Best Shots Advanced Review: BATMAN #21 - ZERO YEAR Part 1

Credit: DC Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Batman #21
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki and FCO Plascencia
Lettering by Nick Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
Review by Forrest C. Helvie
'Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

When it comes to Batman origin stories, there's no avoiding Frank Miller’s seminal Batman: Year One. His recasting of Bruce Wayne’s journey to the cape and cowl took the framework of the Golden Age stories from Detective Comics #33 and Batman #47 and injected a sense of realism into the story that would go on to influence all other interpretations of the Dark Knight - from comics to the silver screen. And while Miller continues to cast his shadow over the origin of Batman, this story is still a literary mountain creators continue to climb and attempt to stake a claim. Given the near-two year hot streak Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have had on Batman within the “New 52,” it’s no surprise they, too, would take on Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a common man superhero in issue #21 - the first of the “Zero Year” story arc.

Credit: DC Comics

Not surprisingly, Snyder covers some of the same ground Miller did: broken and corrupt city, amateur hero born from the tragic loss of his parents, etc. Yet, Miller himself still had to operate within the parameters Bill Finger and Bob Kane set within those two Golden Age stories. The real question about Batman #21 is whether Snyder and Capullo are able to bring a new angle or approach in their retelling of this classic origin. Long story short: I think they’re setting up the stage in this issue to do just that.

The issue kicks off with a "dystopian" angle where someone has effectively “killed” the city six years before the present day. There are wild lands seemingly encroaching upon the city while the subway itself has flooded and proven a local fishing hole. We see an early rendition of Batman with some hints of his having come into conflict with some unnamed villain who believes he was successful in having killed not only Gotham, but Batman as well. For my part, I'm guessing it's Joker/Red Hood (in order to set up this foundation of conflict between these two iconic forces that climaxed in "Death of the Family"), but there's the beauty - Snyder never lets us know. It’s one of those setups that we’ll have to stick around to find out.

Credit: DC Comics

The narrative take another time jump - this time to six weeks after Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham following his travels abroad spent preparing himself for his future role. He’s engaged in a covert conflict with the Red Hood and his gang, but there’s no indication that he’s become the Batman at this point - just someone in disguise attempting to fight back against the oppressive criminal elements of Gotham. But given readers’ knowledge of who the original Red Hood will become later in the Batman mythos, Snyder seems to have set his eyes on more than just one origin story in “Zero Year.” We also find that Bruce was declared legally dead by his uncle, Phil Kane, who had also gone about building up the Wayne Corporation into an even more successful business with the help of yet another future entrant from Batman’s rogues gallery. The plot thickens…

We also look even further back into Bruce’s past with two important episodes: the first, which is explored in this issue, deals with his father discussing why the young boy loved Gotham so much; the second, no doubt to be shown in greater detail next issue, shows the young Bruce’s discovery of a cave on the grounds of Wayne Manor. The discussion Bruce has with his father is a poignant look into what else drives the Batman’s mission to protect Gotham. Yes, there is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne that needs to be avenged with future crimes to be prevented, but there is also Bruce’s deep-seeded love for the city itself that Snyder begins to explore. Certainly, this is one crucial element to the character and his origin that has been sorely in need of being brought to the surface; hopefully, it is one Snyder will continue to develop.

Credit: DC Comics

Readers need to take their time to appreciate the details Capullo, Miki, and Plascencia put into each panel. The first page alone is exceptionally well done from the subtle silhouette of Wayne Tower as a broken Batman cowl to the jungle-like elements blended into the ruined cityscape - there are a lot of things about the art to appreciate in this story. And Capullo’s work ethic continues to shine, as evidenced in the more understated elements of the main story. His backgrounds, that most readers would overlook, are as solid as the “money shots.” Had this been done poorly, readers would have noticed right away; however, we don’t notice it because it looks natural to the eye so as to not disturb us from the primary focus of each panel and page.

The depiction of Bruce’s reaction following his confrontation with the Red Hood gang did seem a little out of place, given the tone of the rest of the book. His strategy doesn’t go exactly as planned, and the Red Hood’s response is both biting and humorous. Bruce extends a hand to flip off the sarcastic criminal, but for some reason, there is a “censored” block covering the stretched out middle finger. Visually, it just seemed out of place. Admittedly, though, I’m nitpicking here.

Credit: DC Comics

For the backup story, James Tynion IV assists Snyder in writing duties, while Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig cover the artistic responsibilities. Tynion provides readers a glimpse into how the Dark Knight became as skilled as he presently is; in this case, his first “driving lessons.” The art also captures the rush of blood fueling the characters in through its palette of warm colors, while the inked brushstrokes accentuate the fast-paced action sequences.

For my part, I enjoy seeing bits info introduced early on in a story to see it come back seemingly from left field (a la "Chekhov's Gun"). While some may not appreciate the broken chronology of the narrative, it does create the effect of keeping the reader constantly guessing what’s coming next. And after reading Batman #21, it’s clear Snyder is setting readers up for a big payoff down the road at the conclusion of “Zero Year.”

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