Can artistry itself be art?
Comics: Batman Zero Year Director's Cut #1
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo
Publication Date: 2013-09
Writing about L. Frank Baum's 1900 masterpiece, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, in A New Literary History of America, Gerald Early displays a particular kind of courageousness. In the scholarship around Baum's work, there's always a missing comparative--what about Carroll, what about Alice? Isn't it true that Lewis Carroll got there first, didn't he define the genre in a way that Baum could not have? With the sheer obviousness of this question looming, scholarship on Baum and on Oz usually deteriorates into one of two very predicable forms. Either the work becomes a defense of Baum in the face of the advent of Carroll some decades earlier (a kind of magician's prestidigitation requiring the audience to look elsewhere, to overlook Carroll altogether and celebrate Baum) or localizes Baum and Oz to such a great degree that any engagement with Carroll or the Wonderland stories would ultimately prove meaningless. Early's courageousness lies in tackling the problem of the comparative between Baum and Carroll head-on, and in not shrinking from the idea that there can be meaningful engagement between the two, nor shrinking from the idea that the carry-over from Wonderland to Oz only represents a small part of Baum's overall creative vision. In an entirely different arena, more or less a century later, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo retrace a similar path to Baum and Oz artist W. W. Denslow.
Like Baum and Denslow, Snyder and Capullo face the seemingly intractable problem of a precursor work that seems to dominate the field. How is it possible to tell a Batman origin story after Batman: Year One? It helps that Snyder begins the project while grounded in a very different set of concerns than Frank Miller graced during the conceptualization of Year One. Following in the wake of the Dark Knight Returns, Miller directly tackled the problem of the cultural reinvigoration off Batman as a cultural icon. As Miller himself recalled on numerous occasions, most memorably in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Returns, the sales figures of Batman books at the time failed to accurately reflect the character's popularity as evidenced in opinion polls. Consequently, Miller's focus was to liberate some essential insight, to illumine some crucial aspect of the character that would make reading it more relevant for an adult audience and to wright a narrative vehicle that was ultimately worthy of the Batman.
But Snyder appears on the horizon of a Batman that has already been proven. And with the cultural relevance of the character no longer at issue, what remains is a question of the potential cultural impact Snyder's Zero Year might have. Not to be impolitic, the question of Zero Year is a question of whether the work will fall into either a constellation of a Year One or a Long Halloween in terms of longevity and impact, or whether it might find a more reasonable home with such market-demanded (and far more forgettable) books like Contagion.
And it is in this regard that Zero Year Director's Cut succeeds beyond measure--in that it forces a reframing of the project in such a way that absolutely obliterates that binaried conceptualization of needing to think in terms of either/or. Will Zero Year become a Year One or a Contagion? Director's Cut allows us to answer with "neither-neither;" because the ultimately, those poles and perhaps even that entire spectrum is wholly irrelevant. What Director's Cut argues for implicitly is the quality and the level of complexity of artistry that can be brought to bear on an icon as ubiquitous as Batman.
Since 2007 Grant Morrison has demonstrated the breadth of Batman as a cultural icon by illustrating how even the most camp and most specious modes of Batman can be reintegrated into a culturally viable vision of the character. What if even that über-camp Batman from that 60s TV show could find a meaningful place in the fictive biography of the character?
Conceptually, this stands as distinct from Miller's project. For Miller, it was about finding that one true thing about the Batman, for Morrison, everything was true, and the project was about showing how everything could be true. Snyder takes the question even further--"If all Batman stories can be made to be relevant, if every Batman story can be elevated to becoming a biography in situ of the character in its entirety, then what can there be for the process and artistic fabrication itself? Can the artistry itself be at?"
Beyond the newness of the New 52, and the ecstasy of Snyder's evolving creative vision of a Batman more deeply imbricated with Gotham, this is the true value in Director's Cut; a question about whether or not art-as-process can still be relevant in a world of social media and digital distribution. The answer of course will be uniquely your own--like all great writing, Director's Cut invites you in, beguiles you, seduces you into deleting the idea of authorship and proffering your own insights as validation for the questions brought before you. And while these insights may serve you well, the deeper question of leveraging a cultural icon the immensity of Batman in the service of interrogating the meaning of artistry in the face of art must itself be lionized. Can the Batman be it's own form of digital justice?
On framing that question, at this time, Snyder evokes the deep inner turmoil of one of the most famous moments in Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It's the moment when, upon first meeting the Wizard, Toto leaps from Dorothy's arms and draws back the curtain to reveal an old man from Omaha pulling various levers to operate the illusion of the giant head. Although this moment seems on the surface to speak to Dorothy mastering her environment perhaps for the first time in the land of Oz, it also it's laced with a quiet and profound sadness. Dorothy does correctly intuit the connection between the Old Man Behind the Curtain and the Giant Floating Head. But equally, she fails to grasp completely the mechanism by which that connection is enacted. It is a portrait of Dorothy on the cusp of her full capacity, Dorothy who is not-yet-but-soon.
And this vision of a Dorothy on the day before might surrender the most beautiful plea that Snyder makes with Director's Cut--that we are ourselves on the cusp of an entirely new relation to art, and that social media and digital distribution might not be enough to carry us across the threshold.