Friday, February 21, 2014

1987 and all that 023: two years in a year

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Batman #404-407 (DC)
by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis, Todd Klein

and

Detective Comics #575-578 (DC)
by Mike W. Barr, Alan  Davis, Paul Neary, Todd McFarlane, Alfredo Alcala, Adrienne Roy, Richard Starkings, Agustin Mas, John Costanza, Todd Klein

I have officially been writing these “1987 And All That” columns for a full year now, which is pretty cool. I thought I would celebrate the occasion by reading one of 1987’s most beloved stories, and an especially appropriate tale to mark a one-year anniversary, 'Batman: Year One.' But then I thought, hey, if I’m doing that, I might as well keep going and read 'Batman: Year Two' as well, since it was published immediately after “Year One,” just in a different book and with different creators. Having read both stories before, I knew they had almost nothing to do with one another, and that “Year One” was excellent while “Year Two” stunk. Yet it still seemed like it might be fun to read them back-to-back, and then examine them side-by-side to see exactly what makes them so dramatically different from one another in quality. There are, of course, many reasons, but what it all boils down to is this: while released one right after the other and both technically canon at the time, these two stories are about two entirely different versions of Batman, not from the same world as each other or in any discernible way even the same person.

This division between the two begins with the simple fact that “Year One” is a retelling while “Year Two” is an original story (Editors Note: Technically, it is actually supposed to be a retelling of this story, but how well it does that is debatable -- Joey). Though it has a powerful, singular voice, and adds plenty of new details, “Year One” is still covering old, established ground. Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham with a plan, and after the famous bat-crashing-through-the-window moment of inspiration, he dons his cape and cowl and becomes the city’s Dark Knight. It’s the core of what Batman is, the essential narrative. The summary for “Year Two” sounds more like fan fiction or something similarly experimental and ridiculous. A man named The Reaper, who apparently used to be like a lethal Batman in Gotham twenty years ago, shows up again and starts killing anyone he thinks deserves it, which is more or less just anyone. Batman gets so frustrated by this Reaper jerk that he starts using a gun and teams up with criminals. That’s bad enough, but it gets worse, because the gun he uses is the actual gun that killed his parents. That’s right, all these years, Bruce Wayne has secretly been holding onto the murder weapon, I guess waiting for a special occasion. And even more foolish than that, the crook he partners with is also the man that killed his parents! This is such an outrageous idea, that Batman would not only compromise all of his values after one fight with one villain, but do it with the help of very weapon and person that caused the tragedy which gave him those values in the first place…it’s almost admirable in its brazenness. But it’s a far cry from something as fundamental as “Year One.”

In “Year One,” both writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli bring an old-school noir feel to the whole affair that fits with the classic nature of the story. The real star isn't even really Batman but Jim Gordon, the hard-boiled, stand-up cop trying to survive in a corrupt new city. The two men share a lot of parallel experiences in their individual struggles against Gotham’s greatest evils, but Gordon’s story packs more of an emotional punch. He has the strained marriage, the illicit romance, the near-loss of his infant son. He holds things together through his humanity, while Bruce becomes something slightly other than human. Giving the reader a more grounded character with more personal problems to latch onto allows Miller to take his time with things. Gordon narrates a lot, with Bruce filling in most of the gaps, and the constant insight into their thoughts adds detail and heft to everything. When one of them wrestles with a decision or learns a hard lesson, the reader goes through every agonizing step of the process with them. Yet the pacing is lively enough, and Miller’s writing is so efficient, that there’s no sense of things being slowed or over-explained. We get the perfect amount of information, relayed with precision, so that every beat of every issue is given ample room.

Meanwhile, “Year Two” is an exercise in rushed, hand-waving narration. Batman goes from meeting the Reaper to pulling out the gun that killed his parents by the end of the first issue, and the end of the second is when he teams up with Joe Chill, his parents’ murderer. There are a few narrative captions worth of inner turmoil about it, but Batman quickly reaffirms that he thinks working with villains is the only way to stop the Reaper, so he has no significant reaction to Chill and they just go ahead and work together. It goes too far into hard-to-swallow territory, and without even trying to take the time to sell it. The reader is asked to accept something so implausible just because it’s happening, not because we have been given a reason to believe.

There’s other stuff crammed in there too. Bruce Wayne meets Rachel Caspian, who is days away from taking her final vows as a nun, and charms her out of it over the course of a single date. He meets her father on their next date (who is weirdly fine with his daughter giving up her whole life plan for a man she just met), and on their third date they get engaged. It’d be one thing if Bruce and Rachel had a natural, wonderful rapport with each other, though even then their romance would be moving at a dizzying speed. But their interactions are brief, strangely formal, and never at all playful or affectionate or in any way resembling love. Why include such an awkward romance? Because Rachel’s father is, unbelievably enough, the Reaper himself, which only matters insofar as she goes back to being a nun once he is unmasked as Gotham’s worst killer, to atone for his sins. It’s just one final blow for the Reaper to deliver to Batman, a hit neither of them anticipated. Not a bad idea, but executed poorly.

That’s a good way to describe all of “Year Two,” at least at the most basic conceptual level. I like the notion that, in his second year of costumed crime fighting, when faced with an enemy more wicked and powerful than any he’d seen before, Batman might go a little nutty and resort to reprehensible and reckless tactics. If things had stopped at that point, it might’ve been a worthwhile read. But to bring in all this needless stuff with Joe Chill and the gun, and the wedged-in plot with Rachel, and even having the Reaper be an old vigilante returning after decades of inactivity…it’s too much, and handled badly. Which is difficult to get past, especially after reading “Year One,” the story of all of Bruce’s years of training and focus finally coming together. “Year Two” is about all of it coming apart in almost no time at all, and it doesn’t earn that dismemberment of the character, that rapid unraveling of the incredibly tight work done in “Year One.” If more time had been taken, and more thought put into things, watching Bruce become unhinged under the pressure of his mission could have been entertaining as hell. I have seen that done before and likely will again. “Year Two” is just too much reason-less shark-jumping with nothing to back it up.

Miller and Mazzucchelli, as I mentioned, deliver a cohesive atmosphere to their story. And it’s worth noting they work with a single colorist, Richmond Lewis, and only one letterer as well, Todd Klein. A small, steady team. Though “Year Two” is written by Mike Barr alone, the first issue has Alan Davis and Paul Neary on art, while Todd McFarlane and Alan Alcala handle the rest. Oh, except, no, I’m looking again now, and it turns out Alcala isn't on the final issue, so McFarlane must ink himself on that one. Adrienne Roy is the sole colorist, bringing at least some visual consistency, but then there’s a different letterer each issue. Not that it makes an enormous, starkly obvious difference, but it does make some impact, and the point is that there’s way less creative stability in “Year Two,” which may account for some of its problems with timing and tone. There’s clarity of vision in “Year One” while “Year Two” is messier from start to finish.

As a final point of contrast, Miller and Barr write their Batmans (Batmen?) very differently as characters. Miller’s is stoic, largely silent, and when he speaks it is with intentional, almost theatrical gravitas. He cares obsessively about his fight for good, but carefully considers every move and mistake he makes. Barr’s Batman is much chattier, and more snarky than somber. He’s also friendlier, as Batman and Bruce Wayne both. He gives Gordon a pipe as a present, has casual meals with Rachel and Leslie Thompkins, and is just generally more engaged with people, less tucked away from the world. He’s also rasher, and less patient or reasonable. His craziness runs deeper, and it makes him wild and hard to predict. Miller’s Batman is angry but disciplined; Barr’s is out of control.

The only logical conclusion I can come to, the only way I can reconcile these two stories, is to think of them as existing in distinct universes. These are not narratives about the same man living through two consecutive years of his life, but, instead, they’re wholly separate tales. They both feature spins on the same character, sure, but there’s nothing connecting them to each other beyond that. And there are actually some in-story facts to back up this interpretation. Bruce Wayne is twenty-five in “Year One,” but then in “Year Two” he describes Joe Chill as “the man who, twenty-five years ago, created the Batman…” Now, I’m no Batman historian, but based on the fact that he could walk and talk and understand The Mark of Zorro, I am going to guess Bruce was older than one when his parents got shot, so those two things don’t quite line up. Also, Leslie Thompkins is not a character in “Year One” at all, but she’s an everyday part of Bruce’s life in “Year Two,” and privy to the fact that he’s Batman. Finally, and for me this is the big one, the very last thing that happens to Gordon in “Year One” is he gets promoted to captain. Then, pretty much the very first thing we learn about him in “Year Two” is that he’s just been made commissioner. Even if several months passed between the two stories, hell, even if “Year Two” is really just “December of Year Two,” it makes no sense that Gordon would get another promotion that quickly, no matter how beloved he is. I just don’t see any way that these two stories could be reasonably seen as tying into one another.

Plus, there is always the matter of “Year One” being published in 'Batman' while “Year Two” got 'Detective Comics'. I’m not knocking Detective, because historically I think it may have the better track record, but 'Batman' feels more official. And whichever you prefer, that the two stories weren't published under the same title definitely makes it easier to think of them as fully disconnected. Two different books, two different creative teams, therefore two completely different worlds. Both of those worlds have a Batman, yes, but one of them is great while the other’s a dud.

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