[here’s my first BatPaper i wrote for my BatClass/seminar, because
a) i’m proud of it. i’ve never written styleanal for the comic medium, & it was fun. & hell yeah i can still write a mean paper.
b) i figure there are a select few whose interest will be piqued.]
To counteract the tendency of gravity to topple upright volumes of bound paper, bookends are sometimes utilized as preventive measures. It must be noted that bookends come in pairs, and while they may relate to the colors or content of the intervening tomes (in some clever intent of interior design), it’s really only décor faux pas if they don’t complement each other. So perhaps the “bookend theory” regarding Frank Miller’s twin 1986 four-part volumes Batman: the Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One is a misnomer—yet accordingly with the analogy, a comprehensive picture of the fabled vigilante crimefighter can be interpreted from just these two works. Despite the proximity in publication, distinct character development is evidenced in the storytelling—both in writing and aesthetic; despite the decades’ (in continuity) difference, both works clearly portray the same archetypical, loved-but-hated Batman—backed by two very different Bruce Waynes. Ironically, as they were written in reverse chronology (DKR before BYO), Frank Miller’s improved aptitudes in writing and directing the graphic novel allow for the gripping story in Year One that forms a grounding basis for Batman’s maturation into the worn warrior in Dark Knight Returns.
Who is this immortal Batman that haunts Gotham’s skies and America’s hearts? A great paradox: enigmatic public figure, nocturnal hammer of justice, he makes as many enemies in the halls of justice as those of Arkham Asylum, polarizing opinions in a city that both wants and reviles him. Year One revisits the first incarnation of Wayne’s Batman, as he returns from years of martial arts and weaponry training to fight the demons that prowl his hometown’s alleys—spawn of those tattooed in his memory. His initial forays spark awe and fear in witnesses, accompanied by heated confusion in the hodgepodge of responses from law enforcement and media. The Dark Knight Returns Batman, though forty years older, fills the exact niche in Gotham society, vacant after ten years’ “retirement”: fearful yet awed, again authorities retaliate and citizens voice both support and outrage. Batman doesn’t change; it’s the man behind the cowl that morphs from brash inexperience to jaded contempt—in all stages unmistakably human, an eternally empathetic character. This is Batman’s legacy and power, strung through every continuity: Bruce Wayne could be me or you. Batman is Everyman, with a fire under his ass.
Combustion is a chemical change: no substance it touches remains the same. Such it is with Batman, and Year One’s gritty tale of his beginnings is the perfect basis for his weary comeback-and-last-stand in Dark Knight Returns. This was only possible through Miller’s experience: his style reveals the growth of the Batman he revitalized—the stuff he saw between the bookends.
Right off the bat, with his bold, linear style, Miller sets the tone in Dark Knight Returns for a more sober, harsher Batworld, grounding the previous traditions of Bob Kane’s serial sensationalism and Neal Adams’ fantastic exclamations in a dark, exhausted Gotham, realistically rundown by the ravages of violence and crime. Miller taps into the Bat-ability to identify with the reader by using a no-nonsense all-caps font wherein the emphases are more subtle than previous explosive attention grabbers. It all begins with the understated covers, stark contrasts to the Detective Comics, Batman, and Batman and Robin series that were still fresh in syndicated memory. Devoid of sensational taglines (“A TALE TO HAUNT YOU FOREVER—‘DAUGHTER of the DEMON!’”), the original covers feature just one large artwork boxed in by a solid frame denoting just the volume and its title. While the black box at the bottom illuminates the title in a simple use of negative space, the red gradient of the first two (The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Triumphant, or Batman’s epic comeback) implies blood and action and glory, while the somber blue gradient of Hunt the Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Falls hint at the less-than-warm welcome Gotham and the United States extend to their most fervent native son. Notably, the only cover even depicting a fully visible Batman is the second, Triumphant, albeit in a grotesquely fiendish grimace. These covers captivate less by sensationalism than intrigue, and the silhouetted feel skillfully piques interest while still being dynamic enough to imply Batman’s signature controversy and action. Within, the pages are busy, but built of logically sequenced panels that show Bruce’s finely tuned mental capacities—his long years of sleuthing, fighting, and outwitting practically all of Gotham have turned his mind into a nearly robotic reactor of algorithms: even his emotional, flashback-fraught surrender to his suppressed Caped Crusader side is depicted in a strict grid of thought-imagery: though in distress, Batman’s now-automatic brain cannot deviate from its ingrained patterns of processing. This subtle dehumanization of aging Bruce Wayne provides a logical backdrop for his descent into pure vigilantism, culminating in his savage declaration to the mutants—and the world: “TONIGHT, WE ARE THE LAW. / TONIGHT, I AM THE LAW.” This presumptuous takeover could only be uttered by a Batman whose political impartiality and upright self-restraint had been weathered and beaten by the relentless assault of Gotham’s filthiest, over decades. No fresh-faced twenty-something would have dared publicly defy the professed law and authorities; this is Batman at the end of his rope, career, and sanity, in many ways the anticipated product of the nigh-interminable onslaught DC wring him through in every manner imaginable. Though admittedly deviant in its grim realism and disillusioned heroics, Dark Knight Returns is unquestionably an apt final bookend for the saga of Batman’s reverberating role in both his Gotham City and our real-life Planet Earth.
Some months later, with Dark Knight Returns clipped to his utility belt, and Crisis of Infinite Earths tucked into Batman’s, Miller returns to reinterpret the Batsaga in Year One with his own sidekick—David Mazzucchelli, whose artwork was similarly touted as “bold” and “direct.” Mazzucchelli is far more liberal with line thicknesses and colors, however, and the effect creates a veritable feel for the inside of a much fresher mind—newbie Batman, who has yet to hone his sensory and information processing, though equally susceptible to emotional breakdowns. Whereas DKR utilized many clichés and predictable motifs (heart attacks in aging Bruce and Jim, tech-savvy kid Robin), Miller stays his hand from penning those as often in Year One, giving new-to-crimefighting Bruce and Jim the rough edges of true rookies, learning as they go, playing guess-and-check until something clicks. The original covers here are much less enigmatic, though no less melodramatic in their own, illuminated way. Miller again shows a general pessimism about the effects and prevalence of criminality: in both works, the appearance of the Batman is a surging entrance into an amoral, unscrupulous world where selfishness is the only creed, and destruction its chief desire. Faced with such wanton base humanity, Bruce Wayne’s mental capacities are again and again overloaded, evidenced in the sporadic, uneven panel sizes (often with sides at skew angles) and disuniform overlay of emphatic or concurrent panels. Letterer Todd Klein also brings to light a facet of Bruce’s inquisitive, open mind—the font changes between characters’ inner monologues, narration, and speech render Year One somewhat less readable than DKR, yet several times more fascinating psychologically. The inside of this Bruce’s mind—and perception are an amalgam of rapidly-firing neurons and thoughts struggling to keep up: even his inner dialogues are prone to dashed break-offs and sectioned self-interruptions. In his confidence as a writer, and with the experience of Year One’s end-times interpretation, Miller’s expansion of his graphic novel team and wider generosity in his envisioned artwork and layout paint—quite literally—a much younger, more vibrant, still energized Gotham—and its latest homecoming: a bright, determined, rookie street enforcer barely floundering in his first appearance as Gotham’s new hope.
The comic world is notorious for its brazen lack of respect for the conventions of chronology and continuity; it is therefore no surprise that DC had Frank Miller first produce a vision of an aged Bruce Wayne emerging from a debilitating retirement before commissioning a reminiscence of his first days as Gotham’s premier-yet-unsanctioned crime deterrent. However, this procession in real life was essential in producing a final two-fer product that, while containing none of the intervening meat, speaks just as loudly as an expertly baked bread to the stuff in-between, portraying a new Batman as fresh and a decrepit Crusader as stubborn as could feasibly contain the vast majority of works which in theory occur in the decades of his full career.