This article was originally published at DC Infinite on May 5, 2014.
Frank Miller is not known for his sense of optimism. His best comics are often praised for their dramatic staging of violence and ability to evoke a moody, noir tone. His rise to prominence in the 1980s (1) is associated with the rise of the grim and gritty style of superhero comics that would dominate the industry for many years (and to some degree still do). Yet to believe that Miller’s contribution to the superhero genre is dismissive or cynical would be to misread his best-known works.
The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One represent Miller at his peak of popularity and critical acclaim. Both stories were released in just over a year, between February 1986 and May 1987. They represented a new canonical beginning and ending for Batman in the DC Universe after the 1985 mini-series Crisis on Infinite Earths reset continuity in the shared universe.
Miller presented Gotham City as a place overrun with crime and corruption. The streets are dark and the nature of its people even darker. Whether Batman is being stabbed by a hooker he attempted to save, or beating Superman to a pulp, the comics provide no sheen of idealism. The stories expose the world of the Batman as being the sort of dark place that would allow a child’s parents to be brutally murdered before his eyes. However, their endings provide a twist to the preceding issues. It’s worth examining the final pages of these stories very closely because the dramatic truth is that the ending is the conceit.
“Year One” ran in the pages of Batman #404 through Batman #407 written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzuchelli (2), telling the story of Batman’s first year working as a vigilante in Gotham City. He begins as a man in plainclothes and slowly evolves into a costumed crimefighter. Mirroring his story is that of James Gordon, a cop transferred to Gotham City who is forced to fight the endemic corruption of the police force. The two men’s stories remain close until they are finally united for the first time at the conclusion of Batman #407.
Batman #407 ends with a chase sequence after Johnny Vitti, the nephew of Gotham’s kingpin, The Roman, has kidnapped James Gordon’s newborn son, James Junior. Below are the four pages that comprise the climactic sequence to “Year One” after having been visually mapped. (3) The visual mapping helps to reveal how the story is told in order to create its ultimate payoff. In order to understand what Miller and Mazzuchelli are attempting to say, it’s important to understand how they reach their conclusion first.
Although the sequence begins on page 17, page 19 is just as good of a place to start. Like all six pages in the sequence, it features a 3×3 grid of panels. There are three rows on every page, while the number of panels composing each row varies, but never increases beyond three. The height of rows and width of individual panels will change on every page, depending on where the reader’s eye should be led.
Page 19 establishes a focus on the center of the page. The split of the first two panels lies almost on the exact vertical split of the grid. More importantly, the various actions point to the center as being the most important component of the page. Gordon’s motorcycle ride uses the center point as its own starting point. While the actions in panels one (gunfire pointing down and right), two (Gordon’s body and the motorcycle pointing down and left), and six (Bruce Wayne running up and left) all point to the page’s center. This emphasis becomes important when all four pages are strung together, as the center panel of each page tells the entirety of the story. It also makes the center of page 22 even more dramatic in how it is constructed.
This page is most important in constructing the form through which the entire sequence will be told. By itself, it functions to provide urgency to the chase sequence with Gordon’s body already passing the emphasized center of the page.
Mazzuchelli continues to emphasize the fast pace of the action on page 20. The panels in the left column all provide a sense of kinetic energy with three different figures in motion. Once again three corner panels emphasize the center. Panel one (Bruce is running down and right), five (Gordon is running up and right), and six (the driver’s body points up and left) all guide the reader’s eye back to the midpoint of the grid.
The center itself once again doesn’t contain any forms. Instead, it’s off from the action of the car striking the bridge. Text guides the reader’s eye from the top-left of the third panel down and to the right. This further emphasizes that the actual action of the panel has been pushed away from its focus. The action also pushes in the opposite direction of the previous page. Whereas Gordon’s bike sped off to the right, the car crashes on the left side of the page. This creates a sense of whiplash as the frame jerks in different directions, but is unable to steady its focus on the action.
Page 21 presents the final page of action and a false climax to the sequence. The action changes from a chase to a fight as Johnny Vitti exits the car and is confronted by Gordon. Their fight creates an hourglass shape on the page, filling the top and bottom rows, while only occupying the central panel of the third row. This along with various forms throughout the page again helps to emphasize the center of the page.
The central panel is now filled with two forms, an exception from previous pages. That’s not an entirely accurate observation though. In this instance, the middle row has been compressed so that its bottom runs in line with the horizontal split of the page. The action in the panel itself provides an empty center. Gordon’s form is moving up and to the right, while Vitti’s pushes down and to the left. Together they form a circle of motion, leaving only an empty pit in the center. This is what evokes the false climax of the sequence. Although it is the climactic action of the series, it is set away from the pages actual center.
The sixth panel, swathed entirely in red, calls out to the reader to stop. It tears attention away from the pages center, where it begins and pulls it downward. The fifth and seventh panels support its direction with various forms all-pointing downward. They serve to highlight the baby’s descent from the bridge and to remove attention from the Gordon/Vitti fight. The focus of the sequence is redirected from the action of a chase and fight to the welfare of the James Jr. Although his life was always the central purpose for all of the action, he had been removed from the focus of the sequence for so long that it is important for Mazzuchelli to re-emphasize the dramatic stakes.
All of this leads to the final page. The action is over. The only observable movement on the page exists in the top row as Barbara Gordon runs to the edge of the bridge. This is the true climax of both Batman #407 and “Year One”. Although Barbara’s run to the edge of the bridge and the lack of sound in panels one and two could be perceived as a building of tension, the fates of Batman, Gordon, and James Jr. are never in doubt. They are all present in the central panel of the page, which reader’s will absorb as soon as they turn to it.
The midpoint of the page has finally landed on a form: James Jr.’s chest. For the first time in the entire sequence, the importance of the story is made clear. The action was always near the center of the page, but never landed directly on it. The rescue of an innocent is provided the full emphasis of the page though. This choice speaks volumes about Miller’s perception of Batman. The fights, the chases, and the violence that surround the character are all secondary when compared to his ability to save a life.
The actions that guide the reader’s eye to this centerpiece are just as important as the centerpiece itself. In the third panel, Barbara looks down at the page’s center connected to it by James Jr.’s cries. In the fifth panel, Gordon and Batman look at each other after having saved the day, their line of sight leading to the page’s center. In the seventh panel, Gordon holds James Jr. and the divide between their bodies creates a diagonal leading to the page’s center. All of the panels work to not only emphasize the saving of James Jr. as the story’s climax, but the relationships involved. Mother-Son, Brother-in-arms, and Father-Son: these are important relationships in life as well as fiction. They are bonds as strong as any known to man, and they are the source of this victory.
At its conclusion, “Year One” is a deeply optimistic story. It’s first three issues and the majority of the fourth are focused on the worst of modern society: violence, corruption, prostitution, drugs, and more. Yet in its final pages, it provides a counter-argument to the hopeless nature of Gotham City: a single innocent saved. Batman’s exploits are either failures or overtly violent in nature until the story reaches its conclusion. Even in his most successful exploit earlier in Batman #407, criminals are brutally scarred and the result is even more violence. It is not until the end that Batman earns a clear victory.
James Jr. is saved and presented to his father in a panel that purposefully mirrors a birth scenario. The baby cries reveal that it is alive, it is covered in muck and grime, and it is held in outstretched, gloved hands to a relieved father. Batman has brought life into the world by saving it from certain death. (4)
This birth scene not only applies to the baby given another chance to live, but to the titular character. Batman’s journey in “Year One” was always about finding the best way to honor his parent’s death. He is slowly transformed from an unarmed man looking for a fight into a savior. The conclusion of “Year One” is the crystallization of Batman’s mission and a starting point for the character.
The Dark Knight Returns provides a similar hook as well in its final panel. The many companions he has accumulated throughout the series surround Bruce Wayne: Robin, Green Arrow, and reformed Mutant gang members. The inclusion of former Mutants is particularly important. In The Dark Knight Returns #1 he thinks of the Mutants as being even worse than the mugger who shot his parents referring to them as a “purer breed”. But in the end, they become Batman’s allies working with him to protect Gotham City, instead of destroy it.
His final words put an entirely different spin on the story. “This will be a good life… good enough.” From the beginning of the story as his racecar burnt up, Bruce had been looking for a “good death”, but never found one that was good enough. He is only satisfied when he inverts his desire for a good death into one for a good life. The Dark Knight Returns was never a conclusion to Batman’s story. It is as much of an origin as “Year One”. Batman continues to plan for the future surrounded by a new family with a smile on his face.
No matter how much darkness he must confront in the various forms of police corruption, super villains, and fascistic governments, Batman continues to fight. He was created by a terrible act of violence, but has turned the destructive forces that shaped him into something constructive. Whether it is in the act of saving a baby’s life or constituting an unconventional family, Frank Miller’s Batman is an optimist working to make the world a better place. (5)
(1) Although Miller may be best remembered for his work on Batman at DC Comics, his rise to fame was at Marvel where he single-handedly remade Daredevil into one of the company’s most popular characters. He began work on the title as an artist on Daredevil #158 (6), before assuming writing duties as well on Daredevil #168 that started a swift increase in sales. Many of the popular elements contributed by Miller to the Batman mythos can be traced directly back to his work on Daredevil.
(2) It’s difficult to determine the exact split of work between Miller and Mazzuchelli, especially when looking at composition and design elements. Both are masters of their craft with independent works revealing the same strengths found within these pages. For the purposes of this article, whenever a visual element of “Year One” is being discussed, it should be assumed that it is the work of both creators.
(3) I chose to present the mapped pages in the body of the article to encourage a visual reading of the sequence, rather than focusing on the dialogue. Below are the original pages (19-22) from Batman #407.
(4) It’s interesting to note that the conclusion of “Year One” presents Batman as a doctor. The figure of Thomas Wayne is very important throughout the story. When Bruce Wayne decides upon his alter-ego, he announces, “Father, I shall become a bat.” In the end though, he is shown following in his father’s footsteps. Thomas Wayne was a doctor whose sole endeavor was to save lives. It is that same mission which Bruce assumes in these final pages.
(5) Even Miller’s final work with the character, All-Star Batman and Robin, for all of its many flaws supports the hypothesis. Like most of his 9/11 work, All-Star is characterized by ham-fisted dialogue, over-the-top violence, and a palpable sense of loathing for anything not supporting Miller’s concept of a perfect world. Everyone that is not Batman and everything that does not fit to his moral code is described as either foolish or evil. Yet on final page of All-Star, Miller once again reveals a sympathetic Batman, one interested in creating a family and helping others move forward. All-Star Batman and Robin is a work lacking in almost any value and represents post-9/11 Miller near his nadir, but this one page works very well.
(6) This issue also marked Miller’s first collaboration with inker Klaus Janson who would follow Miller to DC Comics in order to ink The Dark Knight Returns.