BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Frank Miller
DC Comics, 2005, 114 pages, 978-1401207526, $14.99, Paperback
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller
DC Comics, 1986, 224 pages, 978-1563893421, $14.99, Paperback
Known throughout the comic book and graphic novel world as the man who reinvented and revitalized the Batman universe, Frank Miller is considered one of the greatest comic authors of the industry, right up there with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. His seminal Dark Knight works, Batman: Year One and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns—two stories that bookend the journey of Bruce Wayne as Batman—are held as two of the greatest Batman stories ever told. And for good reason—they’re both fantastic.
The Dark Knight Returns took a character saturated by cheesy campiness and completely transformed him into the dark, fearful superhero everyone knows. At the same time, Batman: Year One shows us Bruce Wayne as a rookie and tells the origin story of Batman.
To properly review these two books, as they’re graphic novels, mention needs to be made of the artwork. With Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley handling the art of The Dark Knight Returns, and David Mazzucchelli on Batman: Year One, both stories are beautifully rendered. However, the artwork of Year One, like many of its other aspects, doesn’t compare to the detail of The The Dark Knight Returns. Returns’ penciling is light and delicate, subtle but intricately detailed. The coloring constantly switches to fit the tone of the story: either bleak and washed out or incredibly vibrant. It’s amazing work and definitely on par with other great comics like Watchmen or V For Vendetta.
Mazzucchelli’s work in Year One is also very nice, but not on the same level. The line work is much heavier, lacking the detail and crispness of The Dark Knight Returns. Still, in terms of visual appeal, both are a joy to read through.
In terms of story, both graphic novels are wonderful. The Dark Knight Returns is the story of Batman’s return to Gotham—a city that has fallen even farther into the pit of terror of crime—after a ten year hiatus. It’s immense in scope, pulling in some of Batman’s most iconic villains such as Two-Face and Joker, and even bringing in some other heavy-hitting superheroes. But what shines through the most is how completely Miller understands the characters of this universe. He shows Bruce Wayne’s obsession, and the insanity required to put on a bat costume and fight crime. We see how the Batman’s return could potentially destroy Gotham, and how his deranged quest could become an infection that causes more harm than good. It’s a fantastic study of the vigilante.
That same understanding and attention to character shines through in Year One, but, again, it feels lacking when compared to The Dark Knight Returns—but not because it’s poorly written. On the contrary, Miller’s skill is clearly apparent in both. Year One‘s failure to measure up comes from how brief it is. It barely breaks a hundred pages, which makes it only half as long as The Dark Knight Returns. That is my main problem with Year One.
Beyond that, it’s a fantastic beginning to a story. The novel ends with our first allusion to the Joker, the Dark Knight’s greatest villain. Naturally, a cliffhanger like that leaves us wanting so much more. Specifically, we want much more Batman, which leads me to problem number two: we don’t get as much of the Caped Crusader as we should.
Year One parallels the rise of Bruce Wayne as Batman with the story of Jim Gordon and his rise to police commissioner. We see their respective journeys and how they come to understand how far Gotham has fallen, and how much it’s going to take to save the city. But we end up seeing much less Batman and much, much more Gordon, to the point that it feels like this is his story. And while Jim Gordon could easily be the second most important character in Batman (beaten only by Alfred), this is Batman’s story.
Overall, both are incredible stories for anyone who enjoys comics, and probably a necessity for any fans of the Caped Crusader. That said, you certainly get more for your money’s worth by starting with The Dark Knight Returns. At about fifteen dollars and a hundred pages, Batman: Year One feels a bit light, especially when you could grab something as expansive as The Dark Knight Returns for the same price, or even something grander like Watchmen for five dollars more.