Comic Picks By The Glick

Batman vol. 4: Zero Year — Secret City

June 2, 2014

I don’t know about you, but I’ve still been operating under the assumption that everything in the DC Universe prior to “Flashpoint” and the “New 52” still happened.  The company’s big crossover event did a terrible job of applying any kind of “closure” to the previous incarnation of their universe and the way most titles have carried on has made operating under this assumption fairly easy.  It’s only when these stories start intruding on and re-writing previous tales that I start getting annoyed with having to confront the reality of the situation.  I know it’s a first world fanboy problem, BUT STILL…

Here’s an example:  When the “Zero Year” storyline was announced for Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Batman” run, everyone wanted to know if this was going to replace Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s classic “Year One.”  The impression I got from DC and Snyder was that it would not and that the story would be written “around” that famous arc.  As it turns out, I completely misinterpreted/was flat-out wrong about this as “Secret City” makes perfectly clear that this is the new status quo as far as Batman’s origin is concerned.  Yet, Snyder shows how clever he is as a writer by telling an engaging story before that becomes apparent, and by offering a new take on the themes and ideas of “Year One” as opposed to re-treading the same events.

Though the “Dirtbike Batman” that we see in the volume’s opening pages is certainly cool, he’s just there to tease future events in this arc.  In fact, when we first witness Bruce Wayne in action here, he’s in disguise to save some businessmen from the Red Hood and his gang -- the latest plague to hit the crime-ridden streets of Gotham.  Though there are obvious reasons as to why Bruce is keeping his identity secret, the biggest one is that he was declared legally dead years ago and plans to keep it that way.  Better to remain a nameless phantom in his war on crime than to be bogged down by having a civilian identity to deal with.

That changes when his uncle and current head of Wayne Industries, Philip Kane, tracks Bruce down with the intent of making him the new head of the company.  This is an attempt on his part to get Wayne Industries’ momentum going again, though Kane’s advisor -- one Edward Nygma -- has a more straightforward solution:  Kill Bruce and eliminate the Wayne’s ties to the company.  Even if he’s not aware of this plan, Bruce still has to contend with the Red Hood’s master plan and Alfred’s growing concern that he’s going about his war on crime all wrong.

The idea of a rookie Batman, or really a fallible one who didn’t know exactly what he was doing was one of the most compelling parts of “Year One.”  Even today, after years of being billed as the “World’s Greatest Detective” with a mental acumen that allowed him to hang with the Justice League and fighting skills that allowed him to take on threats that would crush an ordinary human, the thought of the character being less than perfect still holds a certain novelty.  That’s exploited well here by Snyder who shows us a Bruce Wayne that is quite skilled in many respects yet hasn’t pulled all of his training together in a way that will allow him to effectively combat the threat of the Red Hood and his minions.

Though it’s clear that he’ll eventually decide otherwise, Snyder even makes Bruce’s determination to “stay dead” completely plausible in the context of the story.  For someone who has made it his mission in life to make sure that no one else should experience what he went through, it’s understandable that he would see his civilian life as a distraction.  However, the eventual realization that he can use “Bruce Wayne” to further his mission is something that’s slowly built up over the course of the story.  It’s not a sudden realization, but a slow accumulation of circumstances that serves as a catalyst and the story is better served for it.

Planning like this is what helps the story hold up to scrutiny when compared to “Year One.”  Snyder also avoids the grounded street-level approach of that story and infuses this project with a lighter tone that never forgets we’re in a universe shared with genuine superheroes.  This is why we get some over-the-top, yet effective action scenes that involve Bruce running a cargo truck off of a building and swinging it on a grappling line into Gotham bay.  Sci-fi touches like sonic guns and magnetic boots also factor into this story as well, yet none so prominent as the 3D-mapping device that Thomas Wayne helps invent that plays into one of the character’s defining moments.  It’s set up in an offhand way early on, yet when its significance is revealed the effect is almost magical.  Never mind the fact that the device’s abilities require some suspension of disbelief to accept, the sequence is handled so commandingly by Capullo that you’ll likely be too caught up in taking it in to complain (the first time through, anyway).

After all of this buildup, we do get to see Bruce as Batman in the book’s final chapter and the wait is certainly worth it.  From the ominous, “... My bat… It still needs a head,” to the brilliantly staged fight in the chemical factory, the “separation” of Bruce from Batman in the public eye, as well as the tragedy when he realizes that he can’t save everyone yet, it’s an incredible payoff based on everything that has come before.  We also get a seamless introduction to James Gordon here as well, with everything you need to know about the character and the GCPD being conveyed in one page.  The situation with the Red Hood is also wrapped up quite cleverly as well in a way that I should’ve seen coming, yet didn’t expect that Snyder would be writing out “The Killing Joke” as well.  (As I didn’t realize this, that managed to get me past the knee-jerk reaction I would’ve had to seeing what was done to “Year One” be done to an arguably better story too.)

Things are then wrapped-up in a neat ten-page epilogue that further cements the Bruce/Alfred dynamic and offers an interesting explanation as to why Batman’s identity is safe.  It’s a good explanation, as a powerful performance is certainly transportive, but it doesn’t account for the one jackass who will try to ruin it for everyone by proving how clever he is.  However, this issue might be addressed in the next storyline when one such jackass -- The Riddler, no less -- announces his presence in dramatic fashion.  The drama is also enriched by Rafael Albuquerque’s artwork which gives the events a suitably moody look to them.

That’s not an approach employed by Capullo for the majority of his work on the volume.  While he’s good with drawing shadows and silhouettes, the majority of his art here is clear and bold, with coloring that pops thanks to FCO Plascencia.  (“Invincible’s” look still hasn’t been as good since this person left.)  Yet Capullo has shown himself to be very flexible with the series so far and he adopts a cleaner approach compared to his previous volumes that fits well with this younger Gotham.  His character work is also exemplary and helps sell the drama of the narrative as well and even makes a character like the Red Hood -- who spends most of the volume with his face hidden underneath that object -- quite emotive.  Capullo has done excellent work on this title since the beginning, and what we see here shows that he’s not afraid to mix up his approach and try new things.

Where “Year One” was a gritty crime drama, “Zero Year” is so far an unabashed superhero tale.  Yet they share the idea of showing us how an inexperienced Bruce Wayne transforms himself into something greater, but not infallible.  The approaches they take are as different as you could imagine, but it’s not hard to appreciate the thought that Miller and Snyder put into making their visions of Batman’s origin valid.  Even for someone like me who still finds “Year One” compelling after all these years, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this new take on Batman’s formative period.   So from here my expectations are raised for the next volume as I wait to see what other surprises the creators have in store.

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