Gotham, Urban Decay and Zero Year: “Batman #21”

There are many reasons to revisit Batman’s origin story now in the curiously titled Zero Year storyarc that opens in Batman #21. Chief among those reasons is that Batman’s continuity that was brought over with the New 52 reset does not work anymore. It’s squashed, crammed, bulging at the seams in the tight confines of a five year period that precedes the New 52’s Batman #1. Also, in regards to this new take on Batman, the previous origin, the revered Year One, seems antiquated no matter how timeless it may be. Each generation gets an opportunity to put their stamp on the origin, tone and direction of superhero characters. “Zero Year” is writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s opportunity.

I’m sure there are many that hold Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One in such regard that to revise it or recontextualize it is near sacrilege. That’s not what Snyder and Capullo are doing, though they are exploring what changed Bruce Wayne from an angry young man on a crusade into The Batman. “Zero Year” will for better or worse be compared to Year One, but they are quite different. Besides, Year One is more James Gordon’s story and a comicbook treatment of urban decay in the early to mid ’80s.

Times have changed and part of the point of Snyder’s Batman origin story is to set the origin of Batman in a modern understanding of urban existence. We know that Snyder operates his take on Batman with Gotham as a major character. That’s why “Zero Year”, more so that Year One, opens with the city as opposed to the inhabitants of the city. If we are to understand this take on Batman, we must understand where he comes from, why it’s important to him and just how far he will go to protect it. In Snyder’s take, Gotham City more so than the incident in Crime Alley made Bruce and thereby also made Batman.

The city is a living, breathing organism that can be corrupted or cleaned. And just as our understanding of superheroes changes over time, so too does our relationship and understanding of city living. The urban decay that Miller wrote about in Year One is not the same issues we are dealing with now. That violence was far less chaotic and anarchistic. It was part of power struggles and the subversion of various classes. Today, random violence, terrorism and dissolving infrastructure are the issues that plague urban life. If Gotham is to be a character, then it must be contemporized. It’s not a departure from the very thing that Miller was attempting to solidify with Year One.

Zero Year, however, is a departure from other characterizations of Batman, though it owes elements to the work of Miller, Grant Morrison and even Denny O’Neil and Marv Wolfman. This Bruce Wayne is more adjusted than the malcontent Bruce of Miller’s story. This Bruce would seem to need the mask to hide his identity and strike an imposing figure on criminals and terrorists, as opposed to drawing out his true personality. It’s a shift, where Bruce is no longer the mask as has often been observed over the last 25 years.

But more so than anyone else, Snyder’s Batman derives from the Christopher Nolan films and their contemporary take on the Dark Knight. Even the execution of this particular comic, its time jumps, its small moments are heavily influenced by Nolan’s style, as it gives us the moment before the storyarc’s ultimate climax before we’ve seen anything else.

What Batman #21 lacks in clear details and linear direction, it makes up for in bold action. It’s deliberately bombastic, fitting well within Capullo’s art style, and sending this story on a wild, explosive ride. But it’s also intimate and familiar, like the quiet scene with Bruce and his father, which is obviously setting up something that will come back to impact the story later on, but nonetheless allows us a moment of early character development.

Despite the high octane action, the comic is slightly burdened by overly verbose dialogue. It’s very reminiscent of Miller’s robust narration in Year One. But where Miller used narration to highlight the visual, Snyder’s dialogue superimposes itself over it. It’s something I’ve noted in much of Snyder’s work, too often he tells us what’s happening or happened instead of showing us through character movement or visual composition. The artwork ends up highlighting the story instead being in tandem with it. And in the case of his and Capullo’s Batman run, Capullo is perfectly capable of carrying his weight of the story. In this particular issue, much of the overreliance on dialogue can be forgiven. There is, after all, a lot of exposition to get through.

Batman #21 is a bold beginning for this new origin story. While “Zero Year” owes much to the origins in various media that have come before, it is its own comic to certain degrees. “Zero Year’s” relationship to our current understanding of city life will be its ultimate trademark. This is easily the best understanding of the hallmarks of Snyder’s Batman run: Gotham as character and as contemporary urban center.

RATING 6 / 10
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