Batman Year 100
Paul Pope, writer/artist
DC Comics, 2007
Originally written on April 8, 2007 for publication in The Comics Journal
Over the past decade, the most innovative and entertaining examples of action cinema have gone in one of two directions. Some have used a stylized combination of wire work and digital tomfoolery to make it all look easy–wuxia movies, The Matrix (wuxia gone Western), 300 (wuxia‘s Western equivalent), Kill Bill Volume One. Others have gone for a lived-in, beat-down, de-glamorized vibe that makes it look damn hard–Casino Royale, the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings, Kill Bill Volume Two.
Given Paul Pope’s futurist bent and Japanese influences, you might think his epic science-fiction alternate-future Bat-book would head in the former direction. Not so! From the thrilling opening sequence of Batman Year 100 onward, Pope makes it clear that he’s going to make his hero seem super by making everything he does seem as down-to-earth, and difficult, as possible. Frank Miller’s interior-monologue litanies of broken ribs and paralyzed nerve clusters notwithstanding, there’s never been a better depiction of the extremely physical nature of dressing up like a bat, running around city rooftops and picking fights with people. And in the hands of an action choreographer and stylist like Pope, that alone makes for a hell of a comic.
Pope’s obsession with the man half of the Batman–evident even in the antiquated, hyphenated way he frequently spells “the Bat-Man of Gotham”‘s moniker itself–was apparently a preeminent concern of the writer/artist’s from the get-go. The book’s copious extra features include an initial sketch sent to editor Bob Schreck, accompanied by a laundry list of handwritten questions pertaining not to where the character keeps his kryptonite ring or whether he and Catwoman are still an item, but his height, his build, what material his mask is made of, whether he can wear “square trunks like an Olympic swimmer” and which joints his costume might gather at. In notes written for the collection, Pope explains his fixation:
“My preference is to work on stories where I am free to completely design a fictional world–literally from the ground up. Take Batman’s boots for example. This guy would need a good, sturdy pair of boots…It’s long been a pet peeve of mine when you come across comic book artists who insist on drawing generic, featureless boot-like shapes beneath the ankles of their superheroes, as if boots were just vague, foot-shaped stumps molded out of colorful plastic blobs, resembling something you’d get out of a toy box at a dentist’s office…”
There’s a lot more where that came from–and that’s just the costume design. Perhaps that’s to be expected from Pope, who as an artist has frequently dallied in the world of fashion and is attuned to the dovetailing of form and function, style and substance with any well-dressed individual, superheroes included. But the “concealed human vulnerability” conveyed in his clunky clodhoppers and wrinkly elbows is concealed no longer the second Pope puts him through his action-adventure paces. The book opens with Batman being doggedly pursued by, well, dogs, across the familiar rooftop landscape of Gotham’s vigilante clique. This Batman doesn’t just toss a few Batarangs, launch a grappling hook and swing away to brood atop a gargoyle another day. When he jumps a 25-foot gap between roofs, trailing blood from a wound in his side, he actually has to pause to catch his breath and give his aching bones and muscles a chance to recuperate. (And to smirk at his frustrated canine pursuers, admittedly.) When he hides from a SWAT team in a child’s apartment, it’s with a sense of genuine peril should the kid rat him out–in his weakened state, he’d clearly get his ass handed to him. And when he finally turns the tables on the federal goons by attacking them in a stairwell, it’s clear he’s relying far more on the element of surprise and pure costumed bluster than on flawless martial artistry. This Batman could lose, and that’s what makes his adventures so much fun to follow.
The choice even makes thematic sense. The semi-dystopian setting of Year 100 is one of Pope’s now-trademark libertarian nightmare scenarios, a world where surveillance cameras are surgically grafted into the eyeballs of police dogs and the fact that Batman wears a mask and therefore can’t be identified presents a far more visceral threat to his governmental enemies than the fact that he’s suspected of murdering a federal agent. In the same way that Orwell’s free-thinking Winston is told by his torturers that he is the last human being, Pope’s Batman is memorable not because of any dazzling gadgets or superhuman displays of physical prowess, but because he eats, sleeps, keeps protein bars in his utility belt, wears a shirt that’s a size too small, talks with a speech impediment when he wears scary fake fangs to freak out federal goons, gets his ass thoroughly kicked every time he sees action, and requires a small support team consisting of a doctor, a tech expert and a motorcycle mechanic to help him get anything done at all. With each of the aforementioned acts he reasserts his irreducible humanity in a world classified and documented and categorized and bureaucratized to within an inch of its life. It’s all enhanced by Pope’s familiar stylistic tics–meaty and careworn faces, bee-stung lips, heavy brows, hair that hasn’t seen shampoo for a fortnight, clothes that bulge and bag and buckle, characters who clamber and carom down creaky stairs and through grimy alleys and around telephone wires. He’s not a number, he’s a free man. The physical is political.
And much to this fanboy’s delight, the Bat-portion of “Bat-Man” doesn’t go ignored. I wish I could remember the name of the online wit who pointed out the true ridiculousness of Batman’s outfit: Like an old Star Wars Halloween costume with the character’s picture plastered on the chest, the Bat-costume’s central motif is a freaking drawing of the animal it’s supposed to transform its wearer into. What kind of sissy-ass criminal would be scared of that? But to this Batman of the year 2039, the key to striking terror isn’t the animal itself, but the unfamiliarity it represents. Fighting against platoons of jackbooted federales with animalistic nicknames like the Wolves and the Panthers, Batman takes advantage of his sui generis state–none of these professional ass-kickers have ever seen anything like him–and uses it to scare the crap out of them. His mask is designed to distort his facial features into inhuman unrecognizability. He uses sonic enhancements to emit growls. He wears a set of porcelain vampire teeth. Put it all together and, as captured in a searingly intense panel depicting a motion-captured close-up from a surveillance camera, it’s the scariest Batman has ever looked and acted, even if his sleeves are too short. (Colorist Jose Villarubia nails that Blair Witch by way of One Night in Paris screen; he’s at his best with the neons and glows of the tech-y end of Pope’s world, rather than the Vertigo-style greens that sully the down-and-dirty stuff.)
If I’m lingering on business rather than story, that’s because the story itself doesn’t cohere nearly as well as the ideas and images behind its lead character. In a plot drawing heavily from post-9/11 fears of governmental intrusion and terrorist brutality–Pope being perhaps the only major comics artist (not counting Red-Meat Miller) to give the taboo against taking the latter as seriously as the former the middle finger it deserves–Batman, his little band of helpers, and Capt. Jim Gordon (presented here as a quid pro quo political appointee) uncover a small but serious conspiracy within the federal ranks to hijack a terrorist-developed doomsday virus for their own ends. Or something. To be honest, it’s kind of hard to follow, existing mainly as a platform upon which Pope’s characters declaim didactically about the wisdom of trusting the government, the depths of depravity to which terrorists have no problem sinking, the healing power of open-source information streams, and so on. It makes for a cute ending–one where Batman and crew avert the apocalypse not by kicking the Joker’s ass but by the counterintelligence equivalent of uploading a video to YouTube–and insofar as it relies on fulfilling relatable tasks (climbing up ropes, locating lost computer disks, remembering stuff), it’s refreshing. But in terms of presenting readers with a compelling and solvable mystery, one wishes Pope had taken as much time making it as solid and singular as Batman’s trunks. Toward the end, even the action starts to slip away, with a motorcycle chase that’s tough to parse and too death-defying by half. How about giving the Bat-cycle a flat tire?
But the book is redeemed by its final pages, where Pope makes the seemingly counterintuitive, extremely unorthodox choice to keep Batman’s secret identity a secret from both his enemies–and us. Is he, somehow, the same Bruce Wayne who cooked up the heroic identity way back in 1939? Is he a descendent who took up the mantle? Is he (most likely) just some guy who thinks privacy and decency need a human avatar in this crazy mixed-up world? He’s not telling, and neither is Pope, who leaves us with a final panel that brings us full circle by showing Batman frantically running away from pursuers who will never catch him. The specifics may get a little wonky, but that indelible wish to remain unfettered, unclassifiable and untouchable–even if you get the snot beat out of you from time to time for your troubles–is as good a reason as any to dress up in a costume, or read a book about a guy who does so.