Visually it’s one of the most impressive comics you’ll read this month, story-wise Scott Snyder’s Zero Year has never opened itself up to more comparison to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.

In fact, if Red Hood One does indeed turn out to be the Clown Prince of Crime one day then Batman #23 will serve as a more important chapter in that character’s origin because if you pay attention to the dialogue he lets details about his life slip here and there (of course, who can believe a liar like the Joker?).

Batman #23 is a really, really quick read because it’s told mostly through the stirring imagery of a broken and beaten Bruce who is about to have the iconic “I shall become a bat.” moment.

Beautiful Book

The art is jaw-dropping. Absolutely gorgeous. And it’s the work of Capullo, Miki, and FCO that really drives this issue. It’s visual storytelling at it’s best with everyone pulling their weight, especially colorist FCO. If it wasn’t for FCO’s diverse color palette then some pages simply would not have worked. Snyder jumps back and forth between Bruce’s childhood years, the present, and about an hour or so into the future from panel to panel to panel. There are no time-stamps or anything, it’s all up to FCO’s colors to let the reader know where they are in time. When we flash forward an hour or two the colors are drained. Muted tones. A dreary grey saturates everything as Bruce pushes forward in pain. Wayne Tower is made up of reds, blues, and violets. And then… as the big moment arrives we see a return to the color choices FCO made in the first two Batman Arc’s Court of Owls and Death of the Family. Amazing stuff. We’ve seen the colors get more varied and vibrant with every issue but this is the most spellbinding installment yet. I was occasionally reminded of Jose Villarrubia, colorist of Batman: Year 100, who often uses bright neon-like colors in his work. This page in particular was a real treat:

pretty colors

And of course, you have to praise Greg Capullo and Danny Miki, but what more can be said at this point? Here Capullo distorts panels to show us Bruce’s shaken perspective, gives us the horrible sense of overwhelming violence not by focusing on the damage but on the moments right before impact, and while all eyes will certainly be on the struggling Bruce don’t neglect to look at the backgrounds. The scenery of the underground and the framing of Bruce stumbling in front of an old tree beside the road is really impressive.

Let the Comparison Begin

Until this point Scott Snyder has done a brilliant job of steering clear of anything remotely resembling prior Batman origin stories to try and make something totally his own. And if you’ve read his notes in Batman Zero Year: Director’s Cut #1 then you will see that that was indeed part of his mission. He even gave instruction to FCO and the rest of the art team to give the book a colorful look and that he would even lean toward science fiction more than crime noir in some aspects of the story. But chapter three shows us a moment in Bruce’s journey that we have seen countless times before but here there is a different excuse for his injuries tied closely to the classic rogues gallery and Snyder gave a sci-fi twist on the bat-crashes-through-a-window scene. I’ll discuss this and other things in more detail in the following spoiler-filled paragraphs, but just know that I thought Snyder’s version of that pivotal moment came short of the drama of Miller’s. After all, if it wasn’t for the bat flying through the window in Miller’s interpretation, Bruce would’ve bled to death. It was a revelation in a life or death situation and Zero Year’s version isn’t.

Skip on down to the “Overall” section if you don’t want spoilers. All images from Batman #23 were preview images that make up the opening scene and really you can sort of guess how the story plays out just from those few pages. The main thing that holds this issue back from being as great as the previous two chapters is that it feels the least new. As soon as the Red Hood exits things play out as you might expect.

The Beating

Beating

At the end of last month’s chapter it looked as though Red Hood One had tracked the vigilante down somehow and was ready to take his revenge, but in this issue we learn that Edward Nygma went ahead and hired the Red Hood gang to kill the Wayne heir against Philip Kane’s wishes. Red Hood One and his gang don’t know that Bruce is the vigilante giving them all that trouble when they planted bombs in Bruce’s apartment.

Bruce is stunned by the explosion and for some that will be enough to suspend your disbelief that Bruce would get the crap beat out of him and for others it won’t. This is where we get our first comparison to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. In Year One, Bruce took a beating while he was on the job as a vigilante. His first attempt at fighting crime ended in failure because nobody was scared of him. By not instilling fear he was more open to attack and by appearing to be just a man he did not command any immediate respect as a larger than life figure. Out on the streets a man — no matter how much he has trained– is still susceptible to injury and death. So he puts on a scary outfit and sets out to create a legend, right? And in the world of comics that scary costume did just enough to make criminals around the city do things that gave Bruce that extra edge, those extra seconds to use martial arts and the gadgets he had at his disposal. Criminals hesitated, they missed shots, they cowered in fear, and they ran for their lives. Eventually the only thing that could match Batman were costumed criminals.

In Snyder’s version, Bruce is actually pretty successful as a vigilante. Sure, nobody is afraid of him but he also has not been facing down criminals directly. His tactics haven’t required him to create a scary persona like Batman and he hasn’t been putting himself in street-level situations where he doesn’t know what he’s up against either. Heck, he’s not been shown setting foot on the streets to deal with common crooks whatsoever. He instead has been fighting costumed felons (who have appeared in Gotham before the rise of Batman). Even more surprising, the establishing shots show us a Gotham that doesn’t even appear to be all that bad. It’s clean. It’s bright.

But back to the beating, when Bruce is injured it’s not because his crime-fighting methods are ineffective! He was almost killed because he is Bruce Wayne, not because he is the vigilante. He wasn’t even out on patrol! So for me the reason for the change in tactics to the more frightening Batman persona isn’t as strong in this telling of the Batman origin. It would seem (we won’t really know until the next installment) that he’s changing tactics not out of necessity or desperation but simply because he’s angry. No more sneaking around for Bruce. He’s sick and tired of facing down Red Hood and his gang again and again. He’s inconveniencing them, but not bringing them down. No, he’s going to look mean and scary and he’s going to face this threat head-on and bring it down for good.

The last thing I’ll say about the beating Bruce took in Batman #23 is that it’s far more severe than what we saw in Batman: Year One and it was also way more visually interesting. However, it went too far. In Year One Bruce was (I think) shot, stabbed, and he was even in a car accident so it was a bit of a stretch to believe that he would walk all the way home in that story, too. But in Zero Year? Bruce is blown up, struck with a mace, bashed with an ax, punched with a metal gauntlet, and shot twice! He suffers all of this and then walks all the way back to Wayne Manor. At least in Year One he was in disguise so nobody would recognize it’s Bruce Wayne who is hurt. And at least in Year One he was walking through a dilapidated, crime-ridden city that didn’t care who was hurt or why! But the media just went gaga over the story that Bruce is alive (so surely all of Gotham knows now. It’s the information age after all) and the city we’ve seen so far has been beautiful and relatively peaceful except for Red Hood. And I can’t stress enough– that’s a long way to walk with all those injuries! He’s not Wolverine and Wayne Manor is far from Gotham. For crying out loud, he’s still leaving a trail of blood as he walks up the driveway! And not just a drop here or there, it’s everywhere.

 I Shall Become a Bat

FrankMillerYearOne

First the bat flew through an open window, then the bat crashed through a closed window, and now Bruce activates a sci-fi 360-degree hologram ball that projects cave imagery onto the walls which attracts a bat to fly through an open window. One of these is not timeless and that’s the one from Zero Year. It’s such a simple notion that a bat would appear in his home at his most desperate hour and that would be revelation. It was timeless. You could take that idea and plant it anywhere in history in which there are windows and bats and the origin of Batman works. But adding a 360-degree projector-ball as an integral part of what inspired Bruce to become Batman? This I do not like. Also, if you want to get extra nitpicky (and why not? At this point, we’re creeping up on 2,000 words) it was kind of odd that the ball broke from the 2-ft drop to the floor when it was still fully operational after falling to the bottom of a cavern. But I suppose the gadget degrades over the years and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This whole scene was beautifully presented. Whereas Miller’s inner monologue drove the scene, Snyder leaves it up to the imagery. I especially liked the two-page spread that had the silhouette of the cave and we could see Bruce through the openings between stalactites and stalagmites and FCO added a neat digital effect around Bruce to illustrate the projection of the ball. And then there’s that full-page shot of Bruce standing before the open window that now has the look of a cave and all those bats are flying through him. It’s stunning. Visually stunning. But even with the voice-over of Bruce’s father adding greater significance to the moment I still found that it fell short of Bruce’s life or death moment from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. In that he had to ring the bell or he would die and he wouldn’t ring it unless he had a sign, which was the bat. I prefer the moment with tension. And I can’t help but wonder if Snyder and company would have dropped the scene entirely and created something wholly new (as they have many other elements of Batman’s origin story so far) if they hadn’t already touched on this scene in one of the Court of Owl arc’s flashbacks.

Owl

Where’s Martha? Where was the mom? We even get a callback to the hand-in-hand shot from Batman Begins between father and son, but where is Martha? She’s not even present when the EMTs arrive to cart Bruce off to the hospital. I’m pretty disappointed in how Martha has been handled in Zero Year so far when Snyder and Tynion did such a fantastic job giving that character something to do in the Fall of the House of Wayne backup story.

One last thing…

“Cain.” How is that not the worst password ever? Philip Kane’s voice-activated password for triggering a magnet in the floor (when he has a magnetic plate in his head) is “Cain.” Kane and Cain sound exactly the same. Plus, he’s the boss. Everyone is going to be calling him by his last name. It was hard not to laugh when when Philip whimpered “The password. How did you–”

Still, this is a really great start to giving the Riddler a decent origin. I’m not a fan of the mutton-chops but other than that his look and characterization are everything I could ever have hoped for for this character. We might be on the verge of a really spectacular Riddler story.

The Pit

At the age of 24, Bruce fought in a deathmatch in a pit 106 miles northeast of Harstad, Norway. He won without even killing anybody. While I loved the Rafael’s art and the cold colors, this 5 page action-short is easily the least memorable of the backups so far. It shows us that Bruce is tough as nails and knows how to fight, but we already knew that. What it doesn’t actually show us how Bruce trained to get good enough to survive in a situation like this and it’s those details that have made the backups interesting. Also, for a brief moment I thought that the woman in charge of the deathmatch might be Red Claw from Batman: The Animated Series, but it was a false alarm. For some reason I thought Red Claw had an eyepatch but she doesn’t. Fun fact, if you’ve seen the show “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix (and you should, it’s a great show) the character named Red is played by the same actress who voiced Red Claw. But anyway, it was a fun backup that showed Bruce being a total bad ass, but I would like to see where he got his training BEFORE entering this fight.

Overall

With such a long review you might think I didn’t like this thing, but I did. It’s just that this is an incredibly important piece of the Batman mythology we’re dealing with here so I have a lot to say. Batman #23 is a must-buy for any Batman fan who wants in on the discussion and any comic fan who loves great artwork. Do I think that the changes made here improved on the Batman origin? Not really but it’s not too drastic to keep me from enjoying this story. There weren’t as many surprises this issue because it repeats a lot of beats from previous origin stories, but I think that we can expect big things to come, especially from The Riddler.

SCORE: 8/10