There are few Batman stories quite as iconic as Batman: Year One. Batman: Year One was written by Frank Miller, illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, colored by Richmond Lewis, and lettered by Todd Klein. While you can purchase the four-part story on its own as a TPB, it was published as Batman issues #404-407 in the year 1987. The arc repeatedly finds itself among the best Batman stories in various lists and rankings and (at the moment) is considered canon. It was key to the Batman reboot which took place after the DC-wide shuffle following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Enough backstory, though; if you want more of that, there’s always Wikipedia.
This issue begins with James Gordon taking the train to Gotham, recognizing it as a hellhole, and accepting his place there all in a few panels. He splurged to have Barbara flown in, musing that from high above, one can be fooled into seeing the city as civilized. Bruce Wayne is also arriving in Gotham, via airplane no less, and right away we see that he and Gordon have somewhat similar thoughts; Bruce knows that the majestic buildings viewed from above are hollow shells, the creations of men long dead. Amusingly, he regrets the flight and wishes he would have taken the train (“I should be closer. I should see the enemy”).
Gordon arrives at the crowded station, kindly (if annoyingly) confronted by a Hare Krishna asking for donations. Off to the side we see a man towering over everyone else, calling out for Lieutenant Gordon. He identifies himself as Detective Flass and ‘helps’ Gordon by shoving the Hare Krishna aside by his throat, showing just how helpful Gotham police are! He furthers his dickish persona by setting Gordon at ease (“[Gotham’s] not as bad as it looks. Especially if you’re a cop. Cops got it made in Gotham”). Bruce Wayne’s arrival has him surrounded by reporters and we quickly learn that Bruce is 25 years old, has been away from Gotham for half his life, and that the gossip media industry hounds him as a celebrity. Oh, also he’s very rich. And wears a stupid jacket.
The next scene sets up Commissioner Loeb as a shady man in a couple ways. First, a news report shows that D.A. Harvey Dent‘s attempts at charging Loeb with conspiracy have failed due to the disappearance of a key witness. Secondly, when Gordon confides that he’s made mistakes in the past but wishes to make up for them, the Commissioner brushes it aside and tells him that what’s most important is that the media never got wind of those mistakes. Not only do we get this brilliant exchange, we also see that the Commissioner’s real crime is having the tackiest office in the world:
Flass drives Gordon around, drinking a beer in the process and proving to the new Lieutenant that he’s a multitasker. Attaboy, Flass. The detective even stops the car when he sees a gang of ruffians that he’s apparently familiar with. Other than hanging out (and possibly skipping school) they aren’t doing anything wrong. But hey, this is Gotham, and anyone’s a potential criminal, so Flass unleashes some street justice, punching out one kid and then slamming him onto a dumpster. Gordon watches silently, telling himself that he knows better than to publicly accuse a cop of being dirty (presumably from experience), not without all the facts, so he watches and remembers.
A bit over a month later, we see that Gordon can’t keep to himself. The other cops are suspicious of him and he apparently chastised one of them. No longer does he allow Flass to call him Jimmy either; it’s Lieutenant all the way. Flass and the Commish know that Gordon’s not the right type, and they conspire to teach him a lesson. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is punching bricks and kicking down trees because he can (and wouldn’t you?) but worried that despite his training, he’s missing something before he can get to work punching muggers and kicking down rapists.
Gordon’s finally confronted by four masked men with bats. Oh, make that five, but Gordon’s military training alerted him to the one sneaking up while the others distracted him. And while he holds his own, he’s no Batman, and at five-against-one, it’s only a matter of time before James gets a bat to the skull. And the chest, and the left knee, and the shoulder, all while realizing that it’s Flass and his buddies.
While Bruce is strutting through the worst part of Gotham, incognito, Frank Miller drops some shout-outs to classic Batman writer Bill Finger and artist Dick Sprang, mentioning their names as a memorial (Finger was deceased when this was written) and a mission, both of which are crawling with the lowest of the low. After Bruce is given an offer by an under-aged hooker, her pimp picks the disguised playboy out as a vice cop, pointing out that the ‘crazy veteran’ disguise is played out. Get with the times, Bruce, real vice cops dress as Frenchmen in striped shirts.
Do-gooder Wayne provokes the pimp while another prostitute, dominatrix Selina, watches from a window. After kicking the hell out of the pimp, Bruce is rewarded by the young hooker, given a knife to the thigh. Two others join in and just when it looks like Selina’s going to help out, she’s instead jumping in to help Holly, the stabby little hooker. Hissing like a cat, she puts her karate skills to the test against Bruce, but to someone with Bruce’s training, karate is like counting to ten compared to his differential calculus. Differential calculus which punches her in the face and lays her out cold.
The cops arrive and Bruce knows he’s in trouble. Not just because Gotham cops are grade-A dicks, but because if they find out who he is, his plans are ruined. Whatever the case, his plans are ruined nonetheless when one of the cops opens fire, hitting an artery. Bruce wakes up in the back of a cop car, cuffed, and warns the officers to get out. They brush it off as the ravings of a drugged-up loony just before said loony breaks the chain of his cuffs. Bruce crashes the police car, knocking out the two cops, but pulls them to safety before the vehicle bursts into flames.
Gordon’s still alive and well enough to drive, although Bruce’s Porsche speeds past and almost hits him. Bruce, dazed and bloody, mutters about fear and how that’s what he needs to dispense justice and prevent little girls from shivving him. Gordon’s on a mission, tracking down Flass and waiting until he’s alone after “poker night” with the boys. After running the corrupt detective off the road, Gordon gets out and draws his firearm, demanding that Flass toss his own away. We then get one of my favorite lines, cementing Gordon as a stone-cold badass.
Gordon beats the tar out of the bastard, giving him no less (and no more) than what Flass and his buddies did to him. Enough to beat and humiliate him and keep him from going after his wife, Barbara (“Thanks, Flass. You’ve shown me what it takes to be a cop in Gotham City”).
While Gordon’s tied up his loose ends, Bruce Wayne still has his own problems. He made it home, spectacularly crashing his Porsche into another of his cars, and stumbling into Wayne Manor. He knows he has it all, the money, the perfect headquarters, even a butler trained in combat medicine. He laments that he lacks the patience, though, despite having endured eighteen long years since his mother and father were shot dead in an alley. A bat crashes through the window, interrupting his memories, and Bruce is reminded of how bats scared him as a boy. That’s the fear he needs. “I shall become a bat.” I suppose that, desperate and delirious from blood loss, there are worse decisions one could make. Personally, I like to imagine Bruce being interrupted by a baseball crashing through his window, hit by some punk neighbor kid.