Review: Batman Vol. 4: Zero Year -- Secret City hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 08, 2014

If there's anyone I trust to write a sequel (or un-sequel) or remake (or un-remake) of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, it's current Batman scribe Scott Snyder, whose 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.]
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18 comments:

  1. What is the actual content of this?

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    1. Issues #21-24, including backups, and (parts of?) the Director's Cut edition.

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  2. Isn't Issue 0 and the Annual in it too? The Annual is almost useless though.

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    1. No. Despite other listings, it's issues #21-24, backups, and the Director's Cut book. Issue #24 is double-sized, so call it about a five-issue's worth or so trade.

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  3. I don't know what is it about Zero Year, I loved Black Mirror and most of Snyder's other work and I can appreciate the talent and quality of the book. But I just can't connect with it for some reason. Perhaps because, like you say, it does self-consciously swerve away from Year One. Perhaps because, for me, Batman Begins was such a definitive origins story and Zero Year just doesn't get me into Bruce's head like the movie did (nor does Year One on subsequent re-readings).

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    1. This may or may not be what you're getting at, but one thing I didn't like about Zero Year -- Secret City was the point in which I realized, "Oh, he's retelling Detective #[redacted] here." Earth One goes its own way; Zero Year remains faithful to established DC lore. Ultimately I liked this re-telling, but as I mentioned above, I have a general fatigue when it comes to origins and re-tellings.

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    2. The retelling angle, that's definitely part of it. Origin fatigue is too, I was never one of those that thought Year One was sacred, I was happy for a new version in theory, but I don't feel it has entirely justified the need for this one. I think a red hood story by Snyder right after his Joker one didn't help either.
      But it's something more subjective, a soullessness that isn't in the similar (as you point out) Morrison Batman & Robin. Or feeling of disconnect which I'm not used to when reading my (probably) favourite fictional character. It was there in earlier stories of Snyder's New52 Batman too, I just can't get into his Batman's head space. The Owls and Joker stories had more of a psychological hook from the threat, so I was drawn in from that point of view, especially at the climax of each which left me shaken (in a good way because that was how Bruce was meant to be). I'll keep with Zero Year, maybe the third volume's climax will impress me as much. Maybe the pace; telling in 12 issues what Miller did in 4 (Nolan did in 2 hours and Garner Fox did in two pages).
      Anyway, I can't quite put my finger on it, so I have a sense of bemusement when I see most critics raving about it. I liked your more measured reaction. Sorry, for the rambling comment, wish I could explain myself better. XD

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  4. This is pissing me off, I knew that this volume would skip over 18-19-20 and I understand that b/c it wouldn't make much sense, and now they skip issue 0 and an annual too? I just don't get it. And how does issue 0 with the red hood stuff mix in there...C'mon DC!

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    1. Obviously what makes you mad is your own business and I wouldn't judge that. For me personally, however, here's why this doesn't bother me as much.

      First, the fact that the New Teen Titans Vol. 3 Omnibus jumps around and only contains parts of some stories bothers me. This bothers me because the first two volumes reprinted sequential stories and didn't jump around, so there was an unspoken "contract" that this is what the omnibus series would do. To change up the format with the third volume (of a series of very expensive books) feels like a "bait and switch" to me, and I can't at all comprehend only reprinting parts of a story in a book that wasn't billed as an artist spotlight title. So that makes me mad.

      Second, that the JSA Omnibus might have started with issue #6 made me, if not mad, then disappointed (before this was fixed). A lot of us had waited for a JSA Omnibus for a long time, and not to reprint it "complete" was a disappointment; also it seemed to me shortsighted on DC's part to think readers wouldn't want the book's first five issues just because another writer wrote them. So that's why that made me "mad" until it was resolved.

      Regarding Zero Year, however, I don't expect DC's "regular series" trades to be "complete." They have rarely been "complete" historically (those Ostrander/Mandrake Batman issues that appeared during the Grant Morrison run were never collected, to give a minor example); "back in the day," trades only collected the most relevant part of a storyline, no more, and certainly they didn't have trades that collected every single issue of a series.

      I read the Zero Year - Secret City collection, but I haven't read Batman #0 or Annual #2, and I don't feel like I missed anything. If DC doesn't think enough of those issues to collect them, that's fine with me -- this self-selecting gives me one less thing to read. If later on I feel like I really needed to read those issues (which I probably won't, because again DC didn't feel they were important enough to collect), then I know I can buy them digital forever; otherwise, I call it no loss, no foul. Two years from now I'll be reading entirely different Batman stories and I won't even care about these missing issues.

      So that's why I can't get too wound up about it. Just my take; again, your results may vary.

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  5. I guess it's not that it makes me mad but I just don't understand. If this Vol. 4 has only 4 issues (and yes I know it's probably closer to 5 since issue 24 is double sized) but it will still look funny when vol. 5 comes out and it's 8 issues and twice as thick. I'll forgive the Annual which I only read once but since Capullo drew issue 0 it should have been in there, but alas it is what it is. Maybe it's just my OCD.

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    1. I don't know if the issues were regular-sized plus the backups or shortened plus the backups, but I think they were regular (extra) sized; so, the book might not look so thin with the issues plus the double-sized issue plus the backups. There's not much story content to the backups, admittedly, but they're there, and as a completist I did appreciate that.

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  6. The collection here does work fine without #0 and the Annual #2. But a part of me (and from numerous people from the sounds of things feel similar...) feels that #0 should of been here (the Annual has really nothing to do with Zero Year though). Like you mentioned, the exclusion of issue Zero does work. But as someone who owns and read #0, it really should of been included for a few reasons:

    1. It does have to do with the Red Hood Story. After this volume, the Red Hood storyline is over with for Zero Year. Having as much of Red Hood in one volume would be the way the go. It's basically Red Hood robbing a bank, we see way more of Bruce's gadgets and ideologically on coming back to Gotham, and we get a good piece of Gordan/Bruce's clashing ideas for eachother. It would of fit fine, in some ways.

    2. It will be awkward in any other volumes afterward. Because after this volume, regardless of where DC decides to put the #0 issue into, it feel forced and out of place of wherever it lands into. It's a story of Red Hood before he became the joker. Unless Snyder makes an issue to set up something, it will feel weird.

    3. $24.99 for 3 issues and a double-sized issue, with backups, really makes about 6 regular issues for the price. The addition of the entire script for issue 21 is cool, but its page filler. The addition of the #0 would of been nice. That, and, ironically, #0 would fit the modify of Zero Year.

    So those are some of my ideas. Now I will admit the big problem with #0 fitting into Secret City is the ending section, which is basically a different reenactment of issue #22 where Red Hood drops Bruce off at his place in the taxi. Because #0 is/was meant to be a general teaser for the entire 11-run of Zero Year. I guess DC could of edited #0 into this volume, which DC has been doing a lot of to begin with in most of their crossover trades.

    So I think, CE, that for those who never read the single issues as you have, the collection works fine. But for every person who has or will read it at some point, they will scratch their head as to why it wasn't included in some shape or form. I don't know, we'll see how things will turn out with #0 in the future.

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    1. RE: collecting #0, Snyder said this on Twitter: "It definitely will at some point - I think (think) 18, 19, 20, 0 will be in a trade post ZY w/34 and 35?"
      I don't mind that it's not in this collection since it just doesn't fit the Zero Year story. In #22 has Bruce's public "return" happens the same night Red Hood attacks his home, but in #0, knowledge of Bruce's return has been public for a few months (as per his conversation with Gordon) but Red Hood is just about to attack.
      For completest, I'm sure it'll be collected eventually, like Snyder thinks, but I'm gladly it's not just thrown in here where it wouldn't even fit.
      Hoping whenever they get around to it and the Annual, they also include 23.2 with the Riddler, since that's Zero Year-related as well.

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  7. #0+ #19+ #20+ Annual #2 + #28 (Eternal teaser) = vol 6. ???

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  8. Man, I hope they will publish the skipped issues (#0, #18-20, Annual #2) later on. Of all titles they produce it would suck if Batman was the one title where issues are missing. :(

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  9. My pure speculative guess is that the relevant #0 material will be held back for a complete Zero Year collection at some future date. The New 52, after buying singles for 30 years, was my jumping off point into becoming a trade-waiter. Uncollected comics must be my karmic punishment for no longer supporting my local comic store and just getting everything from Amazon.

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    1. I know this isn't for everyone, but I like to see it as "fate," in a way. When I became a trade-waiter, I accepted there might be some issues I wouldn't get to read (wouldn't be collected) or I'd have to track down as a single issue. As it turns out, that's fewer than I thought, given how much is collected these days. The rest? At times I simply tell myself I wasn't "meant" to read those issues; others, sometimes I buy them and then later I think, "I didn't really need that issue" or "That issue doesn't really mean anything now." Those experiences have cut my attempts to track down missing single issues considerably; I just decide for myself that I'm not really missing anything.

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  10. Zero Year is an obvious choice for an Absolute edition (along with Snyder's first two arcs). I might just skip this one in trades.

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