Batman: Year One
Written by Frank Miller
Art by David Mazzucchelli
On the one hand – the seeming inability of the western comics community to outgrow it’s addiction to superheroes is probably one of the things that has held back the medium from developing into something that’s actually creatively fulfilling. It’s as if the only food that’s readily available is junk food. And yeah ok sometimes it’s cool and can taste really good and give you a massive sugar rush but well – of course – if that’s the only thing that you eat then it’s not exactly healthy you know?
But then on the other hand – you have things like Batman: Year One that not only show you what comics can do but also show you what superhero comics can do. It’s like yeah yeah yeah it’s junk food but oh my god it’s been cooked in such a way that it tastes like it’s gourmet or something. Everything is cooked just right and there’s a whole bunch of flavours and spices that you didn’t even know could be done. A serious take on Batman? Where the levels of reality have been finely tuned to such an extent that you’re like – oh wow. This could take place in our world. Like: that’s quite an achievement.
But then on the third hand – no matter how expertly crafted and masterfully rendered it’s still a simple moralistic tale of good versus evil. Because that’s what all superhero stories aren’t they? The good guys fight the bad guys and the good guys win. And yes god knows that that’s exciting and stimulating and does all sorts of things to the lizard part of our brain that wants to see the whole world in black and white but then again maybe that’s not the part of our brain that we should be feeding?
But then on the fourth hand – it’s a comic book. Like how complicated can a comic book get anyway? I mean if you want something complicated and intricate that shows you the endless difficulties and entanglements of the modern world then read a novel you know? Comic books are just about having a good time and not thinking about things too much and just enjoying the pretty pictures. And there’s lots of pretty pictures in Batman: Year One. That David Mazzucchelli sure does know his stuff.
Whoops. But Fifth hand says – yeah but what about Frank Miller? I mean – isn’t that the same guy that made Holy Terror? Which is basically now the Mein Kampf of comic books. A piece of evil Islamophobic dogshit that should be banned from everywhere. Every copy should be dropped in a hole and buried under concrete and then set on fire. And no one should mention his name again and he definitely shouldn’t be invited to comic conventions in case he’s able to speak to members of the public and he manages to convert them to his terrible and malignant ways. Our society will be better if these people aren’t given a voice. Obviously.
Sixth hand has a retort to that – Like: didn’t we used to agree that there was a separation between the art and the artist? Or does that no longer apply? Also – what is the comics community supposed to be about anyway? Because isn’t being into the comics about being into the fact that it’s an artform that can express and do so much in all sorts of cool and interesting ways in which case – well – you kinda have to doff your hat to Frank Miller because he’s the one who first opened up the ways and (in terms of the mainstream) expanded the possibilities of what people can do. Not to mention the stands he took for Creators Rights (oh the irony).
Seventh hand disagrees – says: No. Being into comics is about creating a safe space to express your individuality and the various features of your identity. It’s about being to see yourself being reflected in the characters that you read. It’s about drawing a line between those people that you can trust and those people that would do you harm. And Frank Miller has shown that he is not to be trusted. And he has shown that he wants to do people harm based upon the colour of their skin and based upon their beliefs. And therefore comics is better off without him.
Eight hand’s turn – and points back towards what the third hand was saying about binary choices and simple superhero morality tales. Like: thinking about human beings as being good or bad and rejecting people because you don’t like a book that they wrote is not the best way forward. Like yeah – Holy Terror is a shitty piece of work but defining one person by one thing that they’ve done is pretty much the dictionary definition of reductive – no? (Not to mention the fact that it feeds into the narratives of the very worst people out there). Making people pick a side is good for those who want us fighting each other but honestly I think I’m more into the idea of all of trying our best to work together (but uh oh maybe that makes me one of the bad guys?).
Ninth hand says – but hey: none of this is actually going to change anything. It’s all just people arguing on the internet right? Twitter isn’t real life. Cancel Culture isn’t real. Go outside and read a comic book why don’t you?
Tenth hand shrugs. Murmurs something about how the world is created by how we think about it. And how we think about other people. And how we think about ourselves. Which means that we should take the time to think about this stuff. And maybe be a little bit less sure and a little bit more open-minded.
Hi Joel, all,
The Frank Miller who wrote this book was energetic and lean, shaking up the industry in a good way, on the whole. The layouts have a manga-ish freshness to them (bleeding panels to the edge of the page, black rther than white panel gutters, positioning figures between panels, were all pretty out there at the time. I suspect Miller had a big hand in the layouts. I don’t know what to make of Mazzuchelli’s art here – it’s simple, and economic, in a way that suits the story, and there’s some deft use of silhouettes and negative space, like below.
And sometimes it just looks a bit rubbery and lacking in style. Mazzuchelli certainly went on to have a weird and interesting career in comics. I’m not sure how much his Asterios Polyp works in the end – plenty of bold experimentation in there – but City of Glass had me gripped – it’s worth tracking down.
Trigger warning – politics ahead…
Fast forward to 2011, to the book that we’re also talking about here – Holy Terror. Miller is now a successful, mainstream figure riding high on a number of film adaptations of his work. He’s part of the establishment, and as such, whether he likes it or not, what he chooses to write about will influence a lot of people. With Holy Terror, I think he made some pretty awful choices, and maybe he contributed in a small way to the increasingly vocal far right within America that led to the rise of Donald Trump, etc. etc. Maybe he was just reflecting what was there, maybe he’s not actually big enough to have been a contributing factor. Who knows. If I’d written that book, and were looking back at it from 2021, I probably wouldn’t be feeling very comfortable with myself.
A thoughtful, moderate Frank Miller trying to write stuff to improve the moral fibre of the nation is a ridiculous notion, of course. The punky young upstart Miller of Batman Year One was an iconoclast, and a stylistic innovator. Holy Terror is neither iconoclastic nor stylistically interesting, and is devoid of any artistic merit in my opinion. It’s interesting to contrast it with Howard Chaykin’s United States of Hysteria, another fairly ham-fisted book that caused a lot of offence at the time, by another stylistically innovative bad boy of 80’s comics. (Chaykin, with Ken Bruzenak by his side, arguably pushed bigger envelopes much further than Miller ever did. Discuss.) It feels to me that Chaykin’s trying to provoke the reader into thinking, but Miller’s just spewing hate. Looking back at Batman Year One, and The Dark Knight, can we see the seeds of that in the younger Miller too? There’s no real interrogation of Batman’s motives, of the balance between punishing and othering criminals versus trying to rehabilitate, or deal with the underlying causes that drive people to crime. As I recall from an interview in the early 90’s, Miller had been mugged twice while living in New York, and felt personally that crime ought to be punished.
Anyway, onto the other actor in our drama here – the ones calling for Miller to be de-platformed (this month’s choice of book has got a little bit to do with the recent invitation and de-invitation of Miller as a guest at Thought Bubble, if I’m not wrong? Joel, I have to disagree with your fifth hand and seventh hand’s arguments here, as an oversimplification of why some people were asking him to be removed from the agenda. The way you’ve phrased it, it sounds like a tunnel vision division of the world into “good people” and “bad people”, and a need for conformance in thinking. (I get that I’m arguing with a voice you’re adopting here, not necessarily your own views, btw. You’ve covered some ground there with your ten hands!)
From what I understand of the arguments for de-platforming Miller, it is not about saying that his books shouldn’t be available to anyone, or that he’s a baddie, but that the organisers of the festival have a limited amount of airtime at their disposal, and a responsibility to consider the consequences of who they give it to. It’s not possible to put Miller on the agenda in a neutral way that neither approves nor disapproves of the ideas he puts forward in his body of work. Holy Terror gives voice to hate, and it may embolden those who wish to promote acts of hate in the real world to see him get top billing. (Note the “may”.)
Let’s be clear – these acts of hate aren’t felt uniformly. I’m a white cishet agnostic male, and don’t often feel like I’m in a situation of physical threat. I worry about the encroaching mainstreaming of the hard right, and I imagine that my worry feels quite different from that of a female muslim comics creator, for example, who’s far more likely to be on the sharp end of far right violence than I am. If I try to understand what that’d feel like, the closest analogy I can think of is chronic pain – I’ve seen how that can change the outlook and surface personality of people I know. I imagine that living with the background level of stress as a female muslim might be akin to chronic pain, at some level. Forgive the imperfectness of the analogy, and I might be guessing totally wrong. But when I see those creators expressing fairly raw anger, and behaving in a less-than-chill fashion, I will tend to cut them a lot of slack, for this reason. And re-read, to get to the underlying arguments, which are often nuanced and sound. I will try to assist by drawing on my own vaster stores of niceness, which aren’t depleted on a daily basis by the presence of a far right sharp end right in my face, and speak up about these things myself in a careful, inclusive nice fashion, like I’m doing now. It doesn’t feel right to expect them to do all the speaking up themselves.
I’d love to live in a world in which I didn’t have to choose between a Thought Bubble with Frank Miller and a Thought Bubble with Shortbox in it. But I can see why that is the case, and my choice would be for Shortbox every time – more so because of the energy that Zainab, their publisher, puts into the comics community, as well as her own creative work. People like her, and you, Joel, with the energy you put into this group, are gold dust, and I appreciate you all.
Frank Miller is welcome back when he’s created a worthy successor to his early punk energy, and maybe reflected on what he thought he was doing in 2011 (without turning into a nice person! His sharpness was one of his strengths, once upon a time).
Long political rant, coloured by my own lefty liberal leanings. I acknowledge not everyone here will see Trump/far right as a problem in the way that I do. Others may have been turned off just by the discussion of politics. We’re here for the comics. I look forward to discussing them with you. 🙂
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