Let’s set the stage. It’s 1987 and DC Comics has decided to reboot their line of characters following the massive event Crisis on Infinite Earths, which restarted the in-comics universe. Superman has had his new origin told in John Byrne’s Man of Steel and other characters have had their slates wiped clean to varying degrees. And now it was time for Batman to get his turn.
So who should the company turn to for a redo of one of the most iconic origin stories of all time? Frank Miller, who had just finished the already classic future-set Batman story The Dark Knight Returns. Tasked with reforming the beginnings of Batman, Miller was teamed with David Mazzuchelli, who had crafted the iconic Daredevil story Born Again.
What the duo crafted was not a complete alteration of The Dark Knight’s origin, but instead a refining of the character’s heroic beginnings. One that would permanently impact the character, improving him, strengthening his motivations, and be felt in virtually every iteration of the character during the following two and a half decades.
Quite simply, it may not only be Batman’s most defining story, but also his greatest in comic books.
Restarting The Dark Knight
Batman: Year One traces the first year of Bruce Wayne as Batman across the span of four issues. The story opens on January 4 with Bruce’s return to Gotham after years abroad, as well as then-lieutenant Jim Gordon’s arrival in the city as a new addition to its police force. From the very beginning, the corruption of Gotham and the desperate situation that many of its residents find themselves in is obvious. But that’s why the two men are there.
Days and months go by, with the first issue culminating in Bruce’s first disastrous attempt to fight crime. Not yet the Batman, Bruce tries to take down a pimp, only to be severely injured by a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle and corrupt cops. Sitting in the study of his mansion bleeding out and pleading with the ghosts of his parents, Bruce is given a sign – a bat crashing in through a window. “Yes, father. I shall become a bat.”
From then on, we see Bruce work as The Batman. From taking on smalltime crooks to high ranking members of the mob, he quickly sets out to make an impact. But even the Gotham Police are hellbent on ending him, firebombing a derelict building he’s been chased into and sending in their trigger-happy SWAT team.
By the end, what we see are glimmers of hope. Batman and Gordon come together finally, creating an alliance to take on the criminals harming Gotham and actually trusting one another.
What makes Year One so fantastic is that it not only helps to redefine Batman and give him a definitive beginning as a crimefighter, but it is also a whole and complete story on its own. There’s no need to read another volume or try to find out the answers to questions left lingering. Reading Year One is like eating a delicious meal.
“Grim and gritty” is a term that is thrown around frequently, especially when it comes to redefining characters in a more realistic manner. And many point to Year One, along with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil: Born Again, and a few other seminal stories of the ‘80s as spurring the movement that reshaped comic books.
But Year One and these definitive works are far more than simply being dark and brutal for its own sake. In fact, Year One is far from graphic. It addresses mature issues and doesn’t shy away from dark ideas, but it doesn’t go for shocks and repulsive violence like so many stories did in its wake. The characters feel real. The world feels real. But not at the cost of thrilling and heightened stories that still feel at home in a comic book.
The point of it all is to ground it in reality to a far greater degree than many Batman stories have in the past. While this could never be applied to every Batman story from then on, it reinvigorated the character. When a fictional hero like Batman has existed for decades with dozens of stories published every year, he’s going to need some sprucing up about once every decade. That doesn’t mean that past work is defunct or that every past story needs to be erased (although DC Comics seems to think so). What it means is that no character can stick in the same groove for hundreds of issues without becoming predictable, monotonous, and boring.
Year One gave the character a chance for new interpretations. Without it, Batman and his many incarnations across media may be far different. And likely worse.
Simply put, Mazzuchelli is a master. He strikes a potent blend of both the real and the heightened, which does wonders for the book’s tone. This is meant to be a more realistic approach to The Dark Knight, but this is still a comic book. Like his work on Daredevil: Born Again, the characters seem relatable and immediate. They aren’t layered in rock hard muscles and exaggerated proportions like so many superhero books. There’s a place for that, but it’s not here.
In particular, his Batman is spectacular. He looks like a man in a costume, giving him a certain vulnerability that’s needed when showing the beginnings of the character. But he’s also subjected to countless iconic looks. Everything from his shadow-cloaked intrusion on the headquarters of the mob to his fiery battle with Gotham SWAT works wonderfully. And every character is filled with gorgeous detail. Batman’s costume looks like real cloth. Gordon’s stubble highlights his worn down nature. Even characters like the corrupt Commissioner Loeb and Detective Flass have obviously been subjected to in-depth character studies.
Gotham feels like a real place, too. Since the book spans one whole year, we see it change throughout the seasons, and the effects of shifting weather and other conditions are easily felt on the page while the city’s frame remains underneath.
When Year One was reissued in 2005, it came with a complete recoloring. Comics in the ‘80s had a limited color palette. And while it was serviceable, it makes it look somewhat dated. The reissue had every page recolored by hand and with paints. The result is far more vibrant and moody than was possible before.
He Won’t Be Alone
What makes Year One so strong is the equal focus that the story gives to Jim Gordon. Often, Gordon and Wayne’s stories parallel one another and occasionally become polar opposites. These are two men who have come to Gotham with the intent of doing good against overwhelming odds, only to find that there may be no chance for them to make a difference.
This is also a very fallible version of the character. Gordon is portrayed as a good man, but he also gives into temptation concerning his police partner Sarah Essen. The strain that Gotham puts on his marriage is a vital aspect of Year One’s overarching storyline. So much so that the climax is not some ballistic showdown with a super villain, it’s a race to save Gordon’s infant son from mobsters out for revenge.
With first person narration from both Gordon and Bruce, the reader is able to get inside the heads of both characters equally. In fact, Year One is just as much Gordon’s story as it is Batman’s. It makes for a potent combination. By the time the story comes to a close with Gordon waiting on a rooftop for his friend to help him with a new threat (someone who calls himself “The Joker”), it feels completely satisfying.
Decades of Impact and Still Going
Year One helped to redefine Batman in DC Comics, casting him as a more realistic and haunted man, determined to wage a never-ending war due to his childhood trauma. And while much of Batman in the ‘90s was structured after Miller’s work on the character, it is in other media where the story’s effects are truly felt.
Tim Burton’s Batman may not completely feel like Year One, but the darker nature of the story definitely helped to influence the film, which went from urban dark to gothic dark. The comic also gave influence to Batman: The Animated Series, especially its feature film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which features a young Bruce becoming The Dark Knight and even having a fiery confrontation with the Gotham Police.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy easily draws the most from Year One. With Batman Begins taking Gordon’s status as lieutenant, characters like Loeb and Flass, the SWAT team assault, Batman’s swarm of bats, the ending with The Joker, and Bruce’s overall story being obviously taken from Miller and Mazzuchelli’s story. While The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises don’t have as much taken, they still use some of the tone and minor details.
Recently, DC Comic decided to reboot their entire universe and retell the beginnings of some of their characters, Batman included. Which means that Year One is no longer in continuity, as Scott Snyder’s Zero Year replaces it in the timeline.
It doesn’t matter. Year One will always be one of the defining stories of The Dark Knight.