Congratulations Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo! You’ve just managed to pull off your own take on Batman’s earliest days of crimefighting and effectively write Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s “Year One” out of continuity in the New 52. More importantly, your take actually works on its own terms and doesn’t re-tread the same ground that “Year One” staked out for itself. How do you follow up on that? By showing us how Batman came to trust other people and work with them in his war on crime and telling a really good Riddler story in the process.
At the end of the previous volume, Edward Nygma made his debut as the Riddler in Gotham City by blacking it out. The city is still in the dark when the story opens here and while the city services people are working to get the power back on, the cops are also after the dangerous vigilante known as the Batman. While Batman knows that turning on the power will only signal the next step in the Riddler’s agenda, he also has to contend with a series of disturbing murders where scientists are being found dead due to massive bone growths throughout their bodies. There is a connection between the murders and Nygma’s plan, but can Batman figure it out before the start of “Zero Year” in the savage city?
If the crux of “Secret City” was Bruce Wayne learning to embrace the value of his civilian identity and Alfred in his war on crime, then “Dark City” shows us how he learned that his war cannot be fought by one man and his butler. Though we all know that Jim Gordon is going to be a key player in this fight, Snyder makes the road to that role as tough as it could reasonably be allowed to be. Gordon’s involvement with Gotham’s corruption right in front of the young Bruce’s eyes is teased, while the present Bruce even pulls the policeman’s own gun on him to prove a point. It should go without saying that they overcome these misunderstandings at some point, as Gordon shows us that even Batman’s stubbornness has its limits and that he’s really the only honest cop in the city. We also see him bringing Lucius Fox into the fold as well, being someone who can manage the tech side of things, as well as some special forces grunts later in the narrative. Seeing Batman learn to coordinate his efforts through all of these individuals over the course of this volume shows us a character who learns to be more flexible in his approach.
This flexibility, however, is learned the hard way. Given that this volume collects the final two parts of “Zero Year,” you can probably guess how things are going to go once the action reaches a crisis point at the end of “Dark City.” As we’re dealing with a younger, more inexperienced Batman it makes his failings here easier to accept and the drama isn’t lessened as a result. Even though he’s got all the best toys -- seen right from the start in a Batmobile that can ride on tunnel ceilings -- it’s the Riddler who has all the smarts. In fact, the whole crux of Nygma’s plan is for the city to “Get smart or die,” and he manages this in a typically self-aggrandizing way by turning it into a savage jungle in the volume’s second half.
I haven’t read any Riddler stories that can be called “great,” but I think that tag applies to this one. The character is shown to be a master planner who can stay one step ahead of Batman by fighting him on purely intellectual terms. Contrary to a lot of stories where the antagonist is always shown to have the upper hand on on the protagonist, Snyder provides enough information to show us that Nygma actually put a whole lot of work into his master plan. His triumph, as dastardly as it is, ultimately feels earned while making the character feel legitimately dangerous in the process. That being said, he displays the right amount of smug throughout the story to make it deeply satisfying once Batman does get the chance to lay the smack down on him.
He’s not the only villain here, as we get a new one (at least to my knowledge) one in the form of “Doctor Death.” Formerly a WayneTech scientist known as Karl Helfern who had an interest in human bone structure and how to strengthen it, he subsequently started to experiment on himself and found success while turning himself into a monster. Not only does Capullo deliver a great creepy visual look for the character, the nature of his research also makes a clever foil to Batman’s penchant for solving problems through violence. As a result of his research, Helfern’s bones grow stronger with injury so you can imagine what happens when Batman starts to lay into him.
What’s more interesting is how we learn about the character and Bruce’s history through the use of seemingly random flashbacks through “Dark City.” Scenes involving soldiers in the desert, a lounge singer in Tokyo, and Bruce getting a call while undergoing some brutal training initially come off as needlessly obtuse and intriguing for how they get us to wonder “What the hell are they doing here?” Snyder does reward the reader’s patience with these scenes as he works them into the main narrative right around the time you’d least expect him to. The writer does try a similar trick in “Savage City,” to somewhat lesser effect as Bruce/Batman’s concurrent “electroshock therapy” is more weird than anything else. I will say that the glimpse we get of his life with the girl he once knew manages to cram a lot of emotion into the six panels we see.
While I mentioned that Capullo does a great job with Dr. Death’s visual, his work here is as strong as you’d expect based on the previous volumes. He delivers plenty of striking action scenes throughout the volume including a storm-and-lightning-filled fight on a weather balloon with Dr. Death, and a battle against two lions in an underground parking structure where Batman has to resort to some unorthodox to win. The action is always easy to follow regardless of the circumstances, which is particularly impressive in the climax of “Dark City” as the story cuts between scenes of mass destruction and the death of Bruce’s parents and culminates in a final scene that effectively illustrates the story’s central theme of Batman needing help to fight his war on crime.
I won’t say this volume is flawless. Sometimes Snyder feels the need to spell things out more than is necessary for dramatic effect. The flashback scenes involving the origin of Gordon’s coat are a prime example of this. I’m willing to forgive these issues as the overall narrative does an excellent job of showing us the title character facing down almost insurmountable odds as he grows into the badass that we all know he’ll be. Miller and Mazzuchelli managed much the same back in the 80’s with only four issues of “Year One” as opposed to the twelve that Snyder and Capullo got here. Yet this is no bloated, indulgent epic. The entirety of “Zero Year” is crammed with character, action, and little details that help to enhance the story. I’ll admit that I had my misgivings about these creators trying to offer a new account of Batman’s earliest crimefighting days. In the end, Snyder and Capullo obliterated them and delivered their best Bat-story to date.