Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Comics Blah Blah Comics: Batman - Zero Year




A few weeks ago, a year long storyline in Batman came in for a landing. The story concerned a young boy who watched his parents murdered and pledged his life to bringing criminals to justice. The young boy grew into a man who had trained his mind and body to their limits and beyond. But despite all the training, all the preparation, this man is still unsure of how to pursue his mission. He needs to inspire fear in the criminals he seeks to fight. But how does he do that? 

He shall become a bat. 

So this man, Bruce Wayne, becomes someone else, a figure of darkness and fear to the wicked. He becomes the Batman

It's not necessarily a role he accepts unconditionally. Dressing up like a bat and fighting crime? How crazy is that? Very crazy actually but it works. Criminals are afraid of him. But to those downtrodden souls victimized by crime and left devoid of hope, Batman also becomes a symbol of hope. 

This is the Batman and how he came to be. 

Bill Finger told the gist of all that in the space of two pages. Yes, it was a different time then when it was possible to tell stories with a small page count. Still, the power of Batman's origin as it resonates over time comes from those two pages. 

Over 40 years later, Frank Miller would revisit this origin, examining the frustrations Bruce felt in the beginning of his war on crime and after he adapted the mantle of the bat. It is also the story of Jim Gordon, a cop with ideals in a city where ideals go to die. In a cesspool of corruption, Gordon barely keeps his head above water. Then he receives inspiration, not from the light but from the darkness where a mysterious man dressed as a bat is trying to make a difference. Maybe, Gordon thinks, he can too.

In 88 pages over 4 issues, Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli pack quite a lot of drama and character development into those pages. And much like the first origin story, the effects of this story were felt for years, decades to come. 

Of course DC is a different time now. It's "The New 52" (whatever the hell that means 3 years after the launch of this initiative) and the history of DC's characters is set to be re-written. 

Batman seemed least affected by the re-launch. Scott Snyder's opening arc focused on a new menace, the Court of Owls, which would've been just as effective (or even more so) before the line wide reboot.  Likewise, Death of the Family features a Batman/Joker conflict that also would've worked on the pre-52 side of things. In fact, the consequences of this conflict are supposed to be deeply felt because of Batman's history with his "family" (Nightwing, Batgirl, Robin, etc), a history we all shared in before things changed; after the reboot, do we really know who these people are and do we care if they feel hurt and betrayed? 

But like everybody else in this "New 52" universe, Batman's origin is subject to revision and reinterpretation. So Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo launch...Zero Year. 

Zero Year starts with Bruce Wayne in quasi-Batman mode working to take down the Red Hood Gang which is led by a particularly vicious psychopath known as Red Hood #1.  I say "quasi" because Bruce Wayne isn't Batman yet. He's throwing himself into battle against this gang with all his training and a whole slew of gadgets. And he's getting his ass kicked. He needs an edge. He needs to inspire fear. 

While the path is familiar, Snyder changes up the journey along that path in interesting ways.

One of the things that works is establishing that the crazies are coming for Gotham before Batman shows up. One mantra we've heard in prior looks at Bruce's beginnings as Batman is that the presence of Batman led to an escalation in the type of criminal terrorizing Gotham. Is Batman helping or hurting Gotham? What Scott establishes here with the Red Hood Gang as a super criminal organization run by a madman in the days before the coming of the bat. Dr. Death and the Riddler show up after Bruce becomes Batman but both are following long term plans put in motion long before the Batman appears. 

We still have a Bruce Wayne who is impatient to wage his war against crime. Frank Miller has Bruce dress like a street thug with no more plan to go out and hurt people who are hurting others. Scott's Bruce is more methodical with a wider range of weapons and tactics but Bruce is still no less misguided. Bruce may think the anger and pain of his tragic loss gives him focus on his mission but it's clouding his eyes to a lot of important things, most notably his relationships with Alfred Pennyworth and Lt. Jim Gordon. Alfred is as loyal to Bruce Wayne as you would expect but he's also less likely to take any crap from Bruce and calls him out on his errors in judgement, a trait that Bruce doesn't fully appreciate the value of. Meanwhile, Gordon may not be as clean a cop as we've seen before but he's doing all he can to be a better person and make Gotham a better plan; Bruce is for the longest time willfully blind to this as a memory from his childhood of Gordon taints his perception of him. 

There are a lot of good things in Zero Year and I do appreciate early on the space afforded to Snyder and Capullo to let the story breathe. This exploration of the nooks and crannies around Bill Finger's foundation and the structure Frank Miller built upon it was for me quite an interesting read. 

In the beginning. 

Once we get past the core of Batman's debut, Zero Year tends to meander a bit. There are valuable historical touch points: Batman's first encounter with a super villain (Dr. Death) and his first encounter with a criminal mastermind dedicated to and perfectly capable of outsmarting Batman (Riddler). The story loses momentum in places while Snyder continues to juggle all the pieces of his narrative. The third arc, Dark City, gets too big, too messy. The concept of an uber villain taking over and nearly destroying Gotham this early in Batman's career seems misplaced in the overall Batman origin mythos somehow. And there are a lot of scenes that are nothing but people talking. Very long scenes of people just talking.  

I'm not really sure I can define what exactly I find is not quite right with the last third of Zero Year other than my perception that the first part was a tight narrative and the last part seemed like padding the story to get to the year long mark. Even at that, my view is that the Zero Year event overall was well done but could've been a bit shorter or maybe played out as separate events instead of one big year long event.

So Scott Snyder has added an extra floor to the building Frank Miller built upon the foundation laid by Bill Finger. Will Zero Year stand the test of time to be held up as a classic part of the Batman mythos along with the seminal works of Finger & Miller? At any rate, Snyder has seeded a very deep and compelling narrative in this take on the origin of Batman that will likely inspire stories for year to come. 

Or until DC reboots everything again. 

Dave-El 
I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

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