Review by Paul Bowler
Gotham has been blacked out by the Riddler, now the young Batman is confronted by a new enemy. Dr Death, former scientist at Wayne Enterprises, Dr Karl Helfern, his face and body now horrifically mutated into a skeletal appearance, has been murdering other scientists with his formula that causes accelerated bone growth. Unwilling to help Lieutenant Gordon’s investigation, Bruce Wayne asks Lucius Fox for help, but is shocked when Lucius stabs him with a syringe just as Dr Death emerges from the shadows. Bruce must escape from Dr Death and find a way to work with Lieutenant Gordon if he is to prevent any more deaths, as super storm Rene approaches Gotham, and the night of his parent’s murder returns to haunt Bruce once more…
Dark City, the second major story arc of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s epic Zero Year event, continues to explore the darker aspects of Bruce Wayne’s early career as Batman #26 sees the Dark Knight faced with a new adversary Dr Death. While he recovers his senses, Bruce watches helplessly as Dr Death throttles Lucius.
It transpires that Helfern, Lucius, and the other murdered scientist were all part of the team hired by Bruce’s uncle, Philip Kane, and that Helfern has returned with his own agenda, having used the formula they developed himself. As he toys with his victims, Dr Death gloats about how he knows a terrible secret to draw Bruce into the open. Suspecting that Dr Death was coming for him next, Lucius actually injected Bruce with a vaccine, and Bruce is able to help him and they try to escape. However, Dr Death’s body continues to change when he is injured, making him stronger and more grotesque than ever.
Snyder and Capullo’s new approach to Bruce Wayne’s early career as Batman took a surprise turn last issue with the introduction of Dr Death, as Zero Year once more takes elements form the golden age of comics and gives them a more modern slant. Dr Death first appeared in Detective Comics #29 (1939) as Batman’s very first reoccurring super villain, Dr Karl Hellfern, a scientist that developed a formula from pollen to blackmail the rich with the help of his servant, Jabah. Dr Death was defeated by Batman, and seemingly killed in a fiery explosion at his lab, but he returned again in Detective Comics #30 with a new scheme, and Batman later discovers Dr Death’s face was disfigured in the fire; leaving him with a horrible skeletal appearance.
After only just managing to escape Dr Death with their lives Bruce and Lucius are rushed to hospital, where Bruce later wakes from a vivid dream-like memory of events where he was once incarcerated, to find Alfred at his bedside informing him that his fight with Dr Death has left him suffering from a cranial fracture. Lieutenant Gordon arrives to question Bruce about what he knows about Dr Death so they can prevent any more scientists being killed.
What follows gives us a much deeper insight into the bitter animosity Bruce holds towards Gordon and the GCP Police department. Batman #26 opens with the young Bruce Wayne playing truant and watching a film alone at the Theater, a film that will soon hold great significance as that fateful night in Crime Alley draws near. Bruce remembers how Gordon and his partner, Detective Dan Corrigan, drove him back to the station, stopping at several businesses along the way, just “checking in” to protect their neighbourhood, and receiving a gift along the way. It is this gift, the trench coat that Gordon still wears today, that exemplifies how much Bruce doesn’t trust Gordon, considering him just as corrupt as the rest of the GCPD, before turning the tables on the Lieutenant as he confronts him with the one memory he can never, ever forget.
Capullo’s striking redesign for Dr Death has given the character a complete overhaul, Helfern’s face and body are now horrifically distorted, his mouth is a mass of jagged teeth, and his bones continue to grow and twist whenever he is injured. I loved the scenes where he almost crushes Bruce’s skull, leaping from the darkness, his back a twisted mass of bones. While he looks radically different, Dr Death’s return in The New 52 is a clear homage to the characters Golden and Silver age appearances, and Snyder cleverly integrates the character into Zero Year with the added twist of introducing Lucius Fox and his connection to the team that originally helped Helfern develop the formula.
I also really enjoyed the flashbacks where young Bruce is at the Theater and Gordon acts as truant officer, Greg Capullo transports us back to this moment in time, and brilliantly conveys the emotional impact of these scenes as events unfold and gradually merge into the present, when Bruce confronts Gordon at the hospital. The scenes with Dr Death are also wonderfully dark and horrific, with Danny Miki’s inks and FCO Plascencia’s colors bringing an added sense of revulsion and horror to this ghoulish character. It’s also interesting to note how the colors and tones alter as the time shifts between the past, the present and back again on a number of occasions in Batman #26, completely drawing you into the story.
With super storm Rene closing in on Gotham, we rejoin Batman as he races across the bay in the Bat Boat in an attempt to save the two remaining scientist hired in his group at the Newton Centre before Dr Death can reach them. Once inside the building, a weather centre set up by Philip Kane to research and develop technologies weaponizing weather; Batman finds he is too late. The scientists have already been injected with the formula, they are beyond help but before he can act the GCPD surprise Batman and open fire…
Batman #26 may keep the Riddler in the background, but his presence is never far from the main storyline, and Nygma’s role in events is beginning to take shape as his web slowly closes around Bruce Wayne and Gotham. As well as brining back Dr Death, Scott Snyder also explores Lucius Fox’s place in the Bat Mythos. It’s also interesting to see Bruce and Gordon at this early stage in their lives, and I look forward to seeing how Snyder will forge the foundations of the bond that one day will make Gordon one of Batman’s most trusted allies. The cliff hanger ending puts Batman in mortal danger, but somehow I think bullet wounds are going to be the least of his worries.
As well as seeing the debut of another Bat-Vehicle, the Bat Boat / Bat Jet Ski, in Batman #26, this issue also has a fantastic cover by Capullo and FCO Plascencia, with Batman standing on Dr Death’s skeletal hand before a dusty twilight sky. The variant cover by Dustin Nguyen is really striking as well, with Dr Death peering out at us, milky wet eye gleaming in a face of distorted bone, pointed teeth locked in a vicious sneer.
I have enjoyed every issue of Zero Year so far, Snyder and Capullo have done a fantastic job of revisiting Batman’s origin. We will have to wait a little while longer though to see how the Dark City story arc of Zero Year will end, as Scott Snyder has announced a change to the scheduling for February’s Batman #28, originally solicited as the finale of this arc, Batman #28 will now be a special “spoiler” issue written by Snyder, James Tynion, and drawn by Dustin Nguyen, that will take place six years in the future and offer us a glimpse of what to expect in 2014. March’s Batman #29 will then take us back into the Zero Year storyline and conclude the Dark City arc.
Scott Snyder made this Bat-Announcement on Twitter this Tuesday (10th December), to thank all the fans of the series for their support. This special issue sounds brilliant and I would just like to say a big thank you back to Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and all the Bat-Team for making Zero Year such an exciting story that has kept me enthralled right from the start. So read and enjoy Batman #26 safe in the knowledge that 2014 now has even more surprises for us to look forward to.