up here and there (mostly when Batman is eluding or attacking people). Thankfully, Alfred’s trademark dry wit makes up for this and seeing Bruce act like an complete cad to throw off Gordon’s suspicions was absolutely fantastic.
It’s interesting that Batman: Year One is such an effective Batman story considering it’s much more of a Jim Gordon story. We learn very little about Bruce, his background, or his training and, instead, focus more on Gordon and his struggles to adjust to and cope with life in the city. Everything we learn about Gotham and the state of its police force comes from Gordon, a flawed man who has made mistakes and is trying to hold onto his morals but struggles in the face of near-endless corruption and his own temptations towards Sarah. Bruce’s tragic origin is recounted very briefly and much of his training and motivation is delivered through exposition or his thought boxes, which take on a cursive slant that can be difficult to make out at times. Still, it provides a fascinating glimpse into Bruce’s early struggles to find the means by which to fight crime in the city and the preparation that goes into his various traps and assuming the guise of the Batman.
At its core, Batman: Year One is a story of struggle and trust; both Gordon and Bruce struggle to find their place in Gotham and figure out how to conduct themselves and their mission in a city that is constantly fighting back against them and both of them feel alone in this endeavour. It isn’t until their paths cross and they see how selfless the other is that they both begin to consider changing their position; while guys like Branden just want to shoot Batman dead no questions asked, Gordon would prefer to see him brought in alive to get to the root of his mystery and Bruce realises that he needs the good-natured lieutenant onside if he is ever to be effective as Batman and avoid getting shot on a nightly basis. This comes to a head in the finale where, rather than Batman saving Gordon’s son, it is Bruce in a questionable disguise. Indeed, the artwork and dialogue makes it intentionally vague as to whether or not Gordon truly recognises his boy’s saviour or not and, in the end, he decides it doesn’t matter who the Batman is as he has learned to think of him as a friend in a lawless city.
As a tale of Batman’s earliest days in action, it’s hard to get much better than Year One. Personally, I love Batman stories that show him to be vulnerable and flawed and we definitely see a lot of that here as he’s constantly being stabbed and shot and hurt and forced into tight corners. This is a Batman who is lacking many of the bells and whistles of his later career; there’s not really a Batcave, no Bat-Signal or Batmobile, and a limited array of Bat-themed gadgets, all of which means that Batman has to use his wits and adaptability a lot more than his fancy high-tech toys which, again, I also find incredibly appealing. The portrayal of Batman’s influence is equally great; most treat the idea of a giant bat-garbed vigilante as ridiculous until they come face-to-face with him and then they are scared witless and this goes a long way to painting the Batman as this urban myth amongst the just and unjust alike.
Have you ever read Batman: Year One? What did you think of Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman? Are you a fan of Miller’s work, especially on Batman? What did you think to Year One’s focus on Jim Gordon and the depiction of a Batman without all his bells and whistles? What was your first experience of Batman and how are you celebrating his debut this month? Whatever your thoughts, sign up to drop them below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Saturday for my review of Batman’s newest big-screen outing!