Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sacred Cow, Medium Rare Please!

Right, so, about that whole Batman: Year One thing.

And yes, I realize that I'm about to critique a 20 year old comic without saying anything that hasn't been said before somewhere. Just another day in the comicsblogoweb.

A friend of mine recently saw Batman Begins, and was duly impressed by it. I mentioned that the movie used some elements of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, and he asked to borrow it.

Being the Ambassador O' Comics that I am, I lent it to him, but decided to give it a quick reread just for old times' sake.

Yeah, that was probably a mistake.

Because Batman: Year One is deeply, deeply flawed as a comic, moreso than I remember it being when I first read it oh, about 15 years ago.

The main problem for me is, B:YO doesn't have much of a plot, per se. I mean, there's no real throughstory for our titular (Hi, Googlers!) hero, it reads like more of a series of interesting vignettes that take place over Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman.

And I guess on it's own merits that's OK --- maybe even the point --- but it's terribly unsatisfying as a story. Miller's noir dialogue is pitch-perfect (no surprises there), but it's shouting in an empty room; there's no purpose, no narrative momentum to carry these moments forward. And that, friends, does not a good comic make.

In fact, what I was most surprised at was the fact that Jim Gordon is by far the most interesting character in the series, which is odd seeing as how it isn't titled Commissioner Gordon: Year One. In fact, Gordon's the only one that actually comes off as being a "real" person, with depth of character and dramatic conflict.

In other words, Bruce summoning bats with a frequency emitter is cool --- but Gordon agonizing over betraying his pregnant wife resonates. The former makes for a great splash page; the latter makes for a great character.

And I guess that's my issue; I didn't remember Batman being this devoid of character in this series. Bruce is still largely a cipher, despite the "finding-my-way" dialogue and asides with Alfred.

Oh, and Selina and her annoying sidekick? Unnecessary and wholly irrelevant to the already paper-thin plot.

Look, there are some really bright spots to this comic. David Mazzuchelli's artwork (and the Richmond Lewis coloring specifically) does some amazing things on the page, and if it's murky in places, well it's Gotham, innit? And as I mentioned, Miller's self-doubting noir internal monologues are best-in-class (at least, they were back when this was written anyway, before Frank Miller morphed into Crazy Uncle Freddie Who Probably Shouldn't Be Left Alone With The Children Because, You Know).

But I think part of the reason I liked Batman Begins so much is because it actually bothered to string a plot to tie around all these moments that Miller gave us; structure to the narrative; and, of course, Michael Caine.

(Side Note: Michael Caine immediately ups the watchability rating of any movie he's in, even --- particularly --- the shitty ones. This is fact, and not up for debate.)

So I'll calmly and quietly (shaddup!) accept the fact that Batman: Year One isn't quite the sacred cow that a lot of people make it out to be (few comics are, really).

Still. That whole bat-summoning thing? Awesome.

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Anonymous plok said...

I'm gonna comment on this...tomorrow.

Because I, too, just re-read Batman: Year One.

However tonight I am all woozy due to a large family night out at a restaurant. Too much sushi, too much beer.

5:56 AM  
Blogger joncormier said...

I read this just after I read The Dark Knight Returns. I more or less felt the same way. It's a great Commissioner Gordon story - Batman could have and probably should have been a background character.

Now I'll have to reread this thing too.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Tom the Bomb said...

I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one disappointed with the lack of an over-arching plot. The finale, with an anonymous Wayne rescuing the future Batgirl, was okay, but I really wanted the story to build to a BATMAN climax.

And it SHOULD have been called Commissioner Gordon: Year One - it's really his story. Batman may grow into his role, but it's Gordon who undergoes the real transformation in the story, from a man utterly devoid of hope to one who thinks he might just change the city with the help of his friend.

I can see Batman's first year being presented through someone else's eyes -- I'm an Astro City fan, and Busiek uses that common-man POV all the time. But the use of POV is so inconsistent -- it's not all Gordon, and it's not all Batman, but it's sort-of-mostly Gordon.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Mark Engblom said...

Well, considering the story is called "Year One", it's bound to feel a little jumpy, from one time "segment" to the next. I think compared to today's hyper-decompressed storytelling style, it might read a bit choppy (since every. single. thing. isn't covered), but I actually enjoy that kind of narrative "shorthand".

I thought Bruce Wayne's more "anonymous" role in the story worked to the character's advantage. To me, it suggests that "Bruce Wayne" himself is somewhat of a ghost, or a zombie of someone who died long ago (when his parents were executed). As such, he has an almost ghost-like presense in his own Year One story. Exactly as I would expect for a character like Batman.

I think Gordon's role is to amplify Bruce's estrangement from humanity, by showing him caring about the things most of us would (his profession, his family, his city, etc) and feeling those concerns deeply. Batman, from his lack of focusing on those things, becomes all the more mysterious and...in a way....inhuman.

Which is what I think Miller was after. I may be wrong.

11:58 AM  
Blogger austin said...

That is how Commissioner Gordon should always act and should serve as a reference point to anyone who uses him in a story. If that isn't enough look to 89 for a mean Pat Hingle HOLDING SHIT DOWN. Not like some pussyfooting Gary Oldman.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Meho said...

Hm... I actually never had a problem with B:YO casting Batman as supporting cast in his own book because I always read it as Gordon-book. And if you read it that way, there IS a plot and it, as you said, resonates on all necessarry levels.

What I do agree with though is the redundant Selina character which, just like Robin in DKR looked like a great idea all those years ago but today I tend to see it more like Miller trying to deal with his issues with women (disclaimer: I have no idea if he has any issues with women, but this is what it looks like).

And, as Mark says, the way the story is written, we get Batman not as random mytserious masked vigilante, but as a guy detached from humanity whom he is supposed to be protecting and even Selina with her copycat behaviour serves a purpose to support this estrangement.

5:10 AM  

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