Frank Miller and Batman are irrevocably linked among comic book readers. He’s one of only a handful of comics creators that have not only written iconic, landmark Batman stories, but have reimagined the character in ways that are both true to the Dark Knight’s spirit and powerfully inventive. This brings to mind what might be Miller’s most famous work, the now legendary Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, his futuristic take on an aging Batman getting back in the saddle. Dark Knight deserves its legendary status, and its reputation as a landmark work in the history of comics. It was a turning point for Miller, Batman and even DC Comics as a whole. But when you really get down to the best of the Frank Miller Batman work, the work that says the most about both his vision of the character and his ability to tell the kind of story that leaves readers with chills, you must turn to Batman: Year One. Dark, intoxicatingly nostalgic and told with a breathless pace, Year One is the superhero origin reboot against which all others are measured.
In the late 1980s, DC Comics was looking to reinvigorate their superhero stories, in part by rewriting their own history (I know this sounds familiar, but back then it actually worked out kind of well.). Following the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, DC’s editors and creators set out to simplify and hone their muddled continuity, and in the process produced some of the best comics writing in the company’s history, including John Byrne’s Man of Steel and Batman: Year One.
It’s an interesting parallel to read Dark Knight Returns and Year One back to back, then realize that Miller actually started with the end and then returned to the beginning. A year after Dark Knight Returns became a blockbuster success documenting Batman’s twilight years, Miller collaborated with artist David Mazzucchelli and letterer Todd Klein to craft the tale of how Batman was born.
Year One begins with a simple, iconic image in Batman lore: a young Bruce Wayne on his knees in Crime Alley, surrounded by the bodies of his parents. A young boy at what is perhaps the most terrifying moment he will ever experience in his life, the moment he becomes powerless, is sacrificed at this brutal altar, and it is with this understanding that Miller begins his tale.
Year One follows the dual stories of Bruce Wayne and Lt. James Gordon (not yet the commissioner). Both are just arriving in Gotham, Wayne after a 12 year period of traveling and Gordon to take a new police job. Both are hoping to enforce the same kind of change on the city, but using very different methods. As Gordon struggles to find his way amid a crooked and brutal force of cops who long since stopped caring about justice, Wayne tries to find a way to make his mark.
Those 12 years absent from his family home were all about gaining what he lost, what he didn’t have enough of that day his parents died: power. The power to fight, the power to think, the power to overcome any threat that might arise. He has the power now, but as he makes his first foray out into the Gotham night to battle street thugs clad in plain clothes and a ski mask, he realizes he needs more than brains and brawn.
It’s here that Miller does some of the best, if not the best, storytelling of his career. He weaves the moments that make up the benchmarks of the Batman mythos – Bruce kneeling amid his parents’ bodies, Bruce kneeling at his parents’ graves, Bruce sitting in the silent, gloomy study at Wayne Manor – seamlessly together to create the image of a man who is continually brought low by the memory of his own defeat, the defeat of a boy who could do nothing to stop a tragedy. What the driven, empowered young Bruce Wayne has to do to become the spirit of vengeance he so longs to be is to create something beyond a man kneeling at the graves of his parents, begging for forgiveness. He remembers the image of a bat crashing through the window, a spectral, screeching thing that sent shocks of terror through him as a boy. He realizes then that he must become something more than a man (are you noticing the parallels to Nolan’s Batman Begins?). He rises above, and becomes a bat.
Miller’s greatest success with Year One is his ability to make Batman such a philosophically and emotionally satisfying character. The primal energy of Dark Knight Returns has been refined into something much more effective. Rather than introduce Batman as a myth, Miller documents the birth of a myth, and does the kind of work most Batman writers can’t dream of doing.
But it’s Mazzucchelli’s art that makes Year One a landmark work in comics history, and not just in Miller’s career. He draws very clear, very palpable inspiration from Bob Kane’s earliest depictions of his Caped Crusader. Batman is a lithe but tough figure, clad all in blacks and greys, concerned more with getting the job done than looking spooky. His depiction of Gordon – mustache, hard jaw and determined eyes – is also iconic, and when he weaves the two together the image is one of perfect noir brilliance, legendary figures at work in grim alleys.
Year One is certainly among the best work ever to come out of DC Comics, and some would argue it’s the best Batman story of all time. It doesn’t have the bold palette of Dark Knight Returns or the ambition of Hush or The Long Halloween, and it lacks the massive scope of stories like Legacy and No Man’s Land, but Year One has something even those stories often can’t muster: a thoroughly human, moving portrait of The Dark Knight.