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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Life and Times of Batman according to Frank Miller - The Early Years

Kyle takes a look at the chronology of Frank Miller's Batman and seeks to discover: do the pieces fit together to form a whole?

While there are many writers who have made a phenomenal impact on Batman throughout his 75 years of existence, names like Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Denny O'Neil, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Paul Dini, Neal Adams, Dick Sprang, etc...it can be argued that no one has had a bigger impact on the on-going evolution of Batman than Frank Miller. In truth, to go on and on about how revolutionary the incredible Batman Year One and The Dark Knight Returns were to the comics landscape and the Batman mythos as a whole is so overstated (and rightfully so) that it would be a waste of my (and your, dear readers) time for me to do so.

Instead, I'm more interested in taking a look at how the character evolved internally under his pen (and occasional pencil). Throughout his time working with Batman, Frank Miller charted Bruce Wayne's beginnings (Year One), his second year and bringing Robin under his wing (All Star Batman and Robin: The Boy Wonder), his return from retirement to battle the rising gangs of Gotham (The Dark Knight Returns) and his rise as an underground cult figure leading a youthful revolution (The Dark Knight Strikes Again). Each of these titles came at different times between 1986 and 2008 and not in chronological order; but post the release of All-Star Batman and Robin, which was the final installment of Miller's contributions to the character, DC Comics began to advertise the idea that each of Miller's tales take place within continuity with one another. The company furthered this concept by even given Miller's Dark Knight his own Earth within their 52 multiversal earths, Earth-31 to be exact.

While the tales themselves vary in quality, and are each firmly rooted in Miller's evolving world-view and writing style for better or worse, I've often wondered how well they potentially hang together as a story of Miller's definitive take on the character, from conception to retirement to the transformation he eventually undergoes as an almost Randian type figure. This is my attempt to look at each element of Miller's loose "chronology" to see how the pieces come together, or if they don't really at all.
Year One - "...yes. Father. I shall become a bat."
The Gotham of Year One is really no different than any city we see in hard-boiled detective fiction. There are no super villains, just gangsters, corrupt cops and city officials. The color in each panel is a different shade and grey and brown and Gotham is swathed in a "Taxi Driver" shade of grime. While Assistant DA Harvey Dent is a good man on the verge of trying to become the prosecutor the city needs to clean up its act, and rid itself of the Falcone Crime Family, he's basically one man against an entire mob. Enter a returning Bruce Wayne and transferred Jim Gordon.
While the death of Bruce Wayne's parents sets into motion the events of his "becoming" mentally, and it has been said that when his parents were killed Bruce basically died as well, he still needed to prepare himself physically to embark on the mission that his mind had already committed to. It's interesting that the timing of his return would coincide so closely with Gordon's arrival. But thematically this works well as the narrative device evenly splits time between Bruce and Jim, and it can even be argued that Gordon is indeed the lead of the story over his more famous peer. This is the one time in Miller's opus where they share the spotlight, and as time goes on, Gordon will give way to another partner of Batman's who will command a far greater presence. 
What's interesting about Year One's presentation of Bruce is just how human he seems in comparison to what will come. Sure, he's basically Travis Bickle here in terms of personality and drive, but he also is fallible such as when he tries to foil some thieves attempting to steal television sets. Or even better, when we see him set up his "theater of intimidation" when attempting to rankle Commissioner Loeb, Carmine Falcone and their familial circle at dinner. We also find Jim Gordon, not as the wizened Commissioner of typical Batman lore, but as a man striving to do good in a corrupt city and only to find temptation standing in his way at every turn. The temptation that he eventually succumbs to is, of course, the one that will eventually wreck his family.  
But what marks Year One is just how ordinary and grounded everything appears. David Mazzucchelli's artwork is the perfect vehicle for this proto-version of Gotham and our characters. Bruce looks like your standard "guy in a costume" without an overly muscular frame, and the world weariness in Jim's eyes carry over into each panel. There are also no supervillains at this point, and only the barest hints of superherodom building around the events of the story. Gordon's wife, Barbara, specifically hints at Superman by way of "Don't have to go to Metropolis...for a man of steel..." Meaning that Superman does already exist and must have made his debut at some point. No other hero gets even an acknowledgement, which makes sense, as typically Batman is one of the earliest of the costumed adventurers to debut in the DC Universe.

Year One is also the story to introduce the idea that the existence of Batman inspires the creation of his rogues gallery. Within the pages of the issues themselves, we only see Catwoman debut, and Gordon makes mention of The Joker by the story's conclusion. Things are slowly but surely beginning to turn into the Gotham that we're used to in our standard Batman tales. But there's also a growing sense of unease within Bruce. One can sense his leaning on harsher forms of violence that eventually gives way into something more chaotic in the future. In one scene he regrets not crippling The Roman's nephew in order to buy them more time. This isn't the Batman that values life, this is the Batman that is an unstoppable soldier and will do what it takes to make sure his mission is accomplished, including kicking a SWAT officer through a wall for shooting at a stray cat.
It would be easy to argue that these are the rasher actions of a young, more immature Batman. When this story served as the defacto origin tale for the mainstream, on-going iteration of Batman put out every month by DC, his softening would make sense in that regard. In hindsight though, this is almost retroactively an early sign of the carefree carelessness that's starting to envelop Bruce that will come full bore in the next chapter in Miller's chronology. It also telling just how little of a role Alfred plays throughout. Often, such as in the Nolan Batman films, or in the Animated Series, Alfred acts as a close confidante at the very least, and often a moral center and adoptive father figure. Very little of this relationship is in evidence here, though to be fair, that isn't the aim of Miller's take, which is to aim for the parallels between Bruce and Jim.

There's less to be said about Year One in this context because it basically serves as a table setter; we never see Carmine Falcone again in Miller's writing (other than in interstitial material), nor Former Commissioner Loeb or Flass. Barbara Gordon will also fade away, other than a brief appearance. The overarching story here is how Jim will come to trust in The Bat-Man, and it goes without saying that this another plot-point that will not need to be dredged up again once resolved within Year One's pages. This is one great credit to Miller's writing, he never repeats himself, particularly in his Batman work. 

In Miller's world, what Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight states is true: "you've changed things, there's no going back". Both men, Bruce and Jim, by story's end, are fully entrenched in the muck of Gotham and their lives will never be the same; nor will Gotham itself, as it begins to twist itself radically in Batman's image. We just don't fully begin to see the effects of that until the next chapter in their lives, for better and worse.

All-Star Batman and Robin - "I love being the goddamn BATMAN!"

One of the first lines we hear from Batman in costume by the time the Year Two-ish tale of All-Star Batman and Robin rolls around is when he picks up the newly orphaned Dick Grayson by the arm and says "On your feet soldier! You've just been drafted into a war!". This is Bruce fully embracing the militaristic idea of Batman. No longer is there a sense of the humanity that might have existed within Bruce, now the mission has infested every bit of his being. Rather than the somewhat unconfident, silent, ramshackle crime fighter that we saw in Year One, this Batman is a cackling mad man, putting on a fake gruff voice, in an Eastwood style, in order to intimidate. He's more violent than ever and fully fulfilling the bloodlust that was only being hinted at by the end of Year One. Adding to the more "toughened" nature of the character and his surroundings is Jim Lee on art, replacing David Mazzucchelli, doing probably some of the best, least stiff, work of his career. The choice of Lee makes sense in that he is probably the first artist many think of when they consider what a "superhero comic" looks like, and this is Batman's eventual induction into that community. It's not a perfect bridge between the art of Mazzucchelli and Miller's own art, who will take over in later stories chronologically, but it  does serve a purpose beyond that of the commercial.
When we join the tale, Gotham has altered a good deal, Bruce is no longer the only vigilante, now joined on the streets by "amateurs" like Black Canary, who is a local bartender who decides to get in on the vigilante action. Additionally, Jim Gordon's daughter Barbara herself has become inspired to take part in the "holy war" that Bruce began a year or so previous, donning the title of Batgirl. This level of inspiration is a bit of a precursor to what Bruce will find years down the road is his true legacy. He has the ability to inspire those that are held at a distance from him, where he appears as a frightful, yet also powerful symbol for those that have tired of the corruption that is choking their city. Bruce's attempts to enlist people more directly will prove to have more disastrous results, but that has yet to pass at this point. As here, we see the beginnings of Bruce bringing Dick under his wing and the antagonism that results between the two of them. It's rather humorous to watch them banter back and forth, with Bruce attempting to impress Dick almost in an older brother like fashion. One of my favorite bits is this exchange when they arrive at the Batcave:

Batman: Pretty cool huh?
Dick: ...
Batman: Whatta you say Junior? Is this cool or what?
Dick: ...Yeah. I guess it's okay. I mean, I've seen better, but I guess this is okay.
Batman: (internal narration) I don't think I like this kid. Not one bit.
Bruce begins to treat Dick the same way he feels as though he would treat himself, with contempt and near torture. He forces him to sleep on the cave floor, and states that any food he'll need will present itself. This is course not the way to endear yourself to someone, not the least of which is how you might enlist someone to your cause. Yet, Bruce is an incredibly flawed being. His childhood was taken away from him by the bullets that tore through his parents, and despite what normality Alfred and any other guardians may have tried to bring him, he was scarred from that moment on. Bruce never learned the affection that is needed for the grieving, so instead we witness how he handles Dick. What Bruce fails to realize is that Dick is a completely different person than him, and despite how this coping strategy may have worked for Bruce personally, it's a different matter entirely when its forced upon you by someone who has literally kidnapped you after a tremendous shock.
Eventually Bruce will learn the error of his ways, and that instead of acting like a surrogate brother, what Dick needs is a father figure that can guide him and mold him with love and care. He'll get there eventually, but not before he displays two very carnal actions, having sex with Black Canary (with masks on because "it's better that way") just before nabbing Dick's parents killer, and then delivering said assailant to Dick's feet for his chance at revenge, the one thing Bruce never had. Sex and Vengeance, two of our basest desires and they are the two things that are on the forefront of Bruce's mind at this point. We learn from Jocko Boy Vanzetti, said killer, that the Joker hired him to do the job and its from there that we get a chance to see the shape of things to come. Due to the incomplete nature of the story, we never learn what the Joker's scheme actually is, but his involvement in Dick's tragedy almost certainly has to play a role in future events to come.
On the other superhero side of the story, we get a glimpse of the entire Justice League at this point, made up of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Plastic Man, all alarmed to Batman's actions in kidnapping Dick, and also all somewhat under his thumb as they come to learn that he knows many of their secrets, including their identities. This marks Superman's first real appearance, which is key to note as his role will begin to grow within Miller's tale, and he'll eventually take over the co-starring role that Jim Gordon once enjoyed. Within ASBAR, neither makes a huge impact though, only appearing in almost cameo roles. Additionally fascinating is to see the personalities each Justice Leaguer in this early career form: Wonder Woman is a "take no prisoners" style warrior, urging that they behead Batman and offer said head to the government as a gift. Superman begins to show his authoritarian streak, stating that being soiled in the public eye by Batman's actions is the worst ramification to come unless he's stopped and that they should work directly with the government to take him down. Plastic Man and Green Lantern have softer takes on the matter, with the latter specifically wanting to talk sense into him, and the former almost finding a form of idolatry in The Dark Knight.
Cooler heads prevail, and Green Lantern is given the opportunity to speak with him. This of course leads to Bruce and Dick's big moment of bonding, where Dick nearly kills Green Lantern, and its at that point that Bruce realizes what a mistake he's made. He's rushed years of training into weeks, and the after effect of this action may have major life and death ramifications. But within ASBAR, this realization is Bruce reaching a turning point. He's no longer just The Dark Knight or The Bat-Man, but Batman, the Caped Crusader that becomes fully fledged partners with Robin, the Boy Wonder; and because Bruce is able to welcome this new familial bond, it will also allow him to mend the bridges with the Justice League, so we're to assume. This is a Batman that must change and adjust, and find solace in the new role he's taken on for himself: Batman as caretaker. "We mourn lives lost...including our own", so reads Bruce's internal narration.
Again, due to the incomplete nature of the narrative, we don't get an opportunity to see much of Gordon's character do anything beyond talk to Sarah Essen on the phone to his wife's personal deterioration, and The Joker's plans never come to fruition as far as we can see. It's a much more fractured book than the tight and propulsive Year One, questions are asked and never really answered. The whole affair turned a number of readers off, but taken in this context with a fairly open mind, there's a good deal of what Miller's doing here that would pre-sage what was to come, while still providing a believable enough city-scape that it could line up with the events of Year One, more or less. A reader could stop at this point logically and assume that Batman may be on his way to becoming the famous crime fighter we all know and love. But again, it's a shame about Gordon, whose confident and intensely personal character from the story previous is completely absent here. This omission is probably the biggest misstep of ASBAR, but we can likely assume given that the last published issue, focused more closely on Gordon, might have been a sign of things that never came.

Coming up in The Later Years - I dig into The Dark Knight Returns and its sequel the much maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again. What do they contribute to our now "peak-form" Batman? We'll find out soon.

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