So it’s time for a reread.
If you’ve checked out our page titled “Andrew’s Batman Comics Canon,” you know I’ve been working on a little project for a while now. The project is simple enough in concept, if not at all in execution:
Build a canon of Batman comics that creates the kind of narrative arc I want from the character. For every great Batman comic out there, you can probably find at least three utterly mediocre ones, and at least one really awful one, too.
We shouldn’t have to put up with that shit. We’re busy people, and we’ve got other comics to read. Among other things.
In this reread of my Bat-library, I want to write at least a few thoughts on each comic in the series, taking special note this time around of how each author characterizes Batman and whether that fits with my ideal interpretation of him. Sometimes Bruce Wayne can be a real asshole, and that’s okay as long as he learns something from it — on the other hand, I’m looking to construct a more compassionate, enlightened version of the character, one who learns from his mistakes (like a real person) and who gradually pulls himself up out of the darkness and trauma that gave birth to the Bat. And I’m not looking to create an emotional “bootstraps” story, either — he will need help from Alfred, from the Bat-family, and even sometimes from his Super Friends. Any suggestions are very welcome!
Disclaimer for you DC nerds out there — because the Flashpoint event radically altered a lot of the DC Multiverse’s stories and characters, and usually in a way that distances them pretty drastically from previous post-Crisis, 1986-2011 writings, this collection will probably not include many titles post-New 52. Notable exceptions are the final two volumes of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated.
On to the comics, starting with — shocker! — Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.
Let’s the get the elephant in the room out of the way first: this comic was written by Frank Miller, and as such we can already see the seeds of The Dark Knight Returns taking root in Year One.
Well, we need to nip that shit in the bud straight away. DKR is a landmark series, hugely influential, blah blah blah, but it represents a much grimmer, meaner Bruce Wayne who for whatever reason didn’t have the moral fortitude to get over his shit and keep fighting the good fight for the good reasons. I love the climactic burly brawl — there’s something so tragic and yet compelling about these two old friends beating each other senseless over their equally idiotic, hyperbolized politics. It’s brilliantly executed and brilliantly written, containing what may be Frank Miller’s best writing of Bruce Wayne.
But my Batman would never let things get that far. He’s way too smart for that.
When Year One opens, Bruce Wayne is overconfident and arrogant. Returning to his ancestral home after long years training abroad, he thinks to himself, “Wayne Manor. Built as a fortress, generations past, to protect a fading line of royalty from an age of Equals.”
WTF does that mean? It’s an unbearably classist sentiment that feels more like weird Frank Miller commentary than something Batman would actually think. Bruce Wayne’s money is a means to an end: while it’s important to consider how his wealth separates him from the rest of Gotham City and how it affords him a position of extreme privilege, it’s also important to me that he doesn’t harbor any overt notions of superiority that are based solely on his inheritance.
Luckily, this one time, I think I can pass off his “fading line of royalty” comment as sarcastic. Because this scene happens, and it’s one of the two most thrilling moments in the Year One series:
One thing Frank Miller has always understood about Batman — in Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and now in The Dark Knight III: The Master Race — is that he’s not about upholding the law. He’s not even necessarily about justice — at least, not in the sense of justice as a conception of fairness that we debate and agree upon as a society. After all, in that sense Batman is categorically a criminal. The above scene, on the other hand, perfectly distills what Batman really is:
Batman is a monster.
He’s a bogeyman, the creature that lives under the bed, the thing that goes bump. But unlike other folktale bogeymen, whom childish grown-ups have largely invented to terrify their children into obedience, the Batman preys on other monsters. And unlike other superheroes, the monsters Batman preys upon are generally pretty real.
And those monsters aren’t always on the “wrong” side of the law, either. In 1986 Frank Miller had Batman kicking the shit out of cops. Thirty years after the fact, I think it’s hard for us to realize how transgressive that probably was in the world of superhero comics, after decades of Batman’s chummy relationship with Commissioner Gordon and even having been a deputized agent of the law in certain comics and TV shows.
Cops, lawyers, corrupt politicians, police commissioners, along with all the usual shady businessmen, pimps, drug dealers, and gangsters… The Batman just don’t give a fuck. He has declared to the world: You hurt people or victimize people in Gotham City, and you’re asking for it.
“None of you are safe.”
I’ve come to think of Batman: The Man Who Laughs as a fifth act to Year One. It’s got the same gritty, crime-noir tone and picks up pretty much right where Frank Miller’s landmark series left off. There are some minor continuity issues between the two (they were, after all, written about 20 years apart), but they’re not terribly jarring or important.
Bruce has come off his high horse just a little in this one, partly I’m sure because Miller didn’t write it. Ed Brubaker takes off running with Batman’s unrivaled detective abilities and really nails the introduction of the Dark Knight’s nemesis. Joker’s got a very Mark Hamill/Batman: The Animated Series feel in this comic, but with a little more of the wickedness and cruel humor we find in Batman: Arkham Knight.
Anyway, this comic ups the ante. Year One‘s antagonists are all very real-world and pedestrian: crooked cops, pimps, gangsters, etc. But the grisly opening scene of The Man Who Laughs tells us we’re dealing with something completely different now. And Batman knows it too — the comic is peppered with his trademark characteristic of being relentlessly self-critical and hard on himself when he can’t save everybody from the likes of the Joker.
I also love the last scene at the Gotham reservoir. Batman proves for the first of many times that he’s a master strategist, capable of thinking well ahead of even his most unpredictable of enemies. And, reinforcing several moments from Year One, Batman refuses to kill — even this most depraved member of the human race. When Joker’s beaten and bloody at Batman’s feet, he says “I’ll kill them… some other time…” And Batman replies:
“No, you won’t.”
Next up: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s collaborative trilogy, The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, and Haunted Knight!