Review: Batman: Year 100 trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zaid Alawi very occasionally posts his ramblings, thoughts, and stories on his personal site, Frakking Off.]

One oft-overlooked Batman story in recent years is Paul Pope's Batman: Year 100. This is a shame, because it's a real gem. Written and drawn by Paul Pope, Batman: Year 100 is a mix of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One with Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and George Orwell's 1984, along with a dash of Phillip K. Dick's Minority Report and a pinch of Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.

Though billed as an "Elseworlds" story, Year 100 might very well be a possible future for the modern continuity's Batman. Year 100 takes us to the year 2039, exactly 100 years after Batman's first published appearance, where America has since transformed itself into a dystopian police state. We are introduced to Batman, framed for murder and hunted by federal agents who are chasing -- for all they know -- the ghost of an urban legend. The story also follows James Gordon (grandson of the original) as he contends with all of this from the perspective of a local city cop.

Pope performs a great deal of world-building here, and it's creative enough that one can say he draws inspiration from -- and pays homage to -- the aforementioned source materials, rather than simply being a derivative knock-off. Fans of cinematic science-fiction and Batman comic history will be pleased by the many subtle references. Beyond that are original ideas, such as the notion of SWAT teams modeled after sports teams, complete with jersey-like uniforms, animal mascots, and team rivalries. Then there's the brief description of the Arkham Asylum "Final Solution," which is downright chilling.

The world-building is further complemented by the in-universe police reports and transcripts appended to the graphic novel's backmatter.

As a storyteller, Pope's mastery of the graphic novel medium is nowhere more evident than in his action sequences. Year 100 features many, including two extended chase sequences. Though a staple of the action genre, the car chase is traditionally poorly handled in sequential art. They require multiple points-of-view, quick changes, and dynamic motion, none of which lend themselves well to still renderings and limited page counts. But Pope's illustrations leave little doubt as to what is happening and when, and the extended 200-odd page count gives him room to do so in a way that is thrilling and satisfying, not short and anti-climactic.

But what's most memorable about Pope's design is his vision of Batman. Though armed with a few fancy gadgets, Pope's Batman is as grounded in reality as Miller's. His costume is durable and dependable, but not gimicky or high-tech -- including thick leather belts, tightly-laced military boots, and a hand-sewn ceramic cowl. His utility belt includes carabiners, pipe bombs, and a set of terrifying prosthetic teeth. And his "Batmobile" is merely a tricked-out motorcycle, something you might see in today's world.

This attention to Batman's design is a real hallmark of the book and is elaborated upon in behind-the-scenes sketches and Pope's commentary, making up another portion of the backmatter.

Originally published in 2005 as a four part miniseries, Year 100 is very much a post-9/11 story. The villains include both international bio-terrorists and government agencies that are clearly an outgrowth of today's Department of Homeland Security. And in this respect, Year 100 remains as relevant today in its themes as it did seven years ago.

But Year 100 also manages to be quite prescient and timely with respect to the post-Wikileaks era as well, as the story tackles ideas regarding information control and secrecy. I love the idea that one of the villains literally cannot stomach the idea of any information or knowledge remaining uncatalogued. Thus the hunt for Batman isn't just an exercise in bringing a killer to justice -- it's also to unmask the Dark Knight and expose his secret identity for its own sake, so that there literally can be no more secrets. Another portion of the book handles the tension between freedom of information and security, mirroring the debate our society struggles with, with respect to the leak of confidential State Department memos and cables.

Another one of the questions that Pope toys with is the nature of Batman's identity. Pope implies that Batman may be some kind of spirit, inherent to Gotham City. It's all but confirmed that this Batman is "Bruce Wayne" -- but a Bruce Wayne who has never aged, while his allies and villains are as mortal as ever. The idea that Batman's identity is, at his core, a vaguely supernatural manifestation of Gotham itself is given further credence by the fact that, when not wearing his mask, Bruce's face is always obscured in some fashion from the reader.

These are but a few of the many questions and mysteries that Year 100 tackles. And while the central murder mystery is thankfully resolved, Pope leaves many questions open for the readers to answer for themselves. Some are directly related to the world itself -- who exactly are the book's shadowy international terrorists? Other questions are more meta-textual -- in a world of expanded government, police power, and international terrorism, is the idea of a superhero who fights street crime an antiquated notion that is best left behind as a relic of the twentieth century?

Along with a cover gallery, this collection also include the short "The Berlin Batman," another Pope-created "Elseworlds" Batman story. Originally published in Batman Chronicles #11, it features a German Batman working against the Nazi regime. However, I wish DC had also included the other two Batman shorts both written and illustrated by Pope, "Broken Nose" and "Teenage Sidekick," from issues of Batman: Black and White and Solo. Their addition would have meant no more than an additional two dozen extra pages in a trade that isn't that thick anyhow. Their exclusion is a real lost opportunity for the Batman: Year 100 trade to have been the definitive collection of Paul Pope's vision of Batman.  [I've been wondering if we might see a hardcover of this one of these days, with the items you mention -- ed.]

Thanks, Zaid!  Tune in tomorrow for an important programming note from Collected Editions!
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4 comments:

  1. Great review!! One of my very favorite comics works period. An absolutely gorgeous work with a thrilling story. I'm hoping this is only oop because they're launching an OHC (absolute pleeeeze!!) of this. The "You'll never know" scene is worth the price of admission alone.

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  2. I always flirt with this trade but I've never actually read it. This review might tip the scales for me to crack it open.

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  3. This is a great story collected in a great paperback. I love Pope drawings and all the references.

    Funny, I seem to remember I undertand batman's identity the opposite way: that he is diferent persons through the ages and that it does not matter who's behind the cowl.

    All in all, awesome story, awesome art. Should get more recognition.

    Greetings from Paraguay!

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  4. I tried finding this one on amazon and chapters online and neither had them in stock, however a couple days later I found it at a LCS and picked it up. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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