After being a part of the cultural zeitgeist for over 75 years, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we all have our own personal idea of who Batman is. And that’s no surprise, as the Caped Crusader has been depicted multiple times across various forms of media—comic books, film, television, cartoons, video games, toys—and has been reinterpreted time and again by a whole host of creators. As with anything, our own personal experiences, our memories, and our own tastes and prejudices shape how we view the world, and how we think of the Dark Knight is no different. Some of you might see Adam West running in tights and using shark repellant; others might imagine Michael Keaton confronting Jack Nicholson in a bell tower.
As for me, when I think of Batman, the first image that almost always comes up first is his depiction in writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.
For the uninitiated, Batman: Year One originally ran in DC Comics’ Batman comic book title in 1986 and ’87 and retold the origin of the Caped Crusader using a very minimalist approach, following Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham after being abroad for 12 years preparing to take his war on crime to the underbelly of his city. At that same time, Jim Gordon, a lieutenant from Chicago, has arrived in Gotham City to join its police force, learning to negotiate the corruption permeating the department while still staying clean himself. The four-issue tale follows Wayne and Gordon’s first year as they find their own footings in the morally-diseased city and how the two shift their relationship from adversaries to comrades in the war on crime.
There’s a reason that Batman: Year One routinely shows up on every best-of list of Batman stories I’ve ever seen, usually falling in the number one or two spot, jockeying for top position with Miller’s other famous Bat-tale, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. While I can appreciate Returns for its love letter-approach to the Caped Crusader’s history, Year One strips down the Batman mythos to its most basic core. The story isn’t bogged down by years of continuity, by years’ worth of accumulated friends and foes and gadgets and vendettas. We see a Bruce Wayne who isn’t a Bat-God who can do no wrong; instead, Bruce routinely screws up, on more than one occasion almost getting himself or the criminals he faces maimed or killed. Even after he returns to Gotham, it takes some time for him to get his footing about how to truly wage war on the city’s rotten center.
And because of this approach, Year One is the one Batman story I’ve re-read more than other Dark Knight tale. It’s the reason why I have given it as a present to friends on more than one occasion, chiefly because I think everyone should read it. It’s why Christopher Nolan borrowed heavily from the tale in crafting his film Batman Begins and why writer Scott Snyder pulled elements from the story when writing Batman: Year Zero. It’s also the reason Fox chose to go the origin route in the TV series Gotham. (A bit of trivia: Ben McKenzie, who plays Jim Gordon in the series, was the voice of Batman in the cartoon adaptation of Batman: Year One.)
Aside from all of that, though, I keep coming back to Year One because of one scene, a scene I’ve reviewed several times in the course of reading the story. It’s the moment that, for me, Bruce Wayne truly becomes the Batman we all know, and it’s a moment in which before and since that I’ve never seen the Dark Knight depicted as more threatening and shows exactly how committed the character is to eradicating all crime in whatever form it appears.
Many fans and writers have their idea of when Bruce Wayne truly makes his transition to becoming the Dark Knight. Some point to the time that, as a child, he falls into a cavern on the Wayne estate and encounters a bat flapping toward him. Others will say that he made the shift the night his parents were gunned down before his eyes. Still others will point to Bruce, bloodied and broken, sitting in his father’s study, seeing a bat crash through a window. And while I might change my mind tomorrow, I see Bruce’s transformation to the Winged Creature of the Night to finally be complete when he confronts the most dangerous men and women in Gotham who are ultimately responsible for the city’s ills.
Prior this confrontation, Bruce has been hopping about the rooftops of the city, stopping petty crime and putting an end to low-level police corruption wherever he sees it. However, Bruce is a smart man and knows that the true poison to Gotham City is found in the corruption found in the politicians and the mob that run the city. And while, at the time, Police Commissioner Loeb sees no harm in Batman’s activities as they give Gotham’s citizens misplaced hope, Bruce knows that Loeb and those on his payroll are mired in the mob’s dealings. Batman has to send a message that nobody is above the law.
During a dinner attended by a who’s who of Gotham’s rich, politically-connected, and mob-connected, Bruce uses a smoke bomb and theatrics to crash the proceedings to deliver his message:
Ladies. Gentlemen. You have eaten well.
You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit.
Your feast is nearly over.
From this moment on—
None of you are safe.
Beyond what it says about Bruce’s transition to fully becoming the Dark Knight, the dialogue and art could not be more perfectly married. Batman is not known for delivering grand speeches, letting his mere presence project what he’s thinking. However, what little he does say here, couple with Mazzucchelli’s minimal line work and use of shadows, is spot-on.
In a couple dozen words, Bruce lets the most powerful men and women of Gotham know that no one is above the law of the land. When you distill Batman down to his essence, he’s a person who doesn’t want to see anyone harmed. And in this scene, Bruce is making it known that nobody is allowed to trample on the people of his city. He barrels in where angels fear to tread. Bruce draws a line in the sand, outright daring this assemblage of the morally decadent to cross that line. It is then he truly becomes the city’s protector. That’s when, honestly, for me, he becomes one of the characters and exemplars of what a good and brave person should do in the face of overwhelming odds and abject evil.
He becomes Batman.
Thanks for joining me for another Flashback Friday, folks! Here’s hoping that, when we can, we can make each other’s worlds just a bit brighter. Just like the Dark Knight.