BATMAN: THE FIRST THREE YEARS! / by Eric Emma

The Great Batman Reading Project:

The Great Batman Reading Project: The Introduction!

Part 1: Batman #1-4 (1940)

READ SO FAR:

Batman Year One
Batman Year Two
Batman Year Three
Batman Full Circle
Batman Tales of the Demon
Batman Man Who Laughs
Batman in the Fifties
Batman #1-5
The Joker, Stacked Deck: The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (Expanded Edition)

In the late 80s, DC faced a problem that the big two (Marvel & DC) have faced many times before: stagnation. DC had been around for near 50 years. To reconcile years of continuity, DC had often used the multiverse. The multiverse was a creation of Gardner Fox (Guy Gardner is a tribute to him!) when he wrote the story “Flash of Two Worlds” in “The Flash” #123. That particular story set up the concept that there are multiple worlds that operate on different frequencies. They refer to each world by a number, i.e. “Earth-1” “Earth-2”, etc. This way they didn’t have to deal with the many inconsistencies in the continuity. This device though it sounds overly complicated, really wasn’t. The reason: comics were simpler back.

The reason the original comics are worth as much as they are, besides being historical artifacts, is that people were not saving comics. They were mass produced and thrown away like newspapers. When someone opened up a comic that took place in Earth-1 or Earth-2, it didn’t matter, he or she was tuned into that stand-alone story. It only matter to comic nerds and if a cross-over was happening. By the time the 80s rolled around, times had changed. Comics had grown up. There was a demand for collections and continuity, which now made the whole damn thing too confusing, since people were trying to make sense of the histories of these characters.

DC decided to do something bold: blow up the entire thing. They would restart the entire DC Universe. Enter Marv Wolfman’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, which ends with all the worlds merging into one universe. After which, all the characters were restarted… Sorta.

DC couldn’t completely start from scratch because to do so would destroy popular characters that relied on history. An example of this is “Nightwing.” Nightwing is Robin all grown up so you can’t have Nightwing if Batman is going to just be starting out. What DC did was keep all the characters the same age as they were before they merged the world, but they would hire creative teams to do retellings of their flagship characters that would be considered the definite canon going forward. One of the most famous of these was Frank Millar’s Batman: Year One. After which, DC followed up with not so-well known Batman: Year 2 and Year 3 stories. Ed Brubaker wrote “The Man Who Laughs” in 2005 as a sequel to Year One. It’s also retelling of Batman #1 and Detective Comics #168 (The Man Behind the Red Hood).

So let’s start with my thoughts on the trilogy of Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3. Then I’ll finish with Man Who Laughs. I’m going to save my thoughts for Batman Tales of the Demon/Batman in the Fifties for my next blog post because my feeling is after I read Batman in the 60s. I’m going be able to tie all that together really well.

Batman Year 1. Out of everything that I’ve read thus far, this is the farthest you get from Batman. You could also make the argument it’s the closest to being true art and not a product for mass consumption. This is Millar’s Batman. This is not Millar adding to a character that has been collectively written for 50 years. That is a fairly big distinction that ultimately is what keeps it from being a favorite of mine. Clearest examples of this is in Millar’s Bat Universe, Selena Kyle is a prostitute with some martial arts ability. In this world, Jim Gordon is cheating on his wife. Millar is writing what he feels comfortable with regardless of whether it fits the 50 years that had come before. 

I have issues with Year One. The first is from a story constructive point of view. The whole idea of covering the first year of Batman’s career in graphic novel is ambitious and at times, it feels a little hollow. Millar relies on heavy exposition through the use of first person narrator splitting between Bruce and Jim Gordon. What Millar does is have far too much talking heads and it’s fairly interesting since he portrays Bruce as a psychopath and Jim on a man on the brink. To me, though, I want to see more interaction in the world. Actual scenes instead of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon talking at me. What’s worse is that I don’t even feel these are accurate representations of the characters.

Batman is a super-hero. Everything he does breaks common sense and logic even if his powers are not divined from supernatural or equally fantastic pseudo-science means. Part of the super-hero is that they are super, not only in the psychical sense, but emotionally. As we read these stories, we long to be men and women of mental fortitude that can go out night after night enduring/inflicting extreme amounts of violence, while not succumbing to the emotional toll. Millar in a need to legitimize and dare I say be edgy, takes Batman to a place of being a psychotic. Which is no less realistic, and is less fun. For this reason, his later attempts at the character failed because the silliness of it became more pronounced.

Also my problem with Batman Year One is one that others have highlighted in the past, it’s not a Batman story, it is a Jim Gordon’s story. Is there anything REALLLY that interesting in the Batman narrative outside of the over-use of voice-over and melancholy? All of the interesting stuff happens with Jim. His affair. His relationship with Flass. Etc. Which is fine… It’s all fairly interesting, but to me, I think it is a bit misleading that this story is billed as the DEFINING Batman story, when it really isn’t. It’s more of an interesting aside, more than anything else. 

Also I hate how everything is neatly wrapped up in the end so that we never have to think about the incongruities of this Frank Millar world to the way it’s normally showed. In many ways, I feel like Batman Year One is an elseworld tale. Batman Year One offers a lot of bits and pieces that have been incorporated into the Batman Mythos, but the actual heart/meat of the story has been discarded because it isn’t Batman.

Batman Year 2. Is an interesting tale. Written by Mike W Barr. Barr has a far more interesting take on Batman than Millar. He understands the unrealistic balance that Batman has to tread as he faces a grim underworld. Batman faces many dark and disconcerting elements, but ultimately, Batman must never lose his own morality in his fight against crime or it is all for naught. To show this, Barr created a vigilante that preceded the Batman: the Reaper. The Reaper has been gone from Gotham for many years and during his hey-day, he was more gruesome than the villains he slayed. The Reaper killed with little regard. In Batman’s second year in Gotham, the Reaper returns and is murdering the criminals of Gotham. Quickly, Batman is placed in direct conflict with the Reaper. Batman makes a deal with Gotham’s underworld for a cease-fire, as they work together to find and take down the Reaper. Batman is forced to work with Joe Chill, the man who murdered his parents. 

Year Two is not nearly as well known or loved as Year One and I believe it’s because it fits into a larger continuity. Year Two read on its own is quite silly unlike Year One, which is overly silly. This is why I’m not the biggest fan of Year One. I feel like Millar is trying to make Batman something he isn’t. Batman is fun. Batman fights villains that are called the Penguin, Riddler, and the Joker. Year Two embraces this. It’s far more endearing to have Bruce Wayne struggling with his internal conflict to be good, while also wanting revenge for his parents. Then to have Bruce moodily brooding, while he beats the shit out of pimps and other disgusting human beings. Year 2 also features one of my favorite Batman tropes. He’s in love with a woman that sees through the guise of his playboy persona, and sees Bruce is in pain, but ultimately, Bruce can’t be with the woman he’s in love with because of his devotion to his fight against crime.

The sequel, Full Circle, deals with legacy. Joe Chill dies at the hand of the Reaper in Year 2. Years later in current continuity. The Reaper returns. We later find out that it is Joe Chill’s son who has taken on the mantle of the Reaper and he’s out for revenge for Batman. This story highlights the importance of Robin to the Batman mythos. The tragic element of Batman is that he will never know true happiness hence why ne never stays with any of his many loves. He is irreparably damaged by the events of his parents’ death. Year 2/Full Circle give clarity to his quest in that Bruce realizes he himself must stop the cycle of violence. He ultimately decides to spare Joe Chill Jr’s life so that Chill Jr can have a relationship with his son. Also that Batman’s own relationship with Robin is important because he saving Robin from being as broken as he is.

Batman Year 3 was written by Marv Wolfman. The same Wolfman that restarted the continuity with “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” More importantly, Wolfman wrote Teen Titans in the 1980s. Teen Titans was DC’s answer to X-Men. The Titans is a team consisting of the sidekicks of DC and it is in this book that Dick Grayson developed in Nightwing. Dick realized that Bruce was too overbearing for him and he needed to strike out on his own so he gave up being Robin and became Nightwing. Batman Year Three is a story that was told in then contemporary 1989 continuity with Dick as Nightwing, with flashbacks to the third year in Batman’s crime fighting career.

I absolutely loved the story structure of Year 3. It’s one of the most brilliant stories of Batman that I’ve read so far. It begins with a mafia boss being eliminated in spectacular fashion. It’s the latest in a string of hits and Batman is unable to deduce who is behind the string of hits. Worse, Batman is deep in depression over the death of Jason Todd (Robin II) at the hands of the Joker and is in danger of going off the deep end and losing being able to keep his morality. It cuts to the parole hearing of Boss Zucco, the man responsible for Dick Grayson’s parents/ death. The story is half flash-back (Boss Zucco rise in the underworld/Batman taking in Dick Grayson) and Batman tracking down the killer of the mob bosses.

This story is the perfect cap to this trilogy of stories because it follows on the thread of legacy. We learn that Zucco was an orphan and his parents were also murdered by mobsters. Unlike Dick, or Bruce, he turned to a life of crime and became a hardened criminal. One of the fascinating aspects is that Alfred tells us that he was able to temper Dick unlike Bruce, because Bruce left for years. We see this exemplified in the story as Batman sinks deeper into depression and Dick is there to pull him out. Dick Grayson is the hope of the future because he has a chance to live a happy life, while unfortunately, Bruce will always be haunted by the past.

This leads us to Man Who Laughs, which takes place directly after Year One. It's pretty great because it merges Batman #1 and “The Man Behind the Hood” in one story. “The Man Behind The Hood” was a story written in the 50s about 10 years after the introduction of the Joker. It revolves around Batman being a guest speaker at a class for criminology and he has the class try to solve one of his old cases, the case of “The Red Hood.” Batman had thought the Red Hood died after the Hood jumped into a vat of chemicals during a confrontation with the Batman. The Red Hood returns and starts a new series of crimes so the cape crusader and the class begin trying to solve the mystery of The Red Hood. The story ends with the reveal that the Red Hood was the Joker.
“The Man Who Laughs” begins with the pretext that Batman had recently fought the Red Hood and like the earlier comic of the fifties, it ended with the red hood diving in the chemical. The Man Who Laughs follows a similar plot to “Batman #1”, which is the Joker appears on the scene and is issuing out public threats to murder the Gotham Elite. Earlier I mentioned that Finger couldn't possibly have known he was writing a character that would last 75 years so the scope was far smaller. In Batman #1, when Joker is foiled, it leads to the Joker being imprisoned with the intent of setting up for another story. While Man Who Laughs is trying to define a seventy five year struggle. So the end of “The Man Who Laughs” is Batman stopping Joker plan to murder everyone in Gotham by poisoning the Gotham water supply. Also it leads to Batman having to choose whether to kill the Joker or not because by this point, the Joker has murder several people. Batman, of course, chooses not to and we as an audience know that Batman is setting up for Joker’s return… and more deaths. That the price is too great to kill the Joker. It would mean Batman’s morality.

The early 1940 stories never really concerned themselves with what are the consequences of Batman’s goodness. That’s what I find fascinating. When DC set out to retell Batman’s origins in the late 80s, hundreds of Batman stories had been written to that point. A clear paradox had developed and never considered before. The VILLAINS ALWAYS COME BACK. In the 90s, Image Comics sought to be edgy and hip, by killing the villains of their comics and not having them come back. Image Comics initially made lots of money, but then soon, the luster wore off and there was something wrong with this concept of villains not coming back. The reason? People want their heroes to struggle because that’s what we deal with in our everyday lives. 

The question Batman faces at the end of “The Man Who Laughs” perfectly symbolizes his struggle: if I killed the villain, then the villain won’t kill anyone again, but then I am evil and then where do I stand? This is the theme that runs through all these stories. Year One the quest to become the hero. Year Two sought to explore Batman discovering his code of ethics. Full Circle/Year Three/Man Who Laughs sought to explore the consequences of that code and what does it all add up to.