Hello, glorious Ether. Thank you for not running away immediately upon seeing that Batman is the subject of this post. The hysteria of the last one won’t be repeated erm much—but please allow for some effects of a timid dosage of flu medication to seep through. Onwards—
My formal, somewhat systematic education in Batman begins in earnest this year. I’ve hoarded the comic books that have appeared in what “best-of” lists I could find, or just comic books that have caught my eye. Because this is how my heart works: If I am madly enamored of something, I learn it, I take it in, I build up a little store of geekery that will probably only rarely be tapped. (Rest assured that I am well aware that in real life, all I’ve just described is a criminal offense.)
The introduction Batman: Year One phrases it nicely: That if Frank Miller had rightly immortalized Batman’s Omega in The Dark Knight Returns, it only makes the most perfect sense that he could do the same with Batman’s Alpha. Year One is a refinement of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original Batman origin story—adding nuance where it called for it, adding grit, doing away with the slick camp of the late 1930s style, imbuing both alter egos with more gravitas. A gravitas that seems to have set the tone for all the Batman comics that would follow—fortunately for my angst-hungry heart.
So, so many things to love about Year One. The simplest, and most revelatory for me: It’s Bruce Wayne’s story—and, I know it hardly makes sense, but I’ve always found Bruce Wayne less fascinating than his cowled counterpart. It’s Bruce Wayne having honed himself (off-camera) to be at his physical peak, still haunted and driven by that night his parents died, so very ready to do something but not quite sure how to go about it. And emotionally, Bruce is mired in self-doubt, prone to self-chastisement—amateur, he calls himself, after his first botched attempt at crime-fighting back in Gotham City. The fluid but rapid-fire introspection that I loved so much in TKDR makes an appearance here, those glimpses into a Batman that’s not quite so self-possessed (and definitely not inscrutable) beneath both scowl and cowl. Batman’s tortured humanity is one of the things that’s made a fangirl out of me—but there’s been such a stubborn divide between that and what Bruce Wayne must be carrying; I’ve discovered that Bruce’s appearances to me tended to just be preludes to the good bits. In Year One, it really is Bruce Wayne running around Gotham City dressed as a bat. Go figure, Sasha.
Above, definitely my favorite panel of the comic book—though, naturally, the rather iconic dinner scene comes second. It’s Batman who’s had on his cowl for one of the first times, and who’s facing a trio of motherfucking punks about to steal a TV. Bruce has the physical and the tactical advantage—and he’s a little too conscious of it, planning and analyzing and second-guessing. But at the moment of what could rightly (if grimly) be called success—the trio caught scampering, one about to fall off the fire escape—a look of pure anguish on Batman’s face and his hand automatically reaching out! No, Bruce-as-Batman thinks, I’m no killer. And good lord, I put my face in my hands and ached for his poor soul.
That kind of consciousness and self-awareness around Batman always gets to me. Good guys do not kill—that’s a matter of fact. But being in Batman’s head while he’s making that choice to stick with what he knows is true to him—that he’s no killer, dammit—that’s what makes Batman my guy.
Bonus content: Artist David Mazzucchelli styled Bruce Wayne after Gregory Peck. Had an inkling—that delicious little frisson of familiarity—especially when Bruce was brooding after a botched night out. Speaking of which: I admit to the giggles—which totally ruined the moment, I’m sure—when Bruce was agonizing about what he must do, the conversation he was having with the memory of his dead father, his toying with the idea of just giving up and bleeding out all over the upholstery. The lore, of course, is that Bruce asks his father for a sign to keep going—and a bat crashes into the windows, sending glass flying everywhere—and Bruce goes, “Okay, gotcha, will be a bat.” You cutie-pie.
And Year One isn’t just about Bruce—it’s about Jim Gordon, and, consequently, it’s about how filthy Gotham City really is. Over at Twitter, someone said that the book was also Gordon: Year One, and I couldn’t agree more. Here’s Jim new to Gotham City, which we’ll soon enough see as wanting to spit him out because of what a fucking decent guy he is. He hates what he has to do—the introspection applies to him, too; the frequent thoughts of how heavy and ugly a weight his gun is, for example—but he’s good at his job, and he’s good at being the good guy in a system run by crooks. He’s no saint—Year One showed me that quite simply—but he’s a decent man. And decent men are slim pickings in Gotham. Especially decent men who can stand up for themselves, for others. Cunningly. Violently.
David Mazzucchelli’s afterword was this beautiful essay in comics form [or whatever newfangled thing there is to describe that] about his long history with Batman, especially as an artist. The afterword actually echoes that whimsical, style-straddling tone of his wonderful Asterios Polyp—the first work of his I’ve ever read, and this was long before I would get struck with the Bat-bug. One of my favorite moments was his quoting Miller—and it’s such a simple but piercing encapsulation of that strange, scary, tortured man who patrols a dirty, dirty city in the dead of night:
I admit to a trepidation when I started Batman: Year One—because what if I’d made a mistake, what if The Dark Knight Returns was that one, rare thing I’d love in the entire mythos, what if thousands of pesos now waiting for me on my shelves would prove nothing to me? What if Batman: Year One, instead of giving me a push toward a more holistic and learned adoration of the Caped Crusader, would stop me in my tracks and just insist that I’d spent the past year living a liiiiie?
I really should have just saved the broody angst buckets for Bruce. Right. I very much look forward to meeting Batman again—and to, haha, duly throwing away my impatience over what I’d always thought was only-the-appetizer Bruce Wayne. According to the chronology—yes, system!—I should be reaching for Brubaker’s The Man Who Laughs next. Ah, excitement: I’m about to wade into the mind of the principal rogue in the rogues gallery: Joker, Joker, you horrific, absolutely fascinating, psychopath.
[PSA — I read Batman: Year One as part of Long-Awaited Reads Month.]