With the release of Batman vol. 2 #21 this week, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo have started down a path braved by very few: revamping the origin of Batman. Unlike most top-tier comic book heroes, (Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, and especially Superman) the story of who Batman is and how he came to be has only been told/retold a handful of times, and always with great trepidation. It’s one of superhero comics’ last sacred cows, left almost completely intact since 1987’s “Year One.” So, when Snyder & Capullo’s “Zero Year” was announced, an 11-issue arc to be printed in the main Batman title, just like “Year One,” there was a lot of debate as to whether or not this new origin story even ought to exist.
Well, I’ve got good news – it’s different, and it’s excellent.
(Some spoilers ahead – I tried not to kill the issue with too much detailed summary.)
What it isn’t.
If there’s one thing that’s always bugged me about the long-standing Batman origin, “Year One,” is that it’s really not about Batman. “Year One” is a great arc, and it set the stage and the tone for all Batman stories in the Post-Crisis On Infinite Earths era. But the story itself is really about Jim Gordon. That’s what’s really great about it: it’s a deeply personal story of an honest cop in a dirty town who’s trying to keep to a code of honor. He stands up, he stumbles, and now and then he compromises, but he finds an ally in a mysterious masked crusader, who helps him turn things around and gives him hope for a better tomorrow.
But it’s not about Batman. Bruce gets significantly fewer pages in the story, and while he may have some truly iconic moments, he doesn’t really have an arc of his own. He’s essentially done growing as soon as he rings the bell at the end of the first chapter. If “Year One” was the pilot to a TV show, you’d expect the show to be about Gordon, with Batman’s story as more of a running mystery subplot throughout the season. (That’s a show I’d pay to watch, actually.) But you wouldn’t call that show Batman.
Then there’s Batman: Earth One, the stand-alone graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank that was released last year, which had the task of introducing Batman into a new continuity designed for movie-length stories rather than sprawling episodic arcs. Johns and Frank had the freedom to start Batman from scratch, and made a couple of very interesting choices with that freedom. I particularly liked the decision to develop Bruce’s mother Martha a bit more, and to make her, and by extension Bruce, a member of the Arkham family, a bloodline with a long history of mental illness.
But on the whole, Earth One still perched itself too firmly in “Year One’s” shadow, to the extent that the plot is essentially the same, just with a few characters swapped around. And even though the two stories are almost the exact same number of pages, the changes in art conventions in the 25 years between the two works makes Earth One feel short by comparison, and there just isn’t enough space in the story to flesh out Bruce as a character, especially since the novel also has to split its pages between Alfred, James and Barbara Gordon, Harvey Bullock and the villains.
What it is so far.
Batman vol. 2 #21 (August 2013)
w. Scott Snyder; p. Greg Capullo; i. Danny Miki; c. FCO Plascencia; l. Nick Napolitano
“Zero Year” begins with a teaser for what could be the climax of the story arc, with Gotham flooded and in ruins. A disheveled Batman appears to rescue a young boy from a pair of gang members wearing costumes we’ve never seen before. The boy tells Batman that the villain who “killed” the city thinks Batman is dead. “Good,” says the Bat. “Then he won’t see me coming.” That’s where we’re headed, though I kind of hope we won’t find out how we got there for at least a few issues. (This is the second time in two weeks that Scott Snyder’s begun a story with a flash forward to a flooded, abandoned city, by the way. Playing on our fears after Superstorm Sandy, perhaps?)
Flash back to five months earlier. There is no Batman yet, just Bruce Wayne in a skintight mask and a wig facing off against the Red Hood Gang, who made their first appearance in last year’s Batman #0.* It’s an exciting and effective action scene that establishes that Bruce is untried and arrogant, but still unquestionably badass. Artist Greg Capullo really kills it with this sequence, and closes it with a laugh that I’d be cruel to spoil here. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you read it.
*Note: Batman vol. 2 #0 seems to take place some time during “Zero Year.” I’m unclear so far as to when, exactly. I expect that “Zero Year” is designed to appeal to new readers in the way that “Year One” did, and that no prior experience will be necessary, but I’m going to recommend that those hoping to jump onto Batman with this story pick up Issue #0 as well. If you can’t find it at your local shop, then it’s always available on Comixology for $2.99.
The rest of the issue is all about establishing who Bruce Wayne is at this time in his life and how he got there. This version of Young Bruce is very different from the ones featured in either “Year One” or Earth One – and by that I mean that he’s likeable. Rather than demonstrating his youth by dialing up his angst to eleven, this Bruce is easy to relate to and understand. His actions are extreme, but they’re not altogether unreasonable. Bruce is back in Gotham after four years abroad training for his mission to save Gotham City from itself, but his return is still a secret. He’s still legally dead and nobody but Alfred is meant to know he’s there. He’s moved into a brownstone that shares a wall with Crime Alley, where his parents were killed, and he has every intention of letting his Bruce Wayne identity stay buried in order to focus on the mission. He doesn’t come across as reclusive or damaged, just logical – whatever Bruce is planning, no one would suspect a dead man was behind it.
Bruce’s anonymity is jeopardized by a surprise visit from a family member, Phillip Kane, Martha’s brother, who’s here to talk about the business and gracefully reveal some family history for our benefit. Like Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison before him, Snyder has chosen to make Bruce’s mother’s side a larger part of his life. But he doesn’t ignore the father, either, as we’re soon swept further back in time to see a young Bruce spend some time with Thomas Wayne. Here we see a side of Thomas we’ve never glimpsed or imagined before – he’s in a jumpsuit and a baseball cap (and no mustache) fixing up an old Lincoln. The two of them have a bit of fun and we establish that an interest in gadgetry runs in the family, setting up what may be a cool twist on a classic Batman moment in a future issue. It’s a bit jarring to see Thomas in stained work clothes instead of a slick suit or scrubs, but it’s actually not such a wild idea. Nobody bats an eye watching uber-wealthy playboy Tony Stark tinkering with a sports car, so who’s to say that Dr. Thomas Wayne has to be an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud rich guy? Auto repair actually seems like it could be an appropriate hobby for a surgeon.
And finally, we cut back to the main time frame, where we’re introduced to the villain of the piece, and to anybody who’s read a single interview with Scott Snyder, his identity can’t come as a surprise. I, for one, am excited to see what he does with the character.
But what’s most exciting to me about this issue is that it’s centered almost entirely on Bruce. We’re given the opportunity to see him in a variety of different situations and seeing glimpses of his past beyond the traumas that directly led to his becoming Batman. It also doesn’t lean on narration, even though writer Scott Snyder has used the traditional running Batman thought captions to great effect in the past. Lots of “show,” not an overabundance of “tell.” And of course, as always, Greg Capullo’s art is expressive, welcoming and fun.
What it could become.
One of the chief fan complaints upon the announcement of “Zero Year” was in regard to the length of the arc. “Why does it have to be 11 issues long? Isn’t that a little much?” Indeed, it did seem like a potential momentum-killer, since it means that we’ll have to wait nearly a year to see how Snyder and Capullo resolve any of the threads they’ve planted in the series so far, like Thomas Wayne, Jr., Harper Row, and whatever Joker said to the Bat-family that got them so pissed off. Of course, there are four other monthly Batman titles running that won’t be making the leap backward in time where some of these answers may be found in the interim. But still, is a year-long arc really necessary? How long could it really take to tell a Batman origin story? “Year One” was only 4 issues, after all, and it’s held up for 25 years.
For those who doubt the potential of a long form origin story, I have two (three?) words for you: Ultimate Spider-Man.
For my money, there is no more successful origin story for a superhero in modern comics history than the first year of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. Say what you will about Bendis’s “decompressed” story pacing, this is a terrific example of a classic story being updated, fleshed-out and expanded. By taking his sweet time, Bendis was able to unlock a world of potential from the original 11-page Spider-Man story. He let the story play out slowly and naturally, and while that may have meant that Peter didn’t put on the costume until the end of issue 3, it also meant that we already cared about the character by the time he got there. We knew who he was as a human being first before we could see him as a high-flying hero, and it makes the story all the more compelling and believable.
This kind of character-first approach is what’s been missing in previous comic book origins of Batman. In “Year One” or Earth One, we’re never given the opportunity to get to know Bruce and understand why he does what he does the way he does it. We just accept that he does. The only version of Batman’s origin that completely convinces that the heir to an incalculable fortune would throw away a life of leisure to fight crooks in a wacky costume is Batman Begins, a movie in which we don’t see Batman until halfway into its 141-minute running time. By that point, we know Bruce, and we know why he chooses his life over the countless other paths available to him. Wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops feels not only logical, but obvious. You actually catch yourself wondering why nobody’s ever done this. It’s not just director Christopher Nolan’s gritty, realistic setting that makes the story believable and compelling, it’s the fact that it starts with Bruce and builds the world of Batman around him.
And that’s what “Zero Year” has the potential to do. If this first issue is any indication, this story arc could be “Ultimate Batman.” It can be to comics what Batman Begins was to the movies. “Zero Year” could be the Batman story that makes you believe in Batman, for the first time or all over again.
Batman vol. 2 #21 is available now at your local comic shop and on Comixology.