‘Batman: Zero Year’ Finale Sticks The Landing For The Caped Crusader’s New Origin [Review]
There was a lot to be wary of when Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia’s “Batman: Zero Year” was announced. The most obvious reason was that it was the story that was set to replace my all-time favorite comic, Batman: Year One, going back to cover ground that had been stomped into concrete by one of the most influential stories of all time. Even the name was a response to Year One, and the expansion of what Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli had done so elegantly in four issues to a full year of comics felt like it could’ve easily been symptomatic of the trend towards decompression that drags everything out for the bookstores. Why sell one hardcover when you could sell three, right?
At the same time, I liked what Snyder and Capullo had been doing on Batman enough that I was looking forward to reading it, and from that first shot of Batman on a dirtbike, something that I am genetically hardwired to love on sight, I was hooked.
This week, the final issue came out, and while we’re still too close to it to really tell how well it’ll stand the test of time, what I know right now is that I love it, and there’s a good chance that it’ll end up not only as my favorite version of Batman’s origin, but as one of my favorite comic books of all time.
My love of Year One isn’t just because it’s a well-done take on Batman’s early days. That’s definitely a part of it, but the things that I always come back to are the themes that were in play. If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about Batman, you already know that I’m in love with the idea of Batman putting an end to normal crime in his first year and having to spend the rest of his career dealing with a version of crime that’s worse, something that reacts to his presence and tries to destroy him only for him to triumph over it again and again, and the idea of Gotham as this truly awful place full of hatred and corruption that’s still worth saving. Those are themes that I’ve built my understanding of Batman on from the moment that I first read Year One, and they’re always going to be part of how I think of the character. But at the same time, they’re also themes that are very much of their time and of their creators — the Gotham City of Year One is New York during the crime wave of the ’80s, it’s The Warriors and Death Wish 3, and while I think it’s about five steps too far to say that we’ve moved past that aesthetic, it has been thirty years, and a lot has changed.
That, at its heart, is what makes “Zero Year” so valuable. Not that it’s a more current take on the origin, or even that it comes from creators who very clearly love and recognize the influence of Year One and use that as motivation to skew as far away from it as they can and kick up some dust outside of that well-trod ground. It’s that it comes from a different perspective, fueled by a different set of fears and anxieties. It’s that they’re focused on similar ideas about what it means to be a hero and a symbol, about what those symbols mean and inspire, and what kinds of problems they’re inspiring us to overcome.
Thematically speaking, the difference between Year One and “Zero Year” isn’t just about the gritty, “realistic” take contrasted with neon superheroics. It’s the difference between a story about New York written by someone who grew up in Vermont, moved there and got mugged and a story about New York written by someone who was from there and lived through 9/11.
To be honest, I love “Zero Year” for how grand it is more than anything else. In terms of pure action, Snyder, Capullo, Miki and Plascencia — the colorist responsible for giving us a Gotham City that’s hot pink, lime green and bright orange for the first time in thirty years — have shoved the pendulum as far back from the scowling darkness as they can. In “Savage City” alone, the final act of “Zero Year” that climaxed with this week’s Batman #33, we’ve seen Batman fighting his way through a seemingly post-apocalyptic city overgrown with plants dosed with Poison Ivy’s formulas, strapping a giant penny to the roof of a minivan to build a giant superconductor, and literally wrestling lions — a tribute to a relatively obscure Golden Age comic where Batman fought a witch in storybook land. That’s big action, played out over massive set pieces, as far from realism as you can get.
What really makes it work, though, is that it’s all built around ideas and themes that are universal. The theming in this story is incredible, whether it’s the first arc’s focus on terrorism and the fear of random violence that makes people seem helpless or the second arc’s examination of vengeance and loneliness and how it can only ultimately lead to failure, and it’s just as strong here. In “Savage City,” the story is built around sacrifice and nobility, faith in humanity and yourself, and how doing the right thing can help you deal with any problem that you encounter, no matter how strange it might seem.
Which, of course, is why this last act is all about the Riddler.
I’ve talked to Snyder several times about this story here at ComicsAlliance, and we touched on the idea of the Riddler as one of the perfect foils for Batman, the living problem that can only be solved by the World’s Greatest Detective, with his reputation and ability to inspire people around him as the stakes. That’s what’s being highlighted here, and it’s great — if nothing else, “Zero Year” is in the running for the greatest Riddler story of all time just by virtue of putting him there at the climax of Batman’s origin and having him as the medium for showing us just how much Bruce Wayne will go through to save his city.
What makes it better, though, is that the Riddler cheats.
That’s what the Riddler does. At the core of his character, he wants to prove that he’s smarter than Batman, but the way to do that isn’t by asking a series of questions and waiting for the answers. The way to do that is by rigging the game, making the real test one of seeing how Batman’s going to think his way out of an impossible situation, which is exactly what happens in this issue, on the grandest possible scale. There are two city-sized deathtraps in play, with an impossible Rube Goldberg device connecting them all, and it comes down to a battle of wits. And of course, Batman wins that battle, not by meeting it head-on, but by changing the game and out thinking it on all possible levels at once. And for this to be Batman’s first time going up against that kind of situation, it works beautifully.
And he doesn’t do it alone, either. At the end of the day, the people behind “Zero Year” craft it as a triumph not of Batman alone, but of his allies — Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Alfred all have important parts to play, and they each have an emotional arc that resonates through the whole thing. No one, however, has one as affecting as Alfred does, and the epilogue that runs through the end of this issue is brutal, even if you know from the start exactly how it’s going to end, and even if it really is a happy ending.
Going this hard on crafting a new origin for Batman was a pretty monumental task, especially if you look at it as forming a foundation while also telling the biggest, loudest, flashiest possible superhero story, but that’s exactly what they’ve done with “Zero Year.” It’s phenomenal action, built solidly around amazing themes, and it sticks the landing. It might never replace Year One, but it more than lives up to that legacy.
Batman #33 is on sale now in finer comics shops and digitally from DC Entertainment.