A Look Back at the First Great Batman Relaunch / by Eric Emma

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 and to make all those years of continuity work, DC 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 story set up the concept that there are multiple worlds that operate on different frequencies. Thus, Batman stories from the 50s were set in one verse and so and so forth. Each ‘verse was referred to by a number, i.e. “Earth-1” “Earth-2”, etc. This solved the problem of having inconsistencies in the continuity. This device may sound overly complicated, but it really wasn’t and that’s because comic readers were far less discerning back then.

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 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. 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 would be restarted… Sort of.

DC couldn’t completely start from scratch because to do so would destroy popular characters that relied on years of continuity. 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. So 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 the less well regarded 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).

Batman Year 1 is interesting in that it is the farthest you can get from the proto-typical comic Batman and the reason is that this this is 100% Frank Miller’s Batman. This is not Millar adding to a character that has been collectively written for 50 years. A clear example of this distinction is in Miller’s Bat-Universe, Selena Kyle is a prostitute with some martial arts ability instead of a renown cat burglar. Also in this world, the lines are further blurred with personal woes like Jim Gordon cheating on his wife. Miller writes what he feels comfortable with regardless of whether it fits the 50 years that had come before. 

Aside from my stylistic critiques, from a technical standpoint the whole idea of covering the first year of Batman’s career in one graphic novel is ambitious and at times, it feels a little hollow. Miller relies on heavy exposition with narration from both Batman and Jim Gordon. At times the exposition can be interesting and we get to see Batman as a full-blown psychopath and Gordon as a man on the brink. However, as interesting as these bits can be, I always want to see more drama and more interaction in the world. Actual scenes instead of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon talking at me would go a lot farther. And like I said, by the time you get towards the end of the book, I feel like I’m reading characters out of a Raymond Chandler novel instead of the Bats and Jim Gordon I know and love.

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. Miller 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.

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 and penned by Mike W Barr. Barr has a far more interesting take on Batman than Millar. He understands the unrealistic balance that Batman must 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 in Gotham City: 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. 

While I can’t argue that Year Two is on par with Year One, it is certainly an enjoyable Batman tale. The fun of this tale stands in stark contrast to the moroseness of Year One and for that reason, I applaud it. I’d rather have Bruce Wayne struggling with his internal conflict to be good and fighting outlandish villains than a “realistic” Bruce beating the hell 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 he can’t be 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 wants revenge against 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 Barr gets across that Batman’s own relationship with Robin is important because he is 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 into 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 to become 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. It begins with a mafia boss being eliminated in spectacular fashion. It’s the latest in a string of mafia hits. Batman has been 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. We return to the theme of Batman’s morality. It cuts to the parole hearing of Boss Zucco, the man responsible for Dick Grayson’s parents/ death. As I mentioned, the story is half flash-back so half of it is about 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 could 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.

When I look back at the original run of stories from the 1940s, it’s interesting to think about how those stories never really concerned themselves with whether Batman is good or not. It simply always taken as a given. 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 and so in terms of redefining Batman, while still holding true this trilogy did a good job of setting the path of Batman for years to come. Year One was the quest to become the hero. Year Two sought to explore Batman discovering his code of ethics. Full Circle/Year Three sought to explore the consequences of that code and what does it all add up to.