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Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Zero Year: Secret City & Dark City (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

It takes considerable bravery to craft an origin story for Batman in the wake of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One.

Superhero origins are constantly being tweaked and re-written and re-worked. Superman has had a half-dozen comic book origins (in- and out-of-continuity) since Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the DC universe. There’s John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity, Mark Waid’s Birthright, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One and even Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run.

It's only a pale moon...

It’s only a pale moon…

In contrast, Batman has been relatively undisturbed, with only Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One positing an alternate origin story for the Caped Crusader. A large part of that is down to how sacred Year One is. Written by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Year One is considered to be one of the best Batman comics ever published. It recently topped Comic Book Resources’ high-profile fan poll for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

In many cases, an “if it ain’t broke…” mentality applies. Having a universally-beloved comic book story that is easily accessible as the origin story for a particular character is not a bad thing at all. You can hand Year One to anybody and they can read and enjoy it. Although undoubtedly a product of the late eighties, the comic remains relevant and compelling to this day. Indeed, we have not moved so far from the eighties that it’s hard to reconcile a Batman origin grounded in that social context.

Talk about falling so far...

Talk about falling so far…

However, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are the creative team working on the Batman book for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The duo have enjoyed a tremendous run – managing that rare intersection of critical and commercial success in mainstream comics. There are legitimate criticisms to be made, but Snyder and Capullo’s Batman work does hold up as some of the best Batman comics produced in quite some time, and one of true success stories of DC’s “new 52.”

So, if there was ever a time to go back to Batman’s origin, this was it. A well-loved creative team, a significant anniversary, a clear distance between this time and Year One. The risk associated with Zero Year is phenomenal. It is an incredible gambit. Even though the story is not in competition with Year One, comparisons are inevitable. The result is a very satisfying and exciting tribute to an iconic comic book character that doesn’t quite surpass Year One, but is clever enough to be clear that it isn’t trying to.

Getting into the swing of things...

Getting into the swing of things…

Comic book fans get antsy when it comes to matters of continuity. There’s a very bizarre sense that comic book fans treat comic books as autobiographies of superheroes. In the minds of many readers, it seems that comic books offer a life story of their main character, and the stories are just links forged in a chain of events that document the life and times of one particular Bruce Wayne. A story is becomes more important if it is a key link in that chain, and somehow less important if it doesn’t fit easily.

This is, of course, an absurd way of looking at any form of entertainment. Movie and television fans typically don’t have that same complex relationship with continuity and importance. Fans of Batman in other media are willing to put up with multiple actors and multiple worlds and multiple stories – all existing separate and distinct from one another – with no real issues when it comes to reconciling them. It doesn’t matter that Batman Begins doesn’t line up with Batman. They are different stories.

It's a trap!

It’s a trap!

So there’s a certain sense of territoriality that comes with comic book continuity. When Zero Year was first announced by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the duo were very careful in how they described the concept and its relationship to Year One. In interviews, Snyder worked quite hard to make his affection and respect for Year One quite clear:

One thing I feel I should stress here is that Year One is one of my two favorite pieces of graphic literature in the world…the other being Dark Knight Returns. So I’ve always considered Year One to be Batman’s origin, and we tried to keep as much of that as we could in the New 52. But as the stories started rolling forward, I started getting more and more questions about how James [Gordon] Jr. could be an adult now when Batman was only in operation for six years. Or how do we reconcile the fact that Barbara Gordon is now the biological daughter of Jim Gordon with Year One? Or do we reconcile the notion that Selina Kyle’s background isn’t what it was in Year One anymore? How can that story stay the origin? There’s a different history with the Falcone family and everything. It all becomes a little problematic.

Quite a lot of the early press and interviews around Zero Year were intended to mollify fans worried about the loss of Year One from continuity, as if trying to assure them that that Year One would still be a great book, and a massive influence on the world of Batman. All of this really should be self-evident, but it demonstrates the way that the comic book fan mindset works.

All you need to know about Batman...

All you need to know about Batman…

Of course, one of the smarter aspects of the publicity process was the way that continuity was used as a justification for Zero Year, as if turning fandom’s skepticism on itself. One of the major themes of Snyder’s interviews was that Zero Year was becoming more and more necessary and important as a way of accounting for various continuity gaps and holes that had developed over the years:

All of that stuff is different, and so what happened was it became, “Do I do this more tepid early years story that tries very hard to work around the elements of Year One that we could actually show again to show that they exist still and just retread?” Or does it become about saying, “I’m going to be respectful of Year One and the things that I love, but try and do something with Greg that’s our own and shows you how Batman became Batman in the 52?”

Of course, as much as the “new 52” continuity reboot in the wake of Flashpoint provides an opportunity to tell a new Batman origin story, it is worth noting that a lot of the gaps Snyder mentions existed before the reboot.

Blowing it all up?

Blowing it all up?

For example, the existence of Barbara Gordon generated all manner of continuity hijinks. Writers working on Selina Kyle in the wake of Year One had to work around his revelation that Selina Kyle was a prostitute, with Mindy Newell’s Her Sister’s Keeper “revealing” that Selina was simply “posing” as a prostitute in order to maintain the illusion of continuity. James Gordon Jr.’s age in The Black Mirror would mean Batman and Gordon had been active for two decades in Gotham.

Still, the continuity reboot in the aftermath of Flashpoint provides a suitable excuse to play with Bruce Wayne’s origin. However, it is quite clear that Zero Year is not setting out to replace or supplant Year One. It is quite difficult to reconcile the continuity of the two stories, and a couple of big moments from Batman’s origin play out in a mutually exclusive manner in both stories, but Snyder and Capullo make it quite clear that the goal isn’t to do “Year One… but better” or anything as foolhardy and arrogant.

They'd probably put Zorro in Arkham...

They’d probably put Zorro in Arkham…

Instead, Zero Year has two very clear objectives. The first is synthesis. It’s a story released around the seventy-fifth anniversary of the character, and is very clearly constructed as a loving homage to the world of Batman. While Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli simply threw out a whole heap of pre-existing continuity to tell their new and updated origin, Snyder and Capullo are much more interested in blending together various aspects of the Batman mythos into one endearing package. Including Year One.

The other objective is to update the conceptual framework of Batman’s origin. Year One was written in 1986, and was very much a  product of that time. It was informed by the mood of New York in the eighties, the crime and crack epidemics that hit the city hard. In contrast, Zero Year is clearly inspired around the experience of twenty-first century New York. The result is a radically different aesthetic between Zero Year and Year One.

All good in the hood...

All good in the hood…

Let’s talk about the synthesis aspect of Zero Year. The recent collections of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run are rather incomplete. For example, the first hardcover of Zero Year does not include the teaser that the duo wrote as part of DC’s “zero month” event. This flashback – published in September 2012 – afforded readers their first glimpse of the new origin for the Dark Knight. It fairly effectively establishes themes and context for the story arc, and the decision to exclude it from the collections is frustrating.

(As is the decision to exclude the Riddler issue that was published in September 2013 as part of “villains’ month.” It was written by Scott Snyder and Ray Fawkes, and featured a villain who was a core part of Zero Year. Although not set in the same time frame of Zero Year, it does provide some measure of context and insight. Excluding it from the collections feels a little cynical. That said, the Batman annual released during Zero Year is only tangentially related to the story, and an easy cut.)

Hat's off to you...

Hat’s off to you…

In the prologue to the arc, Snyder sets the tone for what is to come, leaning rather heavily on the fourth wall. “What was once old… will be new again,” we’re told in the opening line. “That was our mission.” That observation from an executive at Gotham National Bank seems like a statement of purpose from Capullo and Snyder. “Welcome to your new bank, team. It’s modern and fresh, but it honours the rich history of Gotham National by offering better service, better strategy and better security. Now eat cake!”

The first villain to oppose Batman over the course of Zero Year is Red Hood One, the lead of a gang of criminals who is radically reinventing crime in Gotham. It is quite clear early on that Snyder and Capullo are using Red Hood One as a stand-in for the Joker, despite a few clever twists and ambiguities thrown in. At the very least, the character’s long chin and distinctive smile evoke the Clown Prince of Crime.

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

Of course, Snyder and Capullo are smart enough to know that actually providing a completely concrete and water-tight origin story for the Joker would undercut a lot of the appeal of the character. So the duo work hard to have it both ways. They reference and acknowledge Alan Moore’s work on The Killing Joke, but without undermining the ambiguity surrounding that possible origin. Snyder even has Alfred reference the book’s most iconic line, warning, “Now you’re just playing multiple choice with possibilities, sir.”

The reader is presented with all manner of possibilities. Maybe the Joker is the Red Hood One that Bruce Wayne faced all along. Maybe the Joker is the Red Hood One that Batman confronted for the first time at A.C.E. chemicals. Maybe the Joker was swapped at the lost possible minute, and was simply the poor sap who got dunked in acid. It’s a wonderful example of Snyder having his cake and eating it too, perhaps wryly acknowledged in that opening monologue from the “zero month” issue.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

As with the Joker in Death of the Family, Snyder writes Red Hood One as a voice aggressively opposed to change – one clearly unsettled by the rebooting of continuity. In Death of the Family, the Joker was worried that Batman was outgrowing him. Here, within the confines of a new origin for Batman, Red Hood One positions himself as a fourth-walling-breaking advocate for preserving the status quo.

Red Hood One is – appropriately enough – introduced telling a joke. “Knock, knock. Who’s there? History. History? Who–? Bang your dead, you idiot. Because you forgot me. So remember your history, ladies and gentlemen.” He seems to be warning the creators and the readers as much as the hostages huddled together in Gotham National Bank. When he identifies a spy among their members, he urges, “… Come on already, will you? This is getting old!” Bruce replies, “Then let me make it new for you.”

Signalling a new beginning?

Signalling a new beginning?

As with The Court of Owls and Death of the Family, it seems like Snyder is playing with anxieties around the pseudo-reboot that took place in the wake of Flashpoint. After all, it is difficult to tell what is in continuity and what is out of continuity. The climax of the story features Bruce remembering a time that he considered receiving electro-shock therapy. “I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to be rebooted. Started over.” It’s an expression of that same anxiety.

And it’s telling that – at the climax of Zero Year – Bruce decided not to be rebooted, not to start over, not to begin again. Snyder includes the sequence in the final issue of Zero Year so it stands as a conclusion at the end of the massive sprawling arc. Zero Year very clearly was an opportunity to wipe everything out and start again, but that does mean that the opportunity was taken. Batman does not get rebooted. He does end up “started over.”

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

Despite the fears expressed by Red Hood One and a significant portion of fandom, Zero Year is not about throwing out history. It’s not about ignoring what came before so that everybody can start over. It’s not about wiping or forgetting continuity. Instead, Snyder and Capullo seem to have constructed Zero Year so that it might stand as a gigantic tribute to the history of Batman. It’s a massive and expansive story that draws in and tries to reconcile various facets of the Caped Crusader into a cohesive origin story.

(There are points where Snyder can’t seem to resist the urge to slip in references and acknowledgements. During one car chase between Batman and the police in the middle of the arc, references are made to various police cars engaged in the chase – “car 27” and “car 39.” Those are, of course, both references to Batman’s origin. The character first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.)

Face-off...

Face-off…

It goes without saying that some of the elements synthesised into Zero Year come from Year One. Although Snyder and Capullo wisely avoid treading the same ground, there are a number of nods. At one point, Red Hood One boots Luca Falcone out of a blimp, despite threats concerning “cousin Carmine.” Jim Gordon remains the one good cop in a town full of bad ones, overseen by Commissioner Loeb.

Interestingly, Snyder and Capullo actually draw more heavily from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The climax of Zero Year will seem – in broad strokes – familiar to fans of Miller’s iconic final story for the Caped Crusader. A powerless Gotham finds itself facing down a massive storm, while a decidedly lower-tech-than-usual version of Batman calls on his allies to help him stabilise and secure the town.

Lightning quick...

Lightning quick…

There are a few points over the course of the story where Capullo even visually references The Dark Knight Returns, offering his own take on those delightfully atmospheric “Batman silhouetted by lightening” shots that Miller made so popular with his work on The Dark Knight Returns. In some respects, this is quite clever. It adds a nice element of symmetry between Batman’s origin in Zero Year and his finalé in The Dark Knight Returns – both featuring Batman saving a powerless Gotham caught in a storm.

Zero Year acknowledges this curious blend of origin and conclusion. “Everything’s ending and starting over all at once,” Thomas Duke tells Bruce Wayne quite late in the story. Then again, that is one of the more intriguing themes of Zero Year – the idea that Gotham City itself is going through a death and rebirth of which Bruce Wayne is just one facet. This is Gotham becoming “a new city. A stronger city.” It’s a very clever thematic way of getting around the whole “Batman is a magnet for madness” issue. After all, Zero Year introduces Red Hood One before Batman.

On yer bike...

On yer bike…

Although the story also features a delightful nod towards “it’s the g-censored!-n Batman”, Snyder draws heavily from sources outside of Miller. Zero Year makes a point to consciously reject the pseudo-reality that defined Year One. At one point, as Bruce worries about Gordon uncovering his identity, which would not take too long in reality, Alfred tells him not to be too concerned about “verisimilitude.” This is not a rejection of Miller’s take on the character, simply an alternative to it.

Bruce studies under a made Russian scientist name Sergei, who teaches him the value of thinking outside the box, of not being hemmed in or confined. “You are inflexible,” he advises Bruce. “You do not allow yourself to make new connections. You do not allow the impossible.” That is as good a conceptual defence of Zero Year as any; it is a good thing to be able to re-work and re-configure and re-invent what came before, to avoid getting trapped by what is accepted as convention.

Stepping up to bat...

Stepping up to bat…

Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run counts among the sources from which Snyder and Capullo and Capullo draw. The first issue suggests that Red Hood One is pioneering “viral” crime, a key element of Morrison’s Red Hood story in his Batman & Robin. However, during his first conversation with Bruce Wayne, Edward Nygma makes reference to the “Oroboros, the circular beast that recreates itself by eating its own parts.” The Oroboros was a central metaphor of Morrison’s Batman work, and Snyder seems to build on that.

Morrison and Snyder compare Batman to the Oroboros, the snake that is perpetually eating its own tail, trapped in a perpetual cycle of death and re-birth, constantly becoming something new built from established parts. By the time Morrison wrote Batman Incorporated, the Oroboros had become an expression of the tragedy of Batman, a character trapped in a painful and inescapable circle. In Zero Year, Snyder argues it is a strength, as it allows the Batman mythos to perpetually evolve.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Snyder even explicitly incorporates Morrison’s meta-textual “the first truth of Batman” into Zero Year, making it quite clear and explicit that Bruce Wayne was never truly alone in his attempt to bring peace and stability to Gotham. Thomas Wayne himself gets to voice the sentiment during a conversation with Bruce about his time in the cave beneath Wayne Manor. “You were alone down there in the dark. No one to help you. But we’re always here for you, Bruce. Just let us in and we’ll all help each other, okay?”

Zero Year is packed to the brim with ideas and images and character beats drawn from across the breadth and width of Batman‘s long and distinguished history. The skies of Gotham are populate by the blimps most associated with Batman: The Animated Series. Doctor Death plays a significant role, an character who was important in the early mythos of Batman, but who got lost along the way. Batman’s purple gloves are so key to Zero Year that he doesn’t go into combat without them at the climax.

By Gordon, that's a friend!

By Gordon, that’s a friend!

Even Tim Burton’s Batman informs a great deal of Zero Year. Snyder finds a way to work in the movie’s biggest twist on Batman’s origin – the suggestion that the Joker is tied into Batman’s origin. Here, Red Hood One explains that the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne inspired his villainy. “I’m sure this’ll shock you, Bruce — but the truth is, it changed my life, too — your parents’ deaths. Changed my life forever.”

It’s a nice way of potentially tying Batman and the Joker together, without relying on contrived coincidence, and leaving enough ambiguity that it could simply be a red (hooded) herring. However, it does make sense from a character perspective, explaining the Joker’s nihilism. “Martha and Thomas Wayne, scions of the city, do-gooders, titans,” Red Hood One reflects. “Gunned down by a nobody. Over nothing. For no reason.” He deadpans, “Here’s to symmetry.”

A hooded foe...

A hooded foe…

Snyder even cleverly works in a reference to the Joker’s “ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight”; a quote from Batman that sounds so much like an idiom that it was used as an episode title on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Cutting back to Tokyo in the wake of the Second World War, Snyder features snippets from a song Tokyo Moon“in the light of the pale, pale moon.” While Doctor Death refers to it as an “old standard”, I can’t seem to find a version that is either particularly old or even including those lyrics.

However, Snyder is particularly influenced by the work of Christopher Nolan. This makes a great deal of sense, given the critical and commercial success enjoyed by Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Snyder incorporates all manner of elements in all manner of ways. For example, Zero Year suggests that Alfred has a history as a soldier rather than simply a spy. He claims to have fought “wars less noble” and to have used “old military contacts” to track down Bruce.

We got a live one here...

Cool guys don’t look at explosions, they blow things up and then walk away…

As in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne dismisses Wayne Manor as a “mausoleum.” During the first of the trilogy of stories making up Zero Year, Red Hood One burns Bruce Wayne’s home to the ground. Bruce winds up riding an elevator down to the basement to escape the fire, in a sequence reminiscent of Batman Begins. At the same time, the shot of Red Hood One hitting the detonator while strolling away and discarding the detonator seems to evoke Heath Ledger’s destruction of the hospital in The Dark Knight.

There are other touches. Bruce is forced to claim back Wayne Enterprises in order to protect his parents’ legacy from those who have perverted it. “Now, I apologise for any discomfort this might cause, but to be direct, I’ve come to believe that your family’s company… well, that its dealings may extend beyond what’s regulated,” Gordon warns him early on. The Red Hood gang steal the materials necessary for their attack on Gotham from Wayne Enterprises, including one hijacking at sea.

Back to the cave...

Back to the cave…

The series also features a number of nice nods towards The Dark Knight Rises. As in that film, Lucius Fox greets Bruce Wayne with “as I live and breath”, while Alfred offers an account of Bruce’s absence that seems to hark back to Michael Caine’s beautiful performance as the tortured butler. “For years I waited for some word of you, Master Bruce,” Alfred observes. “Every day, I waited, believing you were still alive.” The story stops short of having Alfred wish that Bruce would never come back, though.

Snyder also quite clever incorporates some of the ideas that Nolan streamlined for his trilogy, reverse-engineering them so that they are built into the origin. Nolan’s “why do we fall?” is an excellent articulation of an idea that many writers (particularly Denny O’Neil) recognise at the heart of the character. Nolan was inspired by O’Neil’s The Man Who Falls, while that thematic point underpinned Knightfall.

Let's be clear, Bruce had it coming...

Yes, there’s even a shout to that iconic Bat-meme

The idea is that Batman is a character more defined by his ability to climb back up than his ability to succeed first time. Here, Snyder makes a reference to it by having Bruce fail spectacularly in his first attempt to save Gotham. “Maybe that’s what Batman’s about,” Bruce reflects as he tries to pull himself back together to make another attempt to save Gotham City. “Not winning. But failing, and getting back up.”

Similarly, Zero Year climaxes in one of those “Gotham under siege” scenarios that harks back to The Dark Knight Returns and The Cult, although typified by No Man’s Land. These types of stories suggest that Gotham itself shares Batman’s resilience and endurance, an ability to pull itself back from the brink and overcome all problems. The Dark Knight Rises featured that sort of epic story, and Snyder bakes it right into this new origin.

He shall become a bat...

He shall become a bat…

It is also worth noting that Zero Year is gloriously pulpy and comic book-y. It’s a comic that revels in high-tech gadgets and gizmos. Holographic displays become part of the iconic “I shall become a bat” moment. There are masks so perfect that they fool people up close. There are monsters. There are ray-guns. There are even killer robots and death traps. Zero Year is very much a comic book comic book, to the point where Edward Nygma describes his blimps floating “like terrible thought balloons above the city.”

Zero Year is a story that doesn’t try to ground Batman in the real world, suggesting his presence brings the crazy to Gotham. It suggests Batman is more of a by-product of a transformation already in play than an instigator of radical change by himself. Zero Year is full of all manner of gadgets and gizmos long before Batman himself actually appears in the story. Bruce is using grapple lines and anti-gravity boots before he dons the cowl.

Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah! Bat-brand!

Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah! Bat-brand!

Artist Greg Capullo deserves a great deal of credit for his work here. His artwork is detailed and kinetic, but also just a little stylised. It’s atmospheric and expressive, and with just the slightest trace of a cartoon-ish quality. Capullo’s work with Snyder has been nothing short of exceptional, and the two play off each other very well. As with The Court of Owls or Death of the Family, it is hard to imagine Zero Year working anywhere near as well without Capullo’s style.

However, special mention must be made of colourist F.C.O. Plascencia. Colourists are frequently underestimated in the comic book trade, but recent books like Mark Waid’s Daredevil or Zero Year demonstrate just how essential those artists are to the process. Here, Plascenia provides a palette that stands in sharp contrast to the muted colours of Year One. There are points where Zero Year is coloured so vividly that it almost pops off the page.

Riddle me this...

Riddle me this…

Primary and secondary colours are emphasised throughout the arc. There are purples and reds and blues and greens, as if creating a palette that will inform the creation of Batman’s iconic villains. Even the cave itself is not dark, instead lit in yellows and oranges cast by a furnace forging Batman. However, Plascenia really proves his worth on the more abstract sequences – the dreams or the flashbacks that populate Zero Year. In particular, the flashbacks are washed out, like old film stock worn a bit too thin.

These sorts of stylistic touches play to the broad themes of Zero Year. In short, Snyder seems to position the story as an origin for a Batman of a new millennium, cast in the shadow of 9/11. The urban crime of eighties New York informed Year One, and the realities of the War on Terror play into Zero Year. Edward Nygma is explicitly identified as a “terrorist” over the course of Zero Year, and Red Hood One is also informed by those realities.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

In the Director’s Cut of the first issue, Snyder acknowledges this subtext:

For better or worse, New York of the 2010s isn’t the city of the 1980s. The same centre that was rotting away when I was a kid is now bright and blinding. The subways are cleaner. Central Park is safer. There are gangs and drugs and crime, but it seems to me that — and maybe I’m wrong but still — that the big fears, thee nightmares we suffer together generally have more to do with the threat of big, senseless violence.

Zero Year very much reflects those concerns in the same way that Year One reflected the fear of urban decay in the eighties.

Burning it all down...

Burning it all down…

“Anyone might be in the gang,” Bruce confides to Alfred. “But it’s a new type of crime that this gang stands for. Nothing like the street crime that was running rampant when I left the city years ago. It’s like crime beneath the skin. Something viral, hidden until it’s too late.” This isn’t organised crime. These are the Falcones or the Maronis. This is something altogether different. “There’s no pattern except to make the city afraid of itself,” Bruce reflects.

And yet, despite all of this, there’s a clear affection for the city. There’s a refusal to allow Gotham to be defined by the atrocities committed by such crooks. Snyder is exploring a theme that Morrison wove into Batman & Robin. Why would anybody choose to live in Gotham? It would have to be an incredible city to offset the risk of dying horribly in some random Joker prank or League of Assassins strike. In Batman & Robin, Morrison tried to offer a vibrant and dynamic Gotham to emphasis the life of the city.

Will Gordon get bitten by a bat?

Will Gordon get bitten by a bat?

Here, Snyder has Bruce explicitly draw attention to the risks any person takes to live in Gotham despite the surrounding insanity. What Do You Love About the City? is the title of the opening chapter, and Thomas Wayne poses the question directly to Bruce. “What do you love about the city, Bruce?” Although talking about Gotham, Bruce repeats the default answer for any major American city. “The city lets me be anyone I want.”

“What do you love about this city?” Bruce asks the citizens of Gotham at the end of Zero Year‘s first act. “I mean, it’s an awful place to live. Right? I mean, it’s terrible.” And yet, despite that, the city is worth it. The city comes with all this baggage, but it is still an ideal that is worth fighting for, and one that deserves to be defended and preserved – no matter the cost. It is a city with character and personality, and hope that contrasts against the fear.

Bat on a wire...

Bat on a wire…

Of course, this is arguably something of a theme for Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. Their very first issue of Batman opened with a reflection on “Gotham is…” Snyder and Capullo reference that first issue here, making sure that the panel layout on the first page of Zero Year mirrors the page layout on the first page of The Court of Owls. It seems that everything comes a full circle, and it is all connected.

Snyder and Capullo other themes also play into Zero Year. As with The Court of Owls, Death of the Family and even Nowhere Man, there’s a sense that Bruce is struggling with identity and fighting to balance his two personalities. “Bruce Wayne isn’t important, anymore, Alfred,” Bruce states at the start of the arc. “He’s a mask. This is all I need to be.” He clarifies, “I just can’t be distracted by Bruce Wayne right now.”

A gas time...

A gas time…

The last few pages suggest that while Bruce has learned the importance of maintaining the Wayne family name, he will be struggling with that balance for quite some time to come. The idea of a conflict between Batman and Bruce Wayne is a stock Batman plot element. Snyder never pushes the idea to the fore as-is, instead preferring to treat it as a recurring thematic element instead of a driving plot point. It’s a nice approach.

Snyder also structures Zero Year in the same way as The Black Mirror. Instead of one long story, Zero Year is actually three medium-sized stories. It’s a nice approach that prevents the story from ever feeling too strained or too burdened by the fact that the primary Batman book has devoted an entire year of storytelling to a single story. It also helps to structure the story better, with each of the three sections having a clear beginning, middle and end.

This is his town, now...

This is his town, now…

As with Snyder’s other “mega” arcs, Zero Year comes with a wealth of comic book tie-ins. However, Zero Year arguably works much better conceptually than Court of Owls or Death of the Family. After all, those crossover elements were rather redundant – a given character fights either a Talon or the Joker while Batman is in the midst of a larger struggle. Allowing writers to jump into the distant past, and offering an epic scope to play with, Zero Year offers a bit more creative freedom.

It also helps that most of the Zero Year tie-ins came from outside the Batman line, sparing readers from repetitive stories struggling not to step on each others’ toes. Books like Lemire and Sorrentino‘s Green Arrow, Buccellato and Manapul’s Flash, Pak and Kuder’s Action Comics and Venditti, Jensen and Chang’s Green Lantern Corps could offer a more diverse perspective on the event, while still serving their lead characters. (The fact that those books ranked among the best published by DC comics at the time helps a lot.)

A symbol of hope...

A symbol of hope…

Zero Year is a fantastic comic, one that celebrates the sheer potential and diversity of Batman. It cleverly doesn’t try to supplant or replace Year One, but instead offers an alternative. It’s a beautiful seventy-fifth anniversary present to Batman.

You might be interested in our reviews of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s other Batman work:

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2 Responses

  1. I hated Zero Year til I read this. Now I get it. Nice article 🙂

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