One of the best things about Batman is that he's been around for so long, and re-imagined by so many creators, that there are actually a number of different 'sub-genres' of Batman comic. The character lends himself to murder-mysteries, espionage, sci-fi and fantasy. More recently, writers have attempted to weave these diverse elements from the character's history into extended super-narratives - stretching the credibility of the plots to breaking point in the process. For me, the most rewarding of the Batman sub-genres is where the character is stripped back to the bare essentials; for the sakes of credibility, keeping the Rogues Gallery to a minimum and focussing on the character's formative time as a vigilante. I suppose you could call it Batman for Real, and it includes a number of comics published around the late '80s and early '90s; storylines that were clearly influential to David Goyer and Christopher Nolan as they began to work on their Dark Knight movie trilogy.
Batman Year One
Possibly one of the most widely read and iconic of Batman stories is Frank Miller's revision of the character's origin, Batman Year One, from issues of Detective Comics published in '86-'87. The main distinction between this and any other Batman comic, is the emphasis that is placed on James Gordon - only a Police Lieutenant at this time. Gordon shares the spotlight fairly evenly with Bruce Wayne, in parallel character-arcs, as they both attempt to turn the tide against corruption and greed in Gotham City. In fact, it's almost to the detriment of Wayne's characterisation, as his fractured psyche or tragic motivation are not particularly explored. By way of compensation, Gordon's lethal combat veteran gets to kick all kinds of ass, and as a novice father struggling to keep his family together and do the right thing, he makes for a compelling protagonist. It's a testament to the strength of Miller's plotting and script that there isn't actually any need for a main antagonist to his two heroes; institutionalised corruption in general is the super-villain here.
David Mazzucchelli's artwork is widely regarded to be a masterpiece of super-hero storytelling. However, I think that while I was a kid, the simplistic, grounded style actually put me off reading this comic. Looking at the art now - I love every single panel. The compositions and character designs are firmly grounded in reality, making the characters all the more believable, and therefore vivid. The linework is minimalistic, smooth and confident, so that when the action does heat up, the characters flow across the page. It's a cinematic style that has been used a lot more in the last decade by artists like Michael Lark, Sean Phillips, Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin.
It's unfortunate that Miller's characterisation, the greatest strength of this comic, has some fundamental inconsistencies with the rest of Batman lore. In current continuity, Commisioner Gordon's children Barbara and James Jr are major supporting characters, aged in their twenties, but at the start of Year One they haven't even been born yet. This would mean that within current continuity, Batman has been active for 25(ish) years, ageing Bruce Wayne at about 50 years. But Wayne was generally accepted to be only about 40 years old, until a recent revamp de-aged him to just 30, further confusing the character's history. I suppose this means that Batman Year One is now officially non-canon.
Nevertheless, my overall impression of Year One was that it left me feeling completely satisfied, and yet acheing for more. Like a great meal, I chewed over each page, and savoured each moment, and I felt comfortably stuffed by the end. But I was already looking forward to my next serving.
DC must have recognised that there was audience demand for a direct continuation of the Year One mythos, as a follow-up story arc, Prey, published in Legends of The Dark Knight from '90-'91, provides just that. Miller and Mazzucchelli did not return for this adventure, instead it was written by Doeg Moench, with art by his frequent collaborator Paul Gulacy. However, the template set up in Year One was followed very closely; the relationship between Batman and the newly promoted Captain Gordon is at the heart of the plot. Also, the twin-narrative device of displaying both Gordon's and Wayne's inner monologues, often side-by-side, is carried on here. Year One focused on Batman's problematic relationship with the GCPD, and that remains a main theme, with Captain Gordon placed in charge of an elite team that is tasked with bringing in the Dark Knight himself.
At the climax of Year One, Batman earned the trust of Gordon by saving his infant son. But with the majority of the Police Force still distrustful, or just outright crooked, Gordon's loyalties to the vigilante are tested to the limit. In a marked distinction from Year One though, Moench introduced two antagonists for the heroes to tangle with. The first was the introduction of Doctor Hugo Strange, who works with the Police to produce a psychological profile that cuts a little too close to the bone for Wayne's comfort. The second is Max Cort, a driven GCPD cop who Gordon recruits to his team, without realising that his unbridled ambition borders on insanity. The combination of Strange's intellect and Cort's physicality provides a credible opposition to Batman, and Moench spins the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse into a highly effective thriller.
The timeframe of the story is shorter than Year One, and yet the page count is an issue longer, so Moench was able to fill out the extra space with some beefier action set-pieces, and with a bit more exploration into the emotional baggage that Wayne had been struggling with since the murder of his parents. As Hugo Strange uses the media to launch a psychological attack against Batman, the hero must make a distinction between his crusade for justice, and his obsession for revenge. And when a homicidal copycat crimefighter, Night Scourge, hits the streets of Gotham, Batman is forced to physically confront the personification of his psychological demons.
The artwork of Gulacy is not quite as on-the-nose as Mazzucheli's - here the figures can be a bit stiff, and the facial designs of characters often feature pinched noses and clipped cheek bones that can be uneasy on the eye. But the level of detail on display is impressive, particularly in the backgrounds, brought out by the crisp inks of Terry Austin. The fight choreography is well planned out too, all of which helps to support the sense of realism that Miller established in his original.
By all accounts, Prey is a highly entertaining sequel to Year One - and although it may not quite stand shoulder to shoulder with Miller and Mazzucchelli's classic, it should satisfy any fans who want to find out what happened next.
Batman Year Two
Year Two followed hot on the heels of Year One, being published in Detective Comics in summer '87, only months after it's prequel. Although by name, this would appear to be a direct sequel to Year One, it was actually created from an existing plot concept by writer Mike Barr, and repurposed into an adventure from Batman's early days. As such, it doesn't really share any common ground stylistically or thematically with Year One, and Gordon has been once again demoted to a supporting role.
The first issue was drawn by British artist Alan Davis, a personal favourite of mine. Unfortunately he had to drop out, and was replaced in the subsequent three issues by Todd McFarlane, who's art was more stylised and cartoonish, but was just as effective. Certainly, it was because of the art that this was one of the first Bat-comics that I read, back in the early '90s.
As an interesting counter-point to the copycat crimefighter in Prey; in Year Two, Batman is opposed by his own murderous predecessor, a ghoulish and bloodthirsty vigilante called The Reaper. Night Scourge and The Reaper both represent dark reflections of what Bruce Wayne could have become, or may still become if he makes the wrong choices and strays too far into lawlessness. Barr's plot muddies the moral water even further here, by having Batman join forces with the Mob; calling a temporary truce in order to fight against the seemingly unstoppable killer from Gotham's past. It's a nice twist then, when the hitman that the Mob partners Batman with is actually Joe Chill, the very man that shot Wayne's parents in Crime Alley 15 years earlier.
The main point of interest of this storyline though, is the inclusion of a love interest for Bruce Wayne - something which few other arcs have provided. Since Bruce was still only starting out on his crime-fighting career, he still thought there might be space in his double life for the woman he loves, and Wayne even briefly considers retiring his crimefighting career for his beloved Rachel. Of course, the reader knows that the affair is doomed from the outset, making it all the more poignant. Following the tragic denoument, it seems that Bruce's heartbreak has only strengthened his resolve; his emotional armour is now complete, and he has truly embraced his role as Batman for life. It's a fitting closure point to a trilogy that sets out to explore the makings of the Dark Knight legend.
As I mentioned earlier, these three arcs provided key characters and story beats for the plots of Goyer and Nolan's blockbuster Bat-movies; but they were also highly influential to the Warner Brother's animated movie Mask of The Phantasm, which for my money, is probably the greatest Batman story of any medium. And to be honest, although it doesn't have the grittiness or realism of any of the work by Miller, Moench or Barr, I reckon it should be the first stop for anyone looking to explore the makings of the Dark Knight.