This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond). This is the first instalment.
According to myth, before adopting the “Steam Whistle” moniker, the brewers of what would become Canada’s Premium Pilsner toyed with calling their upstart brewery “Three Fired Guys.” The microbrewery where they previously worked was bought by one of the national macrobreweries, and (as happened a great deal throughout the nineties) was promptly shut down, leaving the three colleagues without jobs. Thus, they struck out to brew a beer of their own.
That’s as good an origin story as any, as simple (though neither as iconic nor violent) an origin as Batman’s. Batman is at such a point in the cultural zeitgeist that his origin can probably go without saying, though it nevertheless continues to be repeated to the point that there is a supercut on YouTube of all the times that films (live action or animated) have depicted the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. This story is one I almost feel no need to discuss, but really there’s no better place to start.
First, though, please recall that story of those “Three Fired Guys.” That independent, singular, almost obstinate, spirit is not altogether unlike that of Frank Miller in an entirely different industry a decade earlier. I remain convinced that Frank Miller’s career is built mostly on tenacity and a healthy amount of confidence rather than exceptional skill. Which is not to say that Frank Miller hasn’t created some exceptional comics; actually, I’m about to wax on at length about one such work.
The comparison, though, is not a stretch. The “Good Beer Folks” at Steam Whistle proclaim that they do one thing really, really well, and they’re not wrong. Similarly, Frank Miller seems not to aspire to be the best at everything; he instead aspires to be the best at being Frank Miller. Neither Steam Whistle nor Year One can be described as ambitious, but both are exceptionally assured, confident and measured works. Like Steam Whistle, Frank Miller does one thing really, really well, and Year One is him doing it best.
My first sip of Steam Whistle is refreshing, light, and familiar. The first page of Year One has a similar effect, and not just because I’ve read it so many times. Like Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon on that same page, it’s a little like coming home.
That comfortable familiarity makes sense, because of course Year One is not the first telling of Batman’s early days. That was first elucidated by Bill Finger (and not, it should be clearly noted, by Bob Kane) back in 1939, and the story remains pretty much the same. Batman’s editor at the time of Year One’s publication in 1988, Denny O’Neill, noted:
[Batman] was fine just as he was. The origin that Bob Kane and Bill Finger had created in 1939 was a perfect explanation of how and why Batman came to be, why he continued his obsessive crusade, and, perhaps more important, it mirrored the fears, frustrations and hopes of a readership coping with the realities of 20th-century urban life.
So, DC’s editors decided, Batman’s origins should not be changed. But it might be improved. It could be given depth, complexity, a wider context. Details could be added to give it focus and credibility. Bruce Wayne’s struggles to become the thing he was trying to create, the Batman, could be dramatized. And, finally, all the storytelling techniques that comic book creators had developed in those 50 years could be applied to realize the potential of the basic material.
Almost any beer will use as its basic foundation a simple pale malted barley. Frequently this base malt is labelled as a pilsner malt, due to its prominence in that style of pale lager referred to as a pilsner. A pilsner, like Steam Whistle, does not let hops or other, darker, malts compete with that light, sweet grain flavour, and not to labour the beer analogy (though the title of the column is “Beer & Batman,” after all), Year One does much the same, wisely letting that “basic material” do the heavy lifting.
Now, this might be the beer talking (though it’s a little early in the evening for that), but upon reading that opening sequence, I’m struck by something almost Dickensian about it, like A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Though in this instance, it would more accurately be called A Tale of Two Men in One City, and make no mistake, though that would be truly terrible title, that is precisely what Batman: Year One is. It is the story of Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and Gotham City.
I love David Mazzuchelli’s Gotham City, and (with help from Richmond Lewis’s muted colour palette) I could probably make an adequate comparison to Dickensian London if I felt inclined. Both are dirty and industrial, with a wide disparity between those with every advantage in life, and those with none. Though some might want to cast Gotham as the damsel-in-distress, Miller & Mazzuchelli pretty definitively cast it as the villain, with Gordon and Wayne both fighting it almost right from the start. Both our would-be heroes are positioned as outsiders, entering the city; nearly any subsequent character we’re introduced to is somehow symptomatic of the city’s rot, whether it’s Gordon’s partner Flass, the police commissioner Loeb, or even Selina Kyle, whom we meet toward the end of the first chapter.
Selina Kyle’s involvement in the story is certainly one of the more Frank Miller-ish moments of the narrative, and one that I’m sure more than a few folks find a little problematic. The Woman Who Will Be Catwoman is introduced in Year One as a prostitute, the sort of smart, tough and deadly prostitute that populates Frank Miller’s most Frank Miller-ish work, Sin City. She even has her own “is-it-revenge-or-is-it-redemption” arc which Miller would go on to play out once or twice in Sin City. This is an origin story that most subsequent creators chose to ignore, and I understand why: it’s awkward (and decidedly adults-only) to root Catwoman’s origins in the sex trade, and the sexual politics of having her motivated by her own victimhood are somewhat problematic. While I’m happy that this take on the character’s origins have gone largely ignored, in the context of Year One, it fits; as I mentioned, Frank Miller does one thing really, really well, and that one thing is a pessimistic narrative of a savage virtue when confronted with urban and moral decay. If the characters, tone or setting of any given story fail to conform to his cynical glass-half-empty worldview, Frank Miller’s work is not even a little effective (stay tuned for my thoughts on All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder). However, it works in Sin City, it works in The Dark Knight Returns, it arguably works in 300, and I think it works rather splendidly in Year One, because he gives us a Gotham bad enough that a Batman is the only thing that might save it.
Maybe because he’s working within the parameters of Bill Finger’s blueprints, though, Year One is one of Frank Miller’s most considered, restrained works, without simply summarizing earlier works. We’re not treated to that famous scene of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murder until the end of the first chapter, when it adds poignancy to Bruce’s already-established one-man crusade against crime. The book is nigh literary at times, such as when he shows the results of both Gordon and Wayne’s efforts to be good men in Gotham – one is working within the law, the other outside it, but both are beaten to a pulp. Though the two men’s narratives are at first entirely independent of each other, they are crafted as compelling parallels, which makes their eventual (and inevitable) partnership make perfect sense.
How the Gordon-Batman relationship is handled is one of the strongest elements of Year One, and I think nailing that dynamic is key in telling a Batman origin story. Because it’s precisely that aspect that falls flat in just about every take on this story except Year One. Since 2005’s Batman Begins, it’s become fashionable to show Jim Gordon as a beat cop at the time that Bruce’s parents were killed, a motif which is repeated in Batman: Zero Year and in Fox’s primetime comedy Gotham. This, frankly, is just not real compelling, and usually makes Gordon seem naive if not outright stupid.
Year One’s Gordon is smart, but undeniably human. He has doubts, and he makes mistakes. He worries about starting a family in a city like Gotham, and lets those concerns put a distance between him and his wife, which in turn leads him into an affair with his colleague, Sarah Essen. It’s as though Gotham itself begins to sour Gordon; he’s the Gotham everyman, and Batman’s fight to save Gotham takes on a greater personal weight, as a fight to keep a good man good.
Reading Year One again (and I’ve read it a lot), what strikes me most is that it’s priority (as Denny O’Neill somewhat alluded to) is simply to be a damn good story, rather than introducing too many characters of some future significance, or moving set pieces into place for the sake of getting Bruce Wayne from billionaire orphan to the Caped Crusader we all know and love. Yes, Selina Kyle is introduced, and so is Harvey Dent, but all in service of a concise, focused plot, whose climax is not some big showdown against a villain, but is instead Batman saving Jim Gordon’s infant son’s life. (This strikes me as a strangely novel concept, having the focal point of a superhero narrative being on saving someone rather than fighting someone, and though Year One is praised for a lot of reasons, that is not a reason I’ve heard yet.)
It’s hard to know when to stop when talking about Year One; I could happily list every great thing about this book. I could talk about the genius of Todd Klein’s lettering to distinguish Gordon’s narration from Batman’s (a technique which will be emulated over and over in comics afterward, Batman and otherwise.) I could pinpoint a dozen or more scenes which are incredible and iconic moments, perfectly brought to life by David Mazzuchelli’s excellent art. Certainly, I haven’t spent enough time praising David Mazzuchelli; yes, Frank Miller is at his best here, but David Mazzuchelli is making him look even better than he is. This is a perfect marriage of style and substance, and Mazzuchelli matches Miller in clarity and concision.
Reaching the end of my second Steam Whistle as I reach the end of the book, I’m happy. The beer offers a pleasant warmth in the belly, but the book satisfies as well. This is absolutely essential Batman reading, not just for its importance in the canon (and of course it’s important, it’s how the story starts!) and not just because it is superhero storytelling done really, really well, but because it is just good graphic storytelling over all. Enjoy, and please drink and read responsibly.