Friday, 14 June 2013

Batman #21: Zero Year review

One of the biggest problems with DC's New 52 revamp is the insistence that pretty much all our heroes' exploits fit into a five-year period. When it's a character whose story has basically begun again, such as Wonder Woman or the Flash, there's no problem - stuff happened, but we have little idea what said stuff was.

When DC tells us that most of Batman's stories of the last couple of decades still count, though, things are more problematic. Claims that Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne all served time as Robin the Boy Wonder - on a superhero work experience programme, no less - are greeted by fans with equal parts laughter and despair.

You might expect that two years after the linewide revamp, DC, recognising the problems, would begin soft-focusing that five-year figure, say things happened 'years ago' and let the reader fit events in as they will. But no, here's the first of an 11-part serial further concretising the timeframe, with the action announced as occurring 'six years ago'.

The idea of Zero Year  is to show us Bruce Wayne becoming Batman in the revamped DC Universe, without calling it 'Batman Year One' - Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's 1987 storyline under that banner remains a critical favourite and steady seller in collected editions, so why step on its toes and risk consumer confusion?

Batman #21 grabs from the first page with pictures of a decaying Gotham, where fish swim in flooded subways - an image which doesn't need the usual darkness of a Batman comic to be memorably eerie. A proto-version of Batman rescues a kid from masked thugs, before the boy intrigues with these words:
Flash back five months earlier, and a disguised Bruce saves a group of kidnapped rich guys from the Red Hood gang with his daredevil driving skills.

The book then goes back further, showing us the boy Bruce exploring the city after school, revelling in the anonymity a famous rich kid can rarely enjoy.

Scene change and it's immediately after Fast and Furious Bruce's adventure, as we learn that Bruce has returned from his world travels intent on making Gotham a place where little kids don't see their parents die before their eyes. Bruce and family retainer Alfred aren't in Wayne Manor, but a converted brownstone on the former Park Row, aka Crime Alley - the spot where Thomas and Martha Wayne died. Outside, Bruce is confronted by Uncle Philip Kane, brother of his mother. He wants his nephew to head a new Wayne Industries, on the basis that Gotham distrusts Kanes, but loves Waynes.

Back in Bruce's boyhood, there's a tender scene in the hanger where his dad relaxes by tinkering with classic cars. Thomas shows Bruce a very interesting invention of Lucius Fox's, known as The Witch's Eye.

The penultimate scene reveals that Philip isn't the benevolent man he seems to be, as we meet his partner, an enigmatic figure. This segues into the final image, as young Bruce comes across a hole in the ground familiar to Batman readers of old.

Yes, it's the hole that previous continuities had Bruce fall down, discovering the future Batcave and gaining a fear of bats. Whether Bruce is finding it for the first time, or whether the fall has already happened and he's come back, isn't clear, but I look forward to finding out.

For Scott Snyder produces one of his best scripts in Batman #21, playing on old continuity while expanding and originating. There's not a wasted page, as we get snapshots of Bruce's life before he dons the cowl, and see what Gotham was like at various points. Uncle Philip,  previously a Wayne, is one of the more obscure members of the Batman family, having seldom been seen, so it's interesting to see him beginning to be fleshed out. His partner makes perfect sense, as a future criminal mastermind, and their scene together crackles. Alfred, meanwhile, doesn't have the sarcastic tongue he's known for today, being more concerned with keeping Bruce off a dark path than trading barbs.

Hands down, the best vignette is the conversation between Wayne father and son, a beautifully tender blend of script and art. Penciller Greg Capullo and inker Danny Miki nail the emotion, just as they hit the bullseye on every other page. Those opening panels, silent and border-free, lend Gotham the feel of a fairytale kingdom under some dark enchantment. It's sleeping, and Batman is the dark knight come to wake it up. The sunset palette of FCO Plascencia contributes greatly to the scene's success.

The colourist is equally impressive in the Red Hood gang scene, making gorgeous blue skies and cotton wool clouds the backdrop for Bruce's bout of James Bondery. Capullo and Miki choreograph the scene well, and the sight gag that concludes it is something you just don't see in a Batman comic.

Hmm, do you think, just maybe, Bruce inherited that car?
Capullo and co deserve massive credit for actually drawing people rather than comic book archetypes: Thomas and Bruce aren't the usual blandly handsome leading man and mini-me, they have real character. You see the warmth of Thomas, the enquiring mind of Bruce. Philip, too, looks like a guy rather than Rich Man #1, with something of the boxer about his battered features.

The backgrounds, too, are a treat, with the rarely seen daytime Gotham a feast for the eyes.

Letterer Nick Napolitano is also a vital player, rising to the challenge of his featured moments with ease, and ensuring Snyder's script is stylishly readable every step of the way.

The creative team also finds room for the odd Easter egg, such as the Gotham City Transit Authority shield, which is a take-off of the old EC Comics bullet.

The story isn't perfect: the Red Hand gang's MO is a tad too Court of Owls, and I can't for the life of me understand Uncle Philip's thinking as regards a certain future Batcave prop. But it's a darn good beginning to a serial that's aiming high in echoing one of the classics of the Batman library (this is DC, where to say 'canon' is to have the comic gods laugh at you).

The back-up strip, 'Where the hell did he learn to drive?', spins out of a comment in the lead story. It's 19-year-old Bruce Wayne in South America, picking up street racer tips as he hangs out with a decidedly dodgy character. Snyder co-writes with James Tynion IV, Rafael Albuquerque draws, Dave McCaig colours, Taylor Esposito colours and all earn their pay cheque - it's a diverting, good-looking page filler that sews the seeds for the Batmobile concept (well, the cool Batmobiles, not the stupid, clunky tank of the recent films).

The only boring thing about this issue is the cover - series logo at top, serial logo at bottom, murky blue-grey in between. Inside, Capullo and Plascencia get a credit - was there an alternate cover design I missed, with actual narrative art? Oh, and it's embossed card, which is jolly super if that's your kind of thing. Still, at least DC didn't bump up the price. No silly fold-out panels here >ahem< - just a good story with lots of potential, and beautiful artwork. The best gimmick of all.

12 comments:

  1. An enigmatic figure, eh?

    We definitely see eye to eye on this one. Man, what a boring cover... but the story inside is terrific. Love that manhole cover! And a rare laugh-out-loud moment in a Batman book? Priceless.

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    1. Shouldn't (spoil spoil) the Riddler carry a across stick?

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  2. wow mart what made you change your mind, i thought you gave up on this title after death of the family ps i'm glad alfred made it out alive if joker hadn't sucker punched him that arc would have over in 1 or 2 issues

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    1. I like to try the first parts of new storylines, at least.

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  3. Great review Mart. I enjoyed the recent Snyder issues dealing with Clayface too. Batgirl was pretty good this week as well. Simone continues to give us a hero that is, well human. She experiences fear, doubt and even nausea in this one while battling an interesting new villain (I like the idea of coming across a villain who is still learning her powers and is hampered by the mental illness which seems to drive her, seems that would be bound to happen regularly with in a hero's career).

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    1. Batgirl wasn't awful, for what it was trying to be - a horror comic, basically. But I'll take the mad charm of the original Ventriloquisr over this gross loon anyday - does every Gotham villain have to be a psycho?

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  4. hey mart good news mighty avengers will return and it will be written by al ewing, and from his latest interview he has a great grasp on the team which will include monica rambeau as field leader and she'll have a new costume and codename spectrum also ewig on what will be in the book

    "Finally, we know your initial "Mighty Avengers" story takes place against the back drop of "Infinity" and Thanos' attack on Earth. Can you hint, tease, or talk about your plans for the book after that? With such a diverse cast, this is a series that could go anywhere and tackle almost any kind of genre.

    Yeah, we're going to be tackling all the genres we can handle. There's comedy, there's horror, there's romance, there's what I understand people on Tumblr call 'the feels'. There are big threats, little threats and threats that can't be solved with a punch or an anti-matter blast. There are creatures torn from the depths of Hell, secret societies, corporate intrigues, vengeance quests, family squabbles, diapers that need changing, some laughs, some tears, some guest stars. A new HQ, new transport, a new way of doing things with a little of the old mixed in.

    I'm loving working on this book, and I hope people come and join us in September, because it's going to be ace

    he even plans do do the book in a dense marvel method plot first then give to artist on the downside greg land is on art but anyways what do you think

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    1. Thanks, yeah, I saw that interview. But aren't we talking Batman?

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    2. yeah we are sorry anyway's i have to tell you your search bar isn't working everytime i type something down like dan slott pr mighty avengers it will show no results do you what's wrong
      also just saw the trailer for beware the batman and i must say it looks great check it out

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  5. mart you won't believe the obscure batman villains they're going to use in beware the batman, they'll use magpie with redesign, king kraken, the ten eyed man, someone names axel alex and aanrky will be batman's moriarty to his holme as they producers described it's insane

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    1. I thought that was Magpie on the trailer. Not that I'll be watching, the designs are awful and the whole look is like a cheap video game.

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  6. aw mart don't be join those fsnboys who judge only on looks this show is going back to batman stories of the 30's focusing on detective work give it a a chance plus the people who working on green lantern tas is working on this show so it will have quality stories

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