Review by Paul Bowler
Origins are something of a holy grail when it comes to comic books. They define what we know about a character, often forming the backbone for a continuity that can endure across countless decades, and only the most brave and the bold possess the skill to tamper with such a legacy – let alone even attempt to retell such a momentous event. Batman #21 marks the beginning of one of the biggest comic book storylines of 2013: Zero Year, the epic eleven part recasting of Batman’s origin by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo.
The legendary origin of Batman begins anew with Zero Year: Batman #21 six years ago when Gotham City was ruled by The Red Hood Gang, a sophisticated group of anonymous Gothamites – the Red Hood’s – who are always ready respond to the call of their mysterious leader. The young Bruce Wayne has chosen this moment to return to Gotham, having been declared legally dead in his long absence, he arrives to reclaim the city from this new criminal mastermind. With Alfred’s help Bruce begins to form a profile on the Red Hood, collating the data as he continues training. Bruce’s uncle – Philip Kane – now acts as his advisor at Wayne Industries, but are his plans really in the best interest of the heir to the Wayne Empire? It falls to Bruce to tackle the menace of the Red Hood’s, but he must do so alone, and without the cape and cowl of the Dark Knight.
The Red Hood and his gang featured prominently in last years Batman #0 issue, where Bruce Wayne attempted to infiltrate the gang in an undercover operation, but unfortunately Bruce underestimated his adversary and the Red Hood quickly saw through his disguise. The Red Hood gang look set to play a big role in Zero Year, as we learn more about these individuals who wear opaque red masks to hide their identities, and discover more about their leader – the Red Hood. When he was introduced in 1951 in Detective Comics #168 the Red Hood eventually turned out to be the Joker; revealing the story of his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime. As ever Scott Snyder brings a fresh perspective to the character, updating the original storyline while preserving the mystery of his identity, perhaps indicating that he may not turn out to be quite who we are expecting.
Batman #21 opens with an intriguing glimpse of things to come before we rejoin Bruce as he faces his next encounter with the Red Hood gang. The tense standoff sees Bruce rescuing the gang’s hostages, but he is unable to capture the Red Hood, and his identity remains a mystery. Bruce returns to his base of operations to discuss the situation with Alfred, it seems that each gang member is blackmailed into working for the Red Hood. Bruce has yet to announce his return to Gotham, but when his uncle, Philip Kane, turns up on his doorstep, Bruce goes with him to see the new Wayne Enterprises building. With his life spinning like a penny before him, Bruce listens as Kane explains his vision for the company, but Bruce has returned for reasons of his own.
Secret City: Part One not only sets up another exciting encounter with the Red Hood gang, it also sees Bruce Wayne take his first step into announcing his return to Gotham City. There are some wonderful scenes between Bruce and Alfred in Batman #21, whether they are gathering data on the Red Hood gang or addressing the “mission” that Bruce is dedicating his life to, Snyder’s brilliant dialogue makes these small moments shine. Greg Capullo’s art transports us back in time, showing us just how different Gotham City was during this dark period. You almost feel like you are returning to Gotham yourself, seeing everything through Bruce’s eyes, as the past converges with the present to foreshadow the legacy of the bat in the very buildings themselves. Batman #21 is full of potent symbols which only scratch the surface of what we can expect from Zero Year, interspaced with scenes from Bruce’s childhood, and a surprise ending that few of us could have expected.
Snyder and Capullo have masterfully managed to encapsulate the essence of what made Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli so riveting, but Zero Year also has a deep respect for this unrivalled masterpiece. It is clear from this first instalment in Batman #21 that Zero Year has the same gritty realism and bearing on the character as Year One. This is no attempt to overshadow what has gone before, instead it aims to complement the past by revisiting the story in a brand new way, making Batman and Gotham real and current to readers today. In taking this approach Snyder and Capullo ensure that Zero Year has a very distinct identity of its own, brining it right back to the beginning when that tragic night in the alley created an orphan who would rise on the dark wings of fate, shaping his life – his city – in a way that few of us could ever have imagined possible.
The backup stories for Zero Year by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Rafael Albuquerque, detail the trials that Bruce Wayne faced as he set out on his quest to hone his skills in preparation for his crime fighting career. In this first glimpse into Bruce Wayne’s youth – Where the Hell Did He Learn to Drive? – we meet the nineteen year old Bruce in Rio De Janeiro, where he is learning the finer points of getaway driving from Don Miguel as they try to outrace the authorities. This exciting glimpse into Bruce‘s formative years sees him at the wheel of a luxury sports car, while Don Miguel prepares to use their stolen weapons against the Police. It an interesting concept, to see Bruce learning from criminals, and then using the skill he gains against them. This story also features some terrific art by Rafael Albuquerque, who captures every moment of the high-octane car chase, which culminates with a fitting end for the cop-killing car thief.
DC Comics has also launched Zero Year with a stylish cover for Batman #21 by Greg Capullo and Plascencia, and there is also a fantastic variant by Jock. Batman #21 gets Zero Year off to a fantastic start, drawing us into Snyder and Capullo’s new approach to Batman’s origin, and setting up plenty of intriguing plot threads that will lead towards Bruce Wayne’s ultimate destiny. The art by Greg Capullo is absolutely stunning, perfectly realising Snyder’s vision, along with the superb inks by Danny Miki, colours by FCO Plascencia and letters by Nick Napolitano to effortlessly transport us back to this momentous era that shaped Gotham City as Bruce Wayne prepared to become the Dark Knight
Batman #21 is the beginning of an epic. Zero Year may prove divisive for some, inevitably it will be judged by what has gone before, but as this issue clearly demonstrates Zero Year is no simple retread of the past just to shoehorn Batman’s origin into the framework of The New 52. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have poured their heart and soul into this project, every page of Batman #21 stands as a testament to their utmost dedication to the character, and I have every faith that Zero Year will live up to everything they have promised it to be.