Frank Miller’s take on Batman’s first year as the caped crusader is an invigorating breath of fresh air. It is so realistic that it could almost be believable as a true story. It is also hard to believe this book came out in 1986. Other than the lack of cell phones and the vehicles, this story is still quite relatable to contemporary Americans. It has it all – dirty politicians and judges, crooked cops, hints at racial disparity, and the media putting their own spin on it all. Has our society really not progressed much since 1986 or was Frank Miller just far ahead of his time at pointing out its flaws?
The book starts with the hiring of Lieutenant Gordon (Pre-Commissioner days), and we are immediately introduced to Commissioner Loeb and Detective Flass who set off this reader’s Spidey sense (wrong publisher – I know) within the first few pages. By page 5 we are assured that Gordon is going to have a rough time as we are shown abuse of power and police brutality.
These initial observations have Gordon hoping that his wife’s pregnancy tests come back negative. As a new father myself, this really hit hard. Can you imagine being afraid to raise a child due to the dangers your profession could put them in while having to work with people who’s lack of commitment to their oath would only further endanger your family?
Speaking of family, much later in the story you will find some of the most terrifying panels a new father could ever read in a comic book. I had to check on my baby daughter after reading it and share those panels with my wife. After the chills settled, it gave me appreciation for all of the safety and comfort we take for granted as a family.
Fortunately for Gordon, he gains an ally in Batman in this book. Batman: Year One is really two separate origin stories interwoven. Gordon and Batman’s beginnings are very much mirrored with Cat Woman’s story, though not as detailed and intimate, providing just the right amount of contrast as a foil character to bring it all together.
Also, unlike Gordon whose identity will always be public record, Bruce quickly realizes that he must remain anonymous even before he gets the bat suit. While Batman can and must choose to keep his life separate from Bruce, it is a luxury that Gordon cannot afford. Frank Miller also does a great job of letting us know that the murder of Bruce’s parents is a motivating factor without letting it take over the story.
This book also depicts how hard it is for a good cop to make it in Gotham. There is the saying that it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the whole bunch. This is certainly true in this book. I am not sure how many well-intentioned police officers would go the extra mile and risk their family’s lives like Gordon does to uphold his oath. Good cops cannot make it when bad cops run the show, but Gordon is an exception by his willingness to risk everything for what is right.
Batman’s first encounter with the police shows they are more concerned with booking him than they are with getting medical help. Even today we hear of people dying in custody due to lack of medical attention after a gunshot. These cops go even lower by searching him for cash which certainly only motivates Bruce further.
Will Bruce show them the same courtesy, or will he show them empathy and begin his code of not killing?
Also, how far will you go to keep your code? At what point do you have to sacrifice your code to protect the ones you love most? Is this scene below the beginning of a downward spiral, a moment of realism winning out against idealism, or just a matter of the end justifying the means?
It is exciting when we finally get to see Batman’s enthusiasm with trying out his suit the first time. It is also evident that while he is far from reaching his potential, he is far from giving off rookie vibes either. His training has paid off, and he handles his first fight as the Batman well.
How long will it take Batman to find out just how high up the corruption goes? After all, where there are crooked cops, there are bound to be dirty politicians and criminal organizations as well right? They are also going to want to make sure the media tells the story they want told.
Speaking of which, Frank was clearly inspired by events that had recently occurred at the time he wrote this book. Just one year prior to this book, was the horrific 1985 MOVE bombing by the Philadelphia Police Department of 61 residential homes in the West Philadelphia Osage Neighborhood during a standoff and firefight. We see Gotham Police order a similar bombing while lying about innocent people being in harm’s way except “a derelict or two.” This also shows that not all lives held the same value by the police or Gotham’s citizens at that time. There is also a hint to the presence of systemic racism when one of the criminals is harder to cover for due to the color of his skin.
It can also be deduced that Skeevers’ life is so insignificant to the Gotham City Police that when Flass is questioned by internal affairs, he boldly suggests that he may not be alive to testify. A great work of fiction will have you draw connections between the story and real life without directly telling you what to think or feel. Great writers are able to offer you that escape while still making you feel dirty inside. This is often said of the greatest novels in American history such as those by Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. However, I have found this to be true of great comic books as well. It is one of the reasons I enjoy X-Men so much.
In addition to beautifully weaving societal issues into Batman: Year One, Frank Miller has done a fantastic job of bringing three dimensional characters to life. Each of the characters are complex with moments of ugliness. You can expect that from an antihero like Cat Woman, but even Gordon has a few cringe-worthy moments in the book that made me despise him for the moment. Will he really cheat on his pregnant wife? Bruce even has a moment in which you think he may cross the line.
If you are looking for an Adam West slap-stick style Batman story, then this one is not for you. If you want an action-packed thriller that leaves you on the edge of your seat while reintroducing you to complex and fascinating characters that bring the pages to life, then Batman: Year One will not disappoint.