Frankly, I’ve read and seen enough origin stories I don’t ever need to see another. Which is why, despite hearing good things, I put off reading Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100 until now. I expected it to be a story of a new Batman, some disgruntled future man taking his inspiration from the original legend and donning the cape and cowl against the backdrop of a suitably dystopian society. So I was rather pleasantly surprised when Pope chose to forgo any such by-the-numbers storytelling, dropping us in instead very much in medias res and making the origin (or lack thereof) something of the point.
The graphic novel opens with Batman, whoever he is—he’s sufficiently low tech in his lace-up combat boots and obviously-makeshift Olympic swimmer trunks-over-sweatpants costume1 to appear like a newcomer of limited means—racing across rooftops, clutching his bleeding side, pursued by slavering hounds. The Batman then clears a twenty-five foot jump between rooftops, bringing the hounds up short, and causing dismay in the Federal Police Corp agents monitoring from their suitably-futuristicly hovering vehicles. Then Batman makes it down the stairway of this new building and the chase is on.
Batman always works well fighting cops, and in this respect, Year 100 is as successful as Frank Miller’s seminal Year One from whence its title derives. So by the time this chase sequence ends, some 30 pages in, I’m plenty hooked and ready for whatever Pope wants to dish out. No origin needed, thank you. Masterfully, he’s used the action of the chase, and a pull-back to a room in the White House where higher-ups monitor same through cameras mounted on their men’s helmets and in their dogs’ eyes, to slip us details of this future-world. And, despite a few holographic displays and window dressing like the hovering police vehicles, it’s essentially our world with the Patriot Act dialed up to eleven. In fact, I could complain that 2039 feels a lot more like the 2007 in which it was published, and this future isn’t future enough, except that I don’t want to quibble over an excellent story, and the choice of year has far less to do with Pope’s desire to say something about the future as it does with his desire to say something about Batman.
See, 2039 is exactly 100 years after the original appearance of the Dark-knight Detective in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” published in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. A fact which has some significance with the storyline here. But before we get into that…
Plot-wise, we learn that Batman is accused of murdering a federal agent. In this world, there’s an agency called the Federal Police Corp, with branches in all major cities (the “Gotham Wolves” being the relevant branch here) and ultimately reporting to Homeland Security. As a double-U, “unclassified and undocumented,” Batman is a real irritant for them. Meanwhile, G.C.P.D. detective Jim Gordon, grandson of the original, is shut out of the murder investigation despite it properly being his jurisdiction. A man who has looked the other way and been rewarded for it in the past, he’s pushed around enough that he starts finally questioning the higher-ups, which is when his sympathies begin to switch from his bosses to this strange vigilante. Without giving anything much away, Batman is being made the scapegoat in a government conspiracy, and obviously his and Gordon’s investigations are going to dovetail.
But what makes this story, which otherwise could have been set in any period of the Caped Crusader’s timeline and didn’t really need to be in the future, actually work is the slight of hand Pope plays with just who Batman is. Injured, he calls on a Doctor Goss and her daughter Tora, who meet him at one of multiple safe houses, where we learn they act as a medical and technical support team for him respectively. The next morning, when he’s out-of-costume and recovering, he still wanders around in a robe with the hoodie up over his head, not exactly obscuring what he looks like so much as suggesting Pope isn’t going to make it easy on us when it comes to working out who he is.
None of the characters have anything on him either, so the F.P.C. lean on Gordon to pull everything they’ve got in the file on the historic Batman. And this is where it gets interesting. Because they have only a handful of sightings, stretching from what is clearly his original appearance in 1939, to an appearance in 1966, to an 1986 report from a former-Commissioner Yindel—recognizable to most everyone as the commissioner in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. There are other scattered references, but it looks like what Pope is doing is stitching his own continuity together, one where Batman began in 1939 (same year as his comics’ debut) and ended in 1986 (the year Dark Knight Returns was published). Forget Earth 1, Earth 2, Crisis, and all that nonsense. This is Paul Pope-continuity, and its relationship to both official and alternate DC continuity is tenuous, if fascinating. Because his intention is clearly to tie in directly with all these eras, in a way they don’t even pretend to tie in with each other.
There was a script floating around Hollywood when I worked there that would unite Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton all in one film, the idea being that “James Bond” was a name passed down to whoever happened to be Britain’s top 00 agent, and that whatever threat was facing the world now it required none other than all of them. It probably would have been a sort of James Bond-as-A-Team, with Connery as Hannibal and Moore as Face, and you can kind of see it working, though I’ll take Casino Royale/Quantum of Solace over that any day. But there are indications something like this may be at work here, as when the new Robin laments to Tora that “he’s not gonna just give me the crown.” But we’re also told that his handwriting and voice ID match all the historical records, and that while that can be faked, fooling all of the computers all of the time is a bit of an impossibility.
So what gives? Is this really the original Batman, somehow super/future-naturally rejuvenated? Is this a successor, a son or clone or something similar? They do make a big deal about how it will all be over if a sample of his blood remains in Federal hands. And they go out of their way to emphasize that that twenty-five foot jump in the opening scene is physically impossible for a normal man—even an Olympic athlete2—without some sort of artificial assist. But then, every other time we see him take to the air, he’s using wires (which may or may not be visible to those chasing him in the story). And Pope has added something new to the Batman’s utility belt—a pair of fake vampire teeth he snaps in several times so that he can appear as other than perfectly mortal.
But I’ll say that this may be the only time I’ve ever seen a comic book leave something deliberately unanswered where it didn’t annoy the piss out of me. Yes, unanswered, though Pope certainly dangles the possibilities out there (and personally, I think the teeth are the final clue). But answering the question here isn’t as important as asking it, as trying to fit Year 100 into one box or another, to match it to this or that continuity, simply isn’t going to work. Just come along for the ride and enjoy the character with a comic book powerhouse that is as big a fan as you are. “I’m the nightmare you dreamt and then forgot,” he says. The book is more an exploration than an explanation—a statement that the world always needs, and thus will always have, a Batman. Personally, I hope so. I plan to still be reading about him when the real 2039 gets here.
1In the after matter, Pope says he deliberately chose to expose the character’s wrists between his sleeve and gloves to emphasize his “human vulnerability.” The mask is a cross between Bob Kane’s original and a “Lucha Libre” Mexican wrestler’s mask.
2Are the swim trunks telling us something?