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Batman #404-407 (1986-87). David Mazzucchelli.
Despite his having drawn two of the bangin’-est, bone crunching-est superhero comics of the modern age (namely Daredevil Born Again and the book at hand, Batman Year One), few would argue that a — perhaps the — defining aspect of David Mazzucchelli’s approach to his mainstream comics work is its great subtlety. The artist’s decision to leave superheroes for the greater freedom of alternative comics may have been surprising at the time, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense: Mazzucchelli was never as interested in the roaring moments of climax that are action comics’ stock in trade as he was in the smaller, tension-filled moments of ascent and decline that bookend them. It was perhaps inevitable that he would one day leave the spandex merry-go-round in order to investigate them more deeply, but in his timeless collaboration with Frank Miller on Year One, Mazzucchelli was able to find an ideal point between noise and quiet, action and inertia: superhero comics somehow created to lack the kitschy “zap bam pow” element, given a truer “real-world” feel than can be found just about anywhere else in the genre.
Mazzucchelli achieves his understated tone not by shying away from the big moments, but by presenting them in a slightly different manner than usual. Until the final installment of the story, he leans uncommonly hard on a four-tier layout, rather than the typical three of hero comics — and even when a three-tier layout is employed, it’s often imposed onto a page still composed in quarters, with two tiers taking up half a page rather than two thirds and a third dominant image filling the other half (above). It might not seem like an incredibly important shift, but it fundamentally changes the reading experience: Year One is composed a little too densely to be called a page turner. Unlike the majority of superhero comics, drawn using the Kirbyist model in which all the information on each page is apprehensible at first glance and reading is only necessary to fill in the blanks, Year One’s tightly packed pages demand a more incremental reading — one closer to the way we interact with prose.
Too, Mazzucchelli’s four-tier pages throw off the natural rhythm of hero comics, as seen above. The linchpin action shot of the page above is in panel two, with Batman’s thundering kick splintering a solid stone column — and yet the dominant image, the one backgrounding the entire page, is in panel three, as the roof comes crashing down on a hapless group of antagonists and the hero leaps clear. It’s a choice that acts as shorthand for Mazzucchelli’s entire approach to this book: rather than focusing on the most kinetic moments, he puts the spotlight on the ones most felt. Batman’s kick takes a split second, barely seen, and directly affects nothing but the pillar; but the subsequent collapse of the roof is a more drawn-out process, one that has ramifications as long as its victims remain in traction. Time and again in Year One, Mazzucchelli purposely de-emphasizes (or as below, entirely leaves out) the big moments in order to create something that flows, something that foregrounds the impacts actions have on characters rather than the fact of the impacts themselves.
Mazzucchelli favors placing his dominant images in the third tier, allowing them to hold down the center of the page while giving them as big a build-up as possible. It’s an action that mirrors both the four-panel gag strip and the “four on the floor” rhythm of pop music, a regularized pulse with a little extra put on one beat in each set. It’s such a familiar structure to present content within that Year One just soaks in through the pores — if the lurching, ever-so-slightly goofy rhythm of hero comics is gone, it’s been replaced by something simultaneously sleeker and more muscular, a pleasingly symmetrical structure that’s roomy enough to be experimental within. It remains a high-water mark for superhero comics, a bold statement that proves the genre has room for the typical crash and bluster and the considered subtlety of one of our greatest cartoonists.