Bat-Classics is a regular column in which How To Love Comics recommends Batman stories from yesteryear. You can find all the reading recommendations here.
After Bruce Wayne witnessed the horrible killing of his parents as a child, he vowed to fight crime in the hopes that no boy would ever have to experience what he went through. It’s a noble response to such a life-altering experience, albeit a bit questionable from a mental health standpoint. And while this is certainly a recurring theme of the Caped Crusader’s comics, it tends to be a theme that plays in the background. We’re lulled into taking Bruce’s reaction to trauma for granted. But in 1987’s Batman: Year Two and its one-shot sequel Batman: Full Circle – set in the second year of Batman’s crime-fighting and written by Mike W. Barr, with art by Alan Davis, Todd McFarlane, Paul Neary, Mark Farmer, Alfredo Alcala, Pablo Marcos and with colors by Steve Oliff, Gloria Vasquez, and Tom Ziuko – we’re asked to question Bruce’s coping mechanisms. Through the story, we’re faced with multiple characters who face similar tragedies and have a myriad of approaches to moving on. We see, perhaps for the first time, that Batman’s method of forging ahead is not his only option.
We open on a talk show, featuring the newly appointed Commissioner of the GCPD, Jim Gordon. The show’s host questions the GCPD’s cooperation with the crimefighter known as “the Batman.” Gordon doesn’t quite manage to sputter out a response to the inquiry. After all, the host’s concerns are valid. Barr uses the talk show to underline the inherent ridiculousness of the world we’ve grown so accustomed to. It adds a layer of realness to Gotham City and gives us a character that asks the question “are we really all supposed to go on pretending this is normal?” Frankly, there’s nothing normal about a man dressing up as a bat beating up crooks and the police being okay with it. All Barr does is remind us of that. It’s really a glorious place to start the story, throwing the reader immediately off-balance.
“Many feel the Batman is no better than the costumed lawbreaker who stalked Gotham’s streets twenty years ago, calling himself ‘the Reaper,’” the host continues. Penciller Alan Davis and inker Paul Neary draw Gordon as increasingly frustrated. He has his finger up in the air, trying to make a point with a shadow over his eyes, while the talk show host eyes him with a dismissive smile. It’s clear she has the upper hand. Then Barr snaps us out of this debate, taking us to a dilapidated apartment where the TV show has been playing in the background. In the darkness, a few kids – Davis and Neary draw them as teenagers – lug some stolen goods into the flat. When Batman appears out of thin air, he beats them in the darkness and dives out the window. “I’d stay and wait for the police, boys… but I’ve got other things to do.” It’s hard not to read that scene as being a little cruel. Why would Batman be wasting his time with petty thieves? Even he acknowledges that his time is better spent elsewhere. Maybe, he’s getting something out of it. And thus, our exploration of Bruce Wayne’s motivations begins!
It’s not long before the Reaper – the “costumed lawbreaker” who left Gotham years ago – has returned to the city he once tried to save. He sees the sin that has run rampant in his absence and decides it’s about time he came out of retirement. He opens a closet and dons a silver skull and two scythes, along with leather body armor. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because Batman: Year Two was a big inspiration for the beloved classic 1993 film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.) The Reaper dresses up to look like a pimp and goes to the seediest part of Gotham. When a sex worker tries to talk to him, offering him a good time, he reveals his scythes and says the words, “Woman, my satisfaction is derived from purging the city from such as you…” It’s twisted. It’s sick. It’s… familiar?
It’s hard not to see a little of Bruce in this encounter. Yes, the Reaper is more extreme. But maybe he’s also more honest about what drives him. And after a failed attempt at stopping the Reaper, the first chapter ends with Bruce brandishing the gun that killed his parents. Up until this point, Batman has always assured us that he draws the line at killing. In fact, that’s pretty much his only rule – which he claims is what separates him from his villains. “I’ve always dreaded this… but perhaps the only way to avenge them… is to fight my enemy on his own terms…” he says. His only rule hangs in the balance. We’re left wondering just how different Batman is from his antagonist.
The next issue gives us more of a window into the Reaper’s past and helps us understand why he’s so incredibly different from his own daughter. Rachel Caspian doesn’t know what her dad gets up to at night. But while he’s off slaughtering gangsters, she’s training to become a nun. The truly interesting thing about the both of them, though, is that they’re each spurred on into these pursuits by the same event. Detective Comics #576, penciled by Todd McFarlane and inked by Alfredo Alcala, takes us back to the fateful moment that the Reaper lost his wife and Rachel lost her mother. We see panels that directly call back to Bruce’s origin story. Rachel walks down an alleyway late at night with her father and mother. A thief meets them and guns her mother down.
This isn’t the only way McFarlane and Alcala draw a connection between Rachel, Batman, and the Reaper. They also repeat one image’s composition three times. First, they show a panel of Bruce getting his Batsuit out of a closet, directly over a panel of the Reaper getting his gear. They’re in the exact same stance, taking up the same space on the page and facing away from the reader. The following page repeats the image, but with Rachel getting her nun’s habit. The comparison couldn’t be clearer, and yet McFarlane and Alcala give Rachel a little space from the other two. Her response to tragedy is wholly unselfish. She has chosen a life of self-sacrifice and service, at the expense of attachments and comfort.
Of course, Barr and company are still showing there’s a connection there. Bruce isn’t quite the sick bastard the Reaper is, but he’s not wholly sacrificial either. He’s stuck somewhere in-between. This becomes evident when he starts convincing Rachel that she should abandon her dream of becoming a nun so that she can be with him. As this story goes on, we see more options of how Bruce could better cope with loss. Not only do we see him building hospitals and continuing the work of his father – making us wonder if he’d be better off focusing his efforts on charity work – but Batman: Full Circle directly contrasts him to the colorful and excitable Robin. Dick Grayson’s origin is almost exactly the same as Bruce’s, and yet Dick does somersaults through the air, wears bright red, yellow, and green, and tells quippy jokes as he lays into thugs. Full Circle goes on to introduce yet more characters with similar backstories, all of whom find unique ways to harness their tragedy. The story leaves us wondering if these people – along with Bruce Wayne – are all just victims of survivor’s guilt.
That’s what Batman: Year Two opens up for us: the question of nobility versus mental health. Barr sets the stage in such a way that we go through this story in a state of discomfort. Every heroic act, every crook stopped, seems to be traded for a little piece of Bruce’s stability. By comparing Bruce to the Reaper, Rachel Caspian, Dick Grayson, and more, this creative team shows us that Batman is not the inescapable product of tragedy. It’s a choice. And for the sake of Bruce’s wellbeing, perhaps it’s the wrong one. Many Batman series have wrestled with this dilemma, but perhaps none have done it with the efficacy and brilliance of Batman: Year Two.
Batman: Year Two ran through Detective Comics #575-578 and has been collected in trade paperback and hardcover. It can be found in all good comic book shops, online retailers, eBay, Amazon/Kindle, and DC Universe Infinite.