Monday, March 19, 2012

Year One: Batman 405

Batman #405 (March 1987)
"War Is Declared"
Frank Miller-David Mazzuchelli

Karen: Although this four part series is called "Batman Year One," it could easily be called "Jim Gordon Year One" because the future commissioner Gordon gets equal time with the new-born Dark Knight. This issue opens with Gordon racing to a hostage situation. A mentally ill man with a gun is holding three children hostage. No one can really figure out what he wants, as he's not making any sense. As Gordon speeds through a downpour to get there, he hears over the radio that the SWAT team is on its way too. Like the rest of the Gotham police, the SWAT team is a collection of violent hooligans and Gordon fears that if they get there first, it'll be a massacre. Gordon pulls up quickly and by force of will, backs the SWAT leader off.

Doug: Miller does a good job of portraying Jim Gordon's personality -- his hopes and fears, his mental state as he speeds to this call. And is there no end to the corruption of the GCPD? So many twists and turns as Gordon feels his way through his new department. Mazzuchelli's pictures as Gordon floors it and then screeches to a halt at the crime scene are quite effective. Watching the bystanders scatter as Gordon careens nearly out of control adds a real sense of urgency to this situation.

Karen: Gordon looks up at the window where the gunman stands and pointedly drops his gun, so the man will see he is unarmed. He enters the broken-down tenement and approaches the crazed man, who is spouting nonsense while holding a gun to the head of a young girl. Gordon easily disarms the man and everyone survives. But he's made a lot of enemies on the force with his "white hat" behavior, and he knows it. He practices his marksmanship, all the while thinking how he hates his gun and he hates his job. At home a few nights later, his pregnant wife Barbara gives him a back rub, when suddenly he gets a phone call from the Commissioner. It's something about a giant bat.

Doug: This particular scene, in the way it plays out, definitely rocks
a "parallel lives" vibe. If the artist had silhouetted Gordon's figure and left only the action and the speech balloons, it would be difficult to distinguish Gordon's disarming of the man and his driven determination at the shooting range from that of the Batman. And it's no secret that this is what Miller is going for, two sides of the same coin, wanting to do the right thing albeit with different approaches. Both meting out justice, one step at a time. It's interesting that as the commissioner keeps getting complaints from within the force, he is for the moment supporting Gordon -- after all, the press is on Gordon' side, and you don't mess with people who buy their ink by the barrel.

Karen: That 'giant bat', obviously our young Batman, is out testing his costume, and himself. He confronts a group of three young thieves on a fire escape. "The costume works," he thinks, as his appearance causes the three to freeze momentarily. Unfortunately, as he bounds into them , one falls over the rail, and Batman - thinking "I'm no killer" - has to grab the boy by the ankle while the other two pound on him. After getting bashed on the head with a TV, Batman finally manages to disable the two and pull the boy up. But it's obvious he has a long way to go in perfecting his methods.

Doug: This is a well-choreographed scene. I cou
ld really feel the tension as the battle escalated. But Batman held onto the kid's ankle, even while dispensing some pain. I'm not sure I was buying the last couple of panels that played out before the dropped television hit the concrete (20 stories below!).

Karen: A month later, Gordon is briefing a room of detectives. Three drawings on the wall behind him depict various descriptions of Batman -- one looks like Man-Bat, another is almost Zorro-like, and the third looks a lot like how Batman appeared in his earliest appearances. Gordon says that Batman has committed 78 acts of assault in five weeks -- so it's safe to say, he's been busy. This is also where we first meet Detective Essen -- a tall, attractive blond. We also see that Flass, the dirty thug cop that Gordon beat up in the last issue, is sitting in the briefing room with a cast on his arm and a neck brace. A smiling Gordon says that the Batman has graduated to taking down drug suppliers and any cops that might be helping them -- and then asks Flass to describe his encounter with the vigilante. Flass' narrative of what happened and the illustrations that accompany are of course at odds with each other. He claims he was about to take down some drug criminals when he heard "giant wings flap. It flew down from the sky... the wings were about thirty feet across..." The other cops chuckle at him. He says the 'creature' was hit point blank by bullets and just laughed. He describes how it took out the criminals and himself and his fellow cops just roast him.

Doug: This scene with Flass' narration of his exploits was really humorous. He was right in the thick of the dirty deed when the Batman showed up! What do you think of Miller's typical depiction of the Batarang as a small throwing star-type of weapon? It's sure a far cry from the old boomerang-type of Batarang that was hinged to fit in the utility belt.

Karen: Different, and probably more deadly. I assume it was due to Miller's fascination with martial arts movies. Four nights later, Batman lurks outside the Mayor's mansion. His Honor is hosting a party. After ensuring that the chauffeurs waiting outside will sleep through his coming activities, he hunkers down and listens to the guests inside. The Commissioner, seated at the dining table, gets a phone call from Gordon and afterward complains about the man. Batman keeps hearing that name -"All the right people seem to hate him" he notes. Besides the commissioner, crime boss Falcone is another guest, and he complains that Batman is hurting his business. He also complains about assistant district attorney Harvey Dent. Suddenly the lights go out, the room fills with smoke, and the wall opposite the diners blows apart, with the dark figure of the Batman standing there. "You've eaten well. You've eaten Gotham's wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on -- none of you are safe."

Doug: The smoke, the subterfuge, the fear tact
ics -- all of this became hallmarks of the Batman persona after Miller's handling of the character. We saw elements of this in the 1989 Batman movie as influenced by this very story. I liked the way the Batman moved along the circle drive in front of the mansion, disarming (!) chauffeurs left and right. It was pretty obvious even before we the readers got a peek inside that this was a shady gathering.

Karen: The commissioner is demanding that Gordon catch Batman, or he'll be axed. Gordon sets up some traps, using decoy cops apparently committing crimes, but Batman is on to him. While Gordon tries to catch him, he humiliates the crime lords. Gordon pays a visit to Harvey Dent,whom he suspects is actually Batman. But he can prove nothing. However, unknown to Gordon, Dent is working with the vigilante; the extent of this relationship is unclear.

Doug: I guess I was
unaware "back in the day" at how noble a soul Harvey Dent was before he became Two-Face. Miller plays it up here, and of course the recent Christopher Nolan flick The Dark Knight was rife with this characterization of Harvey Dent, a "white knight". Miller must have had a soft spot for Dent, as he was a major player in the first issue of The Dark Knight Returns. I wonder why he never did a full-on Two Face story?

Karen: Gordon and Detective Essen are on patrol, cruising round, and it's clear there's some attraction, at least on Gordon's part. A delivery truck swerves in front of them and they go to chase it down. There's something wrong with the driver. Just as it appears that the truck is about to run down and old woman, Batman comes out of nowhere and grabs her, pulling her out of the way. At the same time, Gordon has jumped into the cab of the truck to bring it to a halt. Essen jumps from the car and pulls a gun on Batman. But as soon as she glances back to see how Gordon is, Batman disarms her and disappears. Other cops show up and Gordon points them down the alley where the vigilante just went, all the while thinking about how the mystery man saved the old woman. The police fire repeatedly at Batman and manage to wound his leg, and he makes his way into an abandoned building, heading for the roof and freedom. However, despite Gordon's protestations, the commissioner orders in the SWAT team. A helicopter appears and drops a bomb on the derelict building, creating a huge fireball, with Batman still inside.

Doug: I think the subplot with Gordon and Sarah Essen further adds to the parallel lives aspect of the story. As Bruce Wayne is driven and flawed, we now see Gordon with feet of clay. Through most of these first two issues, he's lamented bringing his pregnant wife and unborn child to live in Gotham City. Mazzuchelli draws Barbara Gordon as very attractive, even sexy. Yet Gordon talks about tasting Essen's lipstick on the cigarette she's lit for him, and how as they drive along her fingernails dig into his knee -- both of these things obviously turn him on.

Doug: The GCPD, and indeed the political machine that runs the city, is a mess, isn't it? We've gone, in the space of half of this book, from the guys in charge wanting to preserve Gordon to now doing whatever they can to embarrass him. And the Batman? From drawing public attention away from the corruption of Gotham to messing with the wrong people and now on the extermination list. The second half of this story promises to be exciting!

Karen: Doug and I have frequently complained that today's comics take all of five minutes to read. Well I have to tell you, this took me about 40 minutes to get through! There's so much going on here. It's amazing to see the story progression. The events in this issue alone would easily fill three issues in our current era of decompression. All in all, an exciting story, with some nice character introductions, and some real growing pains for Batman.


Inkstained Wretch said...

I didn't get involved in the commentary last week over the art, but I'm curious: Has Miller ever explained why he didn't draw the mini-series himself? No matter what you think of Mazzuchelli's art, I find it odd that Miller did not want to draw such an important storyline.

Inkstained Wretch said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Karen said...

FYI: Just removed part of a double post.

Doug said...

HA! How unlikely is it that Karen and I would be online at exactly the time Inkstained's post came through? Because I deleted on, too!


Doug said...

Pardon my typing... Should have read "deleted one, too".


Inkstained Wretch said...

Thanks, guys.

Lemnoc said...

Continues this series' strong tradition of "keeping things real" for Batman. I think Mazzuchelli's art, his slim, restrained poses steeped in shadow, lends to the gritty realism.

As I said in the earlier thread, Batman has few allies in this era, and spends more time being chased and shot at by police than by bad guys. These are not fun times for the Dark Knight.

It always fascinated me that Dent was the original ally here, with that alliance happening somewhere unseen off stage, and it really lends power to the depiction of Two Face as analog and parallel to the twin apsects of Bruce Wayne as the Batman.

Garett said...

I'm enjoying the Year One reviews! I'm glad Mazzuchelli drew this. I read his recent book, Asterios Polyp, and while it's interesting, after a while it was too dry. I wish Miller/Mazz had done a few more Batman stories after this one.

Fred W. Hill said...

I enjoyed this too. Year One came out nearly 50 years after BatMan made his big debut in Detective Comics and I suspect there weren't that many older fans who had colleceted those comics off the stands for 10 cents who were still keeping up with the Caped Crusader and would've griped about how Miller was changing so much. Now we're nearing or past the 50 year mark for many Marvel Comics characters -- the FF, Hulk, Spidey & Thor. John Byrne's attempt at a "Year One" for Spidey didn't go over to well, in large part, I think, because he changed too much that didn't really need revising. Also, of course, by the time Marvel got going, there was already a comics fan culture, unlike the dawning of the Golden Age, and Stan & company were paying a bit closer attention to continuity than Kane, Finger and their contemporaries.
Aside from the few over the top moments previously mentioned, I think Miller did a good job of retaining the essense of those tales from now over 70 years ago and making changes or filling in the gaps in ways that make sense. Showing the multiple problems Gordon was facing -- not just street crime but rampant corruption at all levels of the police force and city government, makes it all the more plausible that he would strike a deal with this strange vigilante who appeared to share his strong ethics and abhorence of the thugs who were destroying Gotham City. Also it's good to see BatMan learning his trade, making mistakes, setting boundaries for himself. Reminds me a bit of the first year or so of Spider-Man, except, of course, that Spidey was still a kid -- despite also being a scientific genius with a bit of chip on his shoulder, Lee & Ditko made much of his immaturity, even as he was taking on ever greater responsibilities. BatMan was more mature and fabulously wealthy, as well as brilliant, but he was still finding his way here.

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

STILL one of my favorite Batman stories...

Anonymous said...

batman without robin is like oreos without milk

Roygbiv666 said...

batman without robin is like a fish without a bicycle.

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