Now this is a classic. An example of comics at their finest, pulling together both excellent writing and excellent art to tell a coherent, compelling story. Coming on the heels of the landmark The Dark Knight Returns, DC quickly put out Batman Year One in May 1987. Unlike the Dark Knight Returns, which got its own miniseries, Year One just took over the regular Batman title, appearing in issues 404-407. It has nothing to do with the issues that appeared before it nor the issues that succeeded it. It's just a stand alone 4 issues of excellent story.
What's more, each issue can be read on its own and thoroughly enjoyed without reading any of the others. I accidentally discovered this while re-reading the series this week because I started with issue 405, failing to pay attention to the nice big words on the cover that said Part 2. Even without reading Part 1 first, though, the story told a complete tale unto itself. Sure, there were loose ends because there was more story to tell, but this issue alone told the tale of Batman's first effort in the costume.
Did I mention this work of great art was written by Frank Miller and pencilled by David Mazzucchelli? No, guess not. Colorist Richmond Lewis should also be recoginized for bringing wonderful muted tones to the dark tale of Batman's beginnings. And, of course, the inestimable Todd Klein on letters doesn't hurt, either.
There was a certain amount of luck in my buying these 4 issues. I had started buying Batman with the anniversary issue 400 and stuck with it for awhile after. I may have sought out these 4 issues anyway, having read The Dark Knight Returns already. Once I take a liking to a writer's works, I tend to see what else he or she has done that I'll like, so chances are I would have gotten these issues. The other Batman issues from those days I no longer have. They didn't stand the test of time.
So, the story. Like the covers say, it's Batman Year One, so it's taking place in Batman's first year operating in Gotham. More accurately, it's the first year of Bruce Wayne's return to Gotham after being abroad for 12 years. It starts in January of an unnamed year, but obviously is not 1939 by the cars and the jet planes. Still, Mazzucchelli's art strongly relies on a noir feeling, which suits Batman well no matter what era the stories are set in.
On the same plane Bruce Wayne is taking to Gotham, Barbara Gordon, Lt Jim Gordon's wife, is also arriving. Gordon's a new leuitenant in an entirely corrupt Gotham Police Department. He's brought in because he's had some troubles of his own in the past and not turned on his fellow officers, leading the corrupt Commisioner Gill Loeb to believe Gordon will fit right in with his department's criminal operations. Of course, it doesn't work out that way. Gordon doesn't take bribes, doesn't beat loiterers, and doesn't turn a blind eye to the local mob. He's quickly on the outs with Loeb, but unfortunately for Loeb becomes a TV darling and can't be fired at will.
Meanwhile, Harvey Dent is having difficulty bringing prosecutions against mob figures and Loeb because witnesses tend to disappear, die or recant. Seems a lot like Baltimore, actually, though Baltimore's problem with that sort of thing is at the low level gangs in neighborhoods rather than institutional corruption. Oh, and lest I forget, Selina Kyle is a street walking hooker with a specialty in bondage and an apartment full of cats when we first meet her. She also has a kid sidekick hooker who's really annoying. Anyway, it's safe to say Gotham's in a bad way.
Into this mix Bruce Wayne wants to add his now formidable fighting skills and detective abilities, but he can't figure out how to go about it. When he walks the worst of the neighborhodds in a disguise (he's already had the forethought to play the pampered playboy as Bruce Wayne), just to observe, he lets his emotions get the best of him and gets into a fight with a pimp, whose juvenile hooker then promptly turns on Wayne and stabs him in the leg. It ends up with a corrupt cop shooting Wayne in the chest and Wayne just barely escaping with his life. At the same time Gordon's meeting out a measure of respectful comeuppance to a corrupt detective who earlier lead a squad the beat Gordon in an attempt to intimidate him.
After this rather disastrous incident Wayne hits upon the idea of dressing as a bat to frighten criminals so they're less likely to attack him like what happened in his previous patrol attempt. It's good bit of logic for a basically fantastical idea. Not that it's original to Miller, but it's extremely well told. Kind of a rediscovery of Batman. And the opposite end of the story told in The Dark Knight Returns.
From this set up we have both Gordon and Batman working to take down Loeb, but Gordon's also been tasked with taking down Batman, which he wholeheartedly pursues, looking unkindly on vigilantism as he does. Unbenknownst to Gordon, Dent is working with Batman. Not that Gordon doesn't have his suspicions of Dent. In fact, Gordon considers Dent a possibility for being Batman. He also considers Bruce Wayne, but both men have good alibis for times when Batman appears. Wayne even has the cover of being in Europe skiing when Batman is shot in one arm and both legs by the police.
In my opinion, Gordon's character is more central and more developed than Bruce Wayne or Batman in Batman Year One. Wayne/Batman searches out how to proceed with his plan to save his city from rampant crime and corrupt police and politicians, but he knows who he is and where he's going. He has to find allies, and new villians are put in place for the future, including an actual appearance of Selina Kyle as Catwoman, but Gordon's the one who changes through the story. He begins as a down on his luck cop, taking a job in a corrupt department largely because he was kicked out of Chicago and no one else would have him. His wife is pregnant until a son is born October 12, but during his long hours Gordon falls for his aide de camp, Sgt Sarah Essen and engages in an affair with her. When Loeb tries to use the affair to blackmail Gordon away from pursuing Loeb and his cohorts, Gordon man's up and tells his wife of the affair.
Gordon's certainly not perfect, as we can see. But he is trying to be better. By the end of the story, in December, Gordon recognizes his own limitations in making Gotham a better place and that he has a valuable ally in Batman. He's committed to being a good husband and father. He's addicted to cigarettes. He's not, as might seem the obvious way to go, promoted to Commissioner. He is promoted to Captain, but expects the likely new Commissioner to be worse than Loeb. Sgt Essen gets a job in New York. Gordon's is the story of flaws overcome and an ongoing struggle to be better. Wayne's story is of how to implement an already formed plan. The Joker never appears in the story but a teaser at the end shows him coming soon, as some loon is threatening to poison the city's water reservoir. Batman and Gordon work well together, but Gordon's story is more compelling.
If I didn't have this in my top 20 list when I first started writing on this blog, it should have been. I highly recommend picking up a trade collection of it if you haven't already read it.