[21 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
This New 52 run of Batman can be somewhat predictable, confined to a routine of Gotham City in some sort of chaos, Batman getting the snot kicked out of him trying to save it, and villains doing what they do out of a twisted love/hate relationship with the city and its people. And within those confines Bruce is constantly coming face to face with his own fear of failure, because he fails repeatedly at his attempts to save everyone and everything (including himself). He’s outmaneuvered and outgunned at every turn, surviving only by his wits, and this currently running revision to the origin shows that this has been the case for this Batman since the beginning of his vigilante career. It’s taken us a long time to get here, Batman #30, the point where much of what has happened since the beginning of Zero Year starts to pay dividends. We understand the situation much better and the characters involved, but the interest accrued since Batman #21 is not as valuable as we thought it might be in the end.
I find myself growing tired of Zero Year, a yearlong story that has come after two other lengthy storyarcs. I’m especially tired after lines like this: “Gentlemen, meet my friend…the ‘$%$^! psycho in a batsuit.’ No offense.” First, if you need to “bleep” a line in a comic book, then don’t use it. Second, it’s a loaded line that recalls some of the works that have come before it. And it’s one of too many callbacks to other material.
So much of the nuance of Zero Year depends on you having read many Pre-New 52 Batman comics, particularly Frank Miller’s Year One (understandable) and The Dark Knight Returns. These types of call outs and visual gimmicks enliven fanboys, but negate anything new from being completely realized. Plus “The Dark Knight Returns” is sorely lacking in terms of a Batman narrative, embracing a psychotic anti-hero aspect of the character that in my opinion is not part of his make-up.
Zero Year too often relives the past with slightly different circumstances. The Riddler, re-imagined as a scorned corporate strategist/futurist, is now there at the very beginning, providing the real test of this Batman’s mettle. Much like Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman films, Riddler serves the purposes of the narrative being presented. While Nolan was determined to work with fear in Batman Begins, hence the master of fear, writer Scott Snyder is determined to make Batman modern. Fear is still present—particularly fear of failure as mentioned—but also modern problems that need the intelligence of people to solve them. The Riddler rattles them off in his speech: rising tides, dwindling resources, overpopulation, pan-global conflict, and the world’s largest economies running on fumes. These are essentially what make up our modern fears on a large scale. The Riddler, in his new role of strategist/futurist, then becomes the near embodiment of the solution. He’s just twisted by arrogance and guile.
Snyder, as he has been doing with his Batman story arcs, is working from the immediate world to the larger world with successive stories. And at some point they route back around, as with the final part of Court of Owls.
The first part of Zero Year, “Secret City,” was about the randomness of terrorist attacks. For this he used the Red Hood Gang (and by extension the Joker) to illustrate modern fears of school shootings, pro-militia attacks and Islamic-motivated bombings – things that can affect us immediately. Then in “Dark City” he used two fears with Dr. Death: the rapid pace of scientific discovery and the limitations of healthcare tied to the loss of loved ones to pan-global conflict—things that are not always immediate, but not entirely distant. “Savage City” is then the piece that looks at the bigger picture. Expect the last issue of this story arc to be more personal.
And while we frequently see the Easter eggs for Miller and Batman: The Animated Series, Zero Year is really pace for pace the Nolan Batman trilogy. This chapter, “Savage City,” is so closely The Dark Knight Rises, with Gotham cut-off and the special-ops team dropping in as nearly precise story beats, that it can be hard to separate the original thinking. There are numerous variations between the Nolan films and Zero Year, such as the killing of Bruce’s parents. Where the circumstances in Nolan’s take are naturalistic, Snyder’s are a bit contrived. But for the most part, the two match up well, with Snyder amplifying the narrative as you can in comicbooks.
The pieces that make up Year Zero would seem valuable, and in the New 52 they are, but because so much of what we see and read has been done before, the depreciation is more than we anticipated. For all the Jim Gordon’s camel-colored shame coats, we have special-ops teams dropping in to a cut-off city. For all the beautiful visuals created by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia—especially the double-page overgrown cityscape spread on pages six and seven—we have buildings toping over like trees or dominoes. One is repetitive. The other is laughable. And we’ve gotten to the point in this patchwork origin where it’s hard to tell the difference.