Tuesday, June 17, 2014

[New 52] Batman by Scott Snyder issue #29, ZERO YEAR

Oh my, this is a polarizing issue. It's a bag of almost even pros and cons. It's as if for every great thing I could praise it for, I could easily follow it up with a criticism of either a related or unrelated nature. Still, this very last installment of Zero Year's Dark City is a proof that I can enjoy a Batman story, be endlessly entertained and/or driven to near-tears because of poignancy, and still be able to zero-in on its flaws.

Here is the bottom line though: this issue is amazing even if it stuck its landing rather shakily at the very end. There are great storytelling moments and symbolic imagery here that one can only expect from a great team-up that included a writer of Synder's caliber whose vision is brought forth by the complementary styles of artists Capullo, Miki and FCO. Overall, the art composition is once again unparalleled and I think I should make a general declaration that each Zero Year issue had been a visual adventure of the highest level of quality and excitement (even the weakest of the bunch, issue #26, even had its thrills). The minimalist covers also need a much-deserved shout-out because it's the first time that I encountered superhero comics (but I'm basing this on my 30% quota of comics read in general) that don't overdo the message on their covers to get attention. They've been very atmospheric and non-deceptive (which some comic book covers apt to do to sell copies), which only reels in readers because they promise a sense of not only danger but mystery.

That said, Zero Year had its share of downs. The first three issues (Secret City) challenged Snyder and co. to set up important pieces before they go in motion for the next installments, often favoring emotionally-nuanced characterizations than action-oriented sequences to tell the story, which eventually paid off when Dark City's issues #24 and #25 rolled around because these two are definitely the best of the series for me because all that build-up I witnessed on the first three arcs was realized in their well-balanced and tantalizing pages. However, there had been pacing issues on #26 and #27 (the former suffered anti-climactic brevity, while the latter suffered having too much story to tell with little room to expound on them). And then we took a break from the series to get a sneak preview of Batman: Eternal for issue #28 which was quite an effective decision for readers to truly look forward to this double-sized issue #29.

I think I should start pointing out the flaws for this issue before we get to the good stuff because I quite frankly don't like to bitch about things I didn't like in a Batman story because it's often the imperfections of a literary work that enhances its own strengths as well. My first nitpick has to be the threads scattered in each issue that somehow loop together in this story at last (the Tokyo Moon song in #27, the military crater now-confirmed flashback in #25) but whose punch might not have its desired impact if this series is read monthly (which it was, I was lucky enough to read them all together by now) because you might have to pick up the last issue to remember what the reference pertains to. I have some stuff to say about this later that are leaning more on the positive side, though, so let's skip that and go to my second nitpick: the villain monologue-ing of Doctor Death. It's just ridiculous! Snyder seems to have a knack for having villains make speeches in places where Batman can't possibly hear anything they say! They're also needlessly verbose and their length sometimes rob what could have been a punch to the gut if written and delivered shorter. I still get the point of Doctor Death's story (and I did talk about how completely one-dimensional he is in his first appearance in #26) but it's hard to care about him anymore when you know he'll probably die after Batman wraps up the fight.

My third nitpick has to be the shock-value scenes like the Bat-blimp, for example. In the right context, flashy and daring gadgets from Batman can be acceptable and even overlooked (like, say, in Batman '66 because that's the era where campy is part of the appeal). In a serious, gritty story like Zero Year, it just feels like it's trying too hard to pay homage to a certain time in Batman's mythos that are dissonant with the tone of New 52 Batman. So I didn't quite like that, especially when you only see it for at least four pages. Lastly, is how much we don't get that much Riddler. I don't consider him a top favorite from the rogues' gallery but I wish he gets the spotlight soon, considering this is his elaborate scheme Batman has to clean up.

So those are my criticisms for this issue. Now let's get to the good stuff because what's the point of reading Batman comics if I don't get to fangirl about why he is the greatest superhero of all time for this geekily in love Bat-fan? First, the Frank Miller homage for The Dark Knight Returns. You know what I'm talking about: the intimidating shadow of Batman posed to kick ass as he jumps in the air against the lightning that etched the ominous sky. Here Capullo shamelessly gave us a full-paged illustration. Secondly, the gorgeously colored and highly-detailed scenes on the fight scene between Bats and Dr. D, and the depiction of Gotham City in ruins and its residents struggling to stay alive. Thirdly, and probably my most favorite of them all, are the flashback scenes concerning Bruce and his parents. The very first page shows a man with a gun which turned out to be just a recruitment poster of the GCPD task force. Synder made that conversation between young Bruce and his folks so endearing and sweet, even though their impending deaths are coming on crime alley later on. And then we cut to the last pages of the issue where Capullo spliced scenes from Batman howling in anger and despair as he sees Gotham fall into chaos while he can't do anything; and young Bruce watching his childhood crumble apart as his parents are murdered in front of him and no one is there to help. It was breathtakingly poignant; the desperate vigilante and the scarred boy coming into focus all at one in that sequence. One seam was unraveled, a trigger was pulled, and everything has never been the same since.

Now I talked about Doctor Death's villain monologue earlier and how exasperating it was to read it but the message was certainly resonant nevertheless. Doctor Death talks about the song "Tokyo Moon" that soldiers in World War II would listen to and whose title some of them would carve into their helmets to remind them that someone out there is watching and keeping them safe. But Doctor Death negates this, seeing as he lost his own son, the solider from the military crater flashback from a previous issue, from a tragic encounter in the desert so he reasons out that the moon we see in the sky is not a reassurance of hope but just a blank, hollow circle. No one comes to save you. When you die, you'll be all alone.

While I was reading this, I know I was going to tear up if I allow it. The message may be sort of heavy-handed but if you're a long-time and fiercely loyal Batman fan like I am, you will see the connection instantly. Doctor Death's soliloquy might have been the inspiration behind Batman using a bat-signal as his calling card. It's not just to remind criminals that the Dark Knight will punish them; it's also a symbol of optimism that gives Gothamites faith that someone is going to save them. They will not die alone because someone will fight for them. Bruce knew firsthand the harrowing experience of having no one in the world to help him during the bleakest time of his life, and so he made vow in honor and memory of his parents' deaths that no little boy or girl or ordinary citizen will taste that bitter pain for themselves, not on Batman's watch.

I'm sorry, I'm going to cry now for a bit before I resume typing.

[short pause]

And we're back. So those two things are the best features for this issue. For those alone, I would have rated this issue a perfect score but I won't because it did have those problems I talked about that a less emotional Batman fan will be uncomfortable with, or couldn't just let pass. But like I said, the bottom line is that this last installment of Dark City was at least emotionally satisfying for me even with a couple of misses here and there that are mostly technical or have grating implications (like that big-ass Bat-blimp. I mean, Bruce Wayne has made a donation of blimps for the city so how the hell won't the GCPD make the connection sooner or later that the prodigal Bruce might also the caped crusader since his return and Batman's appearance are already so perfectly timed together? Wouldn't that make them incompetent imbeciles if right after Zero Year wraps up, they won't follow the lead on that Bat-limp?) But I digress. It has been a great ride that didn't disappoint fans (and only annoys every now and then but only when you really nitpick), all thanks to Synder, Capullo, Miki and FCO. We are now entering a new arc for Zero Year called Savage City and I am clearly, deliriously excited for what's to come after the climactic events I just read!


*Only one in the roster of brilliant issues of this saga that continues to impress and set the high bar for writing Batman stories that should not only be thrilling but also humane.

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