Robot 6

Your Wednesday Sequence | David Mazzucchelli’s “Year One”

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.

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15 Comments

I always said that Mazzuchelli is THE BEST storyteller in the modern US comics.
Maybe Romita Jr or John Byrne are close, but Mazzuchelli is really the best one out there.

I invite you guys to PLEASE do the following: “Read” the DD Born Again saga, without reading the ballons.
It’s simply wonderfull.

Great article. I agree with you that this work is one of my all time favorites. I’ve studied the structure of these pages and was surprised that I didn’t see any of what you wrote about here before. The thing that struck me about the pages was how, in the beginning of the story, each page is split between Gordon’s story and Wane’s story, often contrasting with each other. So it’s really nice to see a fresh perspective.
Another thing that stands out of Year One is the incredible coloring by Lewis Richmond though I don’t recognize the coloring here. Is this a new recolored edition?
Great article thanks!

The coloring was still done by Richmond Lewis. It was re-done for the trade paperback collection with a wider pallette, allowed by the better printing process available to TPBs.
However, I was looking at a site recently (the address or name escapes me) that showed both the collection pages next to the original newspring comic pages. The article was discussing what some colorists were able to do with the old 64-color separation process.
I, personally, prefer the ingenuity of color design displayed by Richmond in the restricted pallete of the newsprint addition. However, the craft and talent in the recolored pages for the collection are still very impressive.

This is a fantastic installment in the column. Great read. Some solid systematic and critical understanding at display here. Truer words have never been written on a comics blog. Well done.

Mazzuchelli is UNIQUE! He graduates from RISD, draws a few books, moves on and does his own thing. He developed his own style, which few people have been able to imitate. His work is simple and gritty, never overworked. It gives his books and “older” look. While its too bad he didn’t work more in the comic world, I have the utmost respect for him. Maybe his work is so appreciated because he chose quality over quantity.

Great article. I’m always happy to read analysis of how comics work, and there are few artists as ripe for discussion as Mazzuchelli. His work is full of rhythm.

Probably the best comic artist EVER!

His work on Batman: Year One is understatedly beautiful, simple, yet powerful & effective, however, my favourite piece of his art are the two pages where The Avengers first showed up in Daredevil: Born Again. I’ve just started read Asterios Polyp, which is all his own work (writer & artist) which is a completely different style, showing that he is quite versatile.

It’s a masterpiece, a high point in our history, and all credit due to Mazzucchelli — but to Miller, too, who told his (most?) character-centric story, anchored in real-world issues of New York corruption, the strains of marriage, job security, adultery — along with the larger-than-life superheroics. Also, his narrative voice(s) could only be called pitch-perfect.

A quibble. I suspect the Skeevers layout was directed in the script, not Mazzucchelli’s choice. The off-screen crash is essential to make the “Skeevers, you all right?” and the visual reveal-punchline work.

I’m assuming it was done full script, not Marvel-style (there are too many perfect punch lines at the ends of pages for that).

An absolute master of the medium…

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I did another really close reading of the book in preparation to review the animated DTV movie, and was really struck at how powerfully the book uses the medium of comics to elicit very specific emotional responses. I’d credit that to both Miller and Mazzuchelli, though; there are full-script pages indicating Miller was providing a lot of the art direction, but Miller’s also said that he was writing with Mazzuchelli’s strengths in mind and I have no doubt that Mazzuchelli was doing more than just drawing what he was told to do. The full review is at http://www.toonzone.net/news/articles/39161/batman-year-one-great-adaptation.-great-movie…, and I do a side-by-side comparing the famous dinner sequence (and explain why I didn’t think it worked anywhere near as well in the movie).

And now I’m going to have to go break the book out and read it AGAIN thanks to this article. Thanks a lot! :)

Born Again my Miller and Mazzuchelli was what brought me back to comics back in the 80′s. I don’ t think I’ve ever seen an artist convey words to pictures like Mazzuchelli did with the Born Again story arc and later with Batman: Year One. Brilliant is the only word I can think of that comes close to describing his work.

I re-read Born Again (along with Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and MiracleMan) at least once a year, just to remind me how great comics used to be.

Nice one, fantastic article.

Is as simple as Mazzuchelli clearly understands that comics is all about storytelling, rhythm, pace, etc… he understands the medium, he is not just a great artist he is a great storyteller. I bet he reads an awful lot of books of all kinds.

Dave Mazzuchelli had a similar impact as Jim Steranko in the late 60s. He showed up and did just these amazing comic books and then was just gone to doing other things.

I also always thought the coloring on the original comic books was just fantastic. It was a great lesson on what could be done with that 4 color format.

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