Sunday, November 28, 2010

Frank Miller - Batman: Year One

So far in comics, I’ve loved Watchmen and V for Vendetta, have been entertained by Y and Hush, thought the Killing Joke was very good, and have pretty much stuck with established opinion for all the Graphic Novels I’ve read. For Batman: Year One, however, it’s time to break out the dissenting opinions. Batman: Year One isn’t a bad story, but it’s not the titan that I’ve heard it was.

Though this story is supposedly the ultimate Batman origin story, the actual Batman origins portion of Year One is fairly weak. We begin as Wayne is returning from his training afar, when he’s on the point of beginning to clean up Gotham. But there’s no motivation. We don’t see Wayne’s parents killed, and we don’t see the resentment he’s built up over the years. Now, everyone obviously knows the basics and details of the origin story, but, without it being featured here, there’s no emotional core to the book. Batman’s here, and he’s pissed. There you go, that’s your character. Take it or leave it.

As for Batman’s martial skills, Miller creates a bizarre contrast between the realistic and the ridiculous. In the opening scenes, Batman kicks down trees. Later, he smashes a stone column. And yet, in his fight scenes, Batman is often in over his head and gets the shit beaten out of him at times. It’s totally fine to have an ungodlike Batman, and it’s (I guess) fine to have a stone smashing one, but, when they’re the same person, it’s just bewildering.

Unfortunately, Batman is a paragon of characterization when compared to Selina, catwoman. Selina is a whore who decides to leave her occupation and become Catwoman. Right there, you have the whole arc. There is simply no depth or motivation to the character at all. Worse, there’s no closure and no point to her existence. Alright, this is an origin story, so I suppose I should have expected some set up and all, but she quite literally affects the main plot in no way.

The best developed character – and, thankfully, the one Miller spends the most time on – is Jim Gordon. Gordon is the one straight cop in a city of criminals and crooked cop, and, to make matters worse, he’s held down by his wife’s pregnancy and his slowly developing affair with another officer. Gordon’s moral dilemma, and the odds stacked against him, draw the reader in more than Wayne’s bound-to-succeed struggles.

Still, there are some weaknesses here, too. The affair felt like it was taking us into interesting places, but when Gordon confesses the whole thing to his wife, we’re not even shown the following conversation. The overall plot, too, is both familiar and predictable, remarkable only for it’s over the top nature. Finally, Gordon is a martial arts master that makes Wayne look like a fool in tights. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but it’s just odd that the policeman is always much more confident in his fights than the super hero (not to mention that, as far as I’m aware, Gordon’s kung fu skills never come up again in the mythos).

Despite difficulties with character, Miller can get your blood pounding. The first portions of the book are more concerned with set up and detached stories than a building arc, but, later, things do kick into gear. When Miller brings his threads together, playing Batman off against the police, we are treated to some incredibly tense sequences. The ending, unfortunately, goes back to the model of the early stories, and, while it’s no doubt very traumatic for Gordon, it’s hard to even consider the possibility of a negative result.

A very large part of the story comes through thought. There’s generally nothing wrong with that, though it’s odd when the characters are narrating something incredibly obvious, such as when Gordon informs us he spilled his coffee a panel after he does so. The real annoyance with the style, however, comes when we’re hearing Wayne’s thoughts, which are, for some reason, written in a hard to decipher script.

The artwork has a rough feel that sacrifices detail for mood, or at least tries to. Ironically for something that, in its introduction, claims to be a far darker Batman, the artwork feels cheesy and cartoonish throughout:

This was a pretty negative review, I realize, and I should point out that Batman: Year One isn’t bad. It’s just that I was led to expect Watchmen, or at least The Killing Joke, and I got a basic origins story instead. Perhaps a large part of the appeal to hardcore comics fans is the difference in tone from other Batman works (which I’m just assuming there is from what I’ve heard, because compared to some of the other comics I’ve read – V for Vendetta, say – this was a walk through a sunny meadow). Billed as incredible, this isn’t so much bad as eh.


  1. Almost completely agree. The Catwoman thing really turned me off, as I kept scratching my head and asking why she was even there. Really, the only thing going for this graphic novel was Jim Gordon, but as you said, a lot was left to be desired. Glad to see that I'm not the only one that didn't care much for this one.

    I was very unimpressed with Year One. Frankly, my favorite is still The Long Halloween.

  2. So far, my favorite Batman's The Killing Joke by a wide margin, though it wasn't wholly satisfying, either. I'm going to get my hands on The Long Halloween during the holidays; I'm looking forward to it.