While I didn’t really Read Comics growing up, I did read a few specific comic books and graphic novels. Among them: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. This was (with the possible exception of the original Tim Burton film) my first direct exposure to Batman, and I loved it.
Year One tells the story of the launching of Batman’s career, as it were—the transformation of a young, angry, obsessed Bruce Wayne from directionless seeker to directed, personified force. It is, in parallel, a development of the character of future commissioner Jim Gordon, in the book a pushing-middle-age transplant to Gotham. (The recent film Batman Begins is not based on, but does pay considerable homage to, this book. Gary Oldman is, visually at least, a spitting image of Miller’s Gordon, and a few shots/moments, such as Gordon ascending the steps of a building while SWAT looks on, are clear references.)
The writing is very good—this is the sort of book you can hand without embarassment to someone who doesn’t read comics—but the art is, as I see it, essential to the success of the book.
It doesn’t look like a superhero comic.
There’s a certain stylistic implausibility to superhero stories: these are people with catchy, cartoonish names who run around in tights. They have superpowers and they have dating problems. There’s a constant mix of world-shaking threats and interpersonal drama that doesn’t really make sense in the cold light of day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—they’re stories, and they’re operating in a tradition, an storytelling culture where these things are at least internally consistent.
But what Miller does in Year One is strip down as much of that as he can while still having an obsessed billionaire run around in a costume calling himself Batman. The art is dirty and grim and unfantastic—Gotham isn’t a dystopia, it’s just a bad place to live, and the villains are corrupt politicians and crooked cops, not chortling fruitcakes with superweapons. Batman himself is a fledgling vigilante, a lifeless, friendless, anti-social man who puts on a costume because, ultimately, he doesn’t know what else to do, because he can’t stand simply being himself.
And it’s all in dark lines, flat, broken faces, flickers of emotion in a heavy, pain-in-the-ass world. No flashy stuff, no attention-getting flourishes, just stark, simple linework and wonderful muted colors that make you believe, if anything could, that there’s a good cop and a mad/sane costumed billionaire trying to make little things right in a city chock full of wrongness and badness.
Frank Miller’s other big Batman book, The Dark Knight Returns, covers the other bookend of the Batman saga—Bruce Wayne pushing sixty, retired and restless. The art is still very Frank Miller, but the execution is more DC Comics, superheroes in classic form, than Year One. It’s also very good, but where Year One has realist lines and an almost anti-comic feel, Dark Knight has larger-than-life characters in huge, dynamic superhero poses, and a whole cavalcade of men in tights. Great art, but not the same sort: I don’t love it. I don’t want to emulate it.
[Update! Attentive reader layne points out that Year One was illustrated by David Mazzuchelli, with Miller writing, something I had half-forgotten and wholly failed to emphasize in the writeup. It's Frank's Batman, but not his pen.]