Why Year One is widely acknowledged as the source of Christopher Nolan’s cult Batman Begins
Marking the origin of the Batman, Frank Miller-David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One (1987) is a work that often competes with The Dark Knight Returns (another Miller classic) as perhaps the greatest Batman comic book in history.
Year One opens not with Wayne/Batman but with James Gordon arriving in Gotham, and his subsequent battles with the corrupt police department. He also must deal with marital discord because of his feelings for a colleague, Sarah Essen.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne, walking through Gotham, gauging the state of affairs, decides to transform into a vigilante. Gordon’s infant son is kidnapped and it is Bruce Wayne (not Batman) who saves the child. Amidst this, the Gotham police department also tries to capture Batman, but he escapes, thanks to the unlikely support system: bats, whom he summons through an ultrasonic signal.
The tale ends with the police being tipped off about a possible attempt to poison the city reservoir, by someone who just calls himself the Joker. But Gordon in the last panel is calm because he now ‘has a friend coming who might be able to help’.
Year One is widely acknowledged as the source of Christopher Nolan’s cult Batman Begins (2005).
‘City without Hope’
In Year One, Gotham is described as a ‘city without hope’. The hopelessness stems not from the ubiquitous crime network but the corruption of the police force. Detective Flass tells Gordon as he alights at Gotham: ‘cops have it made in Gotham’. The entire police system turns against Gordon for refusing bribes and Gordon’s boss admits:
I had such hopes for the boy…. I’d like nothing better than to remove him from service.
It is, in short, an ungovernable city.
But the tale turns around the very possibility of hope. This comes from two sources: the arrival of a good man, an idealistic cop, Jim Gordon; and the return of Bruce Wayne after several decades of absence, to become a masked vigilante with heaps of his own problems and worries.
Miller suggests that cleaning up of a dirty house is possible only through the conjunction of a loyal returning resident and an external force. A newbie and an old hand join forces. A hero is not necessarily one who arrives in town: a hero is also one who returns to his town, and refuses to leave thereafter, because his backward, crime-ridden place is where he is.
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Mazzucchelli draws despair and hope wonderfully. There is a panel in which Gordon, sitting smoking next to his sleeping wife, speaks of the ‘city without hope’. This is immediately followed by a panel showing Gotham rooftops at night. At the very edge of one such roof, silhouetted against the sky which appears to be lightening with the approaching dawn, and centering the panel itself is Batman, his cape flaring. In the very midst of a hopeless city, high above the dirt and the crime, almost co-extensive with the coming dawn, is hope itself, embodied in the Batman.
The iconography of fear
Crucial to the making of Batman is his appearance and Mazzuchelli’s drawings delineate an iconography of fear.
Fear and terror open the book. Young Wayne sits in the middle of two corpses – that of his parents. The black-bordered page faces a page on the left which is entirely black, with no image, no words. A helpless, orphaned boy forever faced with the image of his parents dying bleeding in his presence. Cut to the next two pages.
The left page is again just a black empty. Facing this is the drawing of an adult Wayne, sitting perhaps scowling, perhaps crying in a chair. We see his head, his legs and one hand. The chair appears to drip blood, down the page to its very edge. Masking much of Wayne is the wingspan and claws of a bat. This wingspan takes up most of the page.
At the top is the wording:
He will become the greatest crimefighter the world has ever known.
At the foot is:
Chapter One: Who I am. How I come to be.
Mazzuchelli’s art and the deep black inking which even has a certain tactility when read in hard copy, is an iconography of fear. The huge wingspan, like a bird swooping down on its prey, encompasses the Wayne identity, but also masks him by concealing much of him. It is larger than Wayne, anticipating how the image, icon and legend would far outstrip the man: Batman becomes the fear-symbol Gotham needs.
This symbolization is reinforced later. Bruce Wayne is practising his martial arts, but believes he lacks something: ‘“But something’s missing. Something isn’t right.” What is missing, Wayne realises, is that he does not instil fear. In order to do so, he needs, or should himself become, an icon of fear. As he meditates on this, through the glass windows, a bat crashes into the Wayne study – and Wayne finds his symbol.
Without warning it comes . . . crashing through the window of your study . . . and mine …I have seen it before . . . somewhere . . . it frightened me as a boy . . . frightened me . . . yes. Father. I shall become a bat.
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Wayne becomes the object he was scared of, so that he in turn becomes what the world would come to fear.
Throughout the tale there is this emphasis on the iconography of fear. There are rumours of a massive, flying bat among the criminals and the cops. In another episode that puts the Batman legend firmly in place, he literally blasts into a high-society dinner.
David Mazzucchelli draws Batman in a swirl of smoke standing at the place where he blasted the wall apart – this panel takes up more than half the page.
You have eaten well.
You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit.
Your feast is nearly over.
From this moment on…
None of you are safe.
A set of three panels follows. The first captures members at the dinner, eyes terrified, hands frozen in the act of serving/taking what looks to be flambé. The second shows just Batman’s muscled jaw and head. The third shows the lid being put back on the flambé. The feast is over, and the cumulative effect is of fear remains.
Writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli depict the process by which Wayne turns his fears into the source of a public fear. ‘None of you are safe’ – the words accompany the fearsome apparition of a man/bat, a Batman. The iconography of fear is now engraved upon the hearts of Gotham’s criminals.
If it is darkest before dawn, Gotham’s dawn is actually a dark knight.
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