Today, Spencer and Drew are discussing Batman 21, originally released June 12th, 2013.
Spencer: Two gunshots ring out in a dark alley. A string of pearls falls to the ground. Sound familiar? It should — Batman’s origin story is one of the best-known and most beloved in comic book history. It’s been told and retold countless times, and while many of these stories are flat-out classics — Year One, Batman Begins, Mask of the Phantasm — one still wonders: Is another Batman origin story really necessary? Can Batman’s origin still be retold in a fresh way that doesn’t rehash or invalidate those earlier stories? The jury’s still out on the first question, but in Batman 21, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo prove that they’re capable of telling a Batman origin story the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Our story begins six years ago, in a Gotham City that looks like something straight out of I Am Legend. A particularly haggard Batman rescues a little girl from some creeps, and she delivers some shocking news:
Then we rewind yet another five months, where an incognito Bruce Wayne rescues some men from the Red Hood Gang (last seen back in the Zero Issue). Alfred tries to dissuade Bruce from his crusade, but is interrupted by Bruce’s uncle, Philip Kane, who wants Bruce to reclaim leadership of Wayne Enterprises; Bruce refuses. Philip takes his dilemma to his strategist, Edward Nygma, who has a simple solution: kill Bruce Wayne.
Our opening images of a desolate, overgrown Gotham City populated by freakish predators and “Survival Mode Batman” couldn’t be more different from the noir-ish mob stories of Batman: Year One; from the very first page Snyder shows us that this is a Batman origin unlike any other. Seeing Batman like this is actually a little jarring; only No Man’s Land even comes close to putting Gotham in this kind of state, and if this opening doesn’t catch your attention, I don’t know what will.
Snyder also adds some new elements to Bruce’s pre-murder childhood. Batman has always been a child’s fantasy; only an 8-year-old boy could make a vow to single-handedly rid a whole city of crime, after all. But this is a Bruce Wayne who grew up in a household full of Lucius Fox’s high-tech masterpieces, 30-40 years ahead of their time. This is a Bruce Wayne who has already become intimately acquainted with his city, and is already scaling bridges for fun.
It’s easy to see why Bruce thinks he has the resources to fight crime at the level he wants to, not only as a child, but even as he progresses into adulthood.
Even the back-up manages to do something relatively new with a tired concept. Bruce’s worldwide training has never really interested me. It doesn’t really matter how Bruce learned his skills, only that he did—often the only way to make these scenes relevant is to bring back characters from this era, and even those stories are old hat now. Yet Snyder and James Tynion IV’s story manages to put an interesting spin on Bruce’s training by not only addressing a skill of Batman’s I had never thought to question before — his driving — but by also reaffirming Bruce’s morality at the end of it all.
Snyder also manages to avoid another problem that often plagues stories set in the past: when the readers already know the ending, how do you make the story surprising? At first, Zero Year seems to be setting itself up for failure, since it heavily features so many iconic Batman elements. There’s Edward Nygma, who we know becomes the Riddler; there’s the Red Hood Gang, which we know is led by the future-Joker; there’s Thomas and Bruce’s hats, mysteriously emblazoned with Robin’s insignia; there’s even that ridiculous giant penny, which we know ends up in the Batcave.
Yet the real mystery here isn’t whether Eddie will become the Riddler or not — that’s a given — it’s how. What in the world does the Riddler have to do with Batman’s back-story? Why is Bruce wearing a Robin hat when Dick Grayson supposedly made up that name himself? Why in the world did Bruce decide to put that penny in the Batcave? Most importantly, who “kills” Gotham City, and how is it ever “revived” after such a thorough destruction?
Even the Red Hood Gang bears questioning. It’s obvious we’re supposed to think that the leader is the Joker, or at least the man who will one day become the Joker. The Red Hood is one of the only consistent elements in the Joker’s many origins, Jason Todd is still ironically using the name, and the leader even talks like the Joker.
Still, the Joker has always had a past that was purposely very “choose-your-own-adventure” — is DC really going to give him a definitive origin now? This answer feels too easy to me. Even if he is the Joker, there has to be more to it.
Regardless, Snyder has created a situation where we may know how Gotham will look at the end of this story, but we sure don’t know how it will get there. This book is cram-packed with clues and questions, and after reading the first chapter, I have faith that the next twelve months promise to be an epic ride as we explore the Zero Year together.
So, Drew, do you think that this take on Batman’s origin has justified its existence? What are your Red Hood theories? And Drew, what do you love about Gotham City? For me, it’s the constant threat of a grizzly death!
Drew: Actually, I think one of my favorite things about Gotham is its timelessness. I’m used to that manifesting in the architecture of its buildings and clothing of its citizens, but each creative team has had their own take. Many have opted for something resembling the 1930s (perfect for more gangster-related stories), but Miller got a lot of mileage channeling late ’70s New York in Year One. Snyder’s going for something decidedly more modern — a more open, inviting Gotham than the noirish hellscape we’re used to. But the trappings of any specific interpretation of Gotham — its looks and feels — aren’t really what I mean when I talk about timelessness; I mean that it exists out of time, and that 10, 20, even 30 years into its past could look like anything from 70 years into our past to 70 years into our future. It allows any one story to be set at any time in Batman’s career (if the writer so chooses), which allows for an infinite number of Batman stories for any specific time in his life. That’s something that Snyder clearly understands, and is why I’m so excited by this trip into Bruce’s past.
Ultimately, I’m not worried that we know that this story ends with Bruce in the cowl — essentially all Batman stories end that way, and I am obviously not bored by those. Actually, this issue kind of has me wondering what it is we want from a Batman story in the first place. It seems obvious to me that it’s not just about seeing the batmobile or the giant penny, yet there’s something extremely satisfying in the weird game of “spot the reference” this issue engages in. In some way, I think — while they certainly aren’t integral — those trappings do define a Batman story, as does the fact that Batman survives, beats the bad guys, and poses dramatically on a rooftop. It’s possible to see those givens as limiting or predictable, but were we ever reading Batman for the surprise of whether or not there’s a batcave? Obviously, we want a strong, compelling story, but those details are the through-line that keeps Batman Batman.
Spencer, I absolutely agree that this story isn’t going to be about the what, but the how. Indeed, that bravura opening shows us yet another what, as if Snyder’s daring us to be bored with the explanation of how we get there. But how could we be? Bruce goes from an unknown vigilante to a well-known (and presumed dead) superhero in five short months and I have no idea what any of it means. It’s like when the computer spits out “42” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — sure, we know the answer, but without ANY context for it, it’s actually MORE confusing than helpful. In fact, Snyder and Capullo seem to take particular glee in giving us information we can’t yet process. Check out this credits page:
No idea what any of those images mean, but I’m excited as hell to find out.
Actually, in giving us this weird weigh-station, Snyder sets up two big hows: how did we get here, and how do we get out of it? Is the “he” the girl refers to Red Hood? Joker? Riddler? Some other party we’re not even thinking about? Apparently, the answer involves a tiger, which leaves me at a bit of a loss. The forthcoming Nygma/Kane assassination attempt is clearly going to play some role in setting these events in motion, but with Red Hood acting as an X-factor, who knows what that path looks like? Actually, given the info we get about Red Hood’s predilection for preying on high society-types, I wonder if Eddie and Philip might hire him to do the deed.
This issue gives us a lot to speculate on, but not much to speculate with, reminding me a great deal of Batman 1 (which I also loved, obvi). It’s the perfect start to a mystery, only the mystery is the narrative itself, not just the case of the week. At any rate, I’m beyond intrigued, and can’t wait to find out more of what the heck Zero Year is.
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