Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was an audacious futuristic take on Batman which presented an ageing hero, attempting one final time to tame the crazed city around him and defeat his own inner demons. After the massive success of this revision, Miller returned to Batman to write a new origin story explaining how he began his crime-fighting career.
For this reboot Miller avoided the big colourful exaggeration that was the hallmark of DKR and instead created a tighter, more subtle story set in a dark and corrupt city you could almost believe was real. There are no powers beyond those of mortal men. No fantastic gadgets or mystical forces. Just a driven man with a crazy idea and the force of will to use his resources to make it happen. It looks just like those gritty 1970s detective movies Serpico or The French Connection, but with Batman in the lead role – not too different to what Miller and Mazzuchelli did with Daredevil: Born Again. Strip a character right back to basics, take away everything but the costume and see what you get.
In this new version of the origin story, the familiar protagonists don’t occupy the positions or skills that we know them for yet, and we see them making their first mistakes, figuring out how to navigate Gotham and becoming the people we recognise. Bruce Wayne and James Gordon are thrown together because neither one of them can defeat the corruption of Gotham’s police and institutions alone, and their stories run in counterpoint to each other, the captions that denote their individual thoughts constantly criss-crossing until they dovetail into a single timeline. The reworking of Catwoman is the only jarring note in this otherwise impressively deft book. It seems impossible for Miller to imagine a woman with power that isn’t derived from sex work and here he turns Selina Kyle into an S&M dominatrix, which wasn’t ‘edgy’ even then, and is particularly dismal since it doesn’t add anything to her character at all.
David Mazzucchelli creates fantastically convincing imagery with almost documentary-style, minimal but high-contrast drawings of this Gotham and the people who inhabit it. His restrained images burst into action every now and again, in beautifully measured sequences that feel tense and dangerous because his Batman is a man in a heavy cloth costume that can be torn by knives and shredded by bullets.
This book has been reprinted many times with different covers and in three different versions including a definitive ‘deluxe’ edition in 2005. It featured 40 pages of extras – excerpts from scripts and notes by Frank Miller, layouts, sketches, pencils, line art and an afterword by Mazzucchelli, plus a look at the painted colouring process used by Richmond Lewis, who coloured the original comics and then recoloured the art for the collected graphic novel.
Batman Year One was adapted into a film in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie series in 2011. A new version of the book was released in 2012 to match the blu-ray, but readers should be aware this latest repackaging does not meet with Mazzuchelli’s approval. The colour plates are blurred, obscuring Richmond Lewis’ careful and intricate work, and the shiny paper stock is too glossy for line art that was designed to be seen on uncoated paper. So if you want to read Batman Year One the way the artist intended it should be seen, then pick up any edition except the 2012 version.