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:
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?|
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.