We're still in Zero Year, when Gotham's streets are enveloped by chaos and Bruce Wayne isn't yet Batman. He is trying to be a hero, but in the early part of this issue he's at the mercy of the Red Hood Gang. Its members bludgeon him, their leader tells Bruce that his parents' death inspired their criminal project, and the thugs depart the burning scene, leaving their pulped victim to die.
But the Red Hood doesn't know Bruce, doesn't suspect his preternatural determination and the strength he's built up on his world travels. He escapes, battered and bleeding, and returns to Wayne Manor.
Meanwhile, Bruce's dodgy Uncle Philip Kane and his 'strategist' Edward Nygma disagree over the latter's decision to send the Red Hood Gang to kill his nephew. Uncle Philip shows he's no simple wicked uncle, but it doesn't end well for him.
At the manor, Alfred patches Bruce up, and the two patch up recent differences.
And Bruce leaves his bed and enters the drawing room, where a bust of father Thomas Wayne inspires him to ask how he might succeed in his personal war. And something happens. A keepsake - the Witch's Eye device created by Lucius Fox, which Bruce was holding the day he fell into the bowels of the earth below Wayne Manor and was confronted by terrifying bats - shines and the room changes, becomes a cave. And he sees a bat. And he knows what he must do ...
There's another level of story, at the very start of the issue, with Bruce flashing back to the day he fell down that hole, and his father rescued him. Colour coded black and red, it's quickly obvious this is foreshadowing unrelated to present day Bruce's return to Wayne Manor. It does, though, set up the final scene of the book, in which Thomas Wayne's 'voice' returns, helping Bruce realise what he must do.
'I shall become a bat.' Familiar words, but they come about in a different way here - it's not a matter of Bruce brooding, and a bat crashing through the window; it's more a matter of a cloud of bats bursting upon Bruce as a scene he unwittingly captured as a boy plays back to him as a hologram.
I love the simple facts of Batman's 1939 origin. Orphaned by violence, he sits in a dark study, wondering how best to fight crime, and a bat appears before him, inspiring his costume and modus operandi. But legends bear reinterpretation and extrapolation, and that original story has been retold and embellished many times over the years (Thomas Wayne wore a Bat-Man costume for a party when Bruce was a boy; Bruce fell down a hole and was terrified by bats; Martha Wayne was killed by a heart attack, not a bullet; Joe Chill was the son of the Wayne's housekeeper; the bat didn't fly through an open window, it crashed the glass ...). To me, the hologram is unnecessary, a little too SF for Batman, overcomplicating the elegant original. But I can embrace whichever version, or versions, of the origin I want, and as part of this retelling, the hologram works just fine.
Things I can praise without qualification, along with that clever structure, are the pacing - there's an eerie calm in that final sequence, as we wander the manor with Bruce - and the movement towards the revelation of the Red Hood's identity, with more clues dropped. The scene of Alfred and Bruce making up has a lovely truth to it, and the downfall of super-chatty Uncle Philip is a hoot.
Snyder's latest chapter of his Zero Year serial keeps the quality high, and Capullo is on equally strong form. His Bruce is battered enough to give pause, but not so pummeled that you can't believe he'd survive. And Capullo is as responsible as Snyder for the ghostly effectiveness of the closing scene. Inker Danny Miki and the aforementioned Plascencia also deserve huge credit, for well-rendered pages that glow with drama - the blaze sequence is one of the most effective portrayals of fire I've seen in comics, while the foggy grounds of Wayne Manor are oddly inviting. And I love the sherbet colours in the Phil'n'Ed sequence, which reminds me of John Higgins' work in Batman: The Killing Joke.
The issue isn't perfect: Uncle Philip's dangerous secret password is a bit rubbish, given that 'Cain' is a homophone for his surname, and so likely to be heard in his office several times a day. And on the art side, what leads to the Citizen Kane (another Kane!) snowglobe-style shattering of the Witch's Eye could be clearer - we're a little too close to the table it's perched on, and motion lines could be more emphatic.
In total, though, 'Birth of a Legend' represents a great performance by first-class creators - and let's not forget the stylish calligraphy of Nick Napolitano - gelling as a team on a character they obviously adore.
If only the marketing bosses at DC adored Batman enough to gather the ads at the back of the book, because the super-cheery messages herein really mess up the tone of the book as I'm tearing past them. OK, some advertisers pay a premium for position, but surely deals could be done - I'd definitely stop and look at ads were they not getting in the way of my reading experience.
And a recap page might entice people who've heard the good reviews to try an issue, rather than wait for the collection - heck, I've read the previous two chapters and still didn't immediately recall the Witch's Eye. Stuff like that, Uncle Philip and Edward Nygma's scheming, and the Red Hood Gang's MO could be quickly spelt out and a new reader could dive right in. DC's line is that they don't want to slow the reading experience by having a page of text at the start, which is nonsense - only people who need a recap need read the recap.
A back-up strip continues Bruce's pre-Zero Year world travels, as he learns physical, moral and spiritual lessons that will help his mission. It's a simple little parable in which we see that despite the apparent sense in it, Bruce simply will not kill. Ever. Centred on a Norwegian fight club, it features a sharp, economical script by Snyder and James Tynion IV, and punchy, angry art from Rafael Albuquerque that's just right. Add the cool colours of Dave McCaig and fine letters of Dezi Sienty and you have a satisfying short that helps 'explain' the Bruce in the main story.
And for no reason but that it amuses me ...