Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year - Dark City manages to tell young Bruce Wayne stories that feel fresh and are also considerably moving (brought a tear to my eye in the third chapter, issue #27, you did, Mr. Snyder) -- and that's even leaving aside the rock 'em, sock 'em Batman adventure that frames those pieces.
If I had to choose, I'd say the second part of "Zero Year" is Snyder and artist Greg Capullo's best Batman volume yet.
[Review contains spoilers]
Snyder makes what I thought was a smart choice toward the end of the very first chapter of this book. In speaking of Batman origin cliches, we have the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce visits the disgraced Lucius Fox for help in making his Bat-toys; we saw the same scene almost exactly in Geoff Johns's Batman: Earth One (where Lucius is a shortcut to actually depicting how Batman might make all his weapons himself; Lucius serves narratively to whip them out of thin air). Snyder seems to go down the same path, but then flips it, having Lucius knock Bruce out and seem to be in cahoots with the villain of the issue. He's not, of course, because Snyder has to coincide with current Batwing and etc. continuities, but the fact of Snyder going right up to the cliche and then turning it was an early indication to me that Snyder had crafted something different here than what had come before.
And that's besides Snyder's implication, a few pages earlier, that Bruce believed that then-detective James Gordon had in some way mishandled or covered up the Wayne murders, a considerable change from both the Dark Knight Trilogy and Gotham in which a kindly Gordon immediately bonds with the orphaned Bruce. Here again, Snyder must eventually right the ship, but his flashback to Gordon new on the police force and somewhat naive to the corruption around him struck me as far more realistic than other depictions, and the scene in which Gordon is mauled by dogs as his fellow corrupt officers take bets on his death was just one of many both harrowing and emotional moments in this book. Snyder's made it so I won't be looking at Gordon's trademark trench coat the same way again, I assure you.
Throughout the Zero Year books Snyder has cut and weaved in grand Grant Morrison-ian fashion, but in Dark City, this non-linear storytelling really lands with the greatest effect. The intercut tale of an ill-fated military convoy in the first half of this volume (the "Dark City" half proper) gives the story a spooky, fraught atmosphere even before the gut-punch revelation of what it means almost half-way through the book -- Snyder really makes us feel the weight of Batman's guilt in our retroactive understanding that the Dr. Death crisis is partially his own fault, borne from Bruce giving in to his anger over his parents' death.
Then there's that single page of a beleaguered hostage given one last chance to talk to his father before his death, presented without explanation. When we finally understand what transpired there between Bruce and Alfred, I teared up a little. And indeed, Snyder's suggestion that Bruce became Batman in part to punish his dead parents, Alfred, the police, and everyone who couldn't stop his parents from being killed is a brilliant effort in digging into the psychology of these characters, something I've never heard suggested before in all these long decades of Batman stories.
Snyder's third flashback, in the latter half of the book ("Savage City"), is equally disorienting; we understand implicitly a college-age Bruce seeing his dead loved ones all around him, but the images of a Bruce-like figure trapped in an asylum create another of the book's many riddles. It's moving yet again when we come to understand these scenes as another outpouring of Bruce's pain, and again, Snyder has revealed and made vivid here something -- how Bruce, at seventeen or eighteen rather than at ten or twelve, remains specifically traumatized by his parents' murder -- that I don't think any other writer has offered before.
That's all even without mentioning Snyder presenting Thomas and Martha Wayne as the coolest and funniest ever in the police station scene, the sheer wackiness of Batman incapacitating a lion here barehanded, and that Batman essentially restarts Gotham's damaged electrical grid with the power of his own heart, as good a metaphor for Batman's relationship to Gotham as when he bled out over the city to cure it from madness in Gregg Hurwitz's Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 2: Cycle of Violence.
Dark City benefits, I believe, from being the second volume of Zero Year, in that Snyder has already accepted or rejected many of the tropes of Frank Miller's Year One in the first part, Secret City, and is freer here to tell a new story without the ghosts of the old one. If anything, Dark City calls out more to Dark Knight Returns than Year One, with various "Batman framed by lightning" imagery and some visual similarity between the Dr. Death villain here and Dark Knight's Mutant leader (plus a wink at Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin). Even still, Snyder gives Year One a little nod in Gordon's "blind without my glasses" bit, the "is/is not" scene for whether Gordon actually knows Batman's identity in current continuity.
Though I have always thought Snyder and Capullo were a powerhouse team who cared for and tried to innovate with the Batman character, I have not always thought team and topic were perfectly matched. Specifically, though Capullo contributed an expertly creepy opening to Batman Vol. 3: Death of the Family, I didn't necessarily think Capullo's more rounded, animated figures quite worked in what was supposed to be the book's pseudo-gory closing chapters. In Dark City, however, Snyder writes a sunlit, zany Batman story full of boxy Riddler robots attacking, and Capullo is spot-on here. In the climactic Dr. Death battle, Capullo suggests Norm Breyfogle a bit in the malleable Bat-cowl that inexplicably depicts Batman's expressions as if it was, indeed, his face -- a little realistic, a little absurd -- and it's just the right tone for this story.
Dark City is a grand adventure, both action-packed in Batman's fight with Dr. Death and cerebral in the end in his fight with the Riddler. This, plus the emotional Bruce Wayne scenes, is enough to allow the reader to gloss over some of Dark City's soft spots. The fact of the Riddler's blackout seems notable at the end of Secret City, but is almost incidental at the beginning of Dark City except for the Riddler's secret plan when the police turn the lights back on. What exactly is taking place there, and indeed a giant part of "Savage City," is a hopelessly inscrutable morass of comic book science; the audience can only nod along and go with it.
Also, Zero Year has presented a considerably brighter Gotham than we're used to, and perhaps mistakenly, I was under the impression Zero Year would take us from bright Gotham to our current dark Gotham, similar to the trajectory of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Long Halloween. Instead, bright Gotham is still bright Gotham at the end, which is mildly off-putting but maybe leaves the door open for Snyder and Capullo to visit and tell more stories in this era again.
Scott Snyder has created an origin for Batman that doesn't not entirely match the Batman of the present, and I'll be curious to see how, in the next volume, the present has adjusted to the past, Flashpoint-like. I do not expect a Batman/Riddler rematch is immediately on the way from this team, but I'm eager for it when it arrives; I'm eager, as it were, for a story that builds upon this great origin and shows how it factors into today. Zero Year, and especially Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year - Dark City is likely too long and burns too brightly to quite steal the "here, read this" cache of Batman: Year One; taken in its inevitable single volume, however, as a new modern Bat-epic, Snyder's Zero Year is not to be missed.