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"It's not only one of the most important comics every written, it's also among the best" says the blurb at the top of this new edition of Batman: Year One. But should we believe this?
As the introduction to this lovely hardcover explains, Batman: Year One began its life as a four-issue miniseries in 1986, when DC Comics decided that the origins of their most popular characters needed updating—or, in Batman's case, a more modern context. So it is that Frank Miller (hot off his success with popular The Dark Knight Returns) and his hand-picked artist, David Mazzucchelli, created this tale of urban noir that would define the Dark Knight for the next 26 years… and then some.
If you've seen the 2005 movie Batman Begins (and you probably have, right? If not, GET ON IT!), a lot of the beats of Year One will be familiar to you. As its title suggests, this graphic novel shows Bruce Wayne's first days fighting crime in Gotham City. He's just come back from a decade-plus journey of training overseas, and now he's ready to clean up the town that took his parent's life. Except Year One isn't just about Batman. It's just as much about a new police officer named James Gordon—Gordon, in fact, may be the real star of the book. In this comic's opening pages, Gordon and Wayne arrive in Gotham simultaneously, each with the very serious intent of rescuing the city from its giant hole of corruption and evil.
But that's easier said than done. Gordon can't even step out on patrol before he's told that the corrupt Gotham Police are basically run by money and favors. Meanwhile, Bruce has all the best training that his fortune and patience can buy, but no one's afraid of him, making it really tough to make an impression on criminals. The two have a long battle ahead, but luckily, they're about to meet each other.
As far as Batman stories go, Year One is basically perfect. You won't find any of the supervillains you're used to here (well, Catwoman shows up, and there are some hints of others)—instead, Batman's target in this book is common crime, whether it's drug pushers or the rich men at the top of the food chain who keep the city just the way they want it. There's a real, palpable sense here that Gotham is a truly awful place; Miller expertly makes us feel the uphill, seemingly impossible battle Batman and Gordon are going to face. Fittingly, nothing really gets resolved in these four chapters, except for perhaps the key plot point—Batman finding a way to make Gordon trust him.
David Mazzucchelli's art in this volume is fantastic. An essay from longtime comic writer Denny O'Neil at the front of this book mentions that people expected Miller himself to do the story's art, as he had on Dark Knight Returns (and would go on to do in stuff like Sin City and 300). However, Mazzucchelli makes a fine partner, using similar no-nonsense panel breakdowns and rigidly ugly urban settings to flesh out Batman's home turf. Richard Lewis' coloring also excels; it's bleak yet expressive, certainly doing more than most with the color restrictions necessary in printing older comics.
This new "Deluxe Edition" hardcover features essays from comic industry pros (including Mazzucchelli), additional art from Mazzucchelli himself (including an adorable Batman cartoon he drew when he was six years old), and rough script/panel breakdowns detailing the book's creation that will likely prove interesting to any aspiring comic creators.
Truthfully, it's difficult to overstate the quality or importance of Year One. Despite coming out over 45 years after the character's first appearance, it has shaped Batman probably more than any other book before or since. Ignoring that, it's also a fantastic story that shows a young hero coming into his own. This Batman makes mistakes. He's human. He's someone, maybe, that you or I could be (though probably not… but hey, a guy can dream). If you want to start reading Batman comics but have no idea where to look, we'll make it easy for you: get this one. A
(By the way, if this book sounds good to you, check back here next week for a chance to win your own copy...)