Late to the Party: Batman – Year One (1987)

It’s a hot afternoon, muggy as a high school locker room after you’ve lost the championship game. Feels like walking through water. I get home from work just as a headache’s brewing. “Optical migrane,” it’s called. Scared the hell out of me the first time it happened. The wife tells me to go lie down in the bedroom and rest till it passes, so I do. And I make the decision.

I take out my phone and I download Kindle.

Not how I wanted to do this. I hate trying to read comics on my phone. I was never gonna get what I really wanted, to get my hands on original copies of the individual issues that make up Batman: Year One, not without parting with serious money or finding a real sweetheart of a deal. But I’d planned on getting the collected edition from the library. Surprise: because of the pandemic, they’re more backed up than a cheesemaker’s colon. I’m under a deadline, and my library hold might not go through in time for me to bang out this review on my old Underwood and get it to the copy boy before this beautiful greasy website goes to press.

So I read it on my phone instead. David Mazzucchelli doing some of the work of his career, but it’s so small it’s like reading a book held ten feet away from my face. The user interface is clunky and it makes me feel old. Tired and old. Stupid old man.

I have to read the book like this because the world is going to hell. People are suffering, and the rich and the powerful are either too insulated to care or are actively profiting off the misery. America is Gotham City, now. Maybe it always was. This is not how I wanted to do this.

I have to read this book on my phone because some people are too scared to wear a mask.

Hey! Don’t go away, I’ll stop with the tough-guy narration; I’ve made my point, and I’d rather just talk to you in my own voice instead of this pastiche-of-a-pastiche. But it’s true, actually, me having to read this on my phone, the library being backed up, even having a headache while I was downloading Kindle. The world got in the way of my reading Year One for the first time.

Case in point: already on page five it is made pretty clear that the cops are the bad guys. A white cop assaults a black kid for no reason but to assert his idea of dominance. He confiscates, by way of excuse, the “weapon” he finds on the kid’s person, which Lieutenant Jim Gordon the Good Cop points out is just a comb. And like, look at this panel, with its unintended resonances!

Riots and statues and clashes with cops. I signed up to review this book three months ago or so because I like talking about frivolous nerd stuff like escapist superhero media, and just five pages in I go, “Well of course if I am to discuss a book dramatizing various abuses of the police, I’ll have to mention how relevant it is to the long hard look we are taking at this topic right now in the real world.” You would actually think it was weird if I didn’t. But is it insensitive, now that I’ve brought up this serious and still-ongoing real-world outrage, to go right back to talking about my frivolous nerd stuff? What I had intended as a way to shore up a gap in my reading and examine the mythology surrounding the fictional character of the Batman is already laden down by the inescapable drag of context.

Although I guess that’s the whole point of Late to the Party as a series. It’s not really, “Hey, guess I’ll go write a review of Casablanca at random, as though it’s just like any other movie in theaters,” (although, of course, there are no movies in theaters right now, or at least not many) it’s about consuming a piece of media in a different context than the one it was released in. It’s not even about the experience of coming into something “pure,” because you have the benefit—or perhaps the burden—of hindsight. Comic fans in 1987 would have come to this in the context of, “I’m excited for this four-part storyline in the regular ongoing Batman comic book!” whereas I am coming to it in the context of a canonized text, collected in a very tastefully designed hardcover. (Or at least I would have come to it in this hardcover context if the library were open.) So to some extent, I guess what we are trying to do here is peel back layers of context to see what’s underneath.

Here’s another layer: Frank Miller. The introduction to the collected edition, written by the recently passed Denny O’Neil (yet more context creeping into my reading) describes Frank Miller as “generally acknowledged to be the best writer-artist to enter comics since the early 1960s; indeed, some said he was the best ever.” This introduction was written in 1988, and indeed many comics fans in 1988 might have described him this way. But how do we describe Frank Miller in 2020? Is he even in “problematic fave” territory anymore? Or have years of Miller’s unpleasantness both on and off the page since then colored our view of him beyond repair? When I was younger, I read Miller’s hardass dialogue in The Dark Knight Returns and thought it was cool. When I got a little older, I read Sin City and found the hardass dialogue cheeky, delivered with what I perceived as a bit of a wink; Frank Miller just having fun and playing jazz with the hardboiled aesthetic. Now I read Gordon’s hardass dialogue about giving Flass a “handicap” in the form of a baseball bat, and I’m a little grossed out by it. But I also still see it as cheeky and knowing, maybe. And I also still see it as kind of cool.

But then still another layer: there was an article about Frank Miller that ran a couple of years ago where he was backing down from the frothing reactionary rhetoric he espoused post-9/11. Neal Adams was quoted as saying Miller was heavily in the grip of substance abuse during this time, something Miller did not confirm but also did not deny. If we allow stuff like Holy Terror to recontextualize his earlier work, would this revelation recontextualize stuff like Holy Terror in turn? Again, the starting point of this discussion was supposed to be me talking about this cool new origin story for Batman, but I seem to have arrived at the question of whether alcoholism truly makes you into a totally different person or if it only exposes the worst part of yourself.

So I’m going to try to swing this back into the realm of escapist entertainment and talk about the effect this had on Batman as a character. Nothing says “frivolous nerd stuff” like the magic words “Post-Crisis continuity,” right? Because Year One is truly the beginning of the serious, modern Batman. “Realistic Batman.” Moreso than even Dark Knight Returns. DKR is dark and gritty, but it’s also practically operatic; its Batman is larger than life, and the characters explicitly keep reminding you of that. Year One Batman, though, stripped down and lean and gritty, is the one that got people thinking: “This could actually happen. You could actually be Batman, under the right circumstances.”

Now before Realistic Batman, before Year One, there was Plausible Batman, which is a slightly different proposition. Plausible Batman could do fantastical things, but always with at least a semi-rational explanation; he didn’t actually hold his breath for ten minutes underwater to evade gunfire, he caught a large bubble of air under his cape and took measured breaths. Is that kind of nonsense? Maybe. But it’s the same kind of nonsense as Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom turning an expanding life raft into a sort of parachute. It might not hold up on Mythbusters, but it’s an extrapolation of a principle that you can at least suspend your disbelief about if you’re in the mood. Batman knows the exact pressure point on the Hulk’s abdomen where you can stagger him by hitting him there and making him exhale all the air in his lungs. You can buy this…or if you can’t, you can at least acknowledge an attempt was made.

But Realistic Batman starts at the other end: it assumes an ordinary person and asks what it would take to make him fantastical. And it would have been a refreshing angle in 1987. That’s what I tried to read, this angle of putting Batman almost within reach of you. We are so used to the hypercompetent Batman who effortlessly dodges gunfire and takes out a half-dozen bad guys at a time; it is exhilarating, by contrast, to listen in to his internal monologue and imagine what the psychological realism of someone performing those feats would be. Miller’s Batman narration is short, almost panicky, constantly self-recriminating: how you imagine a real person might react in these situations. Miller and Mazzucchelli don’t show you Batman disappearing like a ghost before Gordon can enter Harvey Dent’s office; they show him hiding behind a desk like a flesh-and-blood man desperately trying not to be seen (and, frankly, looking at little ridiculous). They show Batman setting up the floodlights so that when Batman gives his “You’ve eaten well” speech, the dramatic lighting is actually diegetic. Batman can dodge some bullets, but under heavy enough gunfire, he can’t dodge them all; he gets shot and then he bleeds and then he goes home and gets Alfred to patch him up. These are the things that Batman would need to do in the real world to exist.

But of course, once the comics fan gets that tantalizing taste of the realistic superhero, they want more. Not just how, but why, and this is where we creep into the realm of the psychotic Batman. A “realistic” man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime? Well, that man probably would be unstable; it just doesn’t happen here. And what we get in Year One is an unstable man; half-delirious at times, talking to his father in his head. Is it possible the bat that crashes through the window isn’t real, that it’s just a hallucination? This is all pretty new. It’s a seductive area to explore, one you might have seen under the surface, but never made text like this. But once someone like Frank Miller’s brought it up the surface once, and you respond strongly to it, everybody’s going to want to do it. You start to build up a tolerance to it. You need more edge to your Batman, and pretty soon this revisionist Batman, this mentally unstable Batman, becomes the rule and not the exception. Batman is a twisted, immature loner, because that’s what a vigilante is in our world. In the world of the Plausible Batman, superheroing is a choice shared by his many Justice League colleagues and a seemingly viable and healthy way to process tragedy and turn it into something that improves society; in the world of the Realistic Batman, he is a self-punishing little boy who never came to terms with his guilt.

Moreover, Realistic Batman is also Violent Batman. Plausible Batman kicks a criminal, and maybe there is a little stylized explosion and a sound effect like POW! or WHAM! and the crook goes down for the count. But Miller and Mazzucchelli keeps bringing up the realistic cost of this violence in both the story and the art: the cracked ribs, the blood, the head trauma. Realistic Batman is necessarily brutal because his violence is real. Of course, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons do the realistic fight in Watchmen, but the difference is that in Watchmen, brutality is not glamorous; the Comedian is a middle-aged guy in a bathrobe who gets his teeth knocked out, Dan and Laurie are exhausted and wheezing after defending themselves against the top-knots. But Realistic Batman’s violence in Year One is glamorous; it’s real, and it’s brutal, but it’s also supposed to be kind of cool.

I guess that’s why I’d never gotten around to Year One, because I always regarded it by reputation as the point where the Bronze Age Batman that I love gives way to the Batman I like less who seems to keep hanging around. For his part, Mazzucchelli, in a graphic essay at the end of the book, asks regarding the question of realism, “Did we go too far?” Maybe, maybe not, but even if they did I can’t really blame them for what followed. Did Frank Miller, when he sat down at his typewriter, mean for this to be The Way Batman Is Portrayed From Now On? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s what happened. It’s a really heavy context to peel away.

But let’s try. Let’s just read this as a Batman story, one of thousands.

One of the things fans praise about Year One is its parallel story. This is Jim Gordon’s story as much as it is Bruce Wayne’s, and spending this much time on an “ordinary” person—on fleshing out square, dependable Commissioner Gordon to show who he is and how he came to be—was less common in superhero comics then, especially at DC. But again, if I’m just reading this as a book? I don’t think there’s much that really stands out in 2020 to this character underneath the “world-weary cop” narration. That he cheats on his pregnant wife with a co-worker is, I gather, supposed to humanize Gordon, show you a different angle on the guy with the glasses and mustache and pipe. He’s a good cop, but a bad husband. A more mixed character. A more realistic character? But what does this subplot really bring to this story? It just sort of happens. Gordon and Sgt. Essen have an affair, she leaves, Gordon’s wife finds out. Gordon doesn’t really seem to learn anything or grow as a person; there’s a mention that they’re going to see a marriage counselor but there’s little implied consequence, and it doesn’t seem to inform anything we’ll come to know about the character. He seems to get off pretty easy, and Sgt. Essen and Barbara aren’t really fleshed-out to the point that we’re particularly made to care what they feel. So why is it in the story? Just to show that this is a story for grown-ups? Gordon cheats on his wife; s this maturity, in and of itself? A gray area is introduced to this longtime supporting character, but what does it accomplish except for making me like this longtime supporting character less?

Catwoman is a sex worker. If I’m looking at it in context, it’s a pretty daring move for the time, but if I’m just looking at this as a story, it feels a little cheap and exploitative. Is this change just there, again, to show off this mature, adult comic, a world where sex workers and pimps exist? Does it change anything about our understanding of Catwoman? I’m not even talking about in later continuity; in this story, is Catwoman really in the story for any purpose but to be Catwoman but a little more adult so that this isn’t your dad’s Catwoman? And this is me trying to ignore context, and Frank Miller’s use of sex workers throughout his works. Once I let myself think about that again?

And the ending. It’s an odd little ending, isn’t it? Batman isn’t even in it, strictly speaking, it’s Bruce Wayne the Baby-Catching Motorcyclist. Do you want Batman to be absent from the climax of a Batman story? It’s a choice. What does it get us? I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m ambivalent on the story as a story, on the whole.

The pleasures of the book are in the small details, not the broad strokes, and it’s David Mazzucchelli’s art that makes those details come to life. On page 35, we get the practical use of Batman’s cape demonstrated when someone shoots at it instead of Batman. Again, it’s a damn shame that I’m not reading this in a nice big book (although, fortunately, the less-is-more approach to the linework makes it quite legible and readable even at reduced size). Mazzucchelli’s done something really clever in making the backgrounds and environments very detailed and gritty but rendering the figures looser and more stylized, because this allows us a very real and lived-in feeling city while still allowing Batman to look like Batman the comic book character and not a realistic man in a suit (which, as Mazzucchelli himself points out in the backmatter, would just look ridiculous and unheroic).

So, Batman: Year One, as far as I can divorce it from context, is something of a mixed bag: it’s fantastic in its execution but a little wanting in larger terms of story and character. To add the historical context of 1987, it’s a daring piece of work. To add the historical context of 2020, it’s the forerunner to a portrayal of the character that I recognize as perfectly legitimate but that I don’t particularly like and that I think overstayed its welcome. There’s a lot of angles to it. Maybe it’s like the co-protagonist of this story suggests to his successor in The Dark Knight Returns: It’s too big to judge. Or maybe just too messy.