Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Batman: Year One

Continuing with the trend of reinterest in comics, I've decided to transition from Superman stories to those of Batman, possibly the most popular comic book hero out there. He is almost the complete opposite of Superman. Where Superman comics tend to be idealistic, epic, and heroic, Batman comics tend to be dark, gritty, and ambiguous. So this will be an interesting change right after the optimistic story of All-Star Superman.

I decided to start my Batman comics with one of the early ones in Batman's chronology, Batman: Year One. This story by Frank Miller is about how Bruce Wayne came to be Batman. It is a story that should have a dark, emotional punch. For Batman is not a happy camper. His parents are killed before his eyes when he is a child, and this act pushes him over the edge, pursuing a life of stopping crime instead of growing up like a normal kid.

The City of Corruption

Gotham is where the story is set, like most all Batman stories. Frank Miller is a skilled writer, and he uses those skills to make the city of Gotham feel like its own being; it is an entity where darkness, corruption, and scandal are rampant; it is where the very idea of fighting crime automatically seems like a lost cause. In short, it is the ideal grounds for a caped vigilante taking the law into his own hands. The police are corrupt, the governmental bureaucracy a slick road for those willing to sell their morals, and ordinary people are victimized and unable to resist Gotham's taint in any meaningful way.

It is here where Bruce Wayne decides to make his stand, with a hatred and thirst for vengeance that has been carefully cultivated over years of growth. This took me a bit by surprise. Based on the premise, I had expected the Bruce Wayne of this story to be much younger; I expected a recounting of how his parents died and how he coped with that. Instead, we are launched straight into the story with Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after over a decade's absence (presumably he was off somewhere training). He already has his martial skills acquired. His fortunes are intact and ready for use. He has already decided that he will fight crime, but that he will not kill. Basically, the story focuses on how Bruce Wayne makes the transition towards and the decision to be Batman. We see his initial failures to fight crime effectively, and we see the results of his planning as he learns from his mistakes to become the Batman we know and love today.

The Last of the Good

Yet, surprisingly, Bruce Wayne doesn't seem like the hero of this story. It isn't for lack of trying, but more because he is upstaged by the trials and small victories of one Jim Gordon, the man who will eventually become Commissioner. Like Bruce Wayne, he enters into the story and into Gotham at the same time. He joins a police force corrupt beyond anything I've seen before, and he takes his pregnant wife to this city along with him. Year One switches between the viewpoints of these two men, and through this we see the differences and similarities between the two. It is a writing choice that is effective, but it also highlights that perhaps Jim Gordon is the true hero of this story.

For unlike Bruce Wayne, the man inherited to wealth who uses that to oppose immorality in the form of a scary bat, Jim Gordon is more like one of us. He has to balance his decisions based on the presence of his family in Gotham, he has to save money accordingly for the birth of his child, and the fact that he has to take them into consideration makes his good decisions all the more meaningful. Gordon swiftly makes enemies among those who are corrupt in the police force, and they do not hesitate to threaten his family in an effort to get rid of him. His efforts to do the right thing despite the fact that it would be so easy to let things slide makes him admirable, and it demonstrates that what Gordon does on a day-to-day basis is perhaps even more courageous than what Batman does. Gordon is also a man vulnerable to the uncertainties of life, and he is not a moral puritan. He makes mistakes as well, and this makes it very easy to empathize with him and cheer him on.


Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story isn't seeing Batman's rite of passage but how we get to see how Batman and Jim Gordon come to work together. Again, Gordon is the interesting one to watch here, as he struggles to reconcile his principles with the idea of working with a caped vigilante. Batman may mean well, but it is often understated that he is in fact breaking the law with every action he makes, and Gordon's moral wrestling with this is clearly evident and engrossing to watch. As we all know, in the end, he decides that working with Batman instead of against him is the best way to save the city from its criminal elements, but this is the first time I've seen the dilemma actually focused upon. It is definitely worth reading for this moral conflict alone.

Sadly, the Batman parts of the story, while awesome, seem like old news. This is not the comic's failing at all, but more because much of what Batman does in Year One was taken and applied directly within the film Batman Begins. Consequently, because I've seen that movie, Bruce Wayne's actions and the events surrounding his growth in becoming Batman are predictable. If you haven't seen the movie, then this comic will likely stand out as amazing. But, if you have, the Batman side of the story won't be anywhere near as enthralling as Jim Gordon's story. Other downsides include the inexplicable presence and depiction of Catwoman as a lesbian stripper and crazy cat lady. And I wish that the story had spent more time on what Batman was up to for that decade or two away from Gotham. Unfortunately, this was completely glossed over.

In the end, I recommend this comic book to those who love Batman. It was enjoyable, and there it was an interesting take on Batman alongside an excellent depiction and story of Gordon's. To those who aren't Batman enthusiasts, there are other stories out there that can better do him justice to your jaundiced eyes.


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