Monday, 13 October 2014

Batman, Volume 5: Zero Year - Dark City Review (Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo)


Remember Jim Carrey in Batman Forever? I don’t think Riddler has ever recovered - until now. Scott Snyder writes what has to be Riddler’s best book ever in this final part to the epic Zero Year storyline. 

The Red Hood gang has been dealt with but before Batman has a chance to catch his breath, the Riddler has taken the city hostage by taking away its power and plunging it into darkness. He’s also enlisted the help of Dr Karl Helfern aka Dr Death, whose bone research has gotten a bit out of control, as well as Dr Pamela Isley’s research to turn the Dark City into the overgrown Savage City. 

The two volume Zero Year storyline has been divided up into three mini-arcs: Secret City (Vol 4), Dark City and Savage City (Vol 5). If Secret City was a mixture of Year One and Killing Joke, Dark City is a mash note to the two Frank Miller classics, Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, while Savage City is a blend of No Man’s Land, the Arkham Asylum games and The Dark Knight Rises. 

So why not a full marks/rave review of the latest brilliant Snyder/Greg Capullo Batman book? It’s mostly great but I do have a few minor gripes, so I’ll get those out of the way first. Essentially it comes down to length: Zero Year, while hugely ambitious and largely successful, ended up being one arc too long, namely Savage City. 

The story reaches a climax at the end of Dark City that the finale of Savage City can’t hope to match. What’s more exciting: Batman fighting a monster on a blimp in the middle of a storm in the sky or Batman answering a riddle in a colourful room? Exactly. Not to mention I’m not a fan of No Man’s Land so Savage City really didn’t work for me (except for the art). If this storyline had been shorter, I think the book would have been that much better. 

Also, let’s be clear: at this point, this is no longer a Batman origin story. Bruce Wayne became Batman at the end of Volume 4: Secret City - besides gaining the familiar gadgets like the giant penny and the bat signal being created, there’s really nothing else to say about his origin. This volume is instead a look at the early days of Batman. 

Or you could say this is the origin of Batman and Gordon’s relationship, which it is. And that’s fine because Snyder writes both characters really well and I liked their interactions, except so many of Gordon’s actions are contrived to make him be as superhuman as Batman. Like when Batman’s escaping the SWAT team (an inversion of the same scene that closed out Year One), Batman pops up in Gotham harbour - at the exact same spot where Gordon happens to be sat in a boat, alone, and away from the GCPD. My, what a coincidence! 

And in that same scene, Gordon happens to relate to Batman - not knowing that he’s Bruce Wayne - an incredibly pertinent story that’s been bothering Bruce about Gordon’s integrity, the explanation of which helps bring the two together. Oh, the coincidences! Then later in Savage City, Snyder’s got Gordon doing ridiculous Batman stuff like leaping off of the sides of skyscrapers into flooded subway entrances - come on!! 

That finale too - wow. It’s the scene after the riddles and really hits the whole Batman/Gotham connection way too hard on the nose. Especially as the scene following it again re-emphasizes that Bruce’s true love is the city itself and can never be another person, much less a girlfriend. I felt it was just a bit too much at that point (though, if you’re a fan of Superhero Cafe on Youtube, you’ll love that Alfred literally says “because you’re Batman!”). 

As for the positives about this arc, it’s basically everything else! The fact that Snyder completely rehabilitated the Riddler to become a major threat to Batman, as he should be, is the best thing about this arc. Snyder emphasises his technical side with his robotic creations helping him keep the city in his thrall, showing just how much potential the character has. Dark City is Riddler’s finest hour. 

My favourite aspect of this arc - and really all of Snyder’s Batman books - is how much of Batman’s history he puts into it. He’s said many times that he works for DC but he writes for the fans and it really shows in his comics. If you’re as big a Batman fan as me, you’ll love playing spot the reference in the pages. He goes as far back as the early days of Batman with the Dr Death character to the recent Arkham Asylum games, with all those Riddler boxes and devices scattered across Gotham. Even the “goddamn Batman” makes a censorious appearance, a nod to Miller’s lesser Batman moment amidst so many of his glorious ones. 

Capullo gets in on the references too. Some of the best art in this book features his take on Miller’s iconic Batman silhouette against the lightning storm backdrop. And his design for the jumping Batmobile is incredible - the man spent two days trying to make that schematic work and it looks absolutely brilliant on the page. 

The big scenes are pulled off beautifully like the blimp fight in the storm but what tickled me the most was the smaller scenes. Like when Gotham is blacked out, looters are stealing stuff from a mom ‘n’ pop store, the mother protecting her daughter and the POV is the little girl’s. We briefly see Batman then her mother’s outline in front of her but on the edges we see the looters being beaten up. Batman’s gone before she knows it but she pulls out a torch and a pen and draws a bat symbol on it - the first Bat signal! Totally brilliant, and that’s just one page! 

The last volume was arguably as good an origin as Batman’s ever had, up there with Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Year One. This volume is an excellent continuation of the story and also the best Riddler story you’ll ever read. It may be overlong but there’s a lot to recommend it. Overall, Zero Year has been a remarkable success - one more notch on the utility belt for Snyder and Capullo!

Batman, Volume 5: Zero Year - Dark City

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