The Enduring Legacy of Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: Year One’

Aaron Potter
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Questionable directorial ventures aside (he directed a poorly received version of Will Eisner’s comic book, The Spiritand the big-screen follow-up to Sin City), nobody can dispute the huge mark left by legendary writer Frank Miller on the world of pop culture. Not only did he bring Marvel’s Daredevil back from the brink when he created Elektra, and go on to define his noir style of comic-book storytelling through series such as Sin City, The Spirit, and Ronin, but he is also the man largely responsible for transforming DC’s Caped Crusader into the stoic, Kevin Conroy-voiced defender that’s become so iconic today.

You see, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Batman had started to drift away from stark vigilantism into more colourful territory. It wasn’t until 1986 that he finally returned to his darker, more serious roots in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue miniseries. Centring on an alternate-universe Batman who is much older and closer to losing his sense of honour and morality, this grim tale proved so successful that one year later, Frank Miller treated readers to another run — one that is now considered a classic.

Batman: Year One is the story that soft-rebooted the world’s greatest detective for a whole new generation of comic book fans. Many were familiar with the events of Crime Alley and Bruce Wayne’s general reasons for donning the cowl, sure — but we were yet to see those early, difficult years of his career as Batman. Miller wanted to take the character in a new, grounded direction. This gritty tone has proven so influential, it continues to inspire the Batman mythos across multiple media today.

The Dark Knight Trilogy – the Gordon/Batman Relationship

You could almost rename Nolan's first movie 'Bromance Begins'.

Part of what made Batman: Year One so revolutionary was Frank Miller’s decision to explore Batman’s beginnings in parallel to James Gordon‘s origins. A relocated detective who’s yet to become the police commissioner dedicated to uprooting the city’s deeply ingrained crime epidemic, Jim Gordon’s bond with Wayne develops across a period of 12 months as the duo learns that Gotham needs a special kind of approach if it is to be saved.

This dynamic is central to Christopher Nolan’s entire Dark Knight trilogy, but is perhaps most prevalent in 2005’s Batman Begins. Screenwriter David S. Goyer lifted the story of Bruce Wayne’s long absence from Gotham following his parents’ death directly from Batman: Year One, allowing the film to explore just how corrupt the police force becomes during this time. The eye-to-eye relationship between Gordon and Batman subtly bubbles to the surface as the fearsome twosome begin their crusade against crime. It comes to fruition during the emotional conclusion of The Dark Knight Riseswhere Gordon’s influence on Batman in his pursuit of justice is deliberately and calculatedly reinforced.

Batman: Zero Year – Vigilantism in the Early Years

Scott Snyder's Zero Year featured a younger Batman that looked and moved differently than ever before.

Scott Snyder’s tenure writing Batman – epically brought to life by Greg Capullo’s illustrative efforts – is full of memorable storylines and deconstructs the character’s history. How do you follow up the game-changing Court of Owls storyline, though? Seemingly, by doing as Frank Miller did, and going back to the time when The Dark Knight was first starting out. Zero Year is a clear nod to Year One’s title and treatment of Batman. This 2013 comic book arc has since replaced Year One as Batman’s in-continuity origin, but respectfully so by flipping specific elements on their heads.

Spread across three specific segments in Secret City, Dark City, and Savage City, Batman: Zero Year follows the Caped Crusader during his time without the cape – where he was more ‘rough and tumble’ in his fight against ground-level criminals like the Red Hood gang and a pre-riddle obsessed Edward Nygma. Contradictory to Miller’s original series, however, is how Gotham itself is depicted. Far from the dank, gothic structures we’re so used to seeing in Batman media, in Zero Year, Capullo envisions it as a bright and vibrant metropolis worth saving.

From here we get to see plenty of quiet, introspective moments in which Bruce is forced — convincingly — to consider the risks in taking up the Batman mantle, as well as come to terms with the trauma of his parents’ death for the first time since his return to Gotham. Zero Year is a smart retelling of the Batman origin story that heightens almost every event that happens thereafter. So much so that certain elements are set to be adapted for the forthcoming fifth season of Gotham.

Batman: Arkham Origins – First Encounters with Notable Villains

Arkham Origins let Batman wreak havoc on enemies who were unaware he existed.

Faced with the tough task of developing a follow-up to Rocksteady’s acclaimed 2011 video game Batman: Arkham City, the new team at WB Games Montreal saw the sense in going back to Batman’s early timeline to progress the series. Set several years prior to the events of the original Batman: Arkham Asylum, the aptly named Arkham Origins was proposed as a “year two” game that would centre on The Dark Knight’s early days, acting almost as a companion piece to Batman: Year One, despite being set in the game-specific Arkham-verse continuity.

Batman: Arkham Origins never directly references Frank Miller’s run, but its presence is most definitely felt; whether it’s in the initial mistrust between Batman and James Gordon, or how it uses the opportunity to depict Batman’s first interactions with some of the most celebrated comic book villains in Bane, Deathstroke, and The Joker. The developers also took the chance to shed light on some of the lesser-known members of the Bat’s rogues’ gallery, those that would never dare get the chance to shine on the big screen — like Firefly, Copperhead, and Black Mask.

While certainly capable of thwarting the eight assassins chasing him down for the bounty placed on his head throughout the game’s main campaign, Arkham Origins’ younger, inexperienced, and slightly more vulnerable Batman can be traced back to Frank Miller’s classic comic book tale.

Aaron Potter
A fervent word whisperer and lifetime Sci-Fi fanatic, Aaron’s pop culture obsession started after watching Terminator 2 far too young. Since then, he’s tried to put it to good use writing for places like GamesRadar, Kotaku, and FANDOM.
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