Debriefing #1: ‘Batman: Year One’

And now, after what we hope was great anticipation, Batcave Debriefs begins in earnest. What follows is a conversation between James and myself (Edgar) regarding Frank Miller’s seminal comic, Batman: Year One, a back and forth conversation in which Google Docs was used as our platform. It is the template for which most of the articles that shall be published at this site will be modeled after. So, without further ado…

Batman: Year One (1987)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Letterer: Todd Klein
Colorist: Richmond Lewis

Batman: Year One is composed of issues 404-407 of Batman. It is a reboot of Batman, chronicling both the first year of Bruce Wayne’s dark crusade as a vigilante, but also Lt. James Gordon’s first year working with Gotham Police Department. It is often cited by fans as the best place to start reading Batman comics.

James: The thing that struck me the most the first time reading this is how much focus is put on Lt. Gordon, so I’m curious, do you think this is more Batman’s story or Gordon’s story? Or is it able to strike a balance?

Edgar: It’s a balance, for reasons that I find rather compelling. Gordon is the more down to earth version of Batman. He is not as physically potent, not equipped with gadgets, nor does he possess the wealth that would enable him to emulate what the Batman does. There is also the issue of his moral standing and desire to obey the law as strictly as possible (Batman is and always will be a vigilante). That being said, they are both after exactly the same thing, which is why they are terrific allies. It’s a balance, but an important one for the sake of the inherent drama within the story.

J: Interesting, because having read this a second time, I find myself more and more compelled by Gordon’s side. I’ve seen the Batman origin so many times it’s compelling to get a fresh angle to a familiar story. What makes me gravitated the most towards his story is that he’s in a more morally ambiguous place. It’s shocking to see how brutal he can be at times, even though you know the people he’s dealing it out to deserve it. Whereas, at least to me, Batman feels like he’s got a bit more distance from it, which goes back to what you said about Gordon being more down to earth.

E: The fact that Batman’s origins have, as you wrote, been explored so frequently, that probably explains in part why Miller opted to split the story between Batman and Gordon. However, the relatability factor exists, not only because of what the points you made, but also because now the readers have an venue, one that is more reality based, through which they can follow the Batman. I mean, only precious few ordinary men and women can ‘be’ a Batman. Gordon is, by his nature, more relatable.

J: That brings me to my next question: what did you think about that first vigilante outing Bruce Wayne had, before he even became Batman?

E: It serves a purpose, for sure. At that stage in his journey, Bruce is still, for lack of a better term, ‘testing the waters’ of his project. He does not even have his Batman identity yet. He thinks about his father a lot, about what he has to do to right some major wrongs. It’s a test, a necessary one. I think…

J: It’s a concept I wish the comic dealt with a bit more because I liked seeing Bruce passing off as a normal guy, something he’s done from time to time to sneak into social events or fight crime during the day. In fact, I thought it might have been a more interesting build if it wasn’t until the last issue that he donned the Bat persona. Also, I wish his revelation had been handled a little better. It’s a cool idea, but watching him bleed out while looking at a bat made me think he was being a bit idiotic. But still, a cool first outing for sure that lets us see a rougher side where he’s still nowhere near his A-game.

E: Well, having ‘the Batman’ revealed in the last issue would have made it felt as though the writers who too intent on not having him appear at all, even though I know what you mean. Hmm, the bleeding segment didn’t bother me too much. It’s the sort of story that has an operatic, melodramatic feel to it. Yes, it’s sort of like a Batman in a real gritty world, but it can’t only have those qualities either. Perhaps where that moment does not entirely work is in how quickly it happens. Bat crashes through immediately lead to Bruce concluding: ‘Oh, I’ll be a bat!’

J: I couldn’t help but compare it to how Batman Begins takes the same moment but makes it work so much better, in part because of the Ra’s Al Ghul background it lies down before about fear.

E: Very astute point, James. I’m inclined to agree that the first Nolan film probably handles the ‘creation’ aspect more organically. Just a bit too quick in the book.

J: One element that bugged me the most in this book was the Selina Kyle/Catwoman subplot. What did you think about it?

E: Ah, yes. I think Miller is going for a trifecta of mirroring stories in Year One, but the Selina Kyle angle is not dealt with with as much depth. That being said, here you have a character that does not have the wealth and god like status of Bruce Wayne, nor the history of moral upstanding of Gordon, yet she too wants to play a part in roughing up the feathers of Gotham’s most wanted.

J: I know Miller has been accused of portraying women unfairly, I don’t agree with that assessment, especially given the wonderful depiction he gives to Sarah Essen, Gordon’s assistant, but I thought having Catwoman be a prostitute was, I guess not tasteless, but unnecessary. It didn’t add anything to her character. I could see this being an interesting element of the story if he explored how someone on the other side lives, someone forced into being a criminal, but instead Selina just decides one day that she’d rather be stealing stuff than living as a prostitute. I felt like it was thrown in just have another iconic Batman character and less to do with actually developing the story Miller is telling.

E: If one were to argue that Year One could work just as well, or perhaps even better, without the Catwoman angle, I don’t think they’d be too far off. As I wrote, she doesn’t have enough depth, particularly in that journey from being hooker to her transformation into Catwoman. It’s a case of a strong idea (someone living on the other side who takes on similar goals as Batman and Gordon) but it didn’t get enough time to gestate. She also sort of just disappears before the final big action scene.

What did you think of the scene where Batman is hunted down in the rundown apartment complex? It’s like his first true battle as the Batman.

J: I thought it was easily the best action set-piece of the comics. It’s got a great out of the frying pan and into the fire arc because from the onset Miller strips Batman of all his fancy gear by having the belt explode. Watching the meticulous, slow and deliberate way he plans out how to proceed, striking quick and deadly speaks to what I like a lot about Batman: the stealth aspect. Yes, he’s got cool gadgets, but I loved watching him pick off these guys bit by bit. It’s all of what I love about the batman combat style put into one sequence.

E:Yes, it helps remind the readers that this character can bleed, he can be stopped and injured if he is not careful and strategic in his actions. He is a masterful athlete, but a tactician as well. What did you make of his ultimate escape plan, calling in the hordes of bats. A little too much or just right?

J: It’s one of the more fantastical elements, especially since the bats are coming out as dawn has just approached. It adds to the iconicity, but it is a bit too much. I did love the moment afterwards where they find the store owner with the missing suit and the money for the suit on the counter. A little moment, but one that speaks to the integrity of Batman.

E: I liked that moment as well. For me, it straddled the line between too fanciful and fitting in with the world Miller creates. the artwork is so darn good however that i accepted it anyhow.

J: The artwork is something I wanted to talk about it because while I do think it is good, there are a lot of details that bugged me. For one, I dislike the way all the old people are drawn. Falcone in particular stood out like a sore thumb. The strength of this art style is the iconic mixed with an edge of realism, but I feel that sometimes Mazzucchelli puts a bit too much detail into some of the drawings and that bugged me.

E: Okay, I’ll tell you why I loved the artwork. I certainly don’t mean to belittle what other artists do in other books (far be it from to attempt that anyways), but a lot of times comic artwork, modern comic artwork, seems intent on providing a lush amount of detail into the frames, to make it colourful yet somehow realistic. Year One, on the other hand, felt as though Mazzucchelli approached the project with a purer sense of artistic endeavour. Some panels all all about the colours rather than the details, which help set a tone for instance.

J: Funny you should bring up colours, because, while I do like a lot of the pallets and tones, one thing that bugged me a lot is how some of the panels in conjunction with each other don’t contrast as well. The main scene that stuck out to me was when Batman makes the big reveal to all the dirty cops and politicians that he is coming after them. There’s the dark of the outside which clashes really bad, at least to my eyes, with the softer interior. As individual frames, they look great, but certain pages as a whole bugged me. I glanced at the newsprint version and I wondered if that alleviated some of the problems because the version we read has a lot more colours than the original and I wonder if the higher range of colours meant that some of the original contrast doesn’t play as well as it might have on first print.

E: The edition I own does features some special pages following the story wherein a few examples of the newsprint version are visible. I thought that the newsprint version, while looking handsome, had a more ordinary look to it. I like how you point to the scene in which Batman announces himself to Gotham’s corrupt officials, because I also thought it looked weird at first, but then upon second glance that very contrast you critique stood out as amazing to my eye. Those weird audacious colours (like the multi-coloured wallpaper. what the-?) against the ominous presence about to unleash itself. It was great.

J: It might be a matter of taste because  I have a thing for the newsprint style. The colours are so different than what you usually see that I think you get some interesting contrasts that you don’t see in most art. Still, I think Year One is a great looking comic book. It has that fantastic balance of detail and iconicity that very few comic books are able to strike. Also, there are some brilliant transitions. I think my favorite is when Gordon is shooting on the range and feeling the kick of his gun and then the next frame is him feeling the kick of his son inside his wife’s womb.

E: I don’t remember that transition! Maybe they didn’t affect me as much. Keeping on the point of the book’s artistic presentation, its aesthetics, how about the different font styles for when the reader takes in Gordon’s thoughts and when they take in Bruce Wayne’s thoughts? I thought that was pretty unique.

J: I believe that would have been done by the letterist, Todd Klein, and it shows the level of detail they went into making the comic book flow well for the reader. Having read some other comics lately with a lot of dense conversations and texts, it’s refreshing to read a comic where they pay attention to not only the text itself but how it’s presented.

E: It also speaks to their characters. Bruce Wayne is the son of a filthy rich family, the heir to and empire in of itself. He is grandiose, sophisticated yet very emotionally driven. The font style works wonders. As for Gordon, he is more down to earth, more gritty, struggling more with the day in and day out stuff so the font style used for his thoughts is more rudimentary. I liked that alot.

J: Yea, so you have the great contrast of the cursive with the standard print, the white background with the more grungy faded newsprint colour.

E: Did you catch the little Superman reference?

J:I think there’s a couple. I know Alfred says something about flying and doesn’t Gordon’s wife say something about Metropolis? Nice little nods, for sure. I believe this was part of a period where DC was rebooting most of its franchises, so it’s nice to see a nod to the wider world of DC. It’s curious we’re going back to this one as right now DC has just rebooted its universe again and we’re seeing stuff like Morrison going back to the basics with Superman.

E: See, I thought the nod was misplaced. Not only do I think Batman operates in such a completely different world than Superman, but this Miller Year One world is even more different, so suddenly being reminded that there’s this guy a few cities away who’s from another planet and flies was odd. It’s nitpick of course, I’m being anal here.

J: I think it depends on how you see the Batman universe. I know a lot of people who got in through Nolan think it’s much more down to earth and “realistic” which is a claim I think is a bit silly, but I grew up watching Batman fight all sorts of implausible and supernatural supervillains. I don’t want to say too much on the subject of Superman now, but we’ll have fun in the future if this is how you feel because we’re certainly gonna have to talk about Superman in relation to Batman at some point.

E: I guess it depends on the individual presentation of Batman per comic, pet story, This was way too gritty and real to offer a nod to the Man of Steel. But so be it.

J: This is one of the most “realistic” Batman stories, nothing supernatural or sci-fi that’s explicit, anyway, so I can get that feeling a bit out of place. But, like I said, we’ll be talking about this again soon, I’m sure. Any closing thoughts?

E: Simply put, Year One is a must read. The dialogue is sharp, the art is magnificent, and it shines some light on Gordon, a character who I’ve always wanted to know a bit more about. It’s a really good read, although I suspect we’ll dive into some epic stories in the weeks and months ahead.

J: Sounds like you liked this one a good deal more than me. I think it’s really good, a great starting-point for Batman, but in contrast to some other Batman stories I’ve already seen or read, I’m not in love with this story. I do think the Gordon section is phenomenal, the most interesting Gordon I’ve seen so far, and for that alone it’s definitely worth a read.

Debriefing over.


3 responses to “Debriefing #1: ‘Batman: Year One’

  1. I loved this! I love the format – the back and forth and all that. I am really looking forward to y’all discussing more classic Batman stories. This was awesome.

    Will y’all also do movies and TV shows?

    • Thanks for the kinds words of appreciation and encouragement. James and I hope this format will attract readers who are looking for blogging of a different variety. Come back in a week’s time when we publish our review of The Dark Knight Returns!

    • Glad you liked it. I think the dialogue format is the thing this site has going for it the most so I’m hoping everyone digs it.

      And we are totally going to do Movies and TV shows in the future. We’ll have a Dark Knight Rises discussion up in a few weeks. I had to be all lame and be overseas when the film came out.

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