Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Batman Zero Year: Batman #24

There is no avoiding the comparison. 2013's Zero Year and 1987's Year One are consecutive tellings of the Batman origin. The latter has a name which twists the first's around cosmetically. They both follow DC's company-wide reboots, to re-pitch Batman as part of a general shuffle, tailoring some facts to suit the new continuity.

This is unfortunate context for Scott Snyder, who hasn't written a bad issue in two years on Batman. The dialogue flows, the action is vivid, and his Bruce/Batman has the combination of compulsion and humanity that all the best renditions of the character have had. But Frank Miller's Year One was nearly flawless, bringing Batman from a stiffer, shallower figure into a new era of deeper characterization seen across the comics universe. Year One portrayed a Batman who was – the word has to be taken with a grain of salt – realer than past version. He had weapons that a real crime fighter might have. His Rube Goldberg schemes sometimes failed, leaving him more than once on the verge of death in Gotham's streets and alleys. We imagined him learning to become the masked demigod that Batman would go on to be.

And Scott Snyder's Batman in Zero Year and the preceding twenty issues also has all of those qualities, but that's not new anymore. The effort is serviceable, providing one readable scene after another, but to what other end? If there's a contribution here, it's in the reordering of certain biographical facts. We see an uncle on the Kane side, but what, besides another small tragedy beside Bruce's two huge tragedies, does this add? We see, in the most striking alteration of the legend, a Gotham which is already beset by masked villains, instead of conventional Mafia-style gangs, when Bruce begins his war. That's different in fact than either film series, the previous continuity, or even the publishing history from 1939, although it remains to be seen if this drives some future intrigue.

The greatest potential contribution seems to be in elevating the Joker in primacy in Batman's universe, putting him right at a time of their mutual origin, which was an element, though handled very differently, of the 1989 movie. Coming as a sequel to the use of the Joker in Snyder's earlier Death of the Family arc, it may bookend the character's role in Batman's past and present. It nicely teases a specific identity for the Joker, then throws that promise away, making the Joker now as before, a mystery for Batman as well as for us.

Zero Year is better than most stories we've seen over the years. But in replacing Year One, it has a tough assignment, one that so far serves as a downgrade. It's good. But it leaves, so far, the former as the classic origin, even if this one defines current continuity.


  1. Quick take: (1) Hooray! Rikdad's back! (2) I couldn't agree more.
    Longer take:
    Year One is superior, and clearly is the template from which Snyder is working. I think he's been given an impossible task (though one can argue he didn't need to accept it) in navigating the treacherous waters of remaining respectful of Miller's origin and translating it to the reality of the New 52 rebooted DCU. He's obviously charting a middle-course which leaves the story imperfect and, with some few new characters (as you noted, Uncle Phillip Kane, along with a visual nod to Col. Jacob and his two twin daughters Katherine and Beth in a portrait in his office) largely devoid of originality. The trappings, such as modern/futuristic, sci-fi technology is incorporated to evoke a modern setting. Nevertheless, in attempting to ground Batman's "first mission" in a grandiose plot by masked criminals, the "realism" (as it were) of Miller's origin is undermined. The mob bosses like Falcone are paid passing mention and lip-service, but they are seemingly being treated as backdrop material for this new origin. Even Lieutenant Jim Gordon's role has been greatly reduced. Batman's "identity" has gone from urban myth, to an open, quasi-public figure as depicted in #24.
    Stylistically, the story thus far is LADEN with homages -- from the costume (purple gloves, wide, pointy ears on the cowl) to imagery (the original Detective Comics #27 cover double-page spread with the Red Hood gang) to ritual ("Yes, father...").
    In any event, as Rikdad notes, Snyder is a capable writer, and this story is not bad. It simply lacks the simplicity and "realism" (theres that word again) of Year One. In fact, though they came later and were questionable in terms of their placement in "canon," Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory serve as spiritual sequels to Year One insofar as they continue the story of Batman's early battles against the crime family's of Gotham. (I've always thought of them as unofficial "Years Two and Three, respectively, even if Dark Victory suffers by comparison to it's predecessor, and both incorporate a year-long running serial-killer mystery gimmick.) As for The Joker, The Killing Joke is obviously the quintessential modern "origin" tale, insofar as The Joker has one. (Ironically, it's literal relation to canon was recently called into question with regard to its ending, wherein Grant Morrison claimed in a recent interview that "the killing joke" is quite literal, as Batman actually kills The Joker at the end of the story. Speculate and debate as you like.) Finally, Ed Brubaker's 2005 quasi-sequel to Year One picks up where the original leaves off -- telling the story of The Joker's first attempt at terrorizing Gotham and poisoning the reservoir (a long-running Joker plot that has been recycled in numerous iterations, including in the The Red Hood Gang's recent attempt at "poisoning" the city using Wayne Industries technology to build bio bombs of some sort.) All of these stories were integral to both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight in various respects as source material. It would seem DC is blatantly and unequivocally closing the door on the post-crisis representations of its heroes, least of all Batman.

    1. You are not wrong, however it is hard to judge it before it is done and even more difficult to compare it to a completed piece seen as a classic. Its like comparing a retired sports legend to a new phenome. one is judged by the completion of it's work and one is judged by it's uncompleted potential. I like where this is going and I'm interested how it leaves Gotham going forward.

    2. You analogy is well-taken, and what I didn't say in my comment above is that I do think that this origin is still a very good story that I am enjoying very much, and that I do look forward to seeing how the rest of it plays out. I am, however, being realistic in setting my expectations going forward -- just as I was before Zero Year started. It does seem Zero Year will end up being very grand in its scale and ambitious in scope, similar to the last two Dark Knight movies where the fate of the city was at stake as Batman struggles with not just "super-villains," but quasi-existential threats to the "life" of the city itself. And I'm fine with that as an approach. That is definitely something is doing differently. He's definitely emphasizing the stakes, whereas in Year One, although Batman's "war" against the crime bosses (along with Gordon's bucking the good ol' boys) is implicitly a challenge to the rot and corruption rooted in Gotham, it's not played up quite as dramatically as it has been in Snyder's story. That's definitely something I've noticed in his work; through The Dark Mirror, Gates of Gotham, Court of Owls, and to a lesser extent Death of The Family, he likes analogizing Gotham to a living entity that is multifaceted in how it affects and shapes it residents. It's not a new idea, per se, but it's the overwhelming theme of his storytelling. Finally, I'll add that though I said the Uncle Phillip Kane character isn't particularly important to me, I do appreciate Snyder's attempts at fleshing out the Wayne and Kane families, as well as other historic elements of Gotham's past. Although I haven't seen him say it explicitly, I do think it's a bit of a nod to Grant Morrison's work in Batman and Robin and Return of Bruce Wayne wherein he explores both the lineages of the Wayne/Kane families and the "secret" history of Gotham.

  2. Nairu and Websnap, thanks for the comments. It is premature to consider the story complete, but we seem to have a complete view of the tone of the story and the style of narration, which is not much different from Snyder's run before this point. I think one fascinating surprise of Year One (which I did not read until years after it was published) is that the tone is so different from that of Dark Knight Returns, written by the same writer a short time earlier. Miller had a profoundly different vision for those two works, and they both came at a time when the maturity level of comics was changing.

    The shift from younger 1970s readers to older readers is part of what made an increasingly style of narration a necessity. That shift is complete. But I ask myself if there are other contributions one could make besides updating a few facts. Certainly one contribution of the story will be: It's a (somewhat) new story. For fans who want to read a new story (with good dialogue and exciting action), it certainly provides that. I think the best work adds more, still, and I think Zero Year is already committed to a path that doesn't add much more.

  3. That's certainly more polite analysis on Zero Year than I would've done. Are you going to post any thoughts about Morrison's current project?

    18 Days, motion comic on YouTube

  4. Just popped in and was excited to see a new Rikdad post! Zero Year has frustrated me, but I admit it's pretty decent. I think Snyder tried to have his cake and eat it too in regards to the Joker's identity. The man who falls in to the chemicals was clearly no unlucky stand-in. He encountered Batman and got punched by him, had his foot twisted, killed Bruce's uncle... there is no way that was a guy pretending to be the other Red Hood. It was all the same guy. Seemed like the "Who was he really" was just tacked on at the end to satisfy fans like me who prefer the Joker's ID to be left a mystery.

  5. I'm glad to see you're willing to praise Snyder's Batman work, Rikdad. I personally really enjoy both runs, but among a lot of Morrison Batman fans I see an astounding amount of negativity directed at Snyder. Morrison has one of the most unique creative voices in comics, and a real eye for persisting themes in mythology, but that doesn't mean everyone else who tries to tackle the characters he has is wrong to do so or can't write anything worth reading.

  6. twibbler,
    I think in many ways, Snyder faces with Batman what Morrison had to with Superman in Action: The assignment of rebooting a character whose last reboot had left no great dissatisfaction.

    Issue per issue, and scene by scene, Snyder's work has been good (this last, #25, as good as any). Better on average than Morrison's first issues, IMO. It's enjoyable, solid.

    What I don't see so far is much that I love, although so far I like his introduction to Doctor Death better than the other villains.

    1. I wasn't saying you loved it, just expressing it was refreshing to see a hardcore Morrison fan who wasn't totally devaluing Snyder and Capullo's work out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. Again, I really enjoy both runs personally so it's frustrating to see the fandom divided into camps, so to speak. Both Snyder and Morrison honor the character/world of Batman for the most part, IMO, and even if you prefer one to the other I don't think it needs to be as contentious as it sometimes seems to be.

  7. Two issues later, a minor update to my thoughts on Zero Year. These were good, exciting issues. Doctor Death is being reinvented in great fashion. Bruce's confrontation with Jim Gordon was a break from convention, but it works. I suspect we'll find out that Gordon isn't as tainted by corruption as Bruce accused him of, but the event makes their history a lot more complicated in interesting ways no matter how it plays out.

    An important difference from Year One worth mentioning: Zero Year is much longer. That gives Snyder a lot of space to work with. Or, possibly, to get lost. There are a lot of threads active at once, and while they're fairly straightforward on an individual basis, it's hard to see what the emphasis is now. The Riddler's attack is obviously very important, to be dealt with later, and yet it's mentioned only in passing.

    I might expect a work of this length either to raise a lot of threats and bring them together at the end, or to have several episodes in serial that build towards an end. This seems like it's doing a little of one, and a little of the other. Always good, page-by-page, but the muddle of plots keeps me from engaging as much as I might.