We all know the origins of Batman. However in 1987, writer Frank Miller breathed life into a floundering Batman comic with the help of artist David Mazzucchelli. They did it by reinventing not only the Batman origin, but also the Commissioner Gordon origin. What may be considered one of the greatest origin stories in comics, we discuss Batman: Year One with special guest, Graydon Webb!
Notes for the podcast:
In the Beginning:
Shortly after the DC Universe was revamped with Crisis on Infinite Earths, Frank Miller was tasked with solidifying the origins of Batman after a successful run on Daredevil. Like most other stories that came out of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the reason was to clean up the history of the character. For example, Batman had various changes over the years prior to Crisis such as where the Bat moniker came from – did it come from his father at a masquerade ball or because one flew through his window one night?
Prior to this, the Batman comics were doing poorly. So much so that one of the two Batman titles (Batman or Detective Comics) were at risk of being dropped. Dennis O’Neil wanted to shake up the Batman world to try and rejuvenate sales, and was able to work with Frank Miller into getting this done. What was once originally going to be a graphic novel, Dennis was able to convince Frank to serialize the story in the mainline books and worked out a new contract that matched the original, with some stipulations to make it a monthly book vs one collected release.
With his contract, not only was Frank Miller expected to write the end of Batman’s life (The Dark Knight Returns), but also the origin story. Thus came about, Batman: Year One. Because he often felt stressed to write and illustrate a book, and Year One being required to finish within 6 months, Frank would write while David Mazzuchelli would be the artist.
When writing the book, Miller didn’t want to stray too far from the original Bob Kane and Bill Finger vision. Instead of changing it up too drastically, he approached it by focusing on the lesser fleshed out parts of the origin. He also didn’t want Batman to be written as he normally is now as “the man with a plan”. Instead he wanted Batman to learn through his failings. He found that the more interesting approach.
Chapter One: Who I Am, How I Come to Be
The story begins with both James Gordon and Bruce Wayne arriving in Gotham. Both see Gotham as it is, a crime ridden city with too much fixing for one man. Both see past the appearance of a normal city and knows there is something darker within it. Gordon meets Lieutenant Flass who directs him to Commissioner Loeb. Gordon reassures Loeb that whatever mistakes he made in the past, but is willing to prove himself as an officer with his work ethic and honesty. His first time out with Flass already introduces him to the city as he expected. Flass immediately picks a fight with someone on the street, and Gordon watches silent. Unlike the last experience which saw him leave his previous position, he was going to make sure he knew everything before he brought down another cop. He watches everything about how Flass moves knowing he’ll need it soon.
The next bit is a time skip. We see Gordon is a lieutenant and is being warned by Flass that the other boys think he’s too rough on them. Hints that he should be careful, especially with his wife Barbara being pregnant and all..
Next jump ahead. Bruce training. Knows it’s not time yet to take to the streets.
Another time jump, and we see Flass complaining to Commissioner Loeb that Gordon isn’t as corrupt as the rest of them and is actually taking his job seriously. They arrange something to be done about Gordon while Commissioner Loeb is out of town for a conference so it doesn’t come back down on him.
Another time jump. We see Bruce getting ready for a night on the town by putting on some prosthetics. Then we see Gordon, going to his car. He requested the night off, but was never given an answer. Now we see why. A few men wielding bats come out of the shadows and attack him. He fights back valiantly, but it’s been a while since his military days, and is blindsighted. They use his pregnant wife as a warning again, and while he can’t see him, he hears the familiar chuckle of Lieutenant Flass.
We see Bruce walking the streets as a hooker, Holly, tries to catch his attention. After Holly fails, she is reprimanded by her pimp who Bruce provokes to attack him. Bruce easily dispatches him only to be attacked by the other hookers and stabbed in the leg by Holly. Selina Kyle watches everything and sees Bruce grab Holly’s wrist and hurt her. She leaps down and tries to fight him off as the police arrive. The police shoot Bruce in the shoulder for no reason, and instead of taking him to a doctor, decide to book him. As they head back to the precinct, Bruce hears one cop say that he doesn’t care if drifters like him die. Bruce busts out and causes the car to wreck in a fiery mess. Bruce can’t let them die though and saves them. Bruce finds his car, considers the night a failure, and drives home.
Next scene we see Gordon, with a bat in his car, looking for Flass. He locates him playing poker at a friends house and waits for him to leave. When he does, he follows him and causes Flass to wreck his car. Flass recognizes Gordon, and it’s clear they’re going to go to blows. Gordon tosses him a bat as a “handicap” then proceeds to beat the piss out of Flass. He is careful though. Not enough to take him to a hospital. Just enough to incapacitate him and hurt his pride. He strips Flass of his clothes, handcuffs him, and drives off. He knows Flass will know better than to mess with Gordon or threaten his wife again.
Then we see Bruce sitting in a chair at his mansion after crashing the car outside. He debates whether he is strong enough to continue or if he should allow himself to bleed out. He reminisces about the fateful night with the death of his parents outside the showing of Zorro. Suddenly a bat busts through the window and sits atop a bust in front of him. It sparks the idea. He’ll become the bat. Then he rings a bell for Alfred to come save him from bleeding out.
Chapter Two: War Is Declared
The next issue we see Gordon driving around as he hears about a paranoid schizophrenic kidnapping three children at gunpoint. It’s not until he hears that Branden is on route, and knows things will go from bad to worse. He doesn’t wait and gets to the scene as quickly as possible to prevent Branden from being involved. Gordon takes it into his own hands when he shows the kidnapper his gun and drops it to the ground before coming inside. He remarks that he hopes Barbara isn’t watching, though the panel shows she is, and he is well aware of it too. He meets the man at the door, trying to be as calm as possible, and quickly knocks him out.
Next scene the following day is Branden remarking to Commissioner Loeb that Gordon humiliated him in front of his men. But for the time being, Commissioner Loeb’s hands are tied as the press likes Gordon. Then we see Gordon practicing his aim. He remarks that he hates his job.
The next few days shows Gordon tired. Fearful of bringing a little boy into this world. Then a few days later, he gets a call from Merkel about a giant bat running around.
The next scene shows Batman on the scene. Some men trying to rob an apartment on a fire escape, and Batman butts in. He practices some stuff here including a growl and the use of the costume itself. However when he lands, not only does it scare a few of them, one ends up falling backwards off the escape. Batman panics afraid to kill him and quickly grabs him leaving himself open to be hit. Batman is able to fight back with only one handed. The scene ends with him calling himself a lucky amateur.
Time skip to a month later where Gordon is giving a briefing to his men on the Batman. We see Detective Essen for the first time helping Gordon light his match as Flass goes into his personal story on the Batman with Gordon’s request of not exaggerating. As Flass describes the moment including Batman flying down from the sky and a bullet going through him (his cape – which Flass doesn’t realize), the other officers don’t seem to be taking it seriously embarrassing Flass.
A few days later, we see Commissioner Loeb eating with his more powerful friends (such as Falcone) as Batman prepares his entrance outside. He overhears Loeb mention Gordon, and Batman makes a note that all the “right people seem to hate him”. As the people inside talk about Gordon, Batman, and Dent being bad for business, Batman cuts the lights and makes his dramatic entrance after blowing a hole in the wall. “You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. It’s spirit. Your feast is nearly over. From this moment on, none of you are safe” as he extinguishes the last light in the room.
A few weeks pass and we see Commissioner Loeb threaten Gordon with losing his job if he can’t bring in the Batman. They try to lure him into showing himself by setting traps making it look like crimes are being committed, but it’s all officers putting on an act. Batman sees through it, and is able to point out each cop involved.
Another time jump. Falcone tied up in his room by Batman who took his Rolls Royce to a pier and dumped it in the water. Falcone says he wants Batman dead.
The next day we see Gordon talking with Harvey Dent. He suspects Dent as Batman because of his ethic and how good of shape he stays in. Dent provides him alibis for certain dates Gordon inquires about, and as he leaves, we see Batman hidden behind Dents desk as Dent tells him its safe to come out. As Gordon and Essen leave, they go back over Dent’s likelihood as Batman. While some ideas work out, the problem is the money and how to afford everything Batman seems able to. Essen proposes the idea of Batman being Bruce Wayne. A man with money. A troubled past. It’s also here we start seeing signs of Gordon’s interest in Essen in a more personal, not professional sense.
Suddenly, a truck runs a red light as Gordon is about to pass and Batman watching overhead. Whatever the problem is, the driver is out of control. Gordon is able to pull up next to it and gets the driver out as Batman leaps in to save a homeless woman who would have been hit. As Gordon comes too after the brief crash, he sees Essen holding Batman up. But the one distraction Batman needed to escape, Essen turning her head to check on Gordon, Batman takes it clocking Essen in the head and running off as Gordon directs officers to follow him. The officers fire off some shots, hitting Batman in the leg with one. Batman is able to find himself into a building, and Gordon quickly has it surrounded. Commissioner Loeb directs Branden to get involved, despite Gordon not wanting that to happen. Then we see that it’s a building set for demolition, and Commissioner Loeb is okay with dropping sometime on top of the building leading to a small explosion and lighting the building on fire in hopes to take out Batman.
Chapter Three: Black Dawn
The next issue we see Batman finding shelter from the blast in a metal trap door in the floor after abandoning his utility belt since thermite caught on fire. Holly is able to see the explosions from a distance and wakes Selina up to look at it. Branden arrives on the scene directing his swat team into the building with a “no prisoners” mentality. The news of it all is being broadcast and we see Holly and Selina watching and Holly wants to go down to the scene and Selina agrees.
As Branden’s men scour the building, they run across a chimney and the nearby trap door and head down. The two men standing guard by the chimney are quickly knocked out by some pressure point hits from Batman popping up out of the chimney. The trap doors shuts with the men inside and Batman puts a large beam on top to prevent anyone coming back out. They notice the chimney is connected to the room underneath, but Batman must have kicked it out and went up it. As they look at it though, a little item drops down into the chimney and they scramble to get on their gas masks.
We get a scene outside with Gordon being “heartbroken” that Branden is in need of help. Selina and Holly are watching in the crowd. We see a helicopter with snipers and Commissioner Loeb above waiting to catch a glimpse of Batman but needing the sun to rise a little bit more. Seeing the sun poke through a crack in the wall, Batman realizes his time is running out as Brandens men come down the stairs that Batman is hiding under. Batman assesses his situation. The only thing he has that remains is a blowgun and three darts and a special invention courtesy of Wayne Electronics that he hasn’t tested out from this far a distance. Better chance than any as he presses the button and we see bats stirring in the cave by Wayne Manor.
As Branden’s men look around, Batman takes out one of them with a dart. The other men catch sight and unload on where he is laying at. He is able to wiggle away and saves a cat in the process, tossing it out the window (and it trots into the arms of Selina), but catches a bullet in the arm in the process. As the men close in on Batman, he kicks out a pillar causing the roof to collapse around them. No more hiding as Batman gets in close and starts attacking the swat team. Outside, Gordon sees one of the men knocked through the wall as the crowd cheers Batman on. It’s suddenly replaced by screams as bats block out the sun. Batman uses it as his escape and steals a police cycle using them as a shroud so they can’t find him.
We see Gordon go over the fallout from the scene. Kids needing vaccinations from the bats. Members of the Swat team injured. Dead winos. Then we see Gordon and Essen continuing to discuss Wayne as being Batman. Alfred covers for him saying he’s been gone six weeks skiing in Switzerland. Bruce tries calling and speaks to someone claiming to be Wayne and was injured in Switzerland. Essen mentions how Wayne can afford impersonators and hide bullet wounds with casts, but Gordon seems out of it, possibly admiring Essen. Then we see Bruce going over everything and that he can’t do this alone. He needs Gordon’s help.
Selina knocks out the pimp. She has a different idea as she grabs Holly and leaves.
We see Gordon and Essen sharing a smoke and a drink at a diner. They talk about their lives. Who they were and how they ended up where they are. They get close. They share a kiss.
Selina tries out her new costume. Looks good as a cat.
Then we see Gordon going over everything in his mind. He hates the city. He hates the fights with his wife. He knows he’s done bad by his wife and wants to apologize for not only being there, but for bringing a son into the world and having feelings for Essen. He’s also having his mind clouded on what to do with Batman. Batman is a criminal, and Gordon is a cop. Simple. But Batman is doing good saving people while the cops and mayor are being the true criminals. All of this is weighing heavy on his mind as the issue ends.
Chapter Four: Friend in Need
We see Gordon and Essen’s relationship continuing. He thinks he’s in love. She plans on leaving Gotham. We also see Gordon apprehending narcotics dealer Jefferson Skeevers, however Skeevers is able to be set free with Harvey Dent being perfectly fine with it. This sets Gordon off on Dent who seems unphased by it all. Next day we see Batman climbing up the wall outside of Skeevers room and busts in. He warns Skeevers “You can never escape me. Bullets don’t harm me. Nothing harms me. But I know pain. I know pain. Sometimes I share it. With someone like you”. Cut to black.
The next day, Skeevers goes to Gordon and wants to talk to Dent about a plea. Tell him everything about Flass, which he does leaving Flass implicated on the drug operation. This brings Gordon to Commissioner Loeb (Branden sitting in too) who isn’t liking how Gordon is doing things. He’s going to expect some change, otherwise some things will start getting out. He shows Gordon a picture of him kissing Essen.
Time jump. Gordon and his wife Barbara are meeting Bruce at his mansion to go over the potential of him being Batman. He puts on one hell of a show, including a very attractive woman. As they leave, Gordon fesses up about his relationship with Essen (off panel) as Bruce watches on waiting for them to leave his grounds.
Over the next few weeks, we see Gordon continuing on trying to get Flass in prison. We see Barbara turning away another phone call trying to tell her about Gordon and Essen which she calmly says she already knows and not to bother her again. Then we see Skeevers having been poisoned under an oxygen mask, but will survive. Then Barbara gives birth to a little boy.
Selina is on the next page being upset that her work burglarizing the rich is being credited to the Batman. She prepares her next heist, this time the Roman.
We see Batman flying in and starts recording the Roman as Catwoman makes her appearance. Batman quickly takes them out without them knowing, and Batman tells Catwoman she wasted his time. Back at Wayne Manor, we see Bruce telling Alfred how he almost had the Roman on tape instructing his nephew to do something had it not been for her interference.
Then we see the Roman telling his nephew while in the hospital about Gordon. How he just became a father…
Then we see Gordon getting a call. He is needed out to take care of a case that Merkel could work on. But we see that Commissioner Loeb has other plans, and Gordon gets suspicious when a motorcyclist drives by extremely fast back into the building Gordon came from – but Gordon doesn’t recognize the man. He gets the idea that this was all a rouse to get him out of the house. He turns around to see the man getting off the motorcycle, and then sees Roman’s nephew in a car with Gordon’s child, holding a knife to it’s throat. Barbara is also being abducted by some other men, but Gordon fires off a shot taking one of them down only to have one laid into his shoulder in retaliation. The men drive off with Gordon’s baby and the motorcyclist starts to get back on the bike only to be shot by Gordon, and then Gordon takes the bike and follows them.
Barbara holds up the motorcyclist, but the man says “Mrs. Gordon, you have to trust me. I won’t let your boy die.” Then he runs off and steals a bicycle.
Gordon catches up to the car and fires a bullet making the tire go out as it crashes on a bridge. Gordon rushes in, but doesn’t hear any sounds – including that of his child. The nephew surprises Gordon and tries to stab him and drops the child off the bridge. The man on the bike shows up and dives off the bridge with Barbara right behind him and catches the child as Gordon and the nephew fall off as well. The man hands the crying baby to Gordon. Gordon says “You know, I’m practically blind without my glasses. Sirens coming. You’d better go”
The last pages ties it all up. Flass was found holding notes on every conversation with Loeb. Loeb resigns and is being replaced with a man named Grogan who Gordon sees as being worse than Loeb. Gordon thinks how Roman and Roman’s sister are at war with each other. Gordon received a promotion to Captain. Essen is in New York and doing well. Barbara and Gordon are seeking marriage counseling and it’s going well. He then remarks that things are going well for him. Except someone threatened to poison the Gotham reservoir – man named Joker. But he has a friend who can help, someone who will be there any minute.
The story was met with great success and wildly praised even to this day. The comics more than doubled in sales compared with prior issues and not only helped beat out Marvel Comics for the first time in direct market sales, but had some of the best sales since the 70’s selling an average of 193,000 copies each of the 4 issues.
Batman: Year One would see many people follow up with Batman’s adventures of his early career. Batman: Year Two would be written (though eventually erased due to Zero Hour), and books like The Long Halloween, Dark Victory, The Man Who Laughs, and more would all have some basis in the Batman: Year One story.
Even elements of film and tv would be rooted in Batman: Year One. Gotham for instance is heavily inspired by Batman: Year One. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight also have references attributed to Batman: Year One as well (calling the bats, Gordon calling on Batman for help with the Joker, Gordon trying to save his kids from a maniac, etc). DC also released an animated version of Batman: Year One that was well received as well and faithful to the original story due to the cinematic approach with the storytelling.
The book would be considered the main origin for Batman until DC rebooted themselves with the New 52 and used the Scott Snyder origin found in Zero Year.
The Movie That Never Was:
Batman has had many interpretations in film. However, one of them never saw the light of day. Frank Miller would be working with Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Mother!) to bring Batman: Year One (somewhat) to big screens to reboot the character prior to Batman Begins coming about – Christian Bale was still approached as Batman. However, Miller and Aronofsky didn’t quite see eye-to-eye on how to make it work, but did write up a screenplay together. Aronofsky found Miller’s Batman too “soft”. Miller didn’t like the idea that Batman would torture people. In 2001, WB would decline it anyway because it wasn’t kid-friendly enough. Frank Miller says per Hollywood Reporter:
“It didn’t have the toys in it. The Batmobile was just a tricked-out car. And Batman turned his back on his fortune to live a street life so he could know what people were going through. He built his own Batcave in an abandoned part of the subway. And he created Batman out of whole cloth to fight crime and a corrupt police force.”
Some changes in the film from the comic:
- Full Script here: http://leonscripts.users5.50megs.com/scripts/BATMANYEARONEscript.htm
- Selina Kyle would have been black
- Alfred wouldn’t exist and instead be a black man named “Little Al” who runs a repair shop and mentors Bruce
- Develops the Batman name after a ring he wore while fighting crime had an intertwined T and W and looked like a bat
- The Batmobile was a Lincoln Continental
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Intro and Outro Music: “RetroFuture Clean” by Kevin MacLeod
RetroFuture Clean Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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