Chronologically Speaking: Frank Miller’s Batman Part 1

I’m a big fan of huge stories told over multiple parts. However, they can get a little tricky to figure out when you try to put them on a timeline. With Chronologically Speaking, I’m looking at multi-part stories not in the order they came out in, but in the timeline of the fiction.

Back when I was first working on The High Five Podcast — the show where I would slap some skin on a quintet of related pop culture goodies — I started putting together an episodes about Frank Miller‘s sci-fi work covering things like his RoboCop stories, Ronin and the like. If memory serves, I thought it was interesting that a guy who’s so well known for down-to-earth, gritty tales also did these high-concept looks toward the future (that also wound up being gritty and street-level now that I think about it). While I’m not Miller’s biggest fan, I am fascinated by his works and remembered recently that, in the past few years, he had gone back and added to the world he started building off of the seminal Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which has been dubbed Earth-31. Curious about how all the pieces fit together, I started gathering materials from my own collection, the library and Hoopla.

As you probably know, Dark Knight Returns came out first in 1986. After that book proved to be a huge success — it, along with Watchmen kicked off an era of dark realism in comics that touched just about every corner of the market — DC teamed Miller with Dave Mazzucchelli to tell the hero’s origin in Batman #404-407. Much like its predecessor, “Year One” became a part of the Bat Canon as it not only showed the grim reality of Bruce Wayne’s origins, but also the various pitfalls he tumbled into — and barely survived — on his way to becoming the Dark Knight.

When I write a post like this, l often give pertinent terms a search on the site to link back to related stories. To my surprise, I not only wrote about Year One already, but it was exactly 10 years ago! I even mention that I planned on reading all of these books in chronological order (at least I’m consistent). It also turns out that I made a lot of the points I was going to write this time around. So, to get the full review, head on over and read that one. I will also add that it’s interesting how the passage of time has altered my reading of this story because its version of Gotham is very much in the same vein as the New York of the 70s. It’s wildly dark, dirty and dangerous and the cops are mostly out for themselves. That’s just not the vibe of places like NYC anymore and seem all the more fictional and foreign these days. Also, I know public opinions on the police are all over the place, but the Gotham ones seem out of control in a totally different way, the kind of way that would be right at home in Sin City, say, but feel almost cartoony now. Speaking of Sin City, I wonder if this was where Miller’s love of writing butt-kicking prostitutes started.

Chronologically speaking, this is where Frank Miller’s Batman begins (heh). Interestingly, though, this also became the starting point for most of the Bat stories to come after at least until DC restarted everything with the New 52. As such, “Year One” is unique in that it’s like a fixed point in multiple universes, though the various Batmen branch off to very different places. However you look at it, “Year One” sets up not only the hero, but also his relationship with criminals, Catwoman and Jim Gordon, while also establishing characters like horribly corrupt cop Detective Flass who gets name-dropped a fair amount throughout.

Up next I moved over to Superman: Year One by Miller and John Romita Jr. from 2019 Now, even though Batman isn’t in this much, Miller did state directly that this is the version of the Man of Steel who appears in Dark Knight Returns. Initially told in three large-format issues through the DC Black Label, each book follows Kal-El through a different era of his life. The first is of Clark as a kid trying to figure out how to deal with bullies in Smallville without hurting them, the second finds Kent joining the Navy and the third establishes him in Metropolis as a reporter/hero. While Miller makes a variety of changes and plays with the elements, the major differences here are Clark’s military service (which leads to the death of an enemy combatant) and a period of time which he spends living under the water so he can date mermaid Lori Lemaris (this Superman is constantly falling in love, not just with women, but Earth in general). He’s also more of a toddler when he’s sent to Earth and gets his powers very quickly. Oh, and he may or may not have some kind of mind powers.

While I really enjoyed the 80s high school movie feel of the first issue, the second didn’t really do much for me but drag. In fact, all of these issues felt a bit too long for the story being told. In the third, we see Lex Luthor and the Joker hatch a plan to pit Superman and Batman against each other, but they’re stopped by Wonder Woman who says they should all work together. At the end, it’s implied that Superman then spends a great deal of time in space looking for Kandor. I haven’t finished my re-read of DKR, so I’m not sure if that’s a nod to that book or not, but there you have it. At the end of the day, this book just isn’t for me. I love the Superman of the 80s and 90s as regular readers know and this take veers away for that. Besides, I just don’t need another origin story for the Man of Steel, especially when it follows the broadstrokes of the one I already knew with just a few changes here and there. I think my opinion would be different if Miller had Clark stay in the military, which would help explain the version of the character seen in DKR, but that’s not the case.

At this point I figured I’d be moving on to All-Star Batman, but then I discovered there’s a Miller Batman appearance between the two: the 1994 Image/DC crossover Spawn/Batman written by Frank and drawn by Todd McFarlane. Luckily this was just re-released recently in Batman/Spawn: The Classic Collection, so I could easily read it on Hoopla. And while I don’t think I would have realized it was linked to Earth-31, there’s a note on the title page that reads “Spawn/Batman is a companion piece to DC Comics’ Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It does not represent current DC continuity” which is an odd thing to include in an inter-company crossover because they are usually handled in such a way that you’re only using the broadest of strokes as to who the characters are so that both fanbases can enjoy them.

Anyway, this issue is fine. I love seeing McFarlane draw the Dark Knight not only because he drew the first Batman comic I ever read (Batman #423), but also because I used to really enjoy talking to him when I was at ToyFare and later at CBR. In this story, Bats finds a robot with a human brain in it that leads him to New York City where his investigation brings him to Spawn’s alley. The two fight a whole bunch and eventually stop the bad guy, but only after Al Simmons literally saves Bruce Wayne’s life with hell-magic. Even so, Batman is still a jerk, which is really the heart of Frank Miller’s version of this character. The Batman I love has a heart and humanity to him. Sure, sometimes it gets buried underneath mountains of trauma, depression and maybe even insanity, but it always shines through eventually. I’m still reading through these books, so I don’t know if Miller’s take gets there or not. I sure hope it does, but am certain it’s nowhere to be found in the next chronological entry in this series!

Looking to add these to your collection and don’t mind following my Amazon Associates links? Then try these! Batman: Year One comes in standard trade paperback form as well as Deluxe and Absolute editions. You can also grab copies of Superman: Year One and/or Spawn/Batman: The Classic Collection.

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