For over twenty years, the Batman of the comics was Frank Miller’s Batman. From the brooding The Dark Knight Returns through to All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder (and maybe even through to Holy Terror,) Miller’s hold on the character was absolute and defined the character. Even despised projects like Batman/Spawn and The Dark Knight Strikes Again defined Batman to fans by giving them everything that they thought Batman shouldn’t be. Those comics just solidified the hold of DKR and Year One that much more in fandom’s heart. Just like the long shadow he cast over Daredevil, Miller cast a longer shadow over the Dark Knight.
In the New 52 (when are we going to stop calling it that?) Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman still existed in that Miller-shaped mold. The entirety of Death of the Family reads like one long homage to the third issue of The Dark Knight Returns. And then there are the obvious connotations about retelling the early days of Batman and calling it Zero Year, an all too obvious callback to Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s classic Year One from Batman #404- 407. Two or so years ago when the Zero Year project was announced, it was like Snyder and Capullo were setting themselves up to fail. For as good as they are, they’re no Miller/Mazzuchelli circa 1986.
So instead of exploring the dark, mean streets of Gotham City in Zero Year, Snyder and Capullo’s opening move is to show us a devastated, overgrown Gotham, one where the subway tunnels are flooded and where a young kid spear fishes for brightly colored fish on the city streets. Richmond Lewis’s rusty, urban colors have given way to FCO Plascencia’s vivid, lively natural colors. A story of the Batman who prowled by night is replaced by a Batman who exists and fights in daylight. Snyder and Capullo threw off the specter of the past and tried to create a Batman for 2014 in Zero Year.
Publishing delays aside (months taken off for DC’s annual stunt ploys and another month’s issue devoted to the upcoming Batman Eternal weekly series,) Snyder and Capullo took twelve issues to develop and define their Batman. That’s something weird to say because they had already been on the book for almost two years and Snyder had been toiling in the Batman books for at least a year before that. Between Court/Night of the Owls and Death of the Family, their ideas of Batman were half formed and reactionary to the whims of DC’s recent reboot. Court of the Owls is an attempt to force a new urban myth into the story of Batman without really changing the character drastically. Batman himself was one of the characters barely affected by the continuity reboot so Snyder and Capullo’s run felt like another run of above average creators in the almost 75 year history of Batman.
Zero Year tries to change the environment around Batman. Gone is Miller’s Scorsese-inspired Gotham and in its place is something more similar to a movie of Paul Greengrass or Doug Liman. Snyder isn’t the writer to do a meditation on the corrupt and seedy urban streets of a major metropolitan city and Capullo isn’t really the most nuanced artist in that dark or moody way either. And that’s maybe the weakness of their previous Batman issues. Those issues feel like they’re trying to find their place in Gotham. Zero Year, with those mysterious opening pages of an overgrown and almost abandoned city, lets them make Gotham City theirs.
Snyder and Capullo pick and choose elements of past Gothams to create a new, different city. With blimps out of the the animated show, elements of artistic influence from Bob Kane to Marshall Rogers and even plot points appropriated from the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, Zero Year isn’t a new interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s story as much as it is a patchwork quilt of all that’s come before it. There are even echoes and visual cues taken almost directly from The Dark Knight Returns.
Zero Year is a story of survival. Whether it’s surviving the death if his family or the apparent death of his city, Bruce Wayne’s struggle is in making his life make sense of the world around him. This isn’t a story about Batman versus the Riddle or Batman versus the Red Hood Gang. The Riddler and the Red Hood Gang aren’t the disease; they’re the symptoms. It’s Gotham that is the antagonist here. Snyder is fascinated with Gotham as the force which shapes Bruce Wayne much more than Frank Miller ever was. Miller concentrated on the events in Bruce Wayne’s life, which could have happened almost anywhere. Snyder and Capullo have the audacity to turn Gotham into a literal jungle, not just a metaphoric one.
Gotham makes the Riddler its temporary king of its jungle. It’s not a crime lord, the Joker or Ras Al Ghul that is the focus of Gotham’s character here but a villain of riddles, puzzles and logic. Some of the great Batman stories are defining moments for the villains but somehow the Riddler doesn’t have that classic moment. Zero Year doesn’t give it to him either as Snyder and Capullo’s Riddler is the catalyst that propels Gotham into its overgrown state but he never becomes the source of chaos in Bruce Wayne’s life. That function is given to the leader of the Red Hood Gang, who is removed from this story too soon. The Red Hood better reflects the madness of Gotham while the Riddler reflects the chaotic orderliness of it.
Snyder’s Riddler is never a part of Gotham. He’s never more than a cartoon character who sets events into motion. It’s hard to see him as a threat or the equal opposite to Batman. It’s not the Riddler who vexes Batman in this storyline, it’s Gotham. Snyder and Capullo have created a Batman who isn’t defined by the madmen he faces but by the city that needs its hero. It is Gotham that Snyder and Capullo have worked to redefine here. From Plascencia’s wonderfully vivid colors to Capullo’s open and animated style, Gotham becomes a living, breathing city, not the usual urban blight it usually is.
Snyder tries to do the same thing by portraying Gotham and the world as seen through the eyes of his characters but the way he constructs those visions is haphazard and confounding. There’s movement from point A to point B and then to point C that works as clearly as it can. Capullo occasionally throws in panels that just make no sense but the story follows a clear and recognizable path. But then Snyder brings in these flashback sequences that are meant to define the characters but instead they obscure them. The oddest one is at the end of the story, where we see a younger Bruce Wayne as a patient in Arkham about to experience electric shock treatment. It plays into the actual end of Zero Year but like most of the other flashbacks, it’s all too conveniently placed. The electric shock treatments are supposed to make Batman’s actions to save Gotham all the more meaningful. What it really does is give Snyder’s story a false sense of weight and destiny.
After 20+ issues, Snyder and Capullo hadn’t done much to really set their Batman apart from everything that had come before it. They told good stories that tried to add to the myth but they hadn’t really altered the grand narrative of Batman. With really only two stories to their credit, their Batman was the Batman that we have known for decades. Zero Year rearranges the elements of Batman’s story while remaining faithful to the overall myth of Batman. Gone is Miller’s dark knight detective and in its place is Snyder and Capullo’s civic defender. Gotham shapes Bruce Wayne into being her protector. Bruce Wayne isn’t fighting crime or corruption. He’s now fighting decay and blight and the city itself. With Zero Year defining Batman’s crusade, The Court of Owls and Death of the Family takes on new dimensions. The Court of Owls becomes an extension of a Gotham that continues to mold and shape Bruce Wayne. The Joker becomes the escalated Riddler, ratcheted up 100 times to destroy the hero. Even after Zero Year, Gotham doesn’t stop forging the hero she needs.