Batman Writer Scott Snyder On ‘Zero Year: Secret City': The Comics Alliance Interview, Part One
Batman’s origin has been told many times before, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s never been done quite like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo‘s “Zero Year.” They’re telling the story of what they call a “punk rock Batman,” a younger Bruce Wayne who returns to Gotham to challenge a city that’s already being crushed under the weight of a new kind of crime, and they’re packing everything they possibly can into it. So much, in fact, that the twelve-issue epic has been divided into three distinct arcs, and with “Secret City” ending last month, we’re talking to Snyder in a series of interviews, going in-depth to discuss what these first four issues mean for Batman, his world, and Snyder personally.
Today, in part one of our “Secret City” interview, Snyder talks about his influences, the pressure that came with trying to live up to Batman: Year One, and why he wanted to take Batman’s origin in a radically different direction that we’d never seen before.
ComicsAlliance: Let’s talk about structure. Batman’s origin has traditionally been pretty quick. The first time we see it, it’s a page, Year One is only four issues, which was the definitive origin up ’til now…
Scott Snyder: Still the definitive origin.
CA: You’ve got twelve issues, that are then divided into three separate arcs. Why did you build the story like that?
SS: For me, the reason was to try to do something that appeared to be big and epic in scope, and that would give me room to really change the city and make it something that would evolve through these three really different phases that mirror and challenge Batman’s own growth. At the same time, to make it something that felt entirely different than Year One in its pace, its color, its dynamism, its rebelliousness, all that stuff was important to use to make a story that had a tone and feel that was almost antithetical to Year One. That was the way I felt would work best, to do something that was almost frighteningly long compared to Year One. The trick of it is that it’s actually a very fast story; they’re really quick, packed, kinetic, colorful and very bombastic arcs, and they get bigger and bigger and crazier.
The idea was to carve out a space that was stylistically, tonally, structurally 180 degrees from that seminal story that… you can’t compete with it, so let’s announce that we’re doing something incredibly different that’s our own. To try and even honor that directly by repeating beats or retreading moments that you love would be a disservice to it.
CA: One thing that I’ve said about it, and one thing that I really like that I think recommends the story, is that there’s no way to confuse it with Year One. If you think about something that happens and you can’t remember if it’s from “Zero Year” or Year One, just try to remember if it was hot pink.
SS: [Laughs] Exactly. FCO Plascencia, the colorist, was really excited. We made it a real mission statement, I sent it to them before we started and it’s in the “Director’s Cut” of Batman #21, that asks Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO to really be bold and daring and to do things that don’t look like Batman. It was a big challenge for me, because I got really comfortable writing in a certain way, both with Batman and American Vampire. I use a lot of narration, I have a very prosaic style, I like to get you invested in the character first and do a lot of work in the first pages of each issue to try to re-establish things and keep the symbolism of a story very tucked beneath the surface. All of that stuff, I wanted to invert for this one, and make the kind of symbolism almost aggressive. I wanted to make the storytelling almost cacophonous at times, where you’ll get very choppy sorts of images, and text that screams at you on the page. Things that go against how I normally write, and what you’d normally expect in a Batman comic.
The demand on Greg, Danny and FCO was to have fun and do the same thing. Make this a rock ‘n’ roll, punk version of Batman’s origin. Everything is defiant.
CA: You’ve talked about him being the “punk rock Batman” before, and that holds up in these issues. One of the first things we see Bruce Wayne do is flip off a dude and cuss at him. That’s not the traditional Batman.
CA: There have been a lot of attempts to do a younger, hot-headed version of characters like Superman and Batman, but in “Zero Year,” he really is a loud, angry kid. He’s snapping at Alfred and Gordon — there’s a scene where he almost tells Alfred “You’re not my dad!” at one point.
SS: Yeah! There was a moment where I realized we were going to cut his hair —
CA: I did want to ask you about that haircut.
SS: It’s a good haircut for him, right? Very military.
CA: Very John Cena.
SS: I love that haircut. But yeah, I was like, you know what? I’m going to have him giving the finger and censor it on the page, I’m going to have him cursing and give him the best one-liners I can give him. In #26, Gordon goes on this long speech trying to win Bruce over, where he’s like “Listen, I know we have our differences, I know you have something on me that you don’t want to tell me, I know we have this horrible history, I know you don’t like me now, but I feel we could be friends, we could change this city, we both want the same things. People in your company are dying. We can stop this together.” And Bruce is like “You know what? You’re right. I don’t like you.”
I love writing him so much, the young, angry Bruce, and he’s so unpredictable and impulsive. It’s a great way to feel Batman out. I love it. I know that it’s important to get back to continuity, and I can’t wait to — we have big plans for the present — but I seriously could write a whole series of Young Bruce Adventures. It’s a lot of fun.
There’s something about Batman, he’s so in control and so confident and capable as an adult, as a fully-formed 30-year-old Bruce Wayne, but it’s so fun to write him unhinged. There are things that he’s better at than old Bruce, and things that he’s so much worse at. There’s just this wild fluctuation from moment to moment with him that’s really vulnerable and brash and fun all at once. He’s such an open character that way. He thinks he’s tough, but he wears a lot of his wounds openly. I just adore writing him that way.
CA: That seems like it was one of the stated goals of the New 52. They ditched the ten-year sliding scale and made it a five-year scale to sort of young it up a little, and as a reader, that often felt equally arbitrary. Bruce Wayne of “Zero Year” feels like one of the first times that you’ve really delivered on that premise. The younger Clark Kent of Morrison and Morales’s Action Comics and what Greg Pak and Jae Lee are doing in Batman/Superman…
SS: Which is very good. I like that a lot.
CA: I liked the “Zero Year” tie-in a lot, with Superman where he’s thrilled to be beating up these white supremacists and then starts worrying about whether throwing his weight around made him a bully.
SS: That issue, the Red Hood issue, the Detective Comics issue I really loved, the Green Arrow issue, all of those came out really well. I think it’s because we said “it’s about your character, it’s not about Batman. Do it so that it ties into the arc you’re doing emotionally, and don’t worry about where Batman is.”
CA: Even with the mission statement from two years ago, was there any resistance to having Bruce Wayne flipping dudes off and yelling like a teenager?
SS: Yeah, there was. We bristled against some of it at first, but I made my case, which was that when I started on Batman with “Court of Owls,” my feeling was that I was terrified of the New 52, and I’d been allowed, with the other writers, to say that Batman’s continuity was going to stay what it was, and his history was going to stay intact. I was excited about that, and I think you can see it in “Court of Owls,” there’s many references to history. It’s the same way with “Black Mirror,” when I was doing Detective Comics about Dick Grayson. There’s a lot in there about the history of the character and the history of Gotham between No Man’s Land and the present, so I hated the idea of rebooting the character and doing a new origin, or any of that stuff.
What happened was that I finished “Court of Owls,” and “Death of the Family,” again, pays tribute to a lot of the stories that came before, it’s fueled by those. For me, it really became about a moment when DC pointed out that Batman’s origin in Year One just wouldn’t fit anymore with the changes that were made with peripheral characters in the New 52, meaning Selina Kyle, Jim Gordon, James Jr., Barbara Gordon. Jim Gordon is now Barbara’s biological father, Selina has a completely different origin, the Falcone family has a differnet origin, James Jr. would be six years old if Bruce came back and saved an infant six years ago. Point being, they convinced me — and rightly so, I think — that in the New 52, Year One just can’t be the new origin anymore, and they wanted an origin. Batman was one of the only characters whose origin hadn’t been retold or adjusted or reimagined. Wonder Woman’s had, obviously Superman’s had in Action, really magnificently in my opinion. I love the idea of what Grant did with him there as a folk hero going back to his origins and changing his look. I love what Brian Azzarello did with Wonder Woman. Other than Hal Jordan, everyone’s origin had a re-telling.
So it became about, well, if we’re going to do this, I’m going to show how Year One still fits. I spent a lot of time when I was writing it with an outline that showed the key events in Year One, using the dates that are announced in Year One. What it boiled down to was that it was awful. By trying to do this reclamation project and save moments in Year One, I was ruining the story.
It became this thing where it was finally time to embrace the idea of the New 52. Everyone else was doing it, and DC let me do it with Batman. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to go 100% into it and say “not only am I not going to show Year One, I’m going to cut away from it and do something that’s entirely my own.” It was so exhilarating and fun and freeing, and it was also the most stressful initiative that I’d ever taken, and I had a complete nervous breakdown about it. Really, between us — and everyone reading this, I suppose — it caused me a lot of psychological stress this year. The pressure of rewriting this origin and making it something that mattered to me and was personal would make it really worth doing. Trying to dig deep and do that ran me very, very ragged. I really am grateful to Greg Capullo and Jeff Lemire and my closer friends in comics who really saw me through a very difficult time for me because of that.
I was never worried that the work wasn’t coming out. When I wrote it, I knew I was extremely proud of it as I was doing it, but since I was a kid, I’ve had anxiety and depression and been on stuff for OCD, and all that stuff came back in a big way while I was working on this, because of the pressure that I felt. Doing that mission statement, it was very, very hard to have it be something that was exhilarating, it had to be like marching orders, I guess. I was really struggling with it, so it had to be your compass. This has to be the coolest thing we’re doing.
You get the chance to do this punk rock Batman, it needs to be defiant. Every page, that’s your orders. Get through your nervousness and do it.
CA: The pressure on that is really understandable, especially with you being as big a fan of the character as you are. You’re the guy who brought back James Jr., who had never been used since Year One. If you look at a character like Superman, he’s had his origin redone four or five times since ’86. With Batman, there’s just Year One. There’s an entire line of comics like Long Halloween and Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Mad Monk that have been built around that to the point where they’re using the same font for Batman’s notes.
SS: I know.
CA: That’s monumental, and then to turn around and say “yeah, well, mine’s going to have hot pink skies and bright yellow cars and zeppelins and Batman flipping guys off” is a really big step, but it’s also the kind of thing where you can’t do it any other way.
SS: That was the trick, you know what I mean? I wanted DC not to tell anyone we were doing it until the last possible moment, until it was basically going to be solicited, because I was so nervous about people’s reaction. But the thing is, I knew, and I know deep down, and people can disagree with me on this, this is the best thing I’ve done on Batman. It’s so wholly my own.
Everything I’ve done has been my own, but I was using a version of Batman that was tied to other things. When I did “Black Mirror,” that was Dick Grayson as he was being used by Grant in Batman and Robin. When i did “Court of Owls,” that was part of the fun of it, taking point with Batman, but he’s also in these other books, and continuity was the same at that point. With Joker, I started to get a little different, I started to feel like I could explore other angles with Bruce that were personal to me, I could also start to bend things. I felt competent enough to say “what if he found this card in the cave long ago?” That’s something hidden in the past that changes his relationship with the Joker, and I felt like I started to get bolder about it.
When it came to this, this was the thing where I said to myself, “you’re writing it for you. It’s about your fears and what you perceive as the fears of the modern city and what Batman would come up against if he was coming up today, versus the city you grew up in in the ’80s that was reflected in Year One.” That made Gotham so realistic and contemporary, and the goal with the Red Hood Gang here was to try to mirror that sense of panic that comes with violence being erratic and random and senseless and cruel and large-scale as well. Hyperviolence. For me, that was the idea, saying “if you’re going to do it, you have to have the hot pink skies.” If you’re going to go there, you have to go there 110%.
That’s why the opening line from Batman is “you dropped your fish.” We wanted to be irreverent, but deeply, deeply reverent in other ways. That’s why the Red Hood leader says in the very first panel “oh, we’re going there.”
He’s pointing a gun right at you, right at the reader, meaning we’re going there into the history. We’re going to do this. It’s the only way to do it.
Honestly? I have no bones about this being a “definitive origin.” I mean, I can’t compete with Year One. No one can compete with Year One. It’s one of the best comics ever written, it’s one of my two favorite comics and the other one is Dark Knight Returns, also by Frank Miller. There’s no touching the hem of those books for me, but that said, I love when people do their personal take on a character, and it’s organic to the interests you find in their writing, but it’s also about that character at its core, and takes that character and changes things to make it new and exciting.
It’s like what Mark Waid and Lenil Yu did with Birthright, for example. That’s the perfect example for me. Superman, like you said, has less of a definitive origin. All Star Superman, too. That stands on its own as a brilliant Superman story. So that idea of doing something where you don’t worry so much about continuity and try instead to worry about doing something that’s new, and yours, and personal, a take on the origin or the character’s formative moments, that was really the goal. That’s the only way to do Batman’s origin.
I love seeing different versions of it. Between Batman Begins and Batman, the movie, and Batman: Earth One, I’m always up for a good origin story, and I was hoping people would feel the same way. I’m always up for a re-telling of the origin. I don’t know why, I’ve just always loved reboots. I love seeing how people get in there and make the mythology theirs.
CA: Before we get away from talking about influences, you talked about Batman Begins. Reading this book, it feels like there’s a lot of the Nolan movies in here. Obviously, Begins was very heavily influenced by Year One, but if you strip out the Year One parts, you’re left with a movie about mountain ninjas and fear bombs and Batman’s magic hang glider cape.
CA: It becomes this strange, super-tech version of Batman, and you have a lot of this here. There’s that scene with Batman and Alfred testing out the grappling hook that feels like it’s very much at home in those movies.
SS: Do you mean because the movies embrace the tech in that way?
CA: No, because those movies get weird. [Laughs] Mountain ninjas and fear bombs, man.
SS: That’s the trick. That’s the sleight of hand that you have to do with Batman. As long as you’re in the territory that’s right, emotionally, at core, where you’re dealing with the same dark, heroic, pathological notes, emotionally, you can make it fun. That’s in Year One, too. People forget, because it’s so gritty, but the moment where he pushes the button and the bats come? That’s absurd. That the bats would come and attack the cops in the brownstone? Or when he saves the cat? Even the fact that a bat would smash through a window and land on a statue’s head. The bat would die!
CA: Not if it was possessed by a Hyper-Adapter sent by Darkseid.
SS: Well, of course. Right. But you know what I’m saying? There’s an element of bombast and a sort of over-the-top madness to Batman that has to be there. I loved the whole Nolan trilogy. For me, the only thing about The Dark Knight Rises was that it could’ve been more fun, and by “fun,” I mean new inventions, new things to see Bruce using. Not for the shock value or sensation, but because there’s something built into the character that way that, to me, is about hitting these dark, really self-destructive notes — that’s what he is — but at the same time giving the reader that fun. If you’re going to go there with him, you’re going to get the big, crazy, badass thing that nobody else is going to go that far with.
CA: There’s that scene in #23 where the Red Hood blows up the house and Batman has the escape down the elevator that’s straight out of Batman Begins.
CA: Even though you’re trying to consciously move away from Year One, did you still want to make sure to use those notes people would be familiar with? Obviously the entire scene with the Red Hood attacking the brownstone in Crime Alley — and I love that Bruce has built his headquarters right there in Crime Alley, that’s fantastic — is a completely different setup, but those notes are there. That imagery is there.
SS: Absolutely. Part of the point of “Zero Year” is to do something that’s surprising. If you look at those first pages when you open up #21, Gotham is a post-apocalyptic, destroyed city with Batman looking like a survivalist, riding a steam-powered motorcycle for some reason. That Batman is coming in the third part, that’s what the city’s going to look like. So for me, the whole fun is to do this story where everything is inverted, where you say “how is this the origin? The origin is post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world sci-fi? That’s insane!” But at every turn, you want to pay homage to what came before, to give easter eggs, and yeah, tie into things that are important to the mythology. You see Commissioner Loeb in a different way. You see blimps as a nod to Batman: The Animated Series. You see places named after creators on the books, you see landmarks that appeared in famous Batman stories, numbers that are particular to Batman’s mythology. All that stuff that you want to put in there.
To me, it’s a celebration of all things Batman. This story is both hopefully reinvention and something that’s fun and modern and surprising, and a celebration of all things that came before.
CA: You talked about them being quick issues, but they cover a lot of ground. They’re jam-packed with stuff. Obviously “Secret City” is a Batman vs. The Red Hood story, but you’ve got Uncle Philip in there, the Riddler’s in there, things are going on in the background, and then there are backup stories that you and James Tynion IV did that show the learning process. When you were breaking the story down, was there a time when you were like “I’m not going to have enough room!”
SS: Oh, sure. I literally emailed Mike Marts this morning saying “I think I’m going to need more pages for #28,” the issue I’m finishing now, and he said “What else is new?” That was his response, with a smiley face. And poor Greg! I can’t even begin to start saying nice things about Greg, because there’s no one I respect more, no one I’m more grateful to get to work with, the dude is one of my best friends outside of comics and if we never got to work together again, I’d still feel that way about him. I’ll work with him ’til the end of time as long as he’ll have me, I’ve learned so much from him. But yeah, I punish him.
This issue, #28, which ends the second arc, could’ve easily been 40 pages, but I had to keep it to twenty-…. something or other. It’s got the city falling apart, super storms, blimps crashing, Riddler taking power, all kinds of crazy s**t happening. That’s part of the fun, to go larger than life.
Next: We get into specifics.