Batman was created in 1939 as a dark vigilante waging his own personal war against the criminal underworld. The comics built on the pulp detective fiction that was popular at the time, and were heavily influenced by The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and other masked heroes. In the post-war years, Batman was softened so that he would appeal more to children. Despite still selling well, Batman faced obstacles in the 1950s. The industry itself struggled to hold on to the adult readers it captivated in the 1930s and 40s, and criticisms of the book led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which would censor the industry for the next two decades. In 1954, Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, which alleged many things about comic books. Specifically, that Batman and Robin were gay lovers. This led to the creation of Bat-girl, Batwoman, Bat-Hound, and other characters to seem more family-friendly. The stories themselves took on a more sci-fi flavor, incorporating aliens, time travel, and camp. This all, of course, came to a head with the popularity of the 1960s Adem West TV show.
Throughout the 70s and early 80s, sales for Batman comics had dipped considerably. DC had tried bringing in a darker tone to the books as early as 1970, but the books weren’t selling like they had been. By the mid-80s, DC was quite a bit behind Marvel in terms of sales, and this was attributed by some to the continuity errors of the DC books. Starting in the 1960s, the idea of a multi-verse began to take shape in DC – with multiple versions of characters (the Flash, for instance) existing simultaneously. Over the decades, this problem grew unmanageable, and was overwhelming and confusing for new readers. In 1981, writer Marv Wolfman pitched the idea to simplify the DC universe by destroying worlds. DC hired a researcher to read every DC issue, which took two years. All of this eventually culminated in The Crisis on Infinite Earth crossover event – which completely restarted the DC universe – in 1985. It was a massive event, and monumental success for the company, and it injected fresh energy into the entire brand.
In 1986, Frank Miller created one of the most seminal books in comics history: The Dark Knight Returns. This book re-imagined Batman as a 55-year-old man coming out of retirement while facing resistance from the police and government (represented by Superman). Part of his contract required that Miller re-tell the origin story of Batman. He made Batman: Year One.
I was never a fan of DC comics as a kid – this was the era of the Death of Superman. I read that story, and some of Knightfall (which was the introduction of the character of Bane, and led to Batman having his back broken), but I never really liked the art DC, and the art is what usually drew (heh) me in. The art here, by David Mazzuchelli, is absolutely beautiful. It’s subtle, and lacks the fine detail of many of the Marvel and Image books of the era – but much of his art is beautiful here.
The writing is nothing short of spectacular. Frank Miller is a pretty problematic person (especially his post-9/11 stuff), but he is in top form with this story.
It’s not hard to tell an origin story for a character that’s been at the forefront of the industry for 50 years, but it is exceedingly hard to do it in an interesting and novel way. As near as I can tell, this story was universally praised upon publication, has gone down as a classic story of the character. If you want a place to start reading Batman, there’s probably no better origin story than this.
And it was written by an important figure in the industry who was at his peak.