Paul Pope’s Expressionistic Dark Knight
I take Batman pretty seriously. When I first saw Paul Pope’s version of Batman back in 2002, in Batman: Black and White, Volume 2, I couldn’t get over the changes Pope had made to the man and to the costume. He showed us a Bruce Wayne who was covered in tape, sweating profusely and nursing a broken nose like a prizefighter. I didn’t recognize him at all.
Originally, I rejected this approach, seeing Pope as some idiosyncratic artist who had messed around with one of my favourite comic book archetypes. Pope gave his Batman tall heavy-duty, laced boots, he made the ears on the cowl way too small, and he dispensed with the long scalloped gloves in favour of little short gloves rolled back at the wrist. Wait a minute. Aren’t those little gloves sort of like the ones another masked (and very human) vigilante, Will Eisner’s character “The Spirit” used to wear? Well, maybe that is kind of cool after all.
So, now that I’ve read the first issue of Batman: Year 100 a few times, I’ve come to accept and enjoy Pope’s different design and vision for the Dark Knight.
Visually, Pope’s storytelling and composition are complex, dramatic and compelling. Stairway railings and rooftop pipes are rendered in solid black: elaborate meshes and webs. Shadows in police interview rooms look like angry, hairy smudges. Creaky rooftops and sagging tenements are infused with a scribbly, Seuss-like intensity. Dry brush strokes and hundreds of little black lines point frantically up under the shadows in the cornices of old tenement buildings, making it feel like even the buildings know that Batman is running across their roofs tonight.
It does seem like Year 100 is being marketed by DC as if it is an offspring of Frank Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns, but it’s really quite different. Pope never once mimics Miller, instead finding a different style for his interpretation of this character. Pope’s expressive style gives the same noodling, pulsing quality to puffs of smoke, streaks of light, splatters of rain, or drops of blood, almost as if he has channeled “Krazy Kat” artist George Herriman. Of course, I’m not sure if Pope consciously referenced Dr. Seuss, Will Eisner or George Herriman, or if their iconic styles simply have influenced him generally. Regardless, Paul Pope is a breath of fresh air.
I must acknowledge the intense colouring of Jose Villarrubia, which beautifully complements Pope’s drawings. Villarrubia contrasts dingy tones of brown and grey with bright yellows, neon greens, hot pinks or blood reds that pop out between Pope’s black lines. Aside from being striking, the colouring adds necessary structure and legibility to Pope’s complex, detailed panels. Basically, these two guys enhance each other’s work very well. The end result of their collaboration is expressionistic, gritty, glowing and gorgeous.
We’re introduced to Batman in the very first panel, covering the whole first page. We see a grim, strained Batman running at full speed across a drenched rooftop, blood spurting out from under his arm. After the first few pages, there is no doubt that this character is always on the move. He’s a vigilante running for his life, and we soon learn why.
The Gotham City of 2039 is practically a police state, where privacy is a rarity, and local and Federal authorities compete for control of the streets. Batman clashes with some Federal officers, and the Feds soon realize that they have a “double U” on their hands: someone who is both Unclassified and Undocumented. In this Blade Runner-esque version of America, a “Double-U” is almost unheard of. Whispers among the Federal administrators say that this unknown person is in fact the legendary “Bat-Man of Gotham”, a figure previously thought to be a myth from a hundred years earlier.
Captain Gordon, the grandson of former police commissioner James Gordon, is also chasing after this Batman character, and being stopped by the Feds at every turn. The Feds are led by Agent Tibble, a tough guy who at turns resembles a cowboy or a raging Samurai warrior. Tibble leads the Feds’ search for Batman, and forces a deal upon Captain Gordon to dig through Gotham’s old police records and learn as much as possible about this mysterious vigilante.
I can just smell a double-cross coming. Somehow, Gordon is going to get screwed over by the Feds.
After evading the heavily armed ground teams of Federal police, Batman has sustained multiple serious injuries. Although in the minds of the Feds he’s a mysterious and almost mythical creature, we can see that he is all too human, and now in a lot of danger. He contacts Dr. Goss, a woman who works as a forensic examiner for the Gotham Police Department. Dr. Goss and her daughter, Tora, arrive at a safe house to find the Batman unconscious on the floor, bleeding to death. In spite of his kevlar outfit and ceramic faceplates, Batman has suffered fractured ribs, gun shot wounds, and perhaps a collapsed lung. But, he will survive.
The close-minded, oppressive atmosphere of this future Gotham pits the local law against the Federal law enforcement, playing on the now familiar idea that average Joes and Janes don’t know what’s going on in the big wide world. They have good reason to be suspicious of the Feds, who are trying to control the flow of information. In this regard, Year 100 might owe something to The Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns, but then paranoia has always been popular in the real world too, 9-11 notwithstanding.
I was first introduced to Batman in the 1970s, when Neil Adams and Dick Giordano were bringing new levels of graphic and social realism to the character. Back then, many of Batman’s battles were won at some personal cost. Batman was a man, a fact contemporary interpretations of the character sometimes forget.
So far, Paul Pope has maintained that realism and seriousness, but his ominous and expressionistic style of storytelling makes me believe that the light of science and rationalism can’t reach into every little corner. It’s in those mysterious nooks and crannies where his Batman will be waiting to make his next move. And I’ll be waiting for the next issue in this compelling four-part series.