Sunday, March 22, 2015

'Batman: Zero Year - Secret City' review

Some writers try too hard. Regardless, before leaving their run on a comic book title, writers want to have put their stamp on the character, many times by writing Something Important.

That's what writer Scott Snyder wants to do with his year-long ZERO YEAR storyline (covering BATMAN Nos. 21-27 and 29-33).

ZERO YEAR is not that story that says Something Important — but Snyder and DC Comics desperately want it to be. As you can infer from my earlier comments, Snyder wants this to be his Big Batman Story, that new origin That Matters, to breathe new life into and/or reimagine Batman's beginnings for the New 52 continuity.

But what contemporary writers need to know is simply this: You can't capture magic in the bottle twice.

Batman creator Bob Kane nicely captured all you need to know about why Bruce Wayne became the Dark Knight Detective in two pages.

In my humble opinion as a lifelong, diehard Batman fan, only three subsequent stories have managed to do something different and exciting with expanding Kane's two-page origin story — all while still honoring the original: The 1980 three-part limited series THE UNTOLD LEGEND OF THE BATMAN (written by Len Wein and drawn by John Byrne and Jim Aparo); Christopher Nolan's 2005 film "Batman Begins," which began his brilliant "Dark Knight Trilogy"; and of course, writer Frank Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE, which was made into an equally brilliant animated movie.

At the very least, it's obvious Snyder wants ZERO YEAR to put an exclamation point on the New 52 version of Batman — not to mention his BATMAN run. (Although Snyder did a do a pre-New 52 run on the first and original volume of DETECTIVE COMICS.)

Snyder is going for epic.

Unfortunately, ZERO YEAR doesn't break any new ground, doesn't provide any new character insights (as YEAR ONE did with both Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon) and doesn't do anything we haven't already seen with Batman or the Red Hood, who presumably will become The Joker. While Snyder has the Red Hood Gang terrorizing Gotham City before Wayne becomes Batman, the same concept of the man who would become The Joker being in an identical gang and falling into a vat of acide has been told in much better stories from the Golden Age and certainly BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, the 1989 "Batman" film and ironically, Snyder and Capullo's work in BATMAN No. 0.

ZERO YEAR does nothing more than tread water, from a historical perspective. So much for re-imaging Batman. Heck, so much for honoring the character.

Snyder knows the pressure of writing his own Big Batman Story, or in this case, making his own YEAR ONE for the New 52 crowd — or even attempting not to recreate a YEAR ONE-style origin. He even says so in his notes to artist Greg Capullo, who is by far the best thing about this story and has stayed sharp since the New 52-era BATMAN No. 1.

"The feel of this issue (and the next three) should be bold, fun, fast, bright. We want it to cut 180 degrees AWAY (Snyder's emphasis and punctuation, not mine!) from the other origin stories. This is where we'll surprise people and make something totally our own," writes Snyder, who goes on to call his own story "an anti-YEAR ONE."

That's accurate because Miller's story has substance and adds a new level to Bruce Wayne and Gordon.

We feel Bruce Wayne's struggle to improve Gotham City through the thoughts he shares in the caption boxes that Miller popularized at the time — and are now the main way comics writers share the thoughts of their characters.

Since thought balloons and narrative boxes are storytelling methods/things of the past, modern readers have to rely only on the dialogue and the inferences they make in what's seen in the dialogue-free panels to determine what a character's motive is. Doing so can — and more often than not, at least for me, — lead to inaccurate conclusions, so it's difficult, if not impossible, to determine what a character is thinking or wanting. In ZERO YEAR, discerning what Edward Nigma (I refuse to spell his name in the in-vogue "Y" on principle!) and Wayne's uncle are up to is futile; Snyder gives us little to go on and the meaning of what the characters say is unclear, if not a bunch of double-talk.

To quote pop singer Taylor Swift, "haters are gonna hate" — and believe it or not, I don't hate everything about ZERO YERO.

Capullo's art is top notch, as usual. His covers are especially strong — but as is the case with sooooo many covers in the last five-plus years, they aren't necessarily specific to the issue itself and could just as easily be paired with any Batman story.

The most creative thing Capullo and Snyder do is the inward spiral which traces Wayne's conversation with Nigma. Capullo aptly pays homage to DETECTIVE COMICS No. 27 when Batman snatches a member of the Red Hood Gang to complete his homemade Batsymbol, made of Red Hood Gang members.

His Batman moves gracefully and his Alfred reminds of the best versions of the butler since the late Silver Age of Comics. Capullo draws a handsome Bruce Wayne — until the billionaire makes the odd and perplexing decision to shave each side of his head to be more aerodynamic.

By the time ZERO YEAR ends, nothing new has happened. The Red Hood makes his fateful fall into a vat of chemicals — despite Batman trying to stop him from falling. And of course, the gang leader's fate and identity are unknown or unclear. It's really not so different than what had been established before, is it?

I'll give this to Snyder: ZERO YEAR is, in his words, fast and bright. The colors pop off the page. But the fast likely isn't what the creative team was going for; it's a quick read.

As far being bold and fun? Not so much. Ultimately, ZERO YEAR commits this reviewer's unforgivable sin; it doesn't stick with you.

Grades: Story: C-; Art: B+

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