This article was originally published at DC Infinite on March 13, 2014.
Batman #29 accomplishes a lot, even with an extended page count. It capably moves from scenes of pure superhero fun to tense action sequences to the darkest moments of Bruce Wayne’s tragic life. That Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo capture these transitions while maintaining a consistent tone is a testament to their understanding of story craft. The fact that the story itself is even more remarkable points out that this issue may be the best of their run on the title yet.
For all of the darkness and angst evident at the conclusion of Batman #29, it’s a fun issue. The appearance of the Bat Blimp makes for a tremendous visual, one actually deserving of a splash page. It walks a fine line between camp silliness and DC Comic’s overly serious concept of the superhero genre. The result is a perfect balance, similar to Grant Morrison’s JLA, which perfectly encapsulates what a superhero comic is capable of. It is simultaneously fun and thrilling.
FCO Plascenia’s colors go a long way in capturing this balance of tone. If there has been a single prominent color throughout “Zero Year” it has not been Batman’s signature black, but pink. That is the color of lightning as the super storm hits Gotham City to devastating effect. In a market filled with destroyed and flooding cities (e.g. “Throne of Atlantis”), Plascenia manages to make similar scenes feel new and visually engaging. The destruction of Gotham is made to be simultaneously beautiful and terrible, filling the reader with awe.
Those colors help to illuminate Capullo’s work on two incredible action sequences. Batman’s fight with Doctor Death far above the Gotham City skyline is heart-stopping. The combination of the grotesque Doctor Death and the vertigo-inducing heights create an environment that is entirely hostile. Capullo’s contribution to these pages cannot be overstated. Doctor Death’s body is a perfect application of body horror in the comic medium. There is enough humanity left in his frame, especially in those final moments, that he is still a sympathetic character. This allows the reader to imagine what has been done and what happens to him as his body turns against him. The awful growths, the talon-like protrusions from his hands and mouth, and his eventual fate are capable of making grown men shiver. Meanwhile, another horror lurks in the background, a mile long fall onto the city below. Capullo capably reminds readers of this ever-present threat by including at least one establishing shot on each page to highlight the broken guardrail and lightning-lit clouds around the balloon. The combination of body horror and heights create a visually dynamic action sequence that only the comic medium could achieve. The inclusion of a countdown and MacGuffin create clear objectives that raise the tension of the scene even more.
Gordon’s showdown with the Riddler applies an entirely different tactic, making the tension of the scene a literal thing. The string tied to the Riddler’s finger is only visually referenced to begin with, before Gordon point it out and slowly searches the room to understand its purpose. It is a slow, purposeful reveal taking five panels to create tension for the moment when Gordon’s flashlight reveals the massive boulder above his head. It’s masterfully done and allows for a dramatic payoff, which will allow readers to ignore the foregone conclusion of Gordon’s survival. The difficult task of surprising readers who already know how the story ends is capably accomplished by creating small surprises like this and the fate of Doctor Death.
The juxtaposition of the fall of Gotham and the death of the Waynes makes for a surprisingly effective metaphor of how tremendous a personal tragedy can feel. The final pages move between these two tragedies, re-telling the story of how the Waynes were murdered while showing an aspect-to-aspect take on the fall of Gotham. The visuals of Gotham are reminiscent of some of the worst tragedies in recent American history. A blimp strikes a tower conjuring thoughts of 9/11, while people flee down a street in waist high water evoking images from Hurricane Katrina. It is disaster on a large scale. The murder of the Waynes would look mundane by comparison if this were not told from the perspective of Bruce Wayne. To a child, his parents are his world and their death would be every bit as apocalyptic as what is occurring in Gotham City. Rather than going back to the classic visual of Martha’s broken pearl necklace, Capullo crafts something entirely new: a muzzle-flare halo. Its effect is every bit as saddening as Mazzucchelli’s visuals in “Batman: Year One”.
Plascenia’s color palette allows for Capullo to easily move between the different timelines of the story. Muted, neutral colors highlight the Gotham City of Batman’s youth, while a much brighter palette dominates the present timeline. The effect allows readers to distinguish between the two without any thought, which in turn allows Snyder and Capullo to set the two greatest disasters of Batman’s life side-by-side without any confusion.
In those final moments, the central theme of this story arc is made clear: without help from one another, we will all fail in the end. Throughout “Zero Year”, Batman has refused help from characters who will become his closest friends and allies. He has forced Alfred to leave his side and treated Gordon with nothing but disdain. Slowly, these ties have been mended, but it’s too late. By shutting himself off, he has doomed Gotham City. Batman is finally made to understand that he cannot stand alone, that people must work together in order to help one another and the world around them. He must cry out for help.
This idea is driven home by the revelation of Doctor Death’s true origin, his connections to Bruce Wayne, and their surprising similarities. Doctor Death made the same choices as Bruce upon losing his son. He shut himself off from the world, yet tried to change it so no one would ever suffer as he had. His quest to create a bone serum is every bit as noble as Bruce’s quest to become Batman. Yet by severing his connection to humanity, he turned into something monstrous and burned out before he could accomplish his goals. It makes Alfred’s remarks in Batman #27 seem prophetic. “If you let the past drive Batman, his scars, he becomes something dark, a demon of vengeance… He will not last, nor will you.”
Doctor Death’s monologue is somewhat unnatural though. Although he has always been talkative, the purpose of much of what he says is to provide exposition for the reader. Snyder set up a variety of unconnected beats in previous issues which needed to be explained. Their explanation is satisfactory and connects well to the theme, but its manner of delivery is forced.
Batman #29 is a pleasant surprise. It takes a story that has been done dozens, if not hundreds, of times before by some of the most talented creators in comic history and finds a way to make it new. Snyder and Capullo have captured a new perspective on Batman’s origin by juxtaposing it with a larger disaster, and it works very well. Capullo also captures a new visual sense with the help of FCO Plascencia on colors. “Zero Year” was announced almost one year ago, and the biggest question from fans was, “do we need another Batman origin story?” After reading Batman #29 the answer is, clearly, “yes.”