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Batman – Year Two (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Batman: Year Two is an… interesting read. It’s much-maligned by comic book fans, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Most obviously there’s the fact that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there’s also the fact that it was published by DC as a way of capitalising on the success of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Year One is a classic comic book story, one of the greatest origins ever written, and one that endures to this day, where even Scott Snyder felt intimidated in writing over it more than two decades after it was published.

Batman: Year Two is not that sort of classic.

In fact, it’s not any sort of classic. However, divorced from context, it’s an interesting read. It feels like writer Mike W. Barr is consciously and gleefully subverting absolutely everything that worked so well in Miller’s Batman: Year One, rejecting the notion of a version of Batman anchored in something approaching the real world, and getting right down to the comic-book-y-ness of the character. Positioning it as a sequel to Batman: Year One feels odd. It would almost read better as a rebuke.

Welcome to the late eighties...

Welcome to the late eighties…

To be fair, Mike W. Barr actually wrote most of Batman: Year Two years before DC originally published Year One. The company just wasn’t interested in Barr’s original story (Batman: 1980) at the time. When Frank Miller’s origin stated selling like hotcakes, Barr dusted off his old script and the company was more than happy to publish it. It’s arguably a cynical cash-grab, but it’s a cynical cash-grab with art from Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane.

Barr and Davies had been working on Detective Comics during the eighties. I’m actually reasonably fond of the run, even if it is (rightfully) overshadowed by Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli’s re-working of Batman’s origin. Because producing a highly enjoyable series of fun Batman adventures is always going to stand in the shadow of one of the medium’s most well-respected superhero masterpieces. Barr might have written some good Batman stories in the eighties, but Frank Miller wrote good Batman stories in the eighties.

Reaping what he sews...

Reaping what he sews…

There’s also the small matter of tone. While Frank Miller made Year One work by stripping Batman back to basics and dumping him into a recognisable world of urban decay and social collapse, Barr tended to play up the absurdity of Batman comic books. Working with Davies, his run featured super-sized death-traps and brainwashing a cheesy gags. While Miller did an excellent job stripping out some of the extraneous parts of the mythos and re-conceptualising Batman for the comic book landscape of the late eighties, Barr was busy wallowing in the clichés of the Silver and Bronze Ages.

And I should be clear, I love Mike W. Barr’s run. I have no problem with goofy Batman, as long as it’s fun and well-written. It’s just worth noting that Year Two was written by a guy who had spent most of the past year doing pretty much the exact opposite of everything people loved about Frank Miller’s Year One. So, while branding his flashback arc Year Two might ship some extra copies, it was also massively disingenuous.

Batman's got a gun...

Batman’s got a gun…

While Barr apparently only made a couple of changes to the story to help it fit with Miller’s version of Gotham, it reads almost like a complete repudiation of Miller’s vision. Miller’s Gotham was steeped in corruption and crime, a grim reflection of the urban decay of the eighties. Batman fond himself dealing with pimps and crooks stealing televisions rather than supervillains. While Jim and his wife make a passing reference to Superman, there’s a very clear sense that Batman is the first time that Gotham has ever seen anything like this before.

The first page of Year Two undermines this, suggesting that Batman is just the latest in a long-chain of costumed crime-fighters. In a handy bit of exposition, a reporter asks Gordon about Batman’s similarities to a “costumed law-breaker who stalked Gotham’s streets twenty years ago, calling himself The Reaper.” This is a costumed fend who even has his own headache-inducing catchphrase. (“Don’t fear the Reaper…”) However, Barr goes further than suggesting that Batman was the first hero of his kind in an otherwise realistic Gotham.

Cutting...

Cutting…

Instead, Barr suggests the decay of Miller’s Gotham wasn’t the result of bad governance or social policies or anything resembling real-world concerns. Instead, the reason that Gotham became a haven for the corrupt was because the last costumed vigilante retired. “Some say it was the Reaper’s abrupt departure from Gotham that plunged our city into the maelstrom of crime and police corruption from which it’s only just emerged –“

There’s also a sense that Barr is quite uncomfortable with the ambiguity that Miller introduced around Batman. Early on in the story, Barr goes out of his way to demonstrate that Gordon and Batman have more than just a working relationship. They are friends. While Barr stops short of having Batman as a deputised law enforcement official in Gotham (unlike, say, Bob Haney), he is sure to have Gordon stick up for Batman in the media. When Gordon is trying to quit smoking, Batman buys him a pipe.

Alfred just cleaned that floor...

Alfred just cleaned that floor…

At one point, Batman even uses the “f-word”, as if pointing out how absurd it would be if the two of them were forced to antagonism. “Commissioner, very soon now you’re going to curse my name, order my capture, wish me dead. Against that time, I can only say… I swear to you — by the cause I love — that I am your friend.” There’s none of the grim “take it or leave it” attitude that we expect from Batman in the late eighties or nineties. This isn’t a soldier fighting a war who doesn’t care about the enemies he makes along the way.

One of the reasons it’s hard to imagine that Barr wrote this before Miller wrote Year One is because it feels almost like a parody of the darker Batman heralded in by Frank Miller’s work on the character. This version of Batman finds himself carrying a gun that he’s not afraid to use, and teaming up with a bunch of people who apparently represent all the crime in Gotham, but have nothing better to do than to meet in abandoned warehouses.

A grave hero...

A grave hero…

Batman becomes obsessed and isolated from those around him. He drives off Leslie Thompson, for example. Gordon feels that he can’t trust the guy. Batman considers summary execution of Joe Chill, the man who killed his parents. Far from a common criminal like in Miller’s version of the tale, this version of Joe Chill appears to be an excellent hit man and assassin. “You need the right man for the job, Jones,” he boasts. “I need some dope, or some dame, I call you. You need a guy hit — you call me.”

(Which raises all manner of interesting questions, and makes the death of the Waynes a lot more than a random crime of opportunity. It makes it seem like a big event, and the decision to bring back Joe Chill as some sort of representative of the concept of “crime”, forced to team up with Batman, makes the whole thing seem decidedly comic-book-y, in contrast to the more grounded approach of Frank Miller.)

There's something wrong with this image...

There’s something wrong with this image…

Barr isn’t exactly subtle about this. Batman’s introductory sequence has him tackling a bunch of criminals commiting a burglary. When the lights go out, they reckon their firearms give them an advantage. “Guns?” he mocks. “If you’ve put your faith in those… you’ve already lost.” So when the climax of the first issue features Batman producing a gun – not any gun, the gun that killed his parents – there’s no ambiguity. Batman has gone off the reservation.

Similarly, Barr pits Bruce against the Reaper, who exists as a decidedly grim anti-hero who avenges crime in his own way. In an origin quite similar to that of Thomas Wayne in Brian Azzarello’s Knight of Vengeance, the Reaper sees his family destroyed by violence and seeks vengeance. He chooses a dark path. He’s a wonderfully eighties design, using hand-scythes that also conveniently double as firearms. I am surprised that he never got his own series.

I'd be disappointed if he didn't get it...

I’d be disappointed if he didn’t get it…

The Reaper is – in a brilliantly unsubtle manner – intended as a cautionary tale to Batman. He’s the vigilante with no real connection to the real world waging an unending war on crime with nothing more creating than some sharp objects and some guns. He’s not a superhero, he’s a monster. Barr lays the whole “he who fights monsters…” schtick on pretty heavy here, with our gun-totting ready-to-kill Batman forced to face the monster he risks becoming to fight crime.

What’s weird is that you can see Barr introducing a lot of the tropes and clichés of Batman that Year One tried to gingerly brush aside. Harking back to the Golden Age, there’s even a shallow love interest for Bruce, who briefly makes him consider resigning the cowl. Ultimately, she’s forced away from him by events and Bruce is left to stew in his own isolation. Even the idea of Batman using a gun could be read as an homage to the gun-totting Golden Age Batman and Detective Comics adventures.

Going to the bathroom in that suit must be a pain...

Going to the bathroom in that suit must be a pain…

In the end, Bruce casts the gun into the foundations of what will become Wayne Tower, which is an intriguing bit of symbolism. What does it mean? Is Batman – as a character – built upon gun violence? I suppose that makes sense, given the death of his parents. Is the gun a part of the character’s foundation? Er… I suppose he used one in some early stories, so maybe? Why would Batman want to keep that gun close to him? Why would he want it as part of the roots of the tower built to honour his parents?

It’s all a bit nuts, but it’s also intriguing. You get a sense of just how radical Frank Miller’s vision of Batman was, by contrasting it to the version presented here. Year Two has an interesting legacy, albeit one a lot less direct and high-profile than that of Year One. Most obviously, the story served as an obvious influence on Bruce Timm’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which put its own rather wonderful spin on the love affair between Bruce and the lead female character.

"I shall become... a reaper..."

“I shall become… a reaper…”

In a way, it almost seems like a redemption of Year Two, stripping out the more obviously awkward plot elements and demonstrating that there were some rather wonderful ideas buried in this early story of Bruce’s career. Without the subplot involving the gun and Joe Chill, it moves a lot more fluidly, and it’s a shame that the comic doesn’t work nearly as well. That said, the comic was popular enough to earn a sequel from Mike W. Barr and Alan Davies, so I guess there’s that.

There’s also the fact that Grant Morrison also plays around with it during his Batman run. Morrison’s Batman run suggested that pretty much every Batman story happened, including some of those out-of-continuity. For example, Damian Wayne is a character inspired by Barr’s out-of-continuity graphic novel Son of the Demon. However, Morrison goes out of his way to explicitly contradict Year Two by offering another fate for Joe Chill and the gun that killed Thomas and Martha Wayne.

Suits you, sir...

Suits you, sir…

Given that these two elements were at the core of Year Two, Morrison’s desire to specifically take them off the table in his own re-contextualising of Bruce Wayne’s history feels a little pointed. Similarly, that fact that one of Morrison’s “Three Ghosts of Batman” – dark reflections of Batman who might have been – is a “killer Batman with a gun” seems like a jab at this story. (Although it should be noted that Barr’s Batman never killed, he did fire quite indiscriminately, and did consider executing Joe Chill in his sleep.) Even Morrison’s Gothic rather mercilessly mocks the idea of Batman making peace with crime to fight a common enemy.

It’s worth noting that the art on Year Two is actually really good. I’m a big fan of Alan Davies’ Batman work, and Todd McFarlane’s stylistic touches are well-suited to the gothic mood of the character. It’s just a bit disappointed that they are attached to a project as disappointing as this. Still, the fact that it is more colourful and more energetic than the sombre and atmospheric Year One underscores the differences between Barr’s approach and that of Miller. There are other nice stylistic touches as well – including Barr’s heavily reliance on more comic-book-y thought balloons as opposed to the more restrained use of notes and captions in Year One.

Stick that in your pipe...

Stick that in your pipe…

Year Two is a fascinating read, even if it’s a little all over the place, and it’s hard to reconcile with just about any version of Batman not written by Mike W. Barr. It feels like a rather ham-fisted parody of “grim-and-gritty” Batman, so positioning it as a sequel to one of the works most responsible for cementing that trend feels beautifully ironic. It’s bold and it’s outrageous, even if it feels like a pretty dramatic misfire. But it’s never less than interesting, even as it’s unsatisfying.

6 Responses

  1. Completely agree with this. It’s one of the weirder stories and doesn’t even follow the Year One pattern of occurring over 12 months. It feels out of place within most Batman stories, not just next to Millers. Great review.

  2. I’d say this is still canon in Morrison’s run. When we see the other altercation with Joe Chill, Batman is hallucinating. I always took it to mean that the reason he kept the gun that killed his parents (as seen in both Morrison’s run and Year Two) was so that he could force Joe Chill to kill himself. What we see in Morrison’s run is what Batman was planning on doing with Chill, Year Two shows what really transpired.
    As not everything we plan happens the way we plan it.

    Batman was going to be all cool and collected and just hand Chill the gun and have him do the work himself.
    In the end, Batman had to point the gun to Chill and wasn’t able to keep his cool like he wanted.

  3. Excellent blog, and fantastic post on Batman Year Two. I’ve just picked it up and plan to read it, but now I am going into it without reservations. I knew it wouldn’t be as epic as Miller’s Year One, and it now sounds quite the opposite of that first origin, but I know I’ll still enjoy it for the piece of cannon that it is, and for early Todd McFarlane art…

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