After a month off, Batman returns to “Zero Year” with an extra large issue detailing the first adventures of the Batman and his war against the Red Hood gang. It also wraps up a few narrative threads while harking back to old ones. Batman #24 also features the births of two of Batman’s greatest adversaries. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo handle most of the story, while Snyder is joined by James Tynion IV in writing an epilogue with Rafael Albuquerque on art. All involved have massive shoes to fill if they want Zero Year to be on par with Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original version or Frank Miller’s classic Batman: Year One. On with the tale.
Batman starts his war on the Red Hood gang with a vengeance, capturing several members of the gang and pinning them to a billboard in the shape of a bat (in a shout out to metal and Hunter S. Thompson fans everywhere, the sign now reads “Welcome to Bat Country”). Red Hood #1, of course, is not happy; sending his goons to the bottom of the sea with a stomach full of cement and an anchor at their feet. Red Hood #1 finds Batman’s deeds are putting a crimp on his plans of terror; as Batman symbolizes stabilizing order and renewal in opposition to Red Hood’s favored chaos and fear. Batman, at the same time, realizes that the gang has been targeting Wayne Industries chemical depots, and starts to see a pattern. Bruce, with his new military style (and in Alfred’s words, “aerodynamic”) haircut, goes to confront his uncle Phillip Kane about what he might know. Phil reveals he tried to control the gang, but their leader outflanked him and disabled security and tracking systems so Phil cannot stop them. When Phil tried to call the police, the gang branded him with the words “Red Hood 347”. Phil does give Bruce access to the system, and the two relatives share a heart to heart where Phil begs Bruce to help save Gotham.
In the still incomplete Batcave (its sparse and rough appearance being a nod to the original design in the serials), Batman and Alfred realize that the Red Hood gang targeted every chemical depot but one. Realizing the location, and the materials used, Batman and Alfred know that the gang is up to something nasty. Bruce decides to use himself as bait and goes to make a speech in front of the location: ACE Chemicals. Police Commissioner Loeb, the famously corrupt commissioner from Year One, sends a few men under the command of Lieutenant James Gordon to watch the speech and crowd. There, Bruce gives a rousing speech in defiance of the Red Hood Gang and tells the citizens of Gotham to make the city a better one. He then reveals the plans of the gang; they’re mixing the chemicals to make very powerful bombs. The gang then attacks Bruce and the gathered crowd, captures Bruce as he enters the factory to investigate, and seals the factory from the police. Red Hood #1 taunts Bruce, stating that the bombs would cause the city to despair. He also notes that things will come full circle as this is the same night that fifteen years earlier marked the murder of the Waynes. Bruce laughs at this; stating that while the deaths of his parents were meaningless and random, their lives were not. To Bruce, it matters what you do in life that is far more important than how you die. He mocks the Red Hood leader, saying he has no cause. Before the Red Hood leader can kill Bruce, Alfred, from a nearby van with hacking equipment, blacks out the surrounding area; and of course, he shapes the area to look like a Bat. Bruce takes advantage of this to slip into costume, and when Alfred turns the lights back on, Batman attacks. Red Hood #1 runs to hide, and watches as Batman attacks. We see his face for the first time, albeit hidden in shadow and a reflection off his mask. As Alfred seals the cargo bay doors to prevent the bombs from leaving ACE Chemicals, Batman takes down the gang. When Red Hood #1 goes to shoot Batman, Red Hood 347, aka Phillip Kane, shoots at the Red Hood leader stop him. His shot deflects off of Red Hood #1’s helmet, and Phillip Kane is murdered in retaliation. As Batman goes to say goodbye to his uncle, the plant begins to explode due to unstable chemicals and an unattended bomb. Red Hood #1 makes his escape, and Batman is suddenly face to face with Gordon and his men. Batman knocks Gordon back with his grapnel, and then heads out of the factory. Gordon orders his men to clear the area. Batman catches up to Red Hood #1, who is escaping via helicopter, and launches his grapnel to drag the man back to Earth. Both men fall back into the building and fight on a collapsing catwalk. Batman holds out his hand, offering to save his adversary’s life, saying that the battle is over. Red Hood #1 grins, saying that it is just beginning, and allows himself to fall into the vat of chemicals below; behold the birth of Joker. In the epilogue, it is revealed that we still don’t know who Red Hood #1 is. The original founder of the gang was found in a barrel of lye; his time of death uncertain. Bruce doesn’t know whether he faced the founder’s killer, a patsy reading lines, or whether there was a last minute switch and the man who fell into the vat was in fact another person as Red Hood #1 made his escape. Alfred and Bruce then have a heart to heart talk about how Batman is good for Gotham, that his secret will be safe as long as he “plays” Batman right, and that Thomas and Martha Wayne would be proud of him. This is interrupted as Edward Nygma makes his debut as Riddler. Riddler delivers the second riddle of the Sphinx, and then plunges the city into darkness; bringing us to the opening moments of Zero Year, where Gotham is a No Man’s Land…..
Snyder may be retreading old and sacred ground, but he revitalizes the stories for the year 2013. It’s interesting to see a brash, headstrong, and one might say quippy, Batman/Bruce Wayne. Bruce’s speech in front of ACE Chemicals is a powerful one about not giving into fear, and works well for the character. Red Hood #1 is at his most proto-Jokerish with his speech on chaos and destruction; the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character being a subtle influence on the character. While Phillip Kane had been a somewhat villainous character throughout the story so far, his reversal due to the horror of dealing with the gang and his attempt at redemption is tragic and heartbreaking. Alfred telling Bruce that his parents would be proud is also profoundly moving. As for WHO Joker really is, Snyder and Tynion cleverly leave that mystery alone. In a nod to the “multiple choice” line Joker gives about his origins, we readers are also given multiple options to decide who Joker really was. Was he a madman who took over the gang? A stooge picked at random? A sacrificial lamb so his leader could escape? That is subject to debate. Snyder delivers several powerful moments in the space of this extra large issue; and has firmly made a Batman origin tale to rival its legendary predecessors.
Capullo’s art, as usual, is a perfect match for Snyder. Even under the hood, his Red Hood #1 is creepy. Capullo does an awesome job illustrating the distortions in the reflection on his helmet to make it nearly impossible to figure out who was under the Hood but his face is still recognizably Joker-ish. Bruce still sports some scars from his beatdown in issue #23, but with his new haircut (I’m still scratching my head for the rational behind that other than to look awesome because you can’t see that under the cowl) Bruce looks like a tough guy that could intimidate anyone. Yet, there is still an innocence and youthfulness to 25 year old Bruce that will be lost in the seven years between Zero Year and the present. Capullo also wonderfully depicts ACE Chemicals and its subsequent destruction in a way that perhaps has not been seen since the 1989 Batman film. As for smaller moments, Capullo gives Batman saying goodbye to his uncle a poignant feel. Albuquerque’s style jars a bit with Capullo’s (especially in regard to Alfred’s hair) but he does an excellent job of delivering the grotesque remains of the original leader of the Red Hood Gang (as well as the reactions of Gordon and Co upon finding them), as well as the heartwarming hug between Alfred and Bruce. His Riddler, wearing a much rougher version of his present day costume, maintains the smug and arrogant nature of the character. His depiction of Riddler’s sending Gotham into darkness is also very well done.
However, I will say my favorite piece of art in this story is Capullo’s version of that classic cover on Detective Comics #27 from almost 75 years ago:
Snyder and Capullo gave an interview about how they came up with this image which I recommend you read.
The first act of “Zero Year” comes to a powerful close. We will be returning to how we first saw Gotham as the story began, we have the birth of Joker, and the rise of Riddler. It will be interesting to see how this will continue to progress and to see how Riddler is a much deadlier enemy than many of us could have imagined. Snyder, Capullo and company have truly made a Batman origins tale that could easily stand the test of time alongside its legendary predecessors. And this issue only shows there are greater things to come.
10 out of 10