This article was originally published at DC Infinite on April 16, 2014.
Batman #21, the first chapter of “Zero Year”, began the story with a big promise. It revealed Gotham City as a chaotic wasteland, equal parts jungle and city. Every chapter since has been building to the fulfillment of that promise. The success or failure of “Zero Year” as a whole is dependent on how the story created that setting as much as anything. Batman #30 introduces “Savage City” and it works. It works like crazy.
Like previous acts of the “Zero Year” story, the opening pages create a mystery. They provide a look at an unknown location and time that somehow relates to the current story. Although this sort of cipher can be fulfilling upon its completion, it provides no value to the story at hand. It is the sort of thing that is designed for collections and fans who enjoy speculation. It will work in those regards, but as part of a segmented story, it falls flat.
The story really begins on page three with the first of two large establishing panels. The map of Gotham City and the two page spread of the city’s new appearance on pages 6 and 7 provide wonderful visual indicators of the new status quo. The spread is beautifully composed as a point-of-view panel, firmly placing readers in the shoes of Bruce Wayne as he discovers the fallout of “Dark City”. It’s also well-crafted in the use of line, pointing readers to read from bottom-to-top, indicating The Riddler’s status as the new king of Gotham. There’s also a subtle question mark hidden in the rubble of the streets that speaks to The Riddler’s true nature as a broken and shallow man, in spite of his self-presentation as a clean cut benefactor. It also starts a trend of connecting various lamp posts to The Riddler, including the one under which Bruce’s parents were murdered.
These large panels provide some much need decompression. After the chaos of Batman #29, the series needed to ground itself and discover what happened to all of its characters and plot threads. This is initially provided by some obvious exposition between Bruce and Duke, a young Gothamite who rescued Bruce after the events of the last issue. It’s the messiest part of the issue because of how clean it is. Duke and Alfred walk Bruce (who is essentially a stand-in for the reader at this moment) through what happened to him and Gotham between the events of Batman #29 and now. The seven pages dedicated to these conversations take away from the excitement of discovery. This is alleviated by some visually interesting panels of Gotham as Alfred explains how The Riddler has succeeded in taking the city hostage. The bright purples and greens contrast excellently against the grimy brown coloring of the newly decrepit Gotham City. The sequence serves its purpose, but does so at the expense of the story.
The problems found in early exposition are quickly dispelled by turning to Commissioner Gordon and his efforts to free the city. The action sequence combines the best elements of “Zero Year” with the most interesting aspects of The Riddler. Like all of “Zero Year”, it is over-the-top in its scale and visuals. This operatic approach to Batman stories has worked well for both Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. Snyder has found it to re-tell the Batman origin in new, interesting way and Capullo has crafted big, engaging visuals in every issue. This sequence applies that approach to the Riddler’s love of games and puns. Using massive buildings as dominoes and crafting a riddle — where literally one wrong move will result in Gordon’s death — makes the sequence the highlight of the issue. It’s crazy, it’s super-sized, and it’s very fun to read.
Like many of the big, operatic action beats of “Zero Year”, it manages to conclude with a significant character moment as well. Much of the story has hinged on Bruce learning to trust his allies, specifically Alfred and Gordon. At the start of “Dark City”, he openly detested Gordon, but slowly learned that he was wrong. The final panel of Batman #30 does an excellent job of linking the characters and showing how their relationship has grown. It has been a natural evolution that invests the reader in the relationship between the two.
Batman #30 is far from a perfect issue. The exposition and opening cipher slow the reading experience and don’t work on multiple levels. But the parts of the issue that do work, work very well. From the beautiful establishing panels of Gotham to the Riddler’s mad master plan to the tower-tumbling action sequence, Batman #30 offers excellent moments that create clear stakes for “Savage City”. Despite its unevenness, it’s a great introduction to the final part of “Zero Year”.