Comic Book Review: Batman: Year One
Few Batman stories can claim to have been as influential as Year One. Few have had anything near the monumental impact of this four issue arc, which fundamentally changed the way fans perceived the Caped Crusader. One year after astonishing readers with The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller went on to fundamentally change the world of Batman, with an origin story seen by many now as definitive. Although radical at the time, Batman: Year One has been so fully absorbed into the mythos that it is now regarded as essential reading, a textbook example of how to write Batman. In the decades since its release, countless stories have in some way echoed or referenced it, paying homage to the book that left Gotham and its guardian forever changed.
Reading it today, you might not notice anything particularly revolutionary, due to the fact that it provided a mould from which many Batman stories were cast. So many of its ideas were so thoroughly adopted that they seem second nature to today's readers. It has been said that the legacy of Year One was to make Batman darker, more serious and more realistic, that it initiated the era of "grim" and gritty". While there is some truth to this, Batman comics had been moving towards darker, serious stories since the early 70's, a steady trend that did little to aid dwindling sales. Besides, that's more the legacy of The Dark Knight Returns. In 1987, Miller and Mazzucchelli provided a template for how to reinvigorate Batman. They altered not just the origin story but also Bruce Wayne, his supporting cast and Gotham City itself.
Just suggesting new ideas isn't enough, though; you have to present convincing evidence that these ideas are worth adopting. This is the lynch-pin of Year One. Many of the changes it brought about had already been occasionally used in Batman stories throughout the years, but rarely had any of them been delivered with the skill of Miller and Mazzucchelli. The story is perfectly paced, covering one calendar year from the split perspectives of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon. Each of them freshly arriving to the city, discovering the nature of Gotham and what it takes to bring justice to a city that's rotten to the core.
Despite the long time-span being covered in just four issues, it never feels rushed. Instead, we have a concise storytelling style that focuses of the key moments, explaining just enough before moving on. The comic is almost completely devoid of super-villainy, with Batman's foes instead taking the shape of the mobsters and corrupt policemen that control the city, trapping him between both sides of the law.
The influence of Year One can be seen in countless Batman stories released after its publication. Writers like Jeph Loeb and Matt Wagner even picked up where it left of, with comics that act almost as sequels. Several of its iconic scenes have been referenced over and over, including the bat crashing into Bruce Wayne's study, which has been reused in comics ever since. Its influence isn't limited only to comics, with TV shows such as Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman both borrowing from it, as does Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, particularly Batman Begins, with some scenes lifted straight out the book. Year One has even been adapted into an animated film.
The Bruce Wayne of Year One is distinctly different from his counterpart in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns; whilst he still views his mission like a military campaign, his methods are far less extreme. It wouldn't make sense for Bruce to have become bitter or jaded so early in his career. Rather, he is driven by a steely determination to make a difference. He spends the year studying his task, refining his methods and adapting to his new role. Steadily he grows to meet his mantle, becoming everything one expects from the Batman. It's a journey the reader believes effortlessly, so gracefully constructed that no-one would question the change from amateur crime-buster to the World's Greatest Detective.
James Gordon has rarely played a larger part than his role in Year One, where we see him struggle to protect his family while fighting for justice. The depressed Gordon arrives in Gotham struggling for reasons to be hopeful and the more he learns of the city more he turns to despair. At first he sees Batman as a vigilante, a criminal, yet slowly his positions changes. He watches one man make a difference in the face of overwhelming odds, and begins to realise that perhaps this vigilante is serving and protecting better than the GCPD. One act of heroism at a time, Gordon is shown that there is yet hope for Gotham, and that he himself can make a difference. Here we are presented with a most compelling case for the friendship between Batman and Gordon, an understanding of how the future Commissioner could ally himself with an outlaw.
Year One is often cited as one of the most "realistic" Batman stories, set in a world that is oppressively grim, and devoid of anything fantastic. However this backdrop brings contrast as the appearance of Batman ushers in a grander, more mythic reality. Buildings start exploding, hordes of bats swarm through the streets, and criminals start wearing costumes. The arrival of Batman changes Gotham, the old order crumbles, new heroes and villains are inspired by his example and a depressed city starts to hope again.
The book even finishes with Gordon explaining that someone calling himself the Joker has threatened to poison the reservoir, signalling the shift into the more recognisable world of Batman. This is an aspect of the book which is magnificently portrayed through its art, as David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis perfectly capture both of these contrasting atmospheres. Gotham feels dirty, depressed and dying, and into this world they bring a Batman who seems more mythical than ever, bringing a sense of theatricality. Several scenes are simply iconic, as grounded detective fiction gives way to super-heroics, and the Batman turns from common vigilante to the stuff of legend.
This theme of inspiration acts as the books core, perfectly capturing the symbology of Batman. Bruce Wayne becomes a weird figure of the night in order to capture the imagination of the disenfranchised and the downtrodden. His dramatic example shows the people of Gotham that they can stand up against injustice. By setting the book at his beginning, we are able to witness first-hand the difference Batman makes to Gotham. He reignites hope in the hears of the people, drafting others like James Gordon into his never-ending battle.