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”

Batman Year One

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.

Batman Year One (2)

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.

Comics Review: ‘Batman’ #50

The Bat and the Cat are ready to make their vows… 

Batman #50.jpg

Mikel Janin’s cover art for the milestone ‘Batman’ #50 (image belongs: DC, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Written by:  Tom King / art by:  Mikel Janin (plus guest contributors) / colours by:  June Chung

What’s it about?

“The Wedding” : the day has arrived and the venue is set as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle prepare to tie the knot…

In review

Batman #50 is significant for more reasons than one, not only is it the fiftieth issue of the current volume of Batman it also marks the half-way point of Tom King’s proposed 100-issue run on the book and the culmination of a storyline the writer has been building for some time, but it’s also a celebration of two iconic characters whose lives have been intertwined for what seems like forever.

Any issue of Batman by Tom King is never less than interesting and more often than not inventive and gripping, so whilst this extra-sized anniversary issue may not completely live up to the set-up of the lead in of #’s 48 & 49 (the superb two-parter “The Best Man”) or hit the emotional heights of Batman Annual #2, it’s still a skilfully constructed and deftly executed comic.  In a similar vein to his earlier “Superfriends” arc, King splits the majority of the narrative between Batman and Catwoman as they both go about their respective ‘tasks’ with the ever-excellent Mikel Janin pencilling these main sequences, we see Selina hook-up with old friend Holly Robinson (who first appeared in Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One) and Bruce enlist the support of Alfred as the Bride and Groom make final preparations.

What’s interesting is that between those regular pages are single page spreads by a number of past and present Batman artists including Tony S. Daniel, Frank Miller, Jason Fabok, Neal Adams, Clay Mann, Tim Sale and Andy Kubert (to name just a few) that are almost like snapshots that highlight the history of the Bat and the Cat’s relationship.  King laces these pages with some deep and poetic dialogue in the form of letters the couple have written to one another which ponders the big questions – can Catwoman be truly good?  Will this marriage make Bruce happy?  Can Bruce’s mission as the Batman continue?  These are things that readers have not doubt been asking themselves and King delves deeply into these themes.

Aside from the roster of guest artists, King pays tribute to some of the many great Batman writers by weaving their names into Gotham itself – from Kane Plaza and Finger Tower to O’Neil Ave and the Englehart and Conway Bedrooms of Wayne Manor, it’s a pleasing complement to the rich creative history of a titanic figure of pop culture.

As for the conclusion of the story, despite the release of spoilers prior to the issue’s publication, this review will not delve into the specifics and readers should check it out for themselves.  Needless to say, if you haven’t been reading Tom King’s run on Batman you’re definitely missing out on some great comics.

The bottom line:  A fitting culmination of one of Tom King’s biggest Batman stories, Batman #50 is a satisfying celebration of two iconic comic book characters and their legacy.

Batman #50 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now

Film Review: ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Starring (voices):  Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Tara Strong, Ray Wise

Directed by:  Sam Liu / Written by:  Brian Azzarrello / 76 minutes

What’s it about?

Hunting for an escaped Joker, Batman finds himself in a race against time to rescue Commissioner Gordon form the clutches of the deranged Clown Prince of Crime…

In review

Having already adapted Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, it was always inevitable that Warner Brothers Animation would turn to tackling that other celebrated DC Comics work of the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  A dark and psychologically complex tale that’s equally unnerving, The Killing Joke adapted as an adult-rated animated feature would surely be a ready-made success?  Though enjoyable in many areas, Batman: The Killing Joke also proves flawed and never manages to hit the heights of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (which in all fairness is an entirely different story and set on a much larger scale).  The main issue lies with the source material, though Moore and Bolland’s graphic novel is an undisputed and flawless classic, it’s relatively short length would have resulted in too brief a running time had it been adapted ‘as is’.  As a result screenwriter (and fan favourite DC Comics scribe) Brian Azzarello has produced a wholly original 30-minute opening act focusing on Barbara Gordon/Batgirl that ultimately offers less to the overall story than it would hope to add.

There is a positive point to the opening act of The Killing Joke in that it provides Barbara Gordon with a larger role and resultantly a richer character arc in the story as Azzarello draws a complex and controversial relationship between Batman and Batgirl, set against her obsessive quest to bring down gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling).  It certainly helps the viewer to establish a deeper connection with Barbara adding some emotional weight to events later on yet it’s the almost jarring transition from this new material to the familiar where things falter, as nothing from the Franz sub-plot and very little from the Batman/Batgirl dynamic carries over into the rest of the film.  It’s appreciated that this would cause further deviation from Moore and Bolland’s original story and thus might have resulted in a messier final product but it’s a shame that even a small attempt to tie the two elements together couldn’t have been made.

The opening Batgirl story aside, the actual adaptation of The Killing Joke works relatively well.  It’s pleasingly faithful, the adult rating ensuring that director Sam Liu is able to depict every gut twisting moment uncensored, with some beautiful animation work utilising a style that sits somewhere between the realistic look of the Batman: Year One (also helmed by Liu) adaptation and the slightly more caricature visuals of The Dark Knight Returns.  Wisely, some of Brian Bolland’s most memorable and evocative panels are replicated perfectly at several key moments in the film which will give many a reason to pull out their copies of the graphic novel.

Of course, one of the greatest joys of The Killing Joke is that it features the return of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in their respective and much loved Batman: The Animated Series roles as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Joker.  They’re as great as they’ve ever been, Hamill in particular as he deftly straddles a fine line between serious and outright manic, his evermore gravelly tones delivering a reliably unsettling yet still silly Joker (aided by an odd but nifty musical number).  Tara Strong also reprises her Batgirl role from The New Batman Adventures and makes a decent job of conveying the more layered approach to the character featured here, whereas Robocop’s Ray Wise is a little flat as Commissioner Gordon which is slightly disappointing given what happens to him in the story.

Sweetening the deal are a number of nice little easter eggs for fans to lap up including visual references to Jokers from Tim Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both of which were heavily influenced by The Killing Joke) and a twist on that iconic cover image from Detective Comics #27.

Despite some positive points, there’s an overriding sense that the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke comes off feeling a little slight and at times lacking the impact of the graphic novel (especially in the often dissected and endlessly debated finale) and the additional material would have arguably been better served expanded into its own feature.  Still, with Conroy and Hamill on hand and some striking visuals and a respectful adherence to the work by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland there’s still enough reason for fans to check out this latest DC Comics venture from Warner Brothers Animation.

The bottom line:  Though flawed, the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke still makes for an enjoyable watch that will ultimately lead fans yearning to revisit Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s original graphic novel.

Batman: The Killing Joke is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel 'Batman: The Killing Joke'.

Batman (Kevin Conroy) and the Joker (Mark Hamill) face off in the Warner Brothers Animation adaptation of seminal DC Comics graphic novel ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’.

Comic Review: ‘The Dark Knight III: The Master Race” #1

In Darkest Knight…

Written by:  Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello / pencilled by:  Andy Kubert / inks by:  Klaus Janson

What’s it about?

The Dark Knight has returned once again and his mysterious and brutal attacks on the Gotham City Police set him on a collision course with Commissioner Yindel…

In review

The long awaited continuation of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight saga is finally here as The Master Race is unleashed upon the DC Comics readership who have anticipated this title with both excitement and trepidation.  The sequel to Miller’s seminal masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns and the not-so-well received and downright bizarre The Dark Knight Strikes Again, The Master Race sees Miller team up with celebrated comics writer Brian Azzarello – known for having penned numerous standout DC Comics stories including Batman: “Broken City”, Superman: “For Tomorrow”, Joker and Lex Luthor (as well as a highly regarded run on Wonder Woman for DC’s New 52).

Whilst Miller’s contribution to comics cannot be understated and both Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are definitive Batman stories, his later work was found to be less so and it’s clear that Azzarello has worked with Miller to refine and filter his ideas to deliver something more cohesive and classic that both harkens back to those aforementioned masterworks and simultaneously brings the world of The Dark Knight up to date.  In terms of story, very little actually happens in this opening chapter of The Master Race but this simply follows the slow-burn approach that was a key part of the structure of The Dark Knight Returns.  Instead, readers are reintroduced to Miller’s world and his chosen cast of characters including the likes of Commissioner Yindel, Wonder Woman, Lara and a frozen (undoubtedly soon to be thawed out) Superman.  As with previous Dark Knight instalments there are a wealth of newscast talking heads delivering much of the exposition (as well as conveying commentary on the social and political lanscape) and the Batman’s appearances are kept largely in the shadows before pulling the rug from underneath the reader with a killer final page that will leave many reeling – and counting the days – until the next issue is published.

Much is relinquished to the visuals in this first issue and Andy Kubert’s pencils are the star of the show, enriched by the inks of Miller’s long-time collaborator, Klaus Janson.  Kubert refrains from wholly mimicking Miller’s style in favour of simply peppering his own with subtle hints of Miller-isms.  This is unmistakably the world Miller depicted in The Dark Knight Returns with Kubert delivering panel upon panel of intricate detail that together with Janson’s inks and Brad Anderson’s appropriately muted colours presents an epic, cinematic and nourish visual feast.

The Master Race is obviously Frank Miller’s idea but it’s through his collaboration with co-writer Brian Azzarello and penciller Andy Kubert that this eight issue series is likely to succeed where The Dark Knight Strikes Again failed, time will tell but this feels like it has the potential to be the “next” classic Batman story.

The bottom line:  The Master Race has a lot going for it, despite little narrative progression in this first issue there are hints of big things to come and Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson’s art is nothing short of sublime.

Dark Knight III: The Master Race #1 is published by DC Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Cover art for DC Comics' 'The Dark Knight III: The Master Race'#1 by Andy Kubert.

Cover art for DC Comics’ ‘The Dark Knight III: The Master Race’#1 by Andy Kubert.