Year Two (1990) Written by Mike Barr, Illustrated by Alan Davis, Paul Neary, Alfredo Alcala, Mark Farmer and Todd McFarlane
With the cooperation of the newly promoted Commissioner Gordon, Batman’s war on crime is an ongoing success. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is pouring money into Gotham through the Wayne Foundation, seeking to help the poor and support his friend, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, in her efforts to bring relief to the homeless. Bruce has found love, building a strong relationship with Rachel Caspian, a woman who has known tragedy much like his own. But the reappearance of the Reaper, a vicious crime fighter from Gotham’s past, has forced the Dark Knight to ally with Joe Chill, the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents.
Will Batman be able to overcome the deadly Reaper? Will he seek revenge for his murdered family, forgoing his quest for justice? And in the end, will Bruce Wayne walk away from the cape and cowl, and be Batman no more?
Originally written as a standalone story by Mike Barr, Batman Year Two was adapted as a follow-up to take advantage of the success of Frank Miller’s Year One. It was released as a four-part series in 1987. Barr, a writer for DC since 1974, had designed the Reaper as a new addition to the Batman Rogues Gallery, and told a story that was closer in tone to the more fantastic adventures of the Caped Crusader. According to the introduction to the graphic novel, Barr explains that this choice was an effort to look at a different aspect of Batman and prevent any unfavorable comparisons to Year One, which he calls “as close to a realistic treatment of The Batman we’re ever likely to see.”
Barr’s story is interesting. He works hard to force Batman to make difficult choices. He expertly uses Joe Chill as a foil. He has the Batman take up the very gun that killed his parents in order to fight the Reaper. He drives a wedge between Batman and Commissioner Gordon. He shows the reader how tightly tied Bruce Wayne is to his fate, and how hard it is for him to escape being Batman. It is a very good effort, hampered by the general quality of the art and the over-the-top ridiculousness of the villain.
Art wise, Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane seem incapable of drawing crisp, clear scenes set in the sunlight world of Bruce Wayne’s civilian life. Facial expressions are often awkward, if not comical. I do like McFarlane’s Batman, clad in a long flowing cape the shifts from panel to panel, evoking a sense of shadowy motion.
The Reaper however, is simply ridiculous. Armed with impossibly large scythe/gun/spiked gauntlet weapons, clad in spiked armor and wearing a skull-like mask, the character is a mish-mash of every bad late-80s comic book costume. On top of that, the Reaper is an unstoppable killing machine, capable of ripping through entire gangs, the Gotham PD, and Batman without any obvious effort. Add the awkward dialogue (An example: “You do not know me, for I assumed my work done. But I know now, my work is never done. Who am I? To know me is to know fear…FEAR – THE REAPER!” Seriously?) and you have a really uninspiring bad guy. He is simply a flat character, who fails to be the dark reflection of Batman that Barr had intended to create. The character of Joe Chill makes for a far more interesting antagonist. Panels where the Batman is forced to work alongside the hit-man are full of palpable tension, as the fundamental nature of Batman’s quest for justice wages war with his practical need for Chill’s help. Chill’s lack of a costume or a secret identity also serves to further illustrate how different he is from Batman.
Interestingly, the Reaper would be a strong influence on Alan Burnett and Paul Dini when they designed the Phantasm for the landmark feature-length animated film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The Dini/Burnett treatment is a much more nuanced and interesting character, but the visual similarities are striking.
If you are looking for a strong story to read after Year One, pick up a Loeb/Sale story or Denny O’Neils amazing The Man Who Falls instead. Despite its flaws, Batman Year Two is a decent comic, but it lacks the staying power to be a true classic.
After a fierce battle with the reaper, Joe Chill is hanging precariously from the edge of a partially destroyed building. “Hey partner,” he calls to Batman, who stands nearby watching, “A little help here, huh?”
Batman doesn’t give any sign of hearing Chill. He stares at the hitman.
“You deaf? Gimme a hand…” Chill barks.
Batman’s eyes narrow behind his cowl. In his memory, Bruce Wayne watches Chill gun down Thomas and Martha Wayne. The moment replays, over and over again.
Batman’s scowl deepens.
At last, the Dark Knight extends a hand to Chill. “About time…” the hitman says as Batman pulls him up. “…Let’s get out of here.”
The two men swing down from the roof of the building on a bat-line.
On the dark streets of Gotham, Joe Chill walks away from Batman. “What a fiasco,” he says. “Some cops and some hippies got iced, but the Reaper got away clean. We’ll have to do better next time.”
“Yes…” Batman growls. As Chill walks away, Batman draws the gun he has been carrying on this caper, the gun that Joe Chill used to kill the Waynes all those years ago.
“I saved him only because I need him, father,” Batman thinks as he caresses the gun. “But once we have slain the Reaper…I swear my next victim will be the man who killed you…and I promise you he’ll know the reason why.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.