This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on July 25, 2016.
In this discussion of “Dark City,” the second act of “Zero Year,” we’ll be discussing Batman #25-27 & #29. The juxtaposition of natural disasters and terror attacks along with purposeful replication of iconic imagery are discussed.
Stack: “Dark City” more or less begins with the Rafael Albuquerque-drawn back-up in issue #24. The Riddler appears on screens all across Gotham City and delivers a threatening message before cutting their power and blowing up what appears to be multiple floors on several buildings. It recalled my memories as a 6-year-old watching the latest tape from Osama bin Laden on the news. Something about him being projected into my home, the one place I was supposed to be safe, felt uniquely threatening. He’s dead now, but I was still unsettled by the memory as the Riddler made his declaration in the pages of this comic.
We’re starting to see how Batman is impacting the citizens of Gotham in the wake of the Riddler’s attack and blackout. He saves a mother and daughter from looters, leaving them with supplies that includes a flashlight the young girl draws a bat on. It’s the first proper bat-signal and it’s coming from someone who needed saving that now finds some measure of strength or comfort in the symbol. But Batman, as presented in “Dark City,” is not something that can not be a true symbol of positive change as it currently exists.
He’s brash and violent, rejecting the offers of help from potentially allies such as Lt. James Gordon. Alfred is again the voice of truth to Bruce, chastising for using Batman to exact vengeance on the police “by making [them] bear witness” as he performs their duties better than they can. He’s undermining every institution that is vital to a city the size of Gotham instead of working to repair them, leaving the average citizen ultimately no better off than they were before all the madness started.
Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder riff on several iconic images from The Dark Knight Returns in this arc for more reason than simply borrowing a cool pose. These visual references are juxtaposed with narration describing Batman as a “demon of vengeance… [that] will not last” and moments where he pushes himself to a dangerous degree that he is barely capable of surviving. The point is clear: if he continues down this path then he comes closer to a future that leaves him as the violent fascist of Frank Miller’s masterpiece. That’s a character who was forced into retirement, compromised some of his long-held ideals, and ultimately was forced to abandon his life as he knew it. That’s not a version of the character you can publish forever, Snyder acknowledges that and begins the process of building a better Batman after acknowledging the Ghost of Christmas Future that hangs over him.
Batman’s fury is righteous, he pursues his enemies viciously, and – in the case of Dr. Death – he mutilates them. I had ideas about what America was. I thought we were more of “who” and that who we were was righteous. Going to war, bombing countries I had never heard of, and doing it all in the name of revenge against the people who hurt us. I had to learn that this wasn’t the case and that our country did a lot of horrible, criminal things out of anger and greed that we never should have been able to justify. Has America changed? Has America truly learned that this is not the way to carry on? My instincts say no. If there was a point where we’d bottom out like Batman does and realize that we’ve had it wrong the whole time, it probably would have happened by now.
“Dark City” puts the lie to all the warm fuzzies we felt about our “unity” and “strength” after 9/11 and demands that we try to do better.
Chase Magnett: This discussion reminds me of a line Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” Throughout “Dark City”, Snyder and Capullo explore the lives of men who have suffered terrible traumas and look at how they respond to these moments that broke them. I perceive Batman, James Gordon, and Doctor Death as a trinity in this regard. Each of them suffered a terrible moment that broke who they were, and each of them responded in an entirely different manner.
Batman is the vengeful force seeking to wreak havoc on those that broke him. He mutilates one villain, while continuing to ignore the aid and wisdom of allies who would slow his chosen course. His is a righteous fury, but its projection into the world does not resemble justice and it does not improve things. Only when it is too late does Bruce learn the meaning of the words “Tokyo Moon”, the phrase that haunts all of “Dark City”, and recognize his own part in what is happening. Even though it was unintentional, his selfish response to the death of his parents led to the creation of Doctor Death. He is the wrathful response that creates more terror in the world.
Doctor Death does not seek revenge because he cannot. Instead he attempts to create order in a world filled with misguided decisions and terrible violence. When he speaks to Bruce aboard the weather balloon he speaks of saving millions and willfully ignores the thousands that will die or whether he can even be successful. His focus on creating a just world has turned him into a fanatic and shows both in his speech and appearance. Death’s motives are as twisted as his face and body, deformed and unrecognizable as human, eventually killing him. He is the zealot who destroys the world and himself by seeking to improve it all.
Gordon presents a place that reflects neither of these extremes. His origin story interspersed into “Dark City” reveals the moment where he recognized Gotham as being a corrupt and terrible place. He was attacked by dogs while other police bet against his survival, and then his children were threatened if he came forward about corruption. Gordon could not do the moral thing he wanted in order to save his daughter and son, but he continued to fight for other victories. The trench coat he wears is a constant reminder of his failure and shame, but he wakes up and wears it each day. This is why he helps Batman and is able to fight for Gotham, even as a terrorist plunges it into a terrible storm. He is the good man who was broken by the world, but is now stronger in the place where he is broken.
The importance in understanding how these men respond to the world is to see how these responses can make the world a better or worse place. Doctor Death is a terrorist that will destroy himself and others, Batman is a vengeful force that sows his own destruction, and Gordon is simply trying to do the right thing. We can understand why each of them acts as they do, but that does not make them righteous and it does not mean they are all stronger at the broken places.
Mark Stack: The Riddler and Doctor Death’s use of an oncoming hurricane to more or less destroy Gotham City does a few things. It recalls the superstorm Sandy that hit the Eastern seaboard the year before the first issue of “Zero Year” would see publication. That hurricane did a lot of damage to New York City, flooding streets and knocking out the power. Readers know from the opening of the first installment of “Secret City” what Gotham looks like after the storm hits: flooded subway tunnels and crumbling infrastructure. It’s Sandy but more.
Putting that hurricane into the planning of a supervillain’s terrorist attack makes a point about the nature of modern terrorism. It’s almost an unavoidable force of nature. If someone wants to do something bad, there’s almost no stopping them. All you can do is plan and batten down the hatches. But isn’t there a case to be made that we as people and our governments have contributed to the growth of such storms due to climate change? Our inability to properly regulate our effects on the environment creates one that’s increasingly hostile to us. Do you see how that can be translated to the state of global terrorism?
Bruce didn’t think about others when he went off to travel the world to train. People were sent to look for him and that’s how Doctor Death’s son went into a desert with his military unit and never came back. And that’s where the final chapter of “Dark City” ends; with Bruce finally realizing his own culpability in the realization of this event he is attempting to prevent. Gordon fails to capture the Riddler. The GCPD plays right into the Riddler’s hand, granting him complete power to destroy the city.
Every person, every institution, absolutely fails in what I found to be the most powerful sequence in the series. Batman overcome with rage at his failure, smashing his fists against metal, in the present as his parents are murdered in flashback. All of his rage made impotent as the muscles he built and the skills he developed prove worthless in the face of the tragedy that inspired him. He can do nothing to change the past that he is fixated on and it leaves him unable to affect the present like a government that fails to realize the role it’s played in the development of current threats.
We end with a boy covered in his mother’s blood, crying for help from anybody who might possibly hear.
Chase Magnett: The final sequence of “Dark City” is the climax of the entire “Zero Year” story. It is the moment that juxtaposes the murder of two beloved individuals with a citywide catastrophe resulting in the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. There is a statement being made here that trauma is not differentiated by levels or degrees to the individuals it affects. The loss of your parents to gun violence can be just as life-changing as a storm that takes a city from the heights of technological advancement to the mid-1800s.
“Zero Year” hits on a lot of different subjects; while “Secret City” was primarily focused on gun violence, that focus is greatly expanded in “Dark City”. Terrorism may be the primary analog, but it is the lead actor in a cast of modern terrors. Guns, biological weapons, and global warming all have roles in this play of 21st Century horrors. What unites them all is their impact upon the people who survive and combat them.
Consider the array of images shown at the end of “Dark City.” There is a blimp crashing into a tower in a dazzling display of fire. There are people running through the streets in water up to their waists. There are parents shot down simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This silent array of panels evokes all of our worst shared nightmares as Americans: 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and too many shootings to name. It is overwhelming, crushing. You look at the horror occurring on both a macro and micro scale, and can’t help but think of one word: Help.
That leads us to the final page of Bruce Wayne as a child screaming that word. It’s the moment of impact and it begs the question, “What next?” For those who are killed there is nothing more to come, but there will always be survivors. They are the ones who experience trauma and must decide how to respond.
We’ve seen how many characters have chosen to respond to past traumas. Doctor Death became a terrorist, believing he could save the world through terrible means. Bruce Wayne made himself a solitary actor seeking vengeance above all else. James Gordon accepted his place in the world and found little victories. And now we’ve seen the end result of those choices. While bad things are unavoidable, that does not remove the specter of culpability. Doctor Death and The Riddler are the ones who set this plan in motion, but Batman, Gordon, and so many others in Gotham made a world where they could succeed. And so it seems that there is more to trauma than simply surviving it.