One of the defining moments of Frank Miller’s seminal Batman origin story Year One, as well as a defining moment in the Batman mythos as a whole, is when a near-death Bruce Wayne sits bleeding out in his study from a gunshot wound. Within arm’s reach is a bell that when rung will summon Alfred to his side and ultimately save his life, but Bruce doesn’t ring it. He’s at his wit’s end. How can he save a city as decayed as Gotham? Suddenly he gets his answer: a bat crashes through the window sending glass cascading against the moonlight and Bruce Wayne has a life altering realization.
“I shall become a bat.”
Alternatively, the first words out of Batman’s mouth in last month’s Batman #21, the start of Scott Snyder’s Zero Year, are “You dropped your fish.”
Miller’s Batman: Year One is near untouchable. It revisited Batman’s origins, presented for the first time what would become seminal imagery in the Batman cannon and established the tone of the Dark Knight for decades after its release.
But that was 1987 and just because Year Zero, much like Bon Jovi, hasn’t aged into obscurity since then doesn’t mean Batman hasn’t undergone drastic changes on both a fundamental and cultural level. Enter writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s Zero Year.
When DC Comics “rebooted” their entire universe just shy of two years ago their “reimagined” characters turned out to be anything but; Superman got a spiffy new collar on his outfit, Green Lantern continued as if nothing had happened and Batman operated in a world with a seemingly identical history, already established Bat-family and a new villain to defeat. That’s not to say that awesome stories haven’t come out of every corner of the New 52. The Owls were amazing. Amazing. But so far as reboots are concerned DC has so far done little to shake up the status quo.
But Zero Year aims to change that by revamping the Batman origin story not only for a new continuity but for a new era as well.
Purists will no doubt bemoan any tinkering with the sacred Bat-cow that is Year One, but considering where Batman was in 1987 and where Batman is in 2013 the time is right for putting Batman’s beginning under the microscope once more.
When Year One debuted in 1987 so far as mainstream America was concerned Batman was Adam West. Tim Burton’s Batman was still several years off and somewhere out there a 17-year-old Christopher Nolan was probably bumming the shit out of his friends and parents with mind-blowing daily anecdotes highlighting the despair of time’s relentless objectivity.
Year One is very much a product of that time and very much a reaction to the perception of that Batman and a big part of that was taking back the cowl from the camp and comedy of the Adam West TV series. David Mazzucchelli’s art immediately does the trick. It’s bleak, gritty and more NYPD Blue than Super Friends. The fanciful colors and spectacle of a Jack Kirby are nowhere to be found, replaced instead by people and places more akin to Will Eisner’s A Contract with God than anything from a superhero comic book. The first issue takes place almost exclusively at night and presents to the reader a cluttered, disheveled, shadowy Gotham – a city of ill-repute.
Nearly 20 years later Christopher Nolan took the grit and reality of Miller’s Gotham and ran with it. His Dark Knight trilogy is steeped in despair that threatens to crush the viewer against hard, concrete realism and it is this Batman, rather than Adam West’s, that Snyder and Capullo find themselves having to contend with in Zero Year.
Capullo immediately gives readers room to breathe amongst his vivid, colorful depictions of a Gotham overrun by nature. Vibrant fish swim through flooded subway tunnels amongst fields of overgrown green grass. The Gotham of Zero Year is as far from Nolan’s as it is from Miller’s.
Amongst the overgrown Gotham a rugged as shit Batman with baller-ass purple gloves on a rugged as shit Bat-dirt bike saves a young boy from an yet to be identified gang. It’s a moment that’s as awesome as it is sweet as the two share a quick conversation. There’s a kid in Year One too. She’s a prostitute and she shanks a disguised Bruce Wayne when he attacks her pimp.
The respective children in Zero Year and Year One highlight an important aspect of Snyder’s Batman origin tale: Scott Snyder doesn’t appear to absolutely detest human beings on a cellular level.
Not only do Miller and Snyder’s Gotham cities look entirely different, they are entirely different characters. Miller’s Gotham is a bloated monster that took away Bruce Wayne’s parents and has ceased to relent in its cruelty for even a moment since their murder. The cops are crooked, the criminals are dangerous and the citizens genuinely don’t give a shit. But in Zero Year we see a very different Gotham and we see it, importantly, from the perspective of a young Bruce Wayne prior to the death of his parents. Snyder makes it clear that Bruce genuinely loves Gotham because of the opportunity it and its citizens provide him with to be anyone he wants to be. And boy did that little weirdo take that opportunity for everything it was worth.
Snyder gives us a Bruce Wayne who fights for Gotham and its people because he loves them. The Bruce Wayne in Miller’s Year One seems more intent on exacting revenge and imposing control and order on the people of Gotham because they have wronged him and must learn the error of their ways. Miller’s Gotham is morally flawed and his Batman is its compass. The city is almost a villain, and hero’s villains go a long way towards defining them.
In Year One Batman faces off against pimps and mobsters and cops – the vermin bred from a corrupt city. There’s a distinct distaste for authority and something of a pitying condescension towards those who submit to it. But that was the Batman of the Reagan years.
Zero Year has made its debut amongst the post-Occupy Obama presidency. The villainous sharks of Gotham aren’t cops, they’re CEOs. Big business rules the day and Bruce Wayne and Batman are a bridge between the haves and the have-nots, rather than a reactionary maverick leading the sinners from Sodom.
All this is to say that Year One is amazing and has earned its spot on every “Greatest Bat-Books” list ten times over. But great and timeless characters adapt, and much like Casino Royale completely revitalized the James Bond mythos for a new day and age, Zero Year aims to define who and what Batman is in 2013.
From the looks of Batman #21 Snyder and Capullo are poised to succeed.