Yes, I really do think that this is the weakest issue of the New 52 Batman series so far and here’s why…
First of all, the cover by Jock is awesome. It’s so damn gritty and moody and you just look at it and know you’re in for something heavy, but unfortunately you’re not. And putting “Zero Year” in big bold letters might as well be considered false advertising because the story appears to take place sometime after the incarceration of Clayface in issue #20 and the only mention of Zero Year occurs on one. Single. Page.
The story itself starts out quite well. The narration is from the perspective of a man who has just moved to Gotham and this is his first night on the job as an orderly in Arkham Asylum. You turn the page and see that someone else is moving into Arkham tonight as well, The Batman. Will this be like Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum” or more like Alan Grant’s “Last Arkham” or something else entirely? From then on we learn that Batman is cooperating with Jeremiah Arkham (something I don’t think he would ever do because the New 52 Arkham is an absolute creep who Batman knows is corrupt to his core) to test the new security measures in the asylum. Besides the trust in Jeremiah, it’s a terrific premise. But from that point on things go downhill.
First we are introduced to a rather supernatural old lady (extremely old. she can’t die apparently) who has a wing of Arkham all to herself. Then we learn that Arkham doesn’t really treat its patients at all anymore– this is something that won’t bother most but I like the idea of Arkham only being used for the crazies who need treatment and the common crooks go to a more typical prison like Stonegate or Blackgate. The fresh perspective of the new orderly is abandoned and we get a Batman who is very chatty. Sure, he’s informing Arkham of all the weaknesses in the facility, but I also feel like the real Batman would make mental notes (throw this stuff in a narration box) and then give Jeremiah a full rundown when the exercise was over. Better yet, he would type it all up and send it to Gordon or someone he actually trusts. After all, we saw in an issue of (I think it was) Detective Comics that Batman knew Jeremiah was operating secret passageways within the prison.
Batman’s escape itself is just kind of absurd. Batman’s a scientist and his experiment has a whole lot of flaws. It starts off with Batman going on about how great it is to seclude the inmates from all human contact and that just makes me groan because I like to think that Batman really does want these villains to get better, especially someone like Harvey and that’s not going to happen in what is essentially a dungeon. After praising the level of isolation, Batman mentions how the bars are made of pure tungsten but a chemist like Scarecrow could easily sneak a bio-degradable tube of carborane acid into a callus under his palm and melt the bars (apparently a 1-inch vile goes a long way). I can accept all of this. Fine. But then he sets foot onto pressure-sensitive plates and the alarms go off. You’d think “Okay, fine. End of experiment.” But then Batman says that the plates would be no match for someone like Man-Bat. Well, for one, Man-Bat has never been a criminal that’s been apprehended in the New 52 universe. He just came into being in issue #19 and is currently a free man. Secondly, I would hope someone would use the antidote for the Man-Bat serum before locking THE Man-Bat or just a nameless Man-Bat in a cell. And third, this is not how you do an experiment. The test is over, really. You proved that the one guy who can melt the bars is screwed as soon as he walks out of the cell and that the only guy who can skip the pressurized floor can’t melt the bars. So unless there’s a guy villain I don’t know about who starts off as Scarecrow, morphs into Man-Bat, and then transforms again into Killer Croc– the facility is secure.
Another thing that got tiresome fast was the big villain Anchoress, who is also Gotham’s first ever patient. She’s like a hundred years old and has the ability to phase through things. Instead of Kitty Pryde, think Crazy-Old-Cat-Lady Pryde. If there’s one thing I hate about the New 52, it’s that masks and meta-humans existed in Gotham before the arrival of the Batman and Anchoress was a girl who loved experimental physics and crashed into a bunch of mystery test-tubes that exploded and killed her parents but gave her extraordinary powers. She now hates the Batman because apparently Arkham Asylum actually functioned as a hospital before he showed up. Now all they do is lock up psychos. It’s a pretty good motivation for her character, really. I just don’t like her character.
The only bit of Zero Year material you’ll find here is a single page depicting a young Bruce snagging files from the Arkham archives. While he’s doing this the crazy old lady yells at him and he has to run out of the building. That’s it. Just a single page of that.
One of the biggest flaws of the book is one shared by Scott Snyder’s other protegee, James Tynion when he first started writing comics. See, the story was plotted out by Snyder but his student Marguerite Bennett scripted this comic. It’s structured pretty well, but like Tynion’s early work, she doesn’t let the artwork do enough of the talking. It’s over-narrated and the speech bubbles are quite massive. While I was intrigued by the idea of telling the story from an orderly’s point-of-view, it turned out that the character only existed so the Anchoress would have someone to monologue at. Page after page, Anchoress details her entire life story and explains what her powers are and moments like that bored me to tears.
The artwork by Wes Craig was something else I found fairly unimpressive. Especially in the last half of the book. There’s a real absence of detail and it reminded me more of the sort of quality I expect to see from the DC Digital first releases like Arkham Unhinged. Every backdrop is too empty and clean and the colors by Ian Hannin were too flat.
Midway through the book I was just ready for it to end. It’s way too wordy, I found the villain uninteresting, and the artwork by Wes Craig is a major step down in quality compared to what we get on a monthly basis from Capullo. Spending $5 (yes, it’s an annual so it’s $5) to watch Batman get the crap beat out of him by an old lady with Martian Manhunter powers isn’t all that appealing to me and when the cover is the very best aspect of a book, it’s really not worth it.