Bruce Wayne’s life pre-Batman continues to be explored in Batman #22, the latest chapter in the origin story Zero Year. While the previous issue established the players, namely Gotham City as a decaying urban center and character in its own right, this installment focuses nearly completely on Bruce as a character within this blighted city. He is brash yet clever; angry yet unsure how to release that anger. This is the story of how he found a way to focus his anger and grief, to take his fear and self imposed isolation, and use them for the betterment of others rather than the betterment of him. He’ll learn in time there will be no complete peace for him, only fleeting moments bookended by physical expressions of the pain he will never let go of. But first he has to stop hiding like a coward.
It’s rather odd to say that a man who will one day wear a mask has to stop hiding, but the guerrilla-style warfare he is waging in Zero Year thus far is just that – Bruce Wayne is hiding. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s even alive, despite the urging of Uncle Philip. Of course Philip has his ulterior motives, but so too does Bruce. He doesn’t want to be exposed, but that’s exactly what keeps happening to him as he goes up against the Red Hood Gang. One day he will put on the mask, adopt the persona of his fear, and will be hiding no more.
There have been many arguments about whether Batman or Bruce Wayne is the mask. Looking back at the long history of Batman, there have been times when both have been true. But if we look at the period since Batman: Year One up until the New 52, we understand that Bruce Wayne is the mask. His true persona is that of the Dark Knight. Yet even that face is a mask, meaning that it’s another assumed persona. The actually true persona is probably when Bruce is down in his cave, staring at his computer while Alfred serves him tea. In that moment, the serenity of detective work that will benefit someone, that is in keeping with his father’s legacy, under the watchful eye of the proud surrogate father, Bruce can be as close to happy as possible.
In many ways, Bruce’s life was also taken in Crime Alley all those years ago. His life is forfeit so that he can act as a symbol and silent guardian. Here in Batman #22, Bruce has yet to figure out how it will all work together.
And how it will all work together, the many facets of Bruce Wayne’s life, is what writer Scott Snyder is piecing together in this new origin. While we have understood that Bruce is the mask, what Snyder is constructing is a character without that harsh dichotomy. This Bruce is far more complex. He has a name, a legacy that has to live up to no matter how much he thirsts for a justice that can ease his pain.
The legacy of his father (and his mother for that matter) is of equal importance as his war mission. This is what Alfred tries to remind him of in the middle of Batman #22. It’s a scene wrought with emotion, punctuated by the age-old struggle between fathers and sons. The slap, regretted instantly, is that of a wakeup call. It’s a beautifully constructed scene, showing the narrative prowess of Snyder and the visual agility of artist Greg Capullo. It is as dramatic and bold as anything they have done in this story arc so far.
This issue also features one of the most daring pages Snyder and Capullo have attempted. Much like their work in Batman #5 that broke the theoretical fifth wall by bringing the reader into the experience, Snyder and Capullo construct a panel for part of the scene between Bruce and Edward Nygma that allows readers to break the membrane between audience and writer/artist. It is a brilliant visualization of the dialogue and battle of wits between the future enemies. Each member of the creative team – including Danny Miki, FCO Plascencia and Nick Napolitano – allows the creation to rise from the page: dialogue, panel composition, colors and letters working as collaboratively as they should, giving an experience that epitomizes the double meaning of everything on the page.
What this issue excels at is defining Bruce Wayne prior to becoming the Batman. This is of course his origin, but it’s an origin taking place within a larger story, one that resonates with contemporary understandings of urban warfare and the results of adolescent psychological trauma. This is not a one or two dimensional Bruce Wayne. He is without a doubt still the tragic hero we have come to love, but the sides of his persona are far more complex and are not neatly split into a face and a mask. Besides, the mask is yet to come. He has to stop hiding first.