Batman: The Black Mirror took one scene of Year One and built around it an entire generational saga that's still affecting the DC Universe post-Flashpoint. Like Gail Simone writing a Barbara Gordon Batgirl, Scott Snyder knows Year One and he's not going to hurt it, and I've never been concerned of such since DC announced the "Batman: Zero Year" project.
The first volume of "Zero Year," Batman Vol. 4: Zero Year: Secret City, is in the main a good and engaging re-telling of Batman's first clash with one of his classic foes (and not perhaps the one you might expect). The aesthetic that Snyder brings to the book is its most surprising element, however, a kind of Grant Morrison zaniness a la the early Batman and Robin, which is remarkable for what a turn it is both from Snyder's previous Batman work and also from Miller's Year One itself.
As a long-time Batman reader, I had a strange interaction with this book -- enjoying the differences at some points, and conversely wishing at other times for some of the more familiar elements. Either way, this is an interesting take on Batman's origins, and I was entertained.
[Review contains spoilers]
One of the greatest strengths of Secret City is that whereas it breaks from the ongoing modern Bat-narrative (ostensibly to let Peter Tomasi do his "Hunt for Damian" thing in the current Batman and Robin), the story actually ties right in as a follow-up, of sorts, to Snyder's Batman: Death of the Family. That crossover dealt heavily with the Joker's origins, strongly suggesting at the end that Batman had learned who the Joker really was (a daring move already on Snyder's part); Secret City takes us back to the beginning of that story, as a new Batman fights the once and future Joker, the Red Hood, over a brighter, sunnier Gotham. For Batman series-only readers, there was the danger Zero Year might feel like jogging in place, but Snyder's initial story makes the book relevant. The book's action-packed ending is pulse-pounding, something Snyder did well in Batman Vol. 2: City of Owls, too.
Snyder's conceit that Gotham was once a "happy" place -- and, contrary to the new Gotham TV series et al, it wasn't the murder of the Waynes that brought down the place -- is an interesting one. Snyder's secretive Court of Owls only gets a brief mention here, but I'm eager to see if they'll play more of a role later on; that is, if the darkening of Gotham turns out to be villain-led, as in Jeph Loeb's Dark Victory, or Batman-led for some reason, and whether the Owls play a role (it seems somewhat unbelievable that they could not). Sndyer himself has written a bunch on how Gotham is its own dark force (in Black Mirror and also Gates of Gotham), and one of Zero Year's central questions will be at whose feet Snyder ultimately lays the blame for Gotham's downfall.
At present, however, the "Batman in the daylight" tone of this book evokes the middle part of Grant Morrison's "Batman and Son" saga. This is curious because Snyder came on the Batman scene at about that time, but his Black Mirror was essentially the un-Morrison, dark where Morrison's Batman was light(er). Remarkably, Snyder even out-Morrisoned Morrison when he re-recreated the Joker for the twenty-first century, badder and scarier, after Morrison had seemed to do so just a few months before (to top Grant Morrison in creating a Joker for the twenty-first century is a feat). No rivalry is suggested here, of course, and indeed what Secret City demonstrates now is Snyder's range, just the same as the "Batman and Son" saga continued to demonstrate Morrison's; that Snyder's Batman is not just one thing, but rather he can write him in a variety of iterations.
There's a danger when a trade is something like "Zero Year Part 1," which Secret City is, that it may feel like half a story until the other parts come out. Instead, Snyder accomplishes well a modular storytelling here, in which the Red Hood story functions as the main plot that specifically concludes, while the Riddler story influences the main plot from the background and comes to the forefront only in the cliffhanger. There's a good transition in switching from series artist Greg Capullo to Rafael Albuquerque at the end of the book to delineate where the first story ends and the prelude to the second begins, even as the two stories somewhat feed in to one another.
In using the Riddler, it's clear Snyder is crafting a Loeb-style mystery (Loeb last, best used Riddler in Long Halloween/Dark Victory); I didn't stop to jot down all the hints Riddler leaves toward his true intentions here, but Snyder packs them in; something's afoot. The twisting ouroboros page that Snyder and Capullo offer is compelling, reminiscent of the labyrinth in the team's Court of Owls book; only, the fact that there was just one "odd" page in the book made it feel somewhat dissonant, and I might have preferred more such to make it a theme and not an aberration.
Again, I think many feared Snyder might try to re-tell or manipulate Miller's Year One for Zero Year (a kind of Batman take on Before Watchmen was the concern, I believe). Instead, in presenting a rather sunny Gotham, and really swinging wide of many of Year One's iconic elements like Jim Gordon's family life or Catwoman Selina Kyle, Snyder really tells a different story altogether; for the most part, Zero Year isn't a riff on Year One at all like Black Mirror was, but a different story that coincidentally concerns the same hallowed material.
To some extent, one who's never read Year One might have had an easier time with this book than the difficulties I had interacting with the story; at times I felt disconnected when Snyder zigs where Miller zags. For example, Snyder depicts young Bruce Wayne finding the hole that leads to the Batcave, but the scene stops short of Bruce falling in (he does, later, but it's more hinted than shown). This is Snyder going right up to the Miller line and then turning; I don't mind it, but it jarred my expectations when Bruce didn't fall right off. It would have been all the better if I had no expectations a la Year One at all; the strength of this as a "new" New 52 origin of Batman for new readers, perhaps.
Snyder's biggest overt Miller homage is the scene of Bruce in the study when the bat flies through the window (the iconic "I shall become a bat" scene). I was glad this was in there, though Snyder comes at it via a somewhat convoluted route involving a Wayne-tech three-dimensional shadow mapper doohickey. Miller's Year One offered a decidedly low-tech Batman and Snyder's Zero Year has a high-tech Batman all the way. This keeps with the tenets of Snyder's Batman run, which has used super-sci-fi tech from the get-go, but it felt a little off to me in the context of a Batman origin.
I admit a certain exhaustion with Bat-origins, with the Dark Knight Trilogy (now some years gone, admittedly) and the only-kind-of-recent Batman: Earth One. It's problematic, though coincidental, that Earth One and Zero Year each deal with Batman versus the Riddler; Zero Year will get there first, and it remains to be seen if Earth One can find new ground to break or not. Ultimately I think we've seen "Bruce returns to Gotham and figures out how to be Batman" one too many times, but with Batman Vol. 4: Zero Year: Secret City, Scott Snyder does a good enough job of it. If nothing else, this is a pretty epic re-telling of the "Red Hood" story (enough to make me nostalgic for the Tim Burton Batman movie), and I think I'll be enjoying that aspect of this book for a while.
[Includes covers, backup stories, "Director's Cut" script pages and commentary.]