“With Year One, we sought to craft a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognise.” - David Mazzuccelli
The above quote highlights one of the main concerns of the superhero genre; realism. It is true that superhero comics are a hybrid form made up of pictures working in synchronisation with the text on the page. Alongside this, their narratives are rather mixed too. Superheroes, if we take a basic view of their brightly coloured uniforms, are very inconsistent from their backdrop of a realistic urban city. It has been said that superheroes exist as “anachronisms in their diegetic worlds” (Comics & The City, 134).
If the superhero city is therefore so extraordinary in concept, how can Mazzucchelli’s view hold up?
Both he and writer Frank Miller attempted to bring this to the forefront of comic books by re-telling the origins of Batman/Bruce Wayne in Year One. A grittier view. The comic book arrived in 1986, a year after Frank Miller and Alan Moore came to the genre with the so-called “re-visioning”, which placed the heroes in harsher settings than they had been in before. The city that the characters of YEAR ONE populate is a city full of corruption; it finds itself squarely in the tradition of noir. That is, long shadows and even shadier people. Indeed, Nicholas Christopher places Batman in the “noir grotesque”. The art, when also taken alongside the narrative illuminates specific things about the characters and mood. The comic book traces a year in the fictional Gotham. It is a year of intense emotion and change. I will place my discussion around the narrative of Jim Gordon; Gordon reflects the man seeking an “ordinary life” in the city, however his life is fragmented upon the arrival of the masked avenger Batman.
Like Ben Highmore shows in his reading on detective fiction, it is the idea that although the comic does not show the “everydayness of the urban”, its ability to capture the moods and feelings that one feels inside a city is commendable.
At the start of YEAR ONE, Gordon had been travelling “twelve hours” and his “stomach’s been trying to eat itself for the last five” (2). So, we notice his anticipation (or dread) of coming to this place. Indeed, it doesn’t seem enticing. The first panel shows a city that can only be described as dire. The train, pulling in to Gotham, casts a shadow that extends up and into the top-left -corner of the panel. This seems to be a device to take the reader’s gaze tonally into Gotham. Indeed, throughout reading YEAR ONE, it seems that this shadow stays with us.
Georg Simmel points out (in his essay “Metropolis and Mental Life”) that man is a “differentiating creature”. As a part of natural human experience, man as a person should be able to tell things apart, to see if things are different. Indeed, in Gotham, this could be seen as a struggle for the definition of speed and mobility. The crowded carriage that Gordon is in is full of people who do not have any features. They are simply “grey” people who seem to merge into the background, devoid of any definitions or individual personalities. Only Gordon, who is coloured in and glancing at his watch seems to have some sort of personality. The overall tone of YEAR ONE could be called, “grey”. It’s neither black nor white and reflects a transitory stage between the light and dark. This is the so-called ordinary life for the characters in YEAR ONE. The background characters generally do not have voices to speak; they exist as part of the shadowy realm that is Gotham. The struggle for human individuality is intensified as a result. The archetypal city, we can note, can bring up or destroy elements of character.
When Gordon confronts a deranged asylum patient, for example, we can note that this ‘speed and mobility’ manifests itself in the attitudes of crime and violence. The kidnapper “isn’t making much sense” and we learn about some background of him; he’s a “diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic” (26) who was released from Arkham Asylum two weeks ago. Worried that the police present would make it a “massacre”, Gordon drives to the scene. He narrates;
“Last month Branden and his swat team calmed down a riot in Robinson Park. Didn’t even leave the statues standing.” (27).
The ironic juxtaposition between “calmed” and the violence is telling. Additionally, when a derelict tenement is blowing up later in the story one character comments, “Maybe Branden’s cornered a jaywalker.” (51). Further informing us of the attitudes of Gotham’s police. Telling the officer Branden to “go find your own war” (27), Gordon subdues the kidnapper without killing him and saving the child as well. What this illustrates is Gordon’s ethics vs. Gotham’s to unnecessary violence. The order system in Gotham is so skewed, that when Gordon is lauded as a hero in the next day’s papers, his superiors don’t like it and say that he is “nothing but trouble” (29).
This feeling to change the world around him is a main issue of superheroes in their comic books. If we should turn away from the attitudes of Gordon, we can see that this gritty type of violence is “bound” into the inhabitants of Gotham City. We can trace this violence back to Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma. The death of Bruce’s parents, in the flashback on page 21, at the hands of a faceless mugger is a resonant image in YEAR ONE. So much so that it is presented in bold, black and white. The flashback scene has no dialogue, perhaps to allude to the thought that the image of something is more powerful than what was said. Indeed, this image of a young Bruce kneeling down beside his dead parents is extremely emotive. Their bodies are “framed” by the circle of the streetlamp’s light, which then dissolves into pure black. This is seemingly symbolic of Bruce forever being “in” this circle of street-light; meaning the urban. That he is, to take Uricchio’s term, “locked” (126) in a place that forever defines his character. In other words, Gotham City is Batman. Batman is Gotham City. If we are to unpack this idea, then it would be interesting to note certain scenes where Bruce and Gordon “connect” throughout YEAR ONE.
Early in the book, (and early into his tenure in Gotham) Gordon is jumped and beaten up by a group of men who tell him that it’s just a “warning”. Near the end, Gordon hears a “familiar chuckle”, it is Flass. Later, he drives to where Flass is (a poker party) and proceeds to beat him up, “I do just enough…to keep him out of the hospital” (19). Minutes earlier on the road, however, a man in a car drives fast past Gordon, almost hitting him. It’s Bruce Wayne. Gordon admits that dodging the Porsche gives him “enough adrenalin to make the drive” (17). We can see that this interaction gives Gordon the will to see his plans through. It may not directly adhere to the overall plot, but it’s an interesting point of foreshadowing nonetheless.
Moving on, the first “meeting” between Batman and Gordon is one of intense disruption and confusion. The scene depicts a runaway truck “his foot must be pressed to the accelerator”(42) that is going to hit a homeless person. Gordon tires to reach the wheel of the truck driver, but from his point of view, “it’s over I’ve blown it” (43). Out of the shadows, and interspersed among these scenes of Gordon trying to reach the wheel are images of a silhouetted Batman angling off lampposts and jutting ledges. As Batman saves the person, Gordon falls hard onto the floor and the panel blacks out. He only catches a glimpse of Batman and tries to intimidate him with his gun, but as a result of the fall his “Fingers don’t work” (44). These constant black outs could be significant in answering the city’s connection to Batman. It’s almost as if the city is protecting Batman because of his origin being so ingrained into the shadows of street crime.
In some way, Gordon seems to be buoyed by these actions that risk his life; he’s shown by beating Flass up, “what it takes to be a cop in Gotham City.”(19). As a result of Batman’s disruptions of crime providing more paperwork for the department, Gordon and his partner, Sarah Essen have to work later into the night. They start a secret relationship (most of which isn’t shown on panel, it’s kept “behind closed doors”), however we are allowed entry into Gordon’s thoughts about it on one particular night. This is perhaps his lowest moment in the story as he sits on the edge of the bed he shares with his wife and holding a gun that is “heavier than ever” (70). The sense of disconnectedness is created from the powerful, dense language like “heavier” and by having the ground dissolved underneath his feet (the bed is the only thing visible on panel and drawn on a black background). The pressures of Gotham have got to Gordon.
What the above points to, is Highmore’s idea of the city being not a place that shows the “everydayness” of life, but the mood and experiences that one goes through. Modernity, then, places the person in the city amongst many different, conflicting things. These contribute to an overall disorientation of the senses. Modernity appears to promise an ordered life, structured to better the “flow” of people in a big city, but as we can see (at least in the case of Gordon) this fear of society being susceptible to the temptations and being swept away in the current is typified in Gotham’s disjointedness.
Indeed, if we can take the book as a whole, the quick succession of moments between characters and events in one year (we never really get to dwell so long on one particular month or day) also slots into this category. If we turn to Scott McCloud’s definition, he presents the claim that “Comics panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments”, which could seem true if we take one panel out of sequence, but looked as a whole, then our brains can construct a “unified reality”. It is similar to the idea that Dimendberg points out in his introduction to Film Noir (“Film Noir and the spaces of modernity”), that film noir’s “fragmented narration remains well attuned to the violently fragmented spaces and times of the late modern world” (6).
This “violence” of the city is ever-present in Gotham. Perhaps it is best said in Gordon’s own words, later in the comic book, thinking about his son, “…I pray he’s very strong. And smart enough to stay alive.” (30). He says this as he is sitting in a dark bedroom. The scene on the page is fragmented by a scene of Batman (again shadowed) running across anonymous rooftops, before returning to a domestic setting, with Gordon’s “night off” with his wife. However, as stated, the city has an all-consuming effect and he is called out to work by a piercing “ring” of the telephone; his wife’s frustrations and disappointments are reflected in her curt, “Chicken will keep.”(30). Interestingly, as with the above, there are different points of the comic book when the city responds to Gordon’s want for an “ordinary” life. When he talks about Barbara, and his want of being with her (as she is heavily pregnant) the violent city stops him from thinking too much about it. Whilst out on patrol, to take an early scene, Gordon mentions that he’s out here “doing it for Barbara” (5), but underneath the text, there is a bold sound effect of “screech”, stopping him thinking of a life with his wife.
Indeed, in the final scene, Gordon takes matters into his own hands and rises up against those who had threatened his family. When he shoots and crashes the escaping car, the sound that comes out of the wreckage are very human and animalistic; alongside the “rending metal and clattering glass”, the area “hisses” and “spits” (93). The world that Gordon has entered is thus revealed to be in part “living” and a character in itself. All this talk of seeing the city through Gordon’s eyes is important in understanding the premise of living in a “noir” like city, and experiencing it as someone new. The “ordinary” city, to go back to a point, is the feeling of something and not necessarily regimented actions (as we have seen, these two are “linked” by violence).
Indeed, there is also another crucial thing to note. Gordon’s unborn baby is a constant dangling plot thread that runs through the narrative, from beginning to end. At the beginning, the hope for having a child in Gotham was so dire that Gordon, at one point early on prays the tests are negative (6). The birth of Jimmy Jr. signals to the reader the ultimate symbol of “life” in Gotham. However this is switched round by Miller. We must view this through a “gritty” filter, after all. In the scuffle between the crook and Gordon, Jimmy Jr. falls off. Jumping off the bridge, Bruce saves him. There is a silence and then a loud cry. What Miller shows in this is the grittiness of life; even though there is a “happy ending”, the child still cries. These moments of hope and lightness are still put through a filter of noir.
It would be good to turn here to how the city is presented visually. At many points in the comic book, the city is simply reduced to a hazy, grainy static that exists forever behind the character’s heads. Because of this, the city is depicted accurately. I will explain. If the art had depicted the cityscape in every panel and every page, the feeling of this distorted reality would be lost. We do not, in our experience of walking around our city, see whole pictures of them. Instead, we catch corners and lights and glimpses of things that constitute to some overall feeling of ‘being’ in the city. One scene that holds this well, would be on page 68. As already mentioned, Jim Gordon spends more and more time with his co-worker, Sarah Essen. When walking back from having coffee with her (in a Hopper “Nighthawks”-esque late night diner no less), the scene of them in a wet street, with one pulsating light behind them is important. The lights from the other buildings and apartments are muted and seem to get more abstracted as the next panel shows. We can see signs for “pizza” and a Burger King-like joint. These lights are disorientating and floating around both Gordon and Sarah’s head’s, as they are interrupted from their walk by a new torrent of rain. The two characters don’t seem to notice them, the narration box reads;
“…Gotham weather. Just when the rain seems to be clearing up, lightning flashes…” (68)
Gordon is thinking back, narrating to this time. They kiss at the moment that lightning strikes, and their faces are illuminated by the flash. However, it is later revealed that the police department have been taking surveillance on Gordon and have photographic evidence of this kiss in a darkened, unspecified street. Although it is not revealed if this was the camera taking the picture (though it could well have been, given they were so oblivious to everything else around them), the effect that is created is one of further disorientation. Mazzucchelli’s use of framing in this scene (for example) keeps the city from being overused and maintains its interest to the reader through the subjected use of light and noir techniques. Returning to the point, rather than going for a fatal realistic depiction of a whole city, the moods and experiences that one takes from it are what matters.
Through these contrasting symbols of neon lights, murky hazes, speeding cars and men in capes, we note that our attitude to Gotham is one of expected chaos. However, as Peter Fritzsche calls it, “word cities” can be legible as the cities are spaces to be literally and continually read. Indeed, the city and comic books have shared a very symbiotic relationship since the early R.F. Outcault The Yellow Kid drawings of 1895 urban city life. Comics are, as Jens Balzer points to, “part of an aesthetics that can consume the image of the “whole” only in its disharmony” (Comics and the City, 31). Taking this, and our experiences of the city, Gotham moves from being simply an idea on the page to being formed in one’s head when reading it. Our own personal interpretation of a city is formed. As Scott McCloud points to, the human imagination takes ideas and “transforms them into a single idea” (Understanding Comics, 67).
Denny O’Neil described Batman’s domain as “a distillation of everything that’s dark, moody and frightening about New York. It’s Hell’s Kitchen. The Lower East Side. Bed Stuy. The South Bronx. Soho and Tribeca off the main thoroughfares at three in the morning”.
This assertion is very important in understanding what makes the city of Gotham tick. By having these definitions rooted to New York neighbourhoods famously connected with crime, Gotham City can then successfully read as a legible place. It is, as Uricchio surmises, “inseparable” (Comics & The City, 125) from the logic of Batman’s personality. Returning to when Bruce (in disguise) walks through the area of “The East End” (an garish area reminiscent of Times Square), this inseparability is very noticeable;
“It’s been educational. I was sized up like a piece of meat by the leather boys in Robinson Park. I waded through pleas and half-hearted threats from junkies at the Finger Memorial. I stepped across a field of human rubble that lay sleeping in front of the overcrowded Sprang Mission.” (10).
By saying that it is “educational”, we are learning about specific Gotham locations and landmark signifiers with Bruce, as he travels through the different sections. Miller, by listing these landmarks, known only to the inhabitants of Gotham, creates a synchronisation between “our” world and Gotham’s. The cypher of New York that exists as Gotham City exists in its landmarks, too. “Robinson Park” could easily manifest itself in the minds-eye as Central Park. Additionally, Bruce connects these denizens to specifics of a major city, “wading” and stepping through “human rubble” both shows that the crime isn’t merely opportunistic and that it happens randomly (like some superhero comics demonstrate), this struggle of “human rubble” seems Sisyphean and very much a “part” of the fabric of Gotham City. It could be, therefore, that Gotham reads as a distorted New York City. I should turn back to the opening page of YEAR ONE; Gordon notes, when he is in the carriage full of the “grey” men and women, that “…in an airplane, from above, all you’d see are the streets and buildings.”(2). Miller and Mazzucchelli do not show, throughout the course of YEAR ONE, any true establishing aerial shots of Gotham. We are free (and possibly expected) to think of a city in our mind and have that as ‘our’ Gotham.
In essence, what YEAR ONE ultimately achieves, through its use of fragmented narration and interesting art-style is a city that responds to the perception of whatever city the reader may have in his or her mind. By responding to the city through Lieutenant Gordon, we note that the ordinary life is one of intense violence and fragmentary signals. By looking at the art style, we note that the city can be disorientating, and very intimate to the individual, but very damning to the collective. By making the images throughout the work of late-night diners, illuminated sex shows, blank apartment blocks that are hazy, Miller and Mazzucchelli create an overall perception of a real city for the reader. As Mazzucchelli points out, in the Afterword, “superheroes are real when they’re drawn in ink”. This point can be complimented by Scott McCloud’s analysis that “our identities belong permanently to the conceptual world” and that we gradually “reach beyond ourselves” (McCloud, 40) to create personalities and identities to images.
With all this in mind, I return to my starting quote; “With Year One, we sought to craft a credible Batman, grounded in a world we recognise”. This comes true through the books use of noir-tinged pathos and credibility, as well as the creative detail that Miller and Mazzucchelli imbue into the work. That the book is a masterpiece of storytelling and atmosphere cannot be disputed. Writer Frank Miller convinces with a dense, yet fractured narrative, while artist David Mazzucchelli creates a visual language to successfully convey the narrative through his process of using “noir” angles and perspectives as well as the heavy use of shade and speed for the panel arrangement. The slight stumble that Miller presents in this rendition of a city, is that the world he imagines strays a little too close to a gritty and ravaged New York perhaps to break free from a connotation of pastiche. Nevertheless, Miller succeeds in creating a believable urban dwelling where a character can dress up as a Bat, and no-one would laugh. They would scream.
Batman Year One, Frank Miller and David Mazzuccelli.
Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud.
Film Noir and spaces of modernity, Edward Dimendberg.
‘Metropolis and Mental Life’, Georg Simmel.
Somewhere in the night: film noir and the American City, Nicholas Christopher.
Comics and the city, ed. Jorn Ahrens, Arno Meteling.
Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City, Ben Highmore.
See this kid, right here?
That’s 10 year old me, looking out over New York City. I can tell you my thoughts at precisely this moment.
“I hope my glasses don’t fall off…”
As you can probably tell by that, I was not a courageous kid. The friends I hung out with liked the shady corners or steep slopes that we could run up and jump off; pretend we were “superheroes”! At least, that was the hope. Spider-Man, Batman, Wolverine, Rogue, Cyclops were lived inside a lunch-break adventure.
Standing approximately 86 floors up from the ground level, I wondered just how they did it!? It was…a long way up. Or so the fear told me. Despite this fact, I couldn’t help but imagine myself jumping out into open air…shooting a web-line at the last minute, saving my 10 year-old bacon from splattering across the pavement.
In my mind, this reality existed:
In this metropolis, I could see Spider-Man swinging past the “sheer walls” of the Daily Bugle building. When I looked at the subway grates, I imagined Storm battling Callisto deep inside the Morlock tunnels. Every skyscraper was the Baxter Building and every alleyway was a place where The Kingpin’s lackeys did shady “business”.
There was - of course - more to NYC than “just” superheroes (the food portions = god-like!) but for an impressionable ten year old kid, this was the real thing. It was straight out the pages of a Marvel Comic book and within my reach. I could smell, hear and see it. I could touch it. I could even pose in it.
A few years later and we’re here.
I’m now 22 years old but one thing has stayed with me: superheroes, or rather, comic books. It’s hard to explain what – exactly – I love most about the medium, but part of it is the unique expression that it allows. There’s nothing quite like it out there; literature and art fused brilliantly.
Perhaps the reason why I felt things so strongly on that NYC trip was because the images and stories were so mythic and potent. My imagination was free to run wild (and fly wild!) in-between the panels, and so – it generated a deeper world.
I’ve grown to appreciate it objectively as an art-form to study and review (the main objective of this blog), but much like Peter says in the above panel: “I don’t think I’ll ever stop getting a charge out of it!”.
As a rule, this is a review site. Many of the entries will concentrate on the issues surrounding the “comic book city”. However, because I don’t want to limit myself, I will open it up to things I’ve read or thought about in the world of comic books. I also take requests (if you think something’s up my gritty alley - um, that didn’t sound too hip).
Anyway, thank you for visiting and I hope you enjoy the
Images taken from:
Family photo album #23 (taken with a digi cam - quality low, sorry!)
The Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #2