Tuesday, September 2, 2008

batman: year one

Batman: Year One

I should tell you that I’ve never seen Sin City, and even the inducement of Gerard Butler in a loincloth couldn’t get me to finish 300, which I thought was absurd, repetitive, and boorishly violent. Nevertheless, Batman: Year One from 1988 has long been touted as one of the best stories in the genre for its reinvention and kick-start given to the origin story. It’s long been cited, too, as one of the major influences for the Nolan films, and in reading it, it’s easy to see the connection.

It’s telling that in Batman: Year One Batman encounters no super-villains. He is truly alone, pursued by petty crooks whose lives he’s spared, prostitutes he’s rescued, crooked cops, and a dogging media, so he doesn’t need a larger-than-life flamboyant madman to deal with (though, just like in Batman Begins, mention of the Joker as a future menace is included at the very end). Miller is indeed an excellent storyteller. He cuts the fat and goes for the jugular, and his view of Gotham is extremely grim—it would not have passed the censors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as almost the entire city police force is corrupt and vicious, and the people really have no hope until Batman and Jim Gordon join forces (though Harvey Dent has not yet become Two-Face and is therefore fighting the good fight in the DA office).

According to Wikipedia, Gary Oldman’s look as Gordon for Batman Begins/The Dark Knight is almost identical to that drawn by David Mazzucchelli in this comic. Yes, but so is his extreme heroism, his almost saintly commitment to serving justice. In fact, in this graphic novel, his story is as important as, if not more than, Bruce Wayne’s. So can I just say how much Jim Gordon kicks @$$? He’s transferred to Gotham from Chicago just as his wife (now named Barbara; how is that for confusing?) finds out she’s pregnant; like the Russian ballerina in TDK, he can’t countenance raising a child in Gotham. He perseveres, though, despite the animosity and corruption of his fellow officers (Nolan!verse junkies will recognize names like Gordon’s partner Flass, Commissioner Loeb, and a mob boss called the Roman is, I think, Falcone). I know that even heroes like Gordon can’t be completely infallible, but is his infidelity with fellow detective Sarah Essen really necessary other than as blackmail material? Essen’s the one to peg Wayne as the best candidate for Batman, a bit like Chauvelin figuring out the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, but this thread seems to disappear once Essen is transferred.

As in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after years of travelling the world, seen by all as a vapid, over-rich playboy with a cocaine habit. This Bruce becomes Batman when some bats fly in through his window. I’m biased, but the much richer mythos developed by Goyer and Nolan in Batman Begins overwhelming trumps this one. Despite his Superman good looks, I like Miller’s Bruce/Batman for his self-deprecating sense of humor and his sheer courage and commitment to doing the right thing. “Too bad I can’t afford to patent it [Wayne Electronics invention]. I’d make a fortune. But then, I already have a fortune.” It’s Batman’s sense of mercy toward cats that connects him to Selina Kyle, making a brief, pre-Catwoman appearance, but also that mercy convinces Gordon that the vigilante is not out to terrorize people but to give the wicked a taste of their own medicine.

Gotham certainly comes across as a city uninterested in being saved—a city that likes being dirty. I’m baffled as to why a gang of hookers in Gotham’s east end—including Selina—want to beat up Bruce when he saves them from their violent pimp, unless they’re just scared. After a rip-roaring finish involving Gordon’s baby son, it’s a fair bet that Gordon does know who Batman is. As I said, Harvey Dent is certainly on Batman’s side at this point—there’s a very funny sequence where Batman hides under his desk as Gordon questions Dent to provide alibis for times when Batman was out and about (again, not unlike similar suspicions raised in TDK). Williamthebloody brought to my attention a review of TDK accusing the film of being pro-Conservative party propaganda, and while at first this seemed absurd to me, its philosophy is much more conservative than V for Vendetta, for example. Batman is a vigilante, some of the cops in TDK’s Gotham are corrupt, and while the Joker’s philosophy of anarchy (or moral nihilism according to Wikipedia) is explained in enough detail to almost make it appealing, your hopes are always with Rachel’s, that good in the form of organized government will always come through. Year One is much closer, then, in philosophy to V for Vendetta and is more anti-government, more relying on the efforts of two people, Batman and Gordon, for the salvation of Gotham.

I’ve so far barely mentioned the art by Mazzucchelli. It’s a vehicle for telling the story, unlike some of the more otherworldly art in Black and White, for example. It’s got a real old skool feel to it, though definitely more accomplished than the Kane/Finger story from 1941 that I read. The pages are packed—with action, with dialogue, and Mazzucchelli always delivers, whether it’s a close up, a background shot, or a simple action silhouette. This will make no sense, but it’s so good it’s almost unnoticeable. If you’re invested in the emotion of a scene in a film, you’re not supposed to even notice the soundtrack. The story, the almost cinematic world Miller and Mazzucchelli create is so effective, you lose yourself in it—gritty and unpleasant though it may be. Colorist Richmond Lewis, by the way, is a woman. Cor.

Year One isn’t flash, but you can see how everything after it owes it a debt.

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