Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Batman, Volume 4: Zero Year - Secret City Review (Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo)


Thomas Wayne: What do you love about Gotham, Bruce?
Bruce: ... it’s a place where you can be ANYONE. Where I can be… NOT Bruce Wayne… The city lets me be ANYONE I want. 

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I was one of those who rolled their eyes when Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo announced they were doing their take on Batman’s origin. They’d just done their best arc in Death of the Family, Batman’s nemesis was defeated (or was he?) and the Bat-family lay in ruins - what would Batman do next? Put a pin in it! the creative team declared as they turned the clock back 6 years to tell us once again how Bruce became Batman. 

It was disappointing because we all know how that story goes. Say it with me: a boy loses his parents to a mugger, he becomes angry at injustice and vows never again, one night - “Yes, Father, I will become a Bat” - training, training, training, first falls, experience, and finally Batman now and forever. 

I wasn’t one of those who thought Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Year One would be at all affected because that complaint never made sense to me. Zero Year is another origin but it’s not erasing Year One - we’ll always have that book - and it makes sense that in this new universe, this New 52 universe, that the creative team who’s been with Batman since the start should take on all aspects of the character’s story, including retelling his origin for their Batman. 

Zero Year works on multiple levels for a number of reasons, perhaps most importantly because Snyder focused not so much on “origin” but “story”. Granted it’s the origin you expect but it’s told by Snyder and, as experienced readers - not just of comics but of literature in general - should know, it’s not the story itself that matters so much as it’s telling. After all, King Lear and Hamlet had been around for centuries before Shakespeare wrote his version of those old stories. 

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Alfred: The lifeblood of this city runs beneath Wayne Manor.

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Snyder’s tack in Zero Year is to subvert all of the reader’s expectations right from the start, which he accomplishes. First of all, it’s not so much a good Batman story as it is that rarest of things, a great Bruce Wayne book, and it’s not nearly as much Year One as it is The Killing Joke (the next part, Dark City, is more Year One-heavy). 

And while it’s a Batman origin story, it’s not as much a Batman-the-character origin story as it is a Batman-the-series origin story - Snyder focuses on everything about the series from the main character to the supporting cast to the main villain to the city itself as a major character. That’s why Zero Year is made up of sub-stories: Secret City, Dark City and Savage City; the city, Gotham, is as important to understand as the character of Bruce Wayne. 

Snyder’s main idea behind his version of the Batman origin is that there’s no separation between them - to him, Bruce Wayne, Batman and Gotham are this trinity that are at their greatest together. Snyder makes a point of saying that when Bruce was away from Gotham, he was legally dead - it’s like when the two are separated, neither are truly alive, and they need each other to live. Bruce’s return to Gotham sparks the changes in the city and vice versa (Snyder takes this even more literally towards the end of Zero Year, but that’s a point for the next volume). 

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Bruce: We come here, to Gotham, because it’s TRANSFORMATIVE, this place. We come here with our dreams and the city, it looks at us with its unblinking stone eye - an eye that sees all our faults, everything we’re afraid is true about ourselves - and it says: ‘Try. I Dare You.’”

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So what’s the story, midnight glory? A young Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham quietly and begins his one-man war against the Red Hood gang which is terrorising Gotham. As he slips back into life in the city, we see his evolution as a crime fighter to become the Batman, while, at the same time, we see his nemesis change too, from Red Hood One to… Joker. 

This is a subtle point where Zero Year differs from Year One. In Miller’s classic, Batman appears and then we see the fall of traditional organised crime like the mob and the rise of costumed villains - the message seemingly implying that, in a weird way, Batman’s almost responsible for the way the city becomes, filled with maniacs like Joker, etc. and therefore he’s responsible for causing so much death and mayhem, making him much less heroic. 

In Zero Year, the costumed crazies are already there in force. Snyder focuses on Batman’s two greatest, Joker and Riddler, in this series, but Batman’s not responsible for creating them - they’re already there and they’re already crazy and evil. Granted, Joker is Red Hood One for the duration of the arc, but we see the fateful transformation scene in the finale. And though you could say, well, Batman kinda had something to do with Joker’s creation and he was the worst one, the way the coda to this arc is written is ambiguous; Red Hood One MIGHT turn out to be the Joker - but he might just as easily not be. We never know, and we shouldn’t - the less we know about the Joker, the more powerful a character he is. It’s so well written and, once again, Snyder’s Joker is as amazingly written as his Batman is.

Snyder also differs from the other Batman classic, The Killing Joke, in his creation of the Joker. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s legendary one-shot gave us the unimaginable: Joker’s origin BEFORE he became Joker (though it’s never been accepted as canon, especially as it arguably shows Batman killing Joker on the last page). In it, a failed comedian reluctantly agrees to take part in the burglary of ACE Chemicals, puts on the Red Hood (which is a prop to throw off the cops), and falls into the acid - instant Joker! 

But how does a failed comedian with a family somehow become a criminal genius? That part never made sense to me and Snyder addresses it in Zero Year. His Joker is already a criminal genius. He’s no failed comedian, he’s a ruthless, career criminal with an agenda who willingly adopts the guise of the Red Hood. The fall into the acid changes his appearance and possibly warps his mind, but the transformation isn’t as sudden - he was a psychotic criminal before he went into the vat, he was a psychotic criminal when he came out. Only with different colour hair.

None of this would matter though if Snyder didn’t get Bruce Wayne right - and he does. In the second scene, after that awesome shot of t-shirt Batman on the Bat-cycle in this weird overgrown Gotham (which you’ll see in Savage City), Snyder sets the tone with Bruce flipping off Red Hood One after he saves the day. 

It’s a panel that could be interpreted as Snyder and Capullo themselves flipping off all the naysayers who were expecting a rehash of Year One - in that one defiant gesture, they establish this is most definitely not that!

The Bruce Wayne of this book is cocky, arrogant, impatient and inexperienced, making him prone to mistakes. In other words, the kind of person he would be at this point in his life - he’s on the way to becoming his true self, but he’s not fully-formed yet and we need to see that as an audience, given that this is an origin. 

Those are just personality flaws at the moment though - crucially, he’s got the skill-set to make an instant impact on the Red Hood gang’s crime spree and he’s already essentially Batman minus the iconic outfit. Throughout we see him as a master of disguise, adopting different masks (before he settles on the best one), and that opening scene when he saves all of those people, he shows that he has the intelligence, quick-thinking, imagination, and balls to become a superhero. Also, all of the brilliant back-ups, written by Snyder in collaboration with James Tynion IV, are included after the main story - the mini-sodes that show us how Bruce learned to drive, fight, and use gadgets. 

And, of course, we see those important scenes that leads up to the big finale when Batman finally takes the stage. Bruce retakes control of Wayne Enterprises, moves back to Wayne Manor, establishes the Bat-cave, sees the bats that he must become (in one of the trippiest “I Will Become A Bat” scenes ever!) to that triumphant debut that riffs on the cover of Detective Comics #27 from way back in 1939. 

For the most part of Secret City, Batman is off-stage - a presence we know is coming but don’t see until the very end. Bruce Wayne carries this book - it’s his book basically - and Snyder writes him beautifully in a style that explores his character the way an origin should and never once bores the reader enough to want to see Batman over Bruce. 

Zero Year is similar to Snyder’s entire run on New 52 Batman in that it references ALL of Batman’s cultural history. From the aforementioned riffs of Detective #27, to seeing Edward Nygma from Batman Forever, to the Red Robin symbol on Bruce’s baseball cap, to the fight in ACE Chemicals like in Batman ‘89, Snyder is embracing all forms of Batman in his work in a way he knows will tickle the fans like nothing else. They’re here partly as easter eggs to Batman fans of all eras as much as it is a way of acknowledging Zero Year’s place in Batman history - and a timely one too, given that 2014 is Batman’s 75th anniversary. 

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Billboard: Welcome To Gotham, Greatest City In The Country!

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Zero Year wouldn’t be the success it was without Snyder’s Bat-brother, artist Greg Capullo. From the gorgeous steam-cycle on page four, Capullo’s art never dips in quality throughout the entire run - it’s uniformly spectacular and inventive. The creative game-board-esque layout of Bruce and Edward’s first conversation, those stunning final pages and that last page especially are all amazing works of art. 

The best-looking sequence in the book is probably the dream-like recognizance of Bruce’s awakening to the symbol of the Bat - those six pages are nearly wordless yet Capullo tells the reader everything they need to through Bruce’s eyes. The balance between artist and writer is perfect in this series with both Snyder and Capullo knowing when to lean on one another for greatest effect. 

Danny Miki’s inks are superb, well-measured and with the lightest touch to show off Capullo’s pencils to the finest possible effect. FCO Plascencia’s colours are amazing too with the wonderful choice of making the book start out looking good and normal, the colours slowly becoming more vivid and urgent the closer Bruce goes to becoming Batman until, by the end, it’s like the pages are humming with their own energy! 

Zero Year is a fantastic Batman book, one that goes so far as to challenge Year One as the finest origin story of all them - but really goes up to Year One and gives it a hug, then stands alongside it. This creative team go from strength to strength with each new Batman book somehow becoming even greater than the one that preceded it. 

What do I love about Gotham? 

I love that Snyder and Capullo love Gotham as much as I do, as much as every Batman fan does. The passion and energy they bring to these comics is something else and I always come away from their Batman books feeling the love and satisfaction they must feel in the creation of these stories as I do in reading them. Some say the Golden Age of comics ended in the early ‘50s but I say we’re living in a new Golden Age, and Snyder/Capullo’s Batman is one of the best runs the character’s ever had. Don’t miss it!

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Bruce: More than any other city in the world, Gotham FIGHTS you, challenges you to give up, to leave, to fall down and die. But you don’t. No, because deep down you know - you KNOW - that if you stand up to the challenge, if you walk through the fire, you will emerge changed. Burned down to that self you knew was there all along, the one you came here to be.

The Hero.

Batman Volume 4: Zero Year - Secret City

2 comments:

  1. SO glad to read a review that isn't hung up on Year One. You and I must be the only ones not to put that book on a pedestal.

    Currently only read #0, but loved that. Can't wait to read the rest of it.

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    1. I do love Year One but Zero Year has plenty to recommend itself too - you're in for a treat!

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