I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
There are a few titles that are routinely cited as instrumental to understanding the path of American superhero comics the past twenty-five years. The Frank Miller series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is chief among them. I won’t deny the impact of Miller’s satiric limited series that helped define the caped crusader’s pathology by imagined a heightened intensity future, but I think another storyline from a year later is even more important.
In the pages of the monthly Batman, Miller reunited with his recent Daredevil collaborator David Mazzucchelli to go in the opposite chronological direction from his Dark Knight series. Instead of the future, the Batman storyline looked to the past, presenting a sort of origin story that focused on the first year that Bruce Wayne took the law into his own hands in Gotham City. “Year One” found the haunted millionaire trying to clean up the urban hellscape that robbed him of his parents. Of course, he didn’t have a good angle for his vigilantism until the strangely faulty windows in stately Wayne manor proved porous enough to allow entry of an unspeakable giant bug.
The storyline followed and expanded the origin of Batman, but one of Miller’s key inspirations was the make the foundation story of the famous superhero as much about one of his key allies, who began as an adversary. I’m not enough of a lifelong Batman aficionado to say so for certain, but my clear impression of Gotham City P.D. employee James Gordon as a character before “Year One” is that he was a fairly cardboard figure, mostly in place to provide some key exposition when needed. Miller made the story about him to such a degree that some of the complaints I remember from those time groused that the saga would have been more accurately titled “James Gordon: Year One.”
For me, this was one of the elements of the story that I responded to most strongly. It’s a tried and true storytelling technique: when there are fantastical elements in play, it’s helpful to have an everyman whose reactions can be a reasonable stand-in for those in the readership. What’s more, it offered a good reason to expand the origin story that decades earlier was handled in a few panels to four full issues. Miller wasn’t dragging things out to expand to the necessary page count for a trade paperback. He was genuinely trying to explore different facets of an oft-told tale. The extra room also provided room the occasionally cute in-joke.
The ripples that emanated from Miller and Mazzucchelli’s splash went out across the waves of comicdom. The pointed seriousness of the story influenced subsequent comics far more that the comic exaggeration of The Dark Knight Returns, and the expansion of Gotham City from the setting for Batman’s adventures to a place with a far-ranging inner life of its own began here. Even the primacy of clearly defined story arcs in the midst of ongoing series can be traced here. Add to that the clear impact on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and this work has been profoundly resonant ever since it first ran.
I remembering feeling disappointment when the fourth and final issue came out and it was clear that Miller and Mazzucchelli wouldn’t continue–I may be wrong, but I think the initial announcements were for a more open-ended tenure–but they were surely better off closing things out, making their statement on the character and even the state of comic book storytelling definitive.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson