Drew: The Riddler may not have seemed like the most intuitive choice for a retelling of Batman’s origin — he’s in no man’s land, much more specific threat than those posed by organized crime in Year One, but he’s also not Batman’s biggest villain. Of course, that ignores the specific nature of this origin story, one that openly acknowledges how well-known the story is — or at least how well we think we know the story. That is, in order to not be a total retread, it requires the type of surprise ending we typically associate with riddles. It’s the kind of ending that recontextualizes the three-part story we’ve been reading as one emotional arc with a focus on something we may not have been expecting: Bruce’s relationship to Alfred.
Alfred played a key role in the first two sections of “Zero Year,” but was largely sidelined by his distance from the action over the last few issues. Here, though, he returns just in time to revive Bruce, only to have his heart broken when he realizes that Bruce will never step out of the shadow of his parents’ death. I was caught off guard by this perspective shift — seeing these events through Alfred’s eyes makes Batman seem less awesome and more pitiful — but it’s actually in keeping with “Zero Year” as a whole. For me, though, that “as a whole” is one of the most interesting parts of this issue, and perhaps for this arc in general.
There’s no doubt in my mind that “Zero Year” will read beautifully as a cohesive whole, but I wonder if that epic scope prevents individual chapters from meaning all that much on their own. As a consequent to the antecedent set up over a year ago when Alfred implored Bruce to stop his crusade, those final scenes are brilliant, but as an individual issue, the emotional resolution — indeed, even the presence of Alfred — feels almost random. This issue — heck, this entire third act of “Zero Year” wasn’t about Alfred or Julie Madison, or the chance that Bruce might choose a different path…until it was. There’s nothing wrong with subverting our expectations — indeed, “Zero Year” kind of needed to in order to justify its own existence — but I fear this recontextualization may have undercut some of the resolutions this issue felt like it was building towards until that final twist. Not to make an unflattering comparison, but it reminds me of the way the Star Wars prequels recontextualize the original trilogy as Darth Vader’s return to grace — those movies had their own emotional through-line until the prequels hijacked them to focus our perspective on something else entirely.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s a beautiful sequence, and I think it does fit in with a story about the decision to become Batman, I’m just not sure it makes sense here. Then again, this may more be a symptom of us knowing how things shake out — could any of us really have doubted that Alfred would stick by Bruce’s side, or that Bruce would ultimately stay the course to become Batman?
In that light, the story never really was about why, if, or even how Bruce became Batman, but what that choice meant to those involved. For Alfred, it’s obvious how hard Bruce’s choices are to accept, but Bruce drops a bomb to explain them: it’s either Batman, or electively having his memories, personality, and identity erased. He was prepared to do electroshock therapy to become “someone else,” but ultimately opted for Batman. Intriguingly, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo pair images of the preparations for that therapy with Bruce stopping his own heart to save Gotham, suggesting that Bruce may have been erased when he woke up — what was left was only Batman.
Those are key pieces of color for the New 52 version of Batman, but again, it makes him seem truly pitiful. Batman has always been kind of a sad character, but framing that sadness as a series of missed opportunities to truly live takes it a step further. Batman isn’t a badass spirit of the night so much as he is a cautionary tale about emotional fixation. That the story ends with Batman swinging through the night sky isn’t a triumph, but an expression of loss that manifests itself every day in Bruce’s life.
It’s strange — for all my talk about this issue being about Alfred’s relationship to Bruce, I wonder if that’s actually a reflection of Snyder’s relationship to his audience. Fans may be similarly emotionally fixated on their favorite characters, and Snyder may be nudging us all towards a realization that that fixation is preventing us from pursuing other opportunities. Whether that’s a call to pick up other comics, or to put down our comics altogether isn’t clear (though the latter would be ballsier for a comics writer), but the one-two punch of Batman seeming way less cool along with a message about taking advantage of new opportunities seems like a call to do something other than read a Batman comic.
That’s either an incredibly bold move on Snyder’s part, or I’m missing the point entirely. What do you think, Shelby? Also, I failed to adequately praise Capullo (or inker Danny Miki or colorist FCO Plascencia) for some truly breathtaking images. I’m hoping you can remedy that.
Shelby: The idea of Bruce choosing between loosing himself and becoming Batman is an interesting one. So interesting that I think the end result of this arc being a “less cool Batman” is a little oversimplified. It’s true, the images of the domestic happiness Bruce would have had paired with him swinging though the night were definitely sad; I may or may not have felt a little misty-eyed. But I don’t think we’re meant to just see Bruce as a pitiable, emotionally-stunted man. Remember, his options were Batman or…nothingness; the first person Batman ever saved was Bruce Wayne. For Bruce, becoming Batman and saving others is the only way he has of saving himself. That’s an especially gut-wrenching idea when you think of the failures his zero year was peppered with; every time he failed to stop Nygma and people were lost, a part of him was lost. Alfred thinks that starting a family of his own could save Bruce, but I think Bruce is too far gone. Not even his love for Alfred is enough to save him; Batman is all he has left. I’ll agree with you Drew that Snyder has made Batman a more pitiable character, but I think he has ultimately made Batman a more complex character instead of only pulling out that single aspect.
I found myself thinking about this story in the context of the other arcs we’ve seen under Snyder’s run on this title. They’ve all been about the support systems Bruce has had, and the times they nearly failed him. Night of the Owls was about the city itself, how the Court managed to turn Bruce’s Gotham against him. Next we had Death of the Family, which saw Bruce nearly losing the family he had built for himself. That was the moment we began to see just how important the cape and cowl had become to Bruce. Here, we see Bruce’s first and most constant support system form and nearly fail: the Bat itself.
For me, the biggest question is what will we see next for Bruce in this series? Snyder has broken him down into his constituent parts and analyzed them all, examined what would happen if they were lost, and through it all Bruce (and the Bat) has prevailed. Has the character been reforged and come through stronger than ever? Or in breaking him down have we only seen how fragile and sad this character truly is? Just like I think the end of this issue is both triumphant and sad, so too I think we’ll continue to see Batman: as a man triumphant in his mission against the forces of crime and darkness, but also as a man so burdened by his past he can never let it go. The incredible art team on this book has a far more eloquent way of stating that idea as this candy-colored saga comes to a close:
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