Today, Scott and Patrick are discussing Batman 26, originally released December 11th, 2013
Scott: There’s real risk in presenting a story like Zero Year. Mostly, there’s a risk that there won’t be enough tension to keep the story interesting. One thing that makes a story exciting to read is that we don’t know what will happen to the characters, and there’s always the possibility of tragedy striking a character we love. Those possibilities are limited in Zero Year. Since it takes place in the past, we know a lot of things can’t happen. Bruce can’t die in Zero Year. Neither can Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox, or any other character we saw in the first 20 issues of Batman. With that in mind, let’s take this opportunity to thank goodness that Scott Snyder knows how to exploit all of the things this type of story can do. Zero Year shows an evolution — one of strange people becoming the characters we’ve come to know — and it’s full of mystery. Seems like a risk worth taking.
The issue begins with Dr. Death trying to make Lucius Fox is newest victim, but to no avail — Lucius has taken a vaccine (which he also injected Bruce with at the end of Batman 25) that protects him from Dr. Death’s bone-growth serum. Bruce distracts Dr. Death and sends him flying into a jet engine, allowing Bruce and Lucius to escape the fiery lab. Almost. Dr. Death chases them down and nearly crushes Bruce’s skull before Jim Gordon shoots Dr. Death, who manages to flee. Bruce wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed but refuses to talk to Gordon, instead recalling a childhood memory that he says makes Gordon untrustworthy. Bruce tracks down Dr. Death’s former partners, but finds they’ve already been injected with his serum.
This issue is basically divided into two equally satisfying sections. The first is pure payoff for last issue’s cliffhanger. Dr. Death is indeed Karl Helfern, who is coming after Lucius for the same reason he’s attacked his other former coworkers — they know too much about his serum. And of course there’s a reasonable explanation for Lucius suddenly injecting some unknown substance into Bruce’s neck (the vaccine). But the reason this section is so fulfilling is that it shows Dr. Death in all his glory. Greg Capullo draws Dr. Death as gruesomely as possible — his bones seem to be growing before our eyes, with splintering teeth, scythe-like fingers and bulging, knotted forearms. Snyder matches with an equally disturbing look into Helfern’s demented mind. Injecting his serum into Lucius stirrup bone? Sheesh! This guy’s the thing nightmares are made of.
The second half of the issue delves into a much-needed explanation of Bruce’s hatred of Jim Gordon. Zero Year already takes place six years prior to the current Batman timeline, but this story goes all the way back to Bruce’s childhood, on the day his parents died (Negative-Fifteen Year, we could call it). Snyder provides strong enough rationale for Bruce distrust of Gotham police, and Gordon in particular. Gordon barely gets a chance to defend himself after Bruce’s accusation of corruption, only managing to start saying something cryptic about how everyone has “dark things”. It’s pretty damning, I suppose, that he’s still wearing the trenchcoat Bruce remembers him taking as a bribe (that is one durable coat!). I’m very interested to see how Gordon wins over Bruce’s trust.
Colorist FCO Plascencia brings his A-game to this issue. He makes the fight scene between Dr. Death, Bruce and Lucius beautiful despite the all the gore. Pink, purple and blue aren’t the colors I would associate with a blazing fire, but considering Bruce is likely in a mild hallucinogenic state at this point, it works for me (and as an added bonus, it looks cool enough to distract from the fact that the ‘terrifying monster’ is wearing a hoodie). Plascencia’s colors are perfectly faded throughout the flash-back sequence, while Capullo adds the nice, and subtle, touch of rounding the corners of the panels, which distinguishes those pages from the rest and gives them a neat, vintage feel.
It’s apparent how much chemistry this creative team has, and their interplay takes this issue to the next level. There are just so many great details. This issue doesn’t show much of Gotham, but there’s still evidence of the the blackout and its effects on the city. For instance, notice the blank monitor mounted above Bruce’s hospital bed. Why would that be included on the page if not to remind us, ever so subtly, that the hospital is without power? That’s some awesome attention to the minutiae.
Patrick, are you happy with this issue? I haven’t even mentioned the mysterious scene where a man in a turban opens up a large, hanging metal ball and let’s a very shaggy Bruce take a phonecall with his father (I swear, I’m not making any of this up). Any idea what’s going on there? Or how about Bruce’s accusation that Gordon takes payoffs in the form of tailored coats? Does it seem strange to you that Bruce would remember that? I don’t recall being so enamored with trenchcoats when I was 10 years old.
Patrick: There’s definitely more to flashback than either of these guys is suggesting. The way Bruce recounts it, that’s earlier the same day his parents were murdered — we’re pretty used to seeing all of the details of that moment permanently etched into Bruce’s memory, but the whole day? I’d also suggest that it’s not really all that damning evidence against Gordon — what if Gordon was just having a coat tailored? Or what if Gordon’s partner was crooked, and Jim was going to go back later that night to pay for the coat? Or any other reasonable explanation for what was happening there? No, the real source of Bruce’s distrust of Gordon revolves around what happened “later that night” — presumably at the very moment he lost his parents. I got shivers down my spine at this panel.
Bruce Wayne pulling a gun is a powerful, elemental image — one that suggests that he’s pushed past the point of decency dictated by his yes-father-I-will-become-a-bat mission. Capullo and Snyder know to give the image the full-page to breathe. It’s one of those moments that defies the problem of dramatic irony Scott expressed above — we know Bruce isn’t going to murder Gordon in this moment, but our hearts are in our throat considering the mental space he must be occupying. Plus, dear god in heaven, what could he possibly mean by “What I remember most vividly from that night is this. This view.”? That’s horrifying. Is it possible that in that moment, Bruce become something more than simply a victim?
Snyder and Capullo are very purposely in the business of re-writing history. Consider that first page — a young Bruce Wayne watching what we can only assume is the Mark of Zorro. That’s a very specific set of images, and we think we know what’s coming next: a man with a gun, pearls, two shots. But the final panel throws a curve-ball in the form of Gordon arresting Bruce. I had forgotten about this first-page tease until I went back through the issue, but it’s fascinating to consider why Snyder would include it at all when the later flashback doesn’t really need any justification or context. It’s there to remind us that our preconceptions about Batman are only going to leave us set-up for surprise.
Mind you, there’s still plenty of Batmaniness about to assure us that — reinvention or no — this is still the Batman we know and love. I love stupid little details, like Bruce throwing his belt across the room and using the smoke in the lab to mislead Doctor Death about his location. Or how about the classic Bruce Wayne-ism of sustaining very serious head injuries but persevering anyway? Scott mentioned that Doctor Death is pure monster, but consider how badass it makes Bruce for shaking off such an injury. Actually, let’s all revel in just how powerful Snyder’s use of language is in that moment:
You know, I’ve only seen you in pictures. But they were from long ago, when you were child, practically. Now, you must be what, twenty-five? You know, that’s the age your bones finish ossifying. All those soft child bones now fused and strong. Funny, though… if you know where to look you can still find the soft spots. Like seams in the skull… where the bone knit itself together. The seams are still there… deep, like stitches… waiting to be popped open.
Now, not only is that a cringe-inducing monologue (in the best way), but check out how conservatively the bolding effect is used. Most comics overuse that device, but the bold words here occur infrequently enough to convey Death’s growing intensity as his attack continues. It makes the villain so much scarier and the hero so much more impressive for living through it.
As for that weird flashback to bearded Bruce living inside a steal ball? No idea. I’m certain that we’re supposed to jump to some conclusions about it, but I don’t know that anything we could assume would be even remotely safe. It looks like a period of training from Bruce’s past, right? But there’s no way “father” makes sense in that context. Also, it seems like that’s almost got to be an older version of Bruce, and not a younger one, right? Whatever’s happening there, it’s not what we think it is. Also, while that scene is teased on the title page, there’s another tease: dogs tearing at some bloody cloth. What’s that?
Holy hell, is it exciting to be witnessing this Batman story! Any fears I ever had about this story treading old territory or playing it safe are completely dispelled by this point.For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?