This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 18, 2016.
In this discussion of “Secret City,” the first act of “Zero Year,” we’ll be discussing Batman #21-24. #24 is technically the first chapter of “Dark City” but we figured it makes much more sense to discuss it here as it serves as the finale to the plot started in the three issues of “Secret City” and allows us to divide these three arcs evenly into groups of four issues.
You can read our intro/overview here.
Chase Magnett: Many antagonists in Batman’s infamous rogues gallery are dedicated to a single aspect of human behavior or mental illness. Two-Face explores the duality of human nature as well as the extreme of something like Dissociative Identity Disorder. Scarecrow allows the character to examine fears and the debilitating arena of phobias. The Penguin stands in for human pride and pushes this to the level of true narcissism. So it should be no surprised how adeptly a classic villain is adapted to represent a societal ill in “Secret City”.
The Red Hood Gang, which first appeared in Detective Comics #168 and has since been tied to the origin of The Joker, is redefined as the first “super” problem Bruce Wayne must confront in Gotham City. They are a gang of masked Gothamites led by Red Hood One. Most of the people pulled into the gang are coerced into joining against their will by blackmail or threats against their families. Under the Red Hood’s leadership, anyone in Gotham can become a gun-wielding criminal prepared to steal and murder. Each of the three stories that compose “Zero Year” focus on a central antagonist meant to reflect a modern problem, but nowhere is the metaphor more clear than it is here.
That problem is, of course, gun violence. The malevolent plots of Red Hood One provide a vehicle for entertainment, but the truly frightening aspect of his work is that anyone can become a killer. Bruce addresses the problem of fighting or predicting the gang to Alfred saying, “Most… aren’t even hardened criminals. They’re middle and upper class… like a collection of sleeper agents.” This unpredictability alludes to the mass shootings that have plagued America in increasing numbers (referring to both the number of occurrences and victims). They are incidents of violence that do not meet the standard metrics based in recidivism, socioeconomic background, or any number of other factors.
It’s that randomness of violence that makes these events terrifying. The Red Hood Gang strikes at spots around Gotham in order to create chaos, stealing ice cream powder and paint in addition to valuable chemicals. They target the most vulnerable in Gotham too. Bruce describes one attack, “a bomb goes off at a school for the deaf.” Children are attacked, albeit off panel, in a senseless manner that cannot help but recall Sandy Hook.
There is nothing super-powered about these attacks or even the man masterminding them, Red Hood One. They are simply men with guns attacking people with no greater cause than an obsession with chaos itself. It is no accident that the Red Hood Gang is comprised entirely of men either, as men are overwhelmingly more likely to perpetrate mass shootings. This is hardly enough to form a predictive model though. As Bruce points out to Alfred, “No one knows who to be afraid of anymore. The police are desperate and taxed, searching everyone they can.” All anyone in Gotham needs to become a member of the Red Hood Gang is a gun and a mask, both of which are amply available. That is how easily an ordinary citizen can transform themselves from a productive member of society to an agent of terror, chaos, and death.
“Secret City” is a story about gun violence and mass shootings. That cannot be held in doubt. The real question is what sort of statement are writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo making in regards to this societal problem and its possible solutions.
Mark Stack: The Red Hood Gang putting a face on gun violence is especially interesting and somewhat ironic given their faceless nature. Bruce Wayne in his attempts to thwart the gang is also somewhat faceless as he dons disguises and masks straight out of Mission: Impossible to appear as an average (or influential, when he impersonates Oswald Cobblepot) citizen ready to fight back.
“Ordinary” citizens reacting to violent criminals with the strength and skill of Batman is something ripped right out of the fantasies of some gun owners. It’s a line that gets pulled out every time a mass shooting or act of terror occurs: “What if there was a good guy with a gun to fight back?” Bruce Wayne doesn’t carry a gun but he’s the personification of that “good guy with a gun” myth. Yes, he saves lives but, even though he’s trained for 10 years to do nothing other than fight crime, he’s woefully ineffective at combatting the actual problem. The Red Hood Gang keeps expanding. They’re not afraid of running into the faceless “good guy” who breaks up their plans every now and then. For everything Bruce stops them doing, there’s 9 more he wasn’t there for.
Alfred calls Bruce a coward for fighting the Red Hood Gang as a faceless spectre rather than publicly with the weight of his family name behind him. When someone argues for putting guns in more hands so that a “good guy with a gun” can shoot a terrorist, they’re arguing for a reactive rather a proactive position. Bruce doesn’t prevent violence from happening, he prevents more violence from happening after it’s already begun when he could be publicly campaigning with his celebrity status to stamp out the root cause.
It’s hard for me to argue with Alfred’s assessment as someone who has called politicians cowards for their refusal to push for more stern gun control after each successive mass shooting. Unlike our Senate that continually blocks gun control measures even after the murder of 20 children at a school and 49 people at a nightclub, Bruce learns his lesson eventually. The Red Hood Gang attacks him. Not because they figured that he’s been the thorn in their side; someone asked them to because they thought Bruce might take a public stand against them. And there was nothing this “good guy” could do in that moment but try to survive and push for greater change.
As an assassination attempt designed to quell opposition and prevent more of it with the fear of death, this is an act of terrorism. And the way Bruce discovers to fight that terror is to publicly refuse to be moved by fear. He chooses to become a bat and to bring Bruce Wayne back from the (legally declared) dead.
Chase: Although “Secret City” spends a great deal of its time focused on a failed solution (i.e. the good guy with a gun), it also points to a root cause and solution to the problem of gun violence. In Batman #22 Bruce becomes aware that his uncle Philip Kane has been using Wayne Industries to produce lethal weapons and then providing some of these weapons to the Red Hood Gang. The gang’s ability to operate is largely based on its easy access to weaponry.
All of Kane’s best intentions, attempting to limit the damage caused by the Red Hood Gang and create non-lethal weaponry, come to nothing. The bad guys with guns do as they will with the weapons readily available to them and ultimately kill Kane himself for trying to fight back. Even a non-lethal sonic cannon is easily transformed into something capable of liquefying organs. This reflects the hypocrisy of a weapon designed for self-defense. Weapons are offensive by their very nature and their utilization will always rely on whose hand is on the trigger. This sonic cannon is just as destructive as a gun when made available to the public.
This is the battle that Bruce must fight, not only against Red Hood One but the system that allows him to operate so easily. His own company is creating a world in which anyone can be a member of the Red Hood Gang and wreak havoc in the streets of Gotham. The solution doesn’t come from Bruce putting on a mask and fighting each member of the gang, but fighting the system that allows them to exist.
Bruce fails repeatedly when trying to be the lone good guy working in the shadows. When he stands up as Bruce Wayne, a public figure and leader in industry, in front of cameras he affects a much larger change. In this role he does three things that are impossible as a vigilante. First, he shuts down Wayne Industries production of weapons for sale, refusing a profit-driven motive for a moral one. Second, he points directly to the problem and reveals the plans of the Red Hood Gang to all of Gotham City. Finally, he offers himself as a leader for people to follow in ending the chaos and fear that have infected Gotham.
All three of these points are very real solutions to gun violence outside of superhero fiction as well. The “good guy with a gun” myth has failed, but strong leadership and programs designed to reduce gun ownership and target gun-related crime can still work. That solution does not come from staying silent or waiting for the right moment. It comes from being vocal, targeting changes in companies and government, and studying the problem. Gun violence will not be solved as immediately as a showdown in ACE Chemicals, but these are valuable long-term strategic solutions that can be followed by Bruce Wayne the man, not Batman the superhero.
Mark: Yeah, let’s just get this out of the way real quick: the first issue of the next arc “Dark City” is actually the conclusion of “Secret City” with an epilogue illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque that leads into “Dark City.” It’s where Bruce Wayne makes his public call to action and where Batman disassembles the Red Hood Gang. We’re just going to treat that as the conclusion to this arc.
This is where we get into the fantasy after three issues of Bruce Wayne being crushed by the weight of (admittedly heightened) reality. This is where he fights back and we get to revel in it. Batman is the face, the symbol, of opposition that Bruce was missing when he was playing Mission: Impossible with his face masks. He becomes a public figure in his superhero and civilian identity meant to inspire change on multiple fronts.
Batman isn’t just a faceless “good guy” who fights back. He’s a brand that will eventually grow into an institution that the people of Gotham can trust in to keep them safe without sacrificing their liberty. This isn’t The Dark Knight, he’s not hacking cell phones and surveilling people. More important than facing the threats the GCPD can’t handle, Batman is giving the people of Gotham hope that they can overcome the fear that has beset them. When the government (local and federal) gives in to fear and the media becomes complicit in propagating it, Batman fights back.