A year in story time and a year in publication time, Scott Snyder's Batman: Zero Year retells for the nth time, perhaps at greater length and in greater detail than ever before, the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. It is inevitable that it be compared to earlier stories; its greater scope leaves it with no true analogues, which is good because the similarly named Batman: Year One covering this topic in a third the length is virtually impossible to transcend in quality.
Snyder's story covers Batman's first year in three acts of four issues each. The first pits our (initially nameless) hero against the Red Hood gang, bringing about the origin of the Joker. In the second, Doctor Death is front and center as the agent of Edward Nygma. In the third, Nygma, as the Riddler, holds Gotham captive in a scenario clearly patterned on Bane's domination of the Gotham in The Dark Knight Rises.
Through an extraordinary number of flashbacks, the story visits earlier episodes of pivotal importance to Bruce Wayne and to his opponents. Some of these are shown as quick, cryptic impressions that can only be understood later. As a result, the story is much stronger when read in one sitting than over a period of thirteen months (issue #28 was not part of the story), with threads introduced in a panel or two left dangling for nine or more weeks before the reader sees where they lead.
Any story of this kind must revisit and modify existing mythology. Compared to previous canon, BZY reasserts the early importance of Doctor Death (the villain of Batman's third and fourth published stories, back in 1939) and the Joker (who debuted in Batman #1 and was tied to Batman's origin in the 1989 film). Meanwhile, it makes the changes of placing a larger-than-ever emphasis on the Riddler and the previously minor character of Uncle Philip (first introduced in 1986).
BZY also changes the tone of post-COIE continuity by placing the debut of the Red Hood Gang (and by extension, that of costumed villains in general) before the debut of Batman himself. This has the curious implication that the Joker, in his Red Hood identity, debuted before Batman and probably before Superman. This is a considerable alteration of the portrayal in Year One / Long Halloween and the Nolan films that Batman began his war on crime in order to fight real-world kinds of criminals (such as the Falcone crime family) and thereafter attracted a host of costumed villains inspired by his own theatrical qualities.
This changes, in particular, the vision from Year One that Bruce Wayne found himself not particularly effective fighting crime while dressed in street clothes, and so, while suffering in his study from injuries during one poor outing, came up with the idea of being Batman. The new, BZY account is that while in his regular identity as Bruce Wayne himself, he suffered a terrible beating at the hands of the Red Hood gang, and then, after receiving medical aid from Alfred, a virtual reality view of the Batcave helped inspire a similar realization. Thus, many of the original elements are maintains, with the details considerably changed.
One offbeat choice in the story is to make the Riddler the villain with the most impact in Batman’s first year. While the Riddler has occasionally risen near the top of the list of Batman’s most prominent villains, he has never been accorded true primacy besides being the villain in the two debut episodes of the 1966 TV show. This Riddler is homicidal and darkly egomaniacal like Jim Carrey’s rendition in Batman Forever. He is delighted with his own intellect, and constructs a world where he rules by torment. For nearly three issues the story covers the efforts of Batman, Lucius Fox, and Jim Gordon to search the maze that the Riddler has turned Gotham into for the vulnerable point in his electronic control structure. This search becomes torturous almost to excess, as one lead after another is a dead end that the Riddler anticipated someone to find until finally, he is face to face with Batman and even then has a few more surprises in store. The action is exciting, scene-by-scene, even as the Riddler’s defenses start to become as tiresome for the reader as they are for the story’s heroes.
The hallmarks of Snyder's writing include an impressive breadth of detail rooted in real world facts verging on trivia, a bit like the famous "Flash Facts" from Silver Age Flash issues. Snyder is an intelligent and knowledgeable man and this informs his Batman stories wonderfully. He writes scenes that make Bruce show his detective skills; many writers avoid this even though "the world's greatest detective" is the character's alternate moniker.
The use of flashbacks make this the tale of more than just one year, which the 12-issue length amply merits. We visit events from young Bruce discovering the cave to key incidents with his parents before their deaths, his early and bitter encounter with Jim Gordon, and a brief glimpse of his period of training. Some of these scenes are patterned on The Dark Knight Returns, others on The Dark Knight Rises, and still others are entirely new. The flashbacks often provide the background that explain the significance of some event taking place in the present, although one or two are handled so quickly that they lack impact, making the story more broad then deep. One, in particular, describes an incident of uncharacteristic tumult in which a young adult Bruce nearly uses electroshock to erase his mind and reboot himself as a new person, with no memory of the death of his parents. For him to consider this after years of training would imply a deep ambivalence carried around for years, perhaps a man straining and ready to crack. Snyder gives this enormous decision far too little attention and should have cut it from the story or delved into it more deeply.
What we do see into the character of Bruce Wayne comes, as often as not, during his conversations with Alfred. Alfred initially seeks to discourage Bruce’s war on crime, and then he tries to redirect it into more conventional efforts as the owner of Wayne Enterprises. In some tactical situations, he tries to get Bruce to shy away from risks. In none of these efforts is he successful. At last, when Alfred revives Bruce from a final victory that knocked him unconscious and Bruce asked how he did it, Alfred responds, “Because you’re Batman.” Unwilling to advocate the life his master has changed, Alfred nonetheless recognizes the greatness within him.
However, even at this point, Alfred makes one final effort to redirect Bruce from the life of Batman by arranging for Julie Madison (beautiful, as in past renditions; a sci fi fan in this one) to meet with him. Bruce is tempted by this prospect. In fact, the scene in which Bruce briefly considers a serene, happy life with Julie is patterned on The Last Temptation of Christ. But instead of choosing marriage and an ordinary life, Bruce chooses to be Batman, just as Christ chooses to die on the cross. It’s a powerful reference that might draw shouts of blasphemy, but it’s a defining coda for the story and the character.
Batman’s origin has been told many times, sometimes in small pieces covering his parents’ death, his training, or his adoption of the bat identity, but never before has the origin been packed into one super-length story of this scope. The prominence of Uncle Philip and Julie Madison suggest that the origin of the Golden Age Batman in Secret Origins #6 was on Snyder’s reading list. Many stories before and since are given a nod here and there. Only in small details does it contradict the more recent origin stories, as opposed to a radical redefinition like John Byrne’s Man of Steel. As my earlier comments have noted, this is probably a better work to hold in your hands and read in one sitting than with its many, lightly-sketched flashback threads dangling from month to month. And in that regard it can be enjoyed not as a retcon or erasure of Batman Year One but as another volume worth having and revisiting.