This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond). This is the second instalment.
Every craft brewery has it’s flagship beer. They brew other beers, sure, and some of those other beers might even be better – at least, they’re usually more interesting – but they have that one for which they’re known, which is available year-round. Understandably, this staple brew tends to be something plain and simple, enormously drinkable, a satisfying twist on something familiar. Frequently, it’s a refreshing lager, not unlike Steamwhistle’s sole pilsner.
Three separate flagship takes on the same basic style of beer is what forms the basis of my first three beer-and-Batman pairings. Year One (a book which only aims to do one thing, and does it really, really well) was paired with Steamwhistle (which likewise, does one thing really, really well.) Today, we’re reading a decidedly different take on Batman’s origin story, and pairing it with a decidedly different craft brewer (and one of my favourites) Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company. Beau’s brews a wide variety of beers, a constantly rotating variety of seasonal offerings, usually demonstrating exceptional ambition and creativity. Their flagship beer, Lug Tread Lagered Ale, is deceptively basic, while straddling the lines between the two categories of beers: lagers and ales. It is top-fermented using an ale yeast, but is cold aged like a lager, making a uniquely refreshing ale, or otherwise, a uniquely flavourful lager.
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year, similarly, takes a unique approach to a very familiar story. But, at three times the length of Miller & Mazzuchelli’s Year One, there’s another reason this pairing works so well: Beau’s Lug Tread is packaged in sizable 600 mL bottles. Get comfortable and open a bottle, folks, because we’re going to be here for a while.
Published through 2013 and 2014, Zero Year is similar to Year One in at least one regard: both were born of DC editorial decisions to irrevocably adjust continuity, thus necessitating a new take on Batman’s origins. At first, though, those adjustments did not seem quite as irrevocable. It was all the Flash’s fault; due to the Flash tampering with the time stream, the DC Universe was momentarily turned into a bleak place: Bruce Wayne was shot instead of his parents, with Thomas Wayne becoming the Batman and Martha Wayne becoming the Joker; Superman was imprisoned and experimented upon by the government; Wonder Woman and Aquaman were opposing generals in a war between the Amazons and Atlantis. The Flash, being a decent guy despite his indiscretions as a time traveler, did his best to set things right, and was mostly successful in this effort, but the DC Universe which he restored was arbitrarily different wherever it suited the whims of DC editorial (or maybe just the whims of each different book’s creative team – I can’t hold Dan DiDio at fault for everything, after all).
Batman, however, was largely unaltered, except for one detail: his entire crime fighting career was condensed to only six years, same as all his Justice League cohorts. Certainly, this was a neat fix to the problem of the characters’ ages, but it led to a whole host of inadvertent continuity problems. Example: How did Bruce Wayne sire a son, now twelve years old, with Talia al-Ghul, if the two only met as a result of him being Batman? Another: How is Jim Gordon’s son an infant in Year One, when in present day continuity, he is a psychopath in his twenties? This led to the inexorable, painful, horrible conclusion that Year One was no longer in continuity, thus saddling Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo with the unenviable task of reinventing Batman’s early days all over again.
Snyder and Capullo, luckily, are really goddamn great. Snyder is definitively a better writer than Frank Miller, which is no mean feat, considering he hasn’t even been writing comics for a decade yet. However, even he seems to balk at the notion of rewriting Year One, and instead decides to craft a story so decidedly different that it hardly even invites comparisons to Miller and Mazzuchelli’s classic. Recall Year One’s opening sequence, then compare it to Zero Year’s:
This ain’t your grandpa’s Batman. This ain’t your daddy’s Batman either, and, frankly, it might not even be yours. What it is, however, is a hell of a hook, but due to the aforementioned length of this story, it will take a little time to deliver on that hook’s promise.
From that point, we move backward, three months earlier: Bruce Wayne is disguised with prosthetics, facing down the violent Red Hood Gang which is terrorizing Gotham City. This is the sort of proto-Batman vigilantism which Year One covered with that early encounter with Selina Kyle, but reinvented here as a widescreen, big budget action film: a truck full of hostages dangles off the roof of a building; Alfred and Bruce’s back-and-forth make it clear that, while the stakes are high, the risk is higher; Bruce Wayne, not the calculated and measured strategist of Year One, is bold and defiant, even offering the Red Hood Gang a one-finger salute after executing the mid-air rescue before dropping into the Gotham harbour.
Zero Year does not hew toward the literary or the subtle; it is big, bold and brazen. But not so brazen as to contradict Year One in any meaningful way; if you choose (like I do), Zero Year can comfortably be read as a between-the-panels, apocryphal story of Batman’s early days, with just a few contradictions which are not much greater than the usual continuity goofs that occur in any sprawling property crafted by multiple creators. By positioning the Red Hood Gang as the adversary of the story’s first half, Snyder gives himself pretty free rein to flesh out a story that is acknowledged as continuity, but which is not covered in Year One.
That is one of the plot threads here that work; due to Snyder’s mission statement of this book being the “anti-Year One,” however, he only seems to let himself choose from any threads which Year One did not handle. While the Red Hood Gang is pretty great, Bruce’s evil uncle Philip Kane is, well, less so. It’s a decent attempt at grounding and humanizing Bruce Wayne, by linking him to his family and his company, and I understand this move, narratively: Year One let Gordon occupy the emotional heart of the story, thus it figures there would be a little deeper to delve into Bruce.
But attempting to plumb Bruce Wayne’s depths end up a little uninteresting, treating us to stories of Bruce’s attempts to sneak away from his rich, privileged life to experience Gotham City as a “no one,” while his two-dimensional, saintly father dispenses mostly meaningless advice, all while wearing a ball-cap which inexplicably has the same “R” insignia which Batman’s sidekick Robin will one day wear. Thomas Wayne may have a confusing ball-cap, but he is lacking one feature: a mustache. When DC semi-reinvented their universe (as detailed above), one detail which the Flash’s time-meddling pretty consistently erased was facial hair. The famously goateed Green Arrow, now clean shaven; assassin Deadshot’s glorious mustache, now replaced with a smooth upper lip. Thomas Wayne, too, falls victim to DC’s no-facial-hair policy, and it might not be so problematic if Greg Capullo, an otherwise stellar artist, could draw two faces that look different from each other without a distinguishing feature like a mustache.
In this decidedly B plot, Evil Uncle Philip schemes with his corporation’s super-villain-in-residence, because any company of a certain size with a vague mission statement naturally keeps a super-villain on salary. This particular super-villain is Edward Nygma, whose job description even Evil Uncle Philip seems unsure of, despite consulting Nygma for advice, even when that advice is to kill Bruce Wayne (even though Bruce, at this point, is already legally declared dead and has no interest in taking an active role in the family’s vague business.)
This plot to kill Bruce Wayne serves at least to pull the B plot and A plot together, as Nygma enlists the Red Hood Gang to dispatch with our not-exactly-troublesome hero, and the Red Hood Gang very nearly do the job. Having taken the first beating of his short crime fighting career, Bruce returns to the family manor to have existential doubts. Even this pivotal, defining “I-shall-become-a-bat” moment gets a big budget makeover, due to a hologram machine of his father’s making, which projects an image of the cave beneath the manor, and of the bats who inhabit it. Just a bat flying through the study window, evidently, is not quite enough to inspire this more hotheaded Bruce Wayne, but the results are the same: he becomes the Batman, and as always, it’s pretty awesome.
From Batman’s debut, through to the resolution of the Red Hood plot, it’s a hell of satisfying read, with some incredible, iconic moments. This, it should be noted, is all of a single issue, before that B plot takes over in a wholly unexpected, absolutely bonkers manner. This comes to fruition in the book’s second act (and it’s second collected edition), which is subtitled “Dark City,” but not before giving us some new plot threads to follow. One is the basic GCPD-versus-Batman story; the vigilante case is, of course, hoisted onto Jim Gordon. The other plot has Batman always a few steps ahead of Jim Gordon on a gruesome serial murder case. Though these plots play together a lot more effectively than the dual threads of the book’s first act, one of these plots is a lot more interesting than the other.
This book’s treatment of the Gordon-and-Batman dynamic is it’s first serious contradiction of Year One, but stranger still, rather than being a bold break from tradition like the rest of the book, it stands out as the least bold and least interesting storytelling decision that Scott Snyder makes in Zero Year. Snyder tries to offer a personal tie between the two men, by having both, in their own way, be defined by the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne. This, incidentally, also serves as the secret origin of Jim Gordon’s trench coat, which is something that I, as a longtime Batman fan, never once wondered:
Bruce considers Gordon to be no better than any other cop in Gotham, because, as a child, he witnessed Gordon receiving his trench coat as a “gift” from a tailor, which Bruce, as an adult, recognizes was a payoff. Gordon, only three weeks into his job at the time he was given the coat, was naive to the way Gotham worked, but suspecting that the coat was indeed a payoff, he investigated the tailor after returning the truant young Bruce to his parents, to find that the tailor is indeed a front for a vicious dog-fighting ring. This causes him to be late walking his beat, too late to interrupt the murder of the Waynes in an alley behind a movie theatre. This failure, presumably, is what has kept Gordon so noble all these years, and he wears the trench coat to this day as a reminder.
The serial killer plot is much less heavy handed; someone calling himself Dr. Death is murdering scientists in a spectacularly gruesome manner, by dosing them with a serum that causes their skeletons to grow, warp and distort, tearing through their skin. Greg Capullo, a veteran of many a metal album cover, excels at this sort of thing. This is a good, creepy detective story, which, though at first it seems unrelated, plays right into the main story: Dr. Death is not just murdering scientists, he’s stealing material from each of them, all in the service of Edward Nygma, who has adopted his own super-villain persona: The Riddler.
The Riddler’s plot is big, implausible, wholeheartedly comic book-ish, and wholly unmotivated, but works precisely as planned: he constructs a doomsday device which controls the weather, knocking out Gotham’s power grid. Turning the grid back on triggers explosives which blow up the levees, flooding Gotham, turning it into an inaccessible no-man’s-land (this will not be the only time this happens to Gotham City.) For good measure, he’s stolen some research from a scientist named Pamela Isley, just to make sure that plant life reclaims the streets at an alarming rate. This, as far as I can tell, is just for dramatic effect. Having rigged all ways in and out of the city with explosives, the Riddler then gets to indulge his insane dream of being the ruler of a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
The Riddler is really, really good at being the ruler of a post-apocalyptic dystopia, because he brings an undisputed panache and style to the role. He addresses his subjects daily from the jumbo-tron in the city centre, saying that he will turn control of the city back to the people if anyone can pose him a riddle he can’t solve. If anyone poses him a riddle which he can solve, he drops that individual through a trapdoor. He seems to have no greater plan than this: evidently bored of always being the smartest man in the room, Edward Nygma seems to cripple Gotham just because he can, and he has a merry time doing it.
Batman seems to have a pretty merry time fighting back; because a post-apocalyptic dystopian city calls for a badass hero, Batman cosplays as The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon (complete with crossbow!) and challenges the Riddler. Of course, he’s dropped through the trapdoor, where he fights lions, because of course the Riddler has a lion-pit. He also has robots with automatic guns. (The Riddler is just the goddamn best at being a super-villain.) Rather than outwitting the Riddler, Batman takes his cues from the big action film that this is, and beats his most cerebral enemy with force. The day is saved.
Like Beau’s, Zero Year wholly commits to doing something which other people have done, but in a decidedly different way, but while a Beau’s Lug Tread is pretty much satisfying all the time, Zero Year is only satisfying sometimes. A little too long, a little too convoluted and a little too silly to ever achieve Year One’s iconic status as the definitive take on Batman’s origin, it is nevertheless an enormously fun superhero comic, and I do think Scott Snyder and Co. achieved precisely what they aimed to. While not essential reading, it does make for a fun apocryphal origin that helps establish a lot of the elements of the Batman mythos, and it is a hell of an entertaining read after a couple bottles of Beau’s.