It’s a Classic: ‘Batman: Year One’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“From this moment on…none of you are safe”

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An example of the amazing artwork for ‘Batman: Year One’ by David Mazzucchelli (image credit: DC Comics).

Year:  1987

Written by:  Frank Miller / art by:  David Mazzucchelli / colours by:  Richmond Lewis

What’s it about?

As Gotham City faces endless crime and corruption, billionaire Bruce Wayne decides to adopt the vigilante persona of ‘the Batman’ and soon learns he may have an ally in Gotham Police Lieutenant James Gordon…

In review:  why it’s a classic

Subsequent to the culture shattering success of The Dark Knight Returns, “Year One” is Frank Miller’s other – no less significant – seminal Batman work.  Originally published as a four-part story arc in Batman (volume 1) issues #404-407 and collected numerously over the past thirty years, Batman: Year One, as the title suggests, chronicles the Dark Knight’s first year of crime-fighting in Gotham City.  Written by Miller, with art by David Mazzucchelli (who also collaborated with Miller on the iconic Daredevil story “Born Again”) and colours by Richmond Lewis, Year One is a perfect companion piece to The Dark Knight Returns.  Although Year One is a more grounded and less politically charged affair than that former work (which takes place out of the regular continuity in an alternate 1980s), there is a clear sense that they share the same DNA.

A Batman tale infused with influences of detective noir and classic crime fiction, Year One (which itself would go on to influence director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins) sees the return of Bruce Wayne to his home after several years away, discovering that things have only gotten worse as criminal gangs – spearheaded by mob boss Carmine Falcone aka “The Roman” – and dishonest officials feed the societal decay afflicting the people of Gotham City.  Whilst Year One depicts the beginnings of Bruce Wayne’s rise as the Batman, it’s equally a story about future police commissioner James Gordon, newly transferred to the Gotham City Police Department who, faced with a corrupt police system and bent colleagues on the take, fights to preserve the values of the good and freely practice the true and trusted responsibilities of law enforcement.  Miller deftly builds and intertwines this dual narrative as destiny draws both Wayne and Gordon together – kindred souls on different sides of legality ultimately battling for the same cause.

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More of David Mazzucchelli’s incredible art (image credit: DC Comics).

What is especially appealing about Year One is that Miller is not afraid to explore the frailties of the central heroes, which only makes the characters richer and more relatable.  Bruce continues to be haunted by the murder of his parents, his anger fuelling his war on crime and the actions he undertakes as he becomes a feared creature of the night.  He’s far less brutal than the elder and more grizzled man he is in The Dark Knight Returns (and in fact commits several heroic acts in the story, including saving the life of Gordon’s son) but the seeds are planted here.  Gordon himself is inherently a decent man working hard to protect all that he loves and values but despite being a devoted husband and father succumbs to an affair with his GCPD partner, Sarah.  Selina Kyle is less clear cut, a prostitute and thief who decides enough is enough and that those less fortunate need not fear the criminal gang hierarchy as she begins to adopt a certain feline-fatale vigilante persona of her own.

Year One is beautifully realised by David Mazzucchelli (whose Bruce Wayne bares a nifty resemblance to Hollywood legend Gregory Peck) with a clean, classic pulp style that’s moodily enhanced by the nuances of Richmond Lewis’s colour palette, giving the visuals an appropriate film-noir appearance.  It’d also be remiss not to mention the lettering by Tod Klein, which is especially effective in the monologues, adding to the poetic quality of Miller’s writing all making for one of the all-time greatest Batman stories.

Standout moment

Injured and forced into the basement of a dilapidated building, Batman faces capture as a SWAT team closes in on him…but they didn’t reckon on his ingenuity as he calls for ‘backup’.

Geek fact!

Ben Mackenzie, who portrayed James Gordon in Batman prequel series Gotham provided the voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 2011 animated adaptation of Year One.

If you like this then check out…

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns : considered by many as Frank Miller’s magnum opus that’s not just a phenomenal, operatic Batman story but also a landmark in comics and pop culture.

Batman: The Killing Joke : Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic Joker story is a stark, shocking and dramatic affair and presents a possible origin for the homicidal and psychotic Clown Prince of Crime.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

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Flashback: ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV Pilot

Marvel’s first mainstream success outside of the comic book pages landed in the late seventies with Universal’s hit television series, ‘The Incredible Hulk’…

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The late, great Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ (image credit: Universal).

Year:  1977

Starring:  Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Jack Colvin, Susan Sullivan

Directed and written by:  Kenneth Johnson (Hulk created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

After being subjected to an overdose of gamma radiation, Dr. David Banner finds that in moments of stress and anger he undergoes a startling transformation into a green-skinned, physically superior but uncontrollable and raging creature…

Retrospective/review

The first major live action success for a Marvel Comics property, Universal’s television series The Incredible Hulk, premiering in the U.S. in 1977 and rerun throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and now more accessible via home video releases and on demand platforms), though a more grounded take on the character continues to be beloved by fans across the globe.

Developed by The Six Million Dollar Man’s Kenneth Johnson and starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk would launch with a feature length pilot, written and directed by Johnson, that first aired in November of 1977.  It introduces viewers to Dr. David Banner (the change from Bruce part of Johnson’s desire to deviate from traditional comic book tropes, such as alliterative character names) a physician and scientist who having lost his wife in a car accident has focused his attention on finding a way of unlocking the enhanced physical strength that humans can display in moments of great stress.  His experiments lead to an accidental overexposure of gamma radiation (in a research lab as opposed to the Cold War era desert bomb test in the original Marvel comic), although there appears to be no ill effects, a breakdown on his drive home causes Banner to become frustrated and angry, triggering his first transformation into the goliath green-skinned creature that will become known as ‘the Hulk’.  Enlisting the help of his colleague, Dr. Elaina Marks, Banner seeks to study his condition in the desperate hope of eradicating it – requiring the pair to force another change, which leads to dramatic consequences.

Bill Bixby is superb, bringing a believable essence of intellect to Banner neatly intertwined with the innate benevolence that makes his character and performance so likeable.  In the days before CGI, green body paint was required and the elaborately muscular Lou Ferrigno would prove perfect casting as the Hulk (the transformations achieved via those iconic sequences of Banner’s shirt tearing as bulging muscles push through, together with make-up and prosthetic effects) establishing a formidable physical presence befitting the part.  Yet, despite that Ferrigno was also adept at conveying the more innocent and childlike aspects of the character – his woodland encounter with a young girl in the pilot being a prime example of the creature’s capacity for tenderness in certain moments.

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Lou Ferrigno is suitably cast as Banner’s raging alter-ego (image credit: Universal).

Portraying Elaina Marks, guest star Susan Sullivan is a great addition to the episode sharing wonderful chemistry with Bixby which (spoilers…) makes her demise all-the-more heartfelt and Banner’s tragedy greater.  Also introduced is Jack Colvin’s newspaper reporter Jack McGee, a character who would recur throughout the series and who witnesses the devastating lab explosion, resulting from Banner and Marks’ experiment and the Hulk’s emergence from the wreckage – pinning the incident and the ‘murder’ of Banner and Marks on the creature.  Beyond establishing the regular cast of Bixby, Ferrigno and Colvin the pilot also features the famous, often quoted “don’t make me angry” line and Joseph Harnell’s sombre but poignant ‘The Lonely Man’ theme music, which would close out each episode.

Although it may diverge from the source material, motivated by Johnson’s concept for an adult drama series instead of a “comic book” show (in any case a more faithful adaptation would have been difficult to accomplish convincingly given technical and budgetary limitations), The Incredible Hulk still adheres to the basic approach of the comics in that Banner is driven to find a cure for his ‘affliction’ and that the Hulk itself, though dangerous and powerful has a desire to protect the innocent.

The series would subsequently see Banner, believed to be dead, drift from town to town across America, taking on odd jobs under false names as he would search for a cure whilst evading McGee, who would continue to pursue his investigations of the Hulk.  The format, often compared to that of The Fugitive, would see Banner cross paths with various people from all walks of life, facilitating stories of social concern (covering subjects such as drugs, crime and domestic abuse) and consequently troubles that Banner would find himself becoming involved in and consequentially, situations which would trigger his anger-fuelled metamorphosis and have the titular green goliath press into action.

The pilot was followed by another extended episode, “Death in the Family“, before the first full season commenced in March 1978.  The Incredible Hulk would run for five seasons before being revived for three TV movies (for which Johnson was not involved and included appearances from iconic Marvel characters Thor and Daredevil) and remains a cherished favourite amongst fans and rightfully has prominence in the history of comic book adaptations for the small screen.

Geek fact!

Richard Kiel – Jaws in the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker – was originally cast as the Hulk and although footage was shot for the pilot he was replaced by the more muscular Lou Ferrigno.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

It’s a Classic: ‘Predator’

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“If it bleeds, we can kill it”

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A deadly foe – the technologically advanced and lethal hunter of ‘Predator’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

Year:  1987 

Starring:  Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, R.G. Armstrong, Shane Black, Kevin Peter Hall

Directed by:  John McTiernan / written by:  Jim Thomas & John Thomas

What’s it about?

An elite special forces unit find themselves being hunted by a deadly creature in the jungles of Central America…

In review:  why it’s a classic

An adrenaline induced and suspenseful science fiction actioner, Predator is the first – and indisputably best – entry in what would become 20th Century Fox’s other iconic SF creature franchise.  With a cast lead by action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by John McTiernan (who would helm another classic the following year – Die Hard), Predator is highly entertaining.

The set-up is simple: a crack military team are sent into the guerrilla-infested jungles of Central America on a mission to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter.  Discovering the skinned bodies of their comrades, the team soon find themselves in a fight for survival as an alien creature, which collects the skulls of its victims as trophies, begins hunting them down.  The execution is superb, writers Jim & John Thomas, together with the cast, provide a troupe of tough but likeable characters:  team leader ‘Dutch’ is played assuredly by Schwarzenegger (quickly reaching the height of his superstardom at this point), ably supported by Carl Weathers as Dillon, a former colleague turned-CIA man with the roster filled out by Bill Duke as ‘Mac’, Jesse Ventura as Blaine, the late Sonny Landham as Billy, Richard Chaves as Poncho and Shane Black – future writer and director of 2018’s The Predator (and who also provided uncredited contributions to the script for Predator) stars as Hawkins.  Caught up in the terror is Elpidia Carrillo as Anna, a captured guerrilla who joins Dutch and his unit as they attempt to reach extraction.

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Action megastar Arnold Schwarzenegger leads the cast of ‘Predator’ as ‘Dutch’ (image credit: 20th Century Fox).

John McTiernan directs with confidence and skill, delivering scintillating and satisfying action.  Yet it’s the slowly unwinding element of suspense that makes Predator so engrossing, like Ridley Scott’s Alien, time is taken for events to unfold creating an increasing sense of unease.  The unrelenting heat of the jungle coupled with the conflict fermented by the interference of Weathers’ Dillon adds further to the tension.

Of course, Predator is nothing without its central threat and the Predator itself – created by the legendary Stan Winston and his studio (saving the production after a failed, laughably bad and unconvincing prototype was abandoned) – is as unique and memorable as the Xenomorphs of Alien and Aliens, remaining incredibly formidable and one of the greatest and most iconic creature designs in the history of film.  Just as Predator unfolds at a steady pace, the appearance of the lethal 7 foot-plus and muscular extra-terrestrial (played by Kevin Peter Hall), masked and equipped with an invisibility cloak, shoulder laser, razor sharp gauntlet blades and heat vision sensor is slowly revealed – the final unmasking saved until its climactic one on one showdown with Dutch in an exciting and rewarding finale.

Alan Silvestri’s thrumming, atmospheric and intense music score proves the perfect accompaniment to a true genre classic that would spawn numerous sequels, comic books, novels, video games and slews of merchandise that add up to a pop culture phenomenon.

Standout moment

After storming the guerrilla camp, Dutch and his team prepare to depart and head for extraction.  As Hawkins shares a joke with Billy, unbeknown to them someone, or something is observing…

Geek fact!

Martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally brought in to play the Predator and participated in test-shoots before the initial creature design was abandoned.

If you like this then check out…

Alien : 20th Century Fox’s original lethal extra-terrestrial makes its debut in Ridley Scott’s equally suspenseful masterpiece.

The Terminator : Arnold Schwarzenegger plays another kind of hunter as the deadly time travelling cyborg in James Cameron’s landmark science fiction thriller.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).