Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli Review


You know the classics of literature - War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Middlemarch? There are aspects to them to appreciate and patient readers can be rewarded greatly with those books. But let's be honest - most of us view classics as a bit of a chore. But what about classic comics? Kind of the same thing, but not for so many. Some classic comics, Marvel and DC especially, are tough to read because the stories from the 40s and 50s are so badly written and cheesy, and the art is hit or miss, though most of them possess a guileless charm to them that makes them easier to stomach. When it comes to comics, no character stands taller than Batman, and no Batman book has more of a reputation than Year One. Is it a chore to read? No. Has it aged poorly? Not even a bit. Does it deserve it's title as a true bona fide classic? (Austin Powers voice) Yeah, baby!

Year One is Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's retelling of Batman's origin and through their retelling they set the tone and standard for all other Batman books that followed. A 25 year old Bruce Wayne returns to a nightmarish Gotham City riddled with crime at the same time as an older but still young James Gordon, recently transferred to the GCPD and entering Gotham City for the first time. Both men have a clear mission: to clean up the streets of crime and make Gotham habitable for decent, hardworking folks.

Some readers have wondered why Gordon gets as much space - maybe more - as Bruce Wayne in this book and the answer is simple: they're both two sides of the same coin. The very first Batman story opens with Bruce and Jim sitting, talking about crime, and Jim is arguably Batman's best friend. Batman's origin would tie in with Gordon's as their lives will be linked forever once they dig their heels in and bring justice to Gotham.

It's been a few years since I read Year One and I really hoped it would hold up - and it did. Whatever your feelings are about Frank Miller today (and he has unfortunately gone from genius writer to crackpot old man), his work in the 80s ranks amongst the best the comics medium has ever produced, and Year One is arguably the pinnacle of that work. He went from telling the last Batman story ever with The Dark Knight Returns to, with his next book, going back to the very beginning and telling the first Batman story ever - and both are masterpieces.

In just four issues, we see Bruce get into his first fight as an unmasked vigilante, to realising he must don a disguise, to the famous "Yes. Father. I will become a bat" scene, to his fledgling first missions to clear up corrupt police, mob bosses, and the iconic dinner party scene where he appears to Gotham's most powerful and evil to inform them they have eaten well but from now on none of them are safe. And the scene when Batman takes down the SWAT team? Brilliant. Still tense, exciting, and fantastic to read.

It's a testament to Miller's writing that he's able to take Gordon, who for many is little more than a one-note background character, and makes you care about him as much as you do Batman. Gordon becomes Gotham's first non-corrupt officer, fighting his own colleagues (literally and figuratively) to uphold the law and become better than the criminals they chase, while his wife is pregnant with James Jr. (see Batman: The Black Mirror for what happened to James Jr. when he grew up) and the stresses of the job leading to him make some bad decisions.

We also meet Selina Kyle for the first time, working as a dominatrix in Gotham's red light district, as she decides to become her own costumed character, Catwoman, after first seeing Batman. Mazzuchelli's art in this book is flawless but my one criticism of the book is Catwoman's outfit - I hate the whiskers and tail! What use are either to a cat burglar? And it just looks stupid.

Anyway, Year One is a must-read for all Batman fans - as if you didn't already know! Everyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Batman comics knows Year One is one of the first to read. And it is - but it's also one to re-read and come back to again and again because there are a LOT of Batman books, but few of such high quality as Year One. A great beginning for the Dark Knight and the man who would be Commissioner. Just don't read Year Two!

Batman: Year One

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