‘Batman: Zero Year’ – A New Reader’s Reaction To The Dark Knight’s Updated Origin
I’m not a Batman fan. I know that’s heretical, especially here at ComicsAlliance, but we preach tolerance here and we practice it too. I’m ambivalent about Batman. I like some stories, dislike others, know enough about the character to know that I hate Christopher Nolan’s version, but beyond an appreciation for the character’s cultural weight and admiration for his peerless rogues gallery, I don’t care enough about the character to read a lot of his comics.
But my editor Andy Khouri thrust Batman #21 by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo at me and asked me what I thought about it, so let me tell you: Once I worked out what the heck this was, I thought it was a pretty good comic.It did take some head-scratching to work out what this was, though. The issue opens “six years ago,” slides to a title page, and then jumps to “five months earlier,” and I’m not ashamed to tell you, dear reader; it took me the whole issue to resolve the order of those two time periods. Nested flashbacks; don’t do it. (We’re counting five months earlier from six years ago, not counting both time-jumps from the hypothetical “now,” But you’re smart; you would have worked that out on your own. Not like thicko over here who has clearly never read a comic before. There you go, commenters; I’ve done your job for you.)
Some context for you: I am not a Batman reader, but I’m that guy DC Comics would love to turn into a Batman reader; the guy who knows enough to be a possible sale. I’ve picked up friends’ issues of the recent crossover, and read that one story where the kid died. I have some idea what’s going on. What I didn’t know is that this is the New 52 version of the Batman origin story, which explains why it’s called “Zero Year.” It’s not a calorie thing.
Do we need another Batman origin story? Well, “need” is a strong word. Is there any benefit to having one, other than the possible financial benefit to the publisher? Many readers would say that Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli aced the origin in the very book that this story’s title echoes, Batman: Year One.
I will buck what I think is popular pundit wisdom to say, yes, there’s absolutely a benefit in re-treading that ground. Characters as popular and established as Batman require constant reinvention — not necessarily on a grand, ground-up scale, but in the small ways that show different voices putting their own shading on the character to serve the changing expectations of the audience. Miller and Mazzuchelli’s work is in no way diminished by other creators offering a different spin, and the current Batman creative team of Snyder and Capullo certainly earned the trust of his audience to deserve to take his shot.
But a new take on a character’s origin should offer something new. It should frame the story in a way that adds fresh insight or fresh relevance. One chapter in, how is Batman: Zero Year faring on that front?
It feels in part like a Nolanesque approach, grounded as Nolan’s movies were in the tension between a prodigal son and the declining city he moved away from. This is Batman pitched to be comprehensible to a moviegoing audience. Yet Zero Year also feels more confident than Nolan’s Batman, striking an easier balance between realism and absurdity, and thanks to Greg Capullo it’s far more visually compelling than Nolan’s shadowy, passionless tableaus.
Capullo’s continuing evolution as an artist is impressive, and he seems to have found a storytelling voice that suits him well. There’s a touch of the wide-eyed porcelain angel figurine to some of his characters, especially his version of Bruce Wayne, but his layouts are frequently impressive. An action sequence with a truck and a crane works entirely because of the way it’s framed.
Working off Snyder’s script, Capullo has also created some great scene-setting pages — the opening pan is striking; a later page reintroducing the city of Gotham provides a compelling beat. That sense of place doesn’t always feed through to the backgrounds, though, and I worry that the simple flat colors may kill the tone that Capullo is trying to create. Towards the end of the issue there’s a skyline panel that bleeds awkwardly into an interior panel to create a weird impression of Batman holding a walking cane — and perhaps it’s deliberate, but it only creates dissonance. If the composition couldn’t be fixed, bolder color choices could have fixed it.
Snyder’s story confused me when I thought it was set in current or near-current continuity, though I don’t know if other new readers would suffer the same confusion. As the tale of a pre-Batman Bruce Wayne finding his place in the crime-riddled city, it’s a promising yarn, much lighter than Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Year One. My one reservation is that I would hate to see Snyder over-explain the character, and there are signs of that happening in a redundant six-page back-up by Snyder, co-writer James Tynion IV, Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig. It’s a The Fast & The Furious homage that’s supposed to fill in another little detail of Bruce Wayne’s journey, but it’s not a particularly compelling answer to a question that no-one was asking in the first place. (“How did he learn to drive?”) It’s exactly the sort of finicky over-sharing that turned me off Nolan’s Batman. I’m more likely to stick with this story if it leans away from neurotic narrative accounting and more towards laying foundations for the grand zoo of stories that is Batman’s Gotham.