This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 1, 2016.
In this discussion of “Savage City,” the third act of “Zero Year,” we’ll be referencing Batman #30-33. The necessity of friends/allies, Gotham City as a microcosm of modern America, the importance of the bat-signal, and more are covered.
Chase Magnett: “Dark City” is a tragedy. It ends with Batman losing the fight and Gotham City being swallowed by the Riddler’s machinations as a result. The story is all about the experience of trauma and ends by combining the two most traumatic moments of Bruce Wayne’s life: the day his parents were murdered and the day his city was destroyed.
“Savage City” poses the question: What next?
Trauma implies the existence of a survivor, the someone who was hurt and must either learn to live with what happened or succumb to their injuries, physical or mental. The opening of “Savage City” continues this metaphor on both a personal and city-wide scale. Batman awakens from a coma with an IV in his arm and no awareness of how long he has been unconscious (an answer that is never entirely revealed). Although the story jumps past his physical recovery, it acknowledges its necessity. Even the Batman, the “$%$! psycho in a batsuit”, has to rest and be prepared.
The more obvious wound lies within the city itself. There is a hesitation in revealing how Gotham now appears as Batman awakens in a dark apartment and only rises to look out the window after a few pages. Greg Capullo’s first illustration of the city shows just how bad things have gotten. Buildings are crumbling and covered in greenery, people run through the streets dressed like extras in a Mad Max film, and the Riddler’s symbol presides over all this destruction from a single, well-maintained, elite tower.
Gotham City’s status not only presents the consequences of trauma to readers, but their fears for the future made reality. It is a place overwhelmed with water and torn apart by natural forces, presenting the worst case scenario of global warming. It shows people pitted against one another in a city with no functioning utilities or support systems, revealing an economic collapse. Perhaps worst of all, it shows a city ruled by terror and a singular terrorist as the Riddler shocks even the military into submission and knocks buildings over on a whim. It is a devastating portrait of all our greatest fears that Batman and his allies must now try to overcome.
This is how “Savage City” forms the natural third act of the story “Zero Year”. First came the awareness of danger in “Secret City”, then came the experience of trauma in “Dark City”, and now arrives the struggle of recovery. Why do we keep going in the face of overwhelming adversity? What allows us to keep going? How do we make ourselves and the world around us better when we have been hurt? These are the questions “Savage City” seeks to answer.
Mark Stack: The thing Duke Thomas says to Bruce Wayne is, “You’re only crazy if it doesn’t work, right?” Batman is what allows Bruce to recover from the tragic loss of his parents and now becomes the means by which he is able to overcome the destruction of his city. The persona is the manifestation of the belief that someone can live without fear and inspire others to do the same. If he fails, as he does again in this third act when the Riddler initially outmaneuvers him, he inspires others by simply getting back up and attacking the same problem from a different direction.
I’ve touched on it before with “Dark City” but the importance of the bat-signal comes up again in “Savage City” as it is literally all that prevents Gotham from being sunk by a series of well-intentioned military strikes. Jim Gordon needs to signal without words to a pilot that he and Batman need more time so he ends up using the one image that possibly could. He paints a bat on a mirror and shines it at the pilot. The symbol communicates one thing clearly: someone’s got this. The pilot, of course, backs down. Because of that, the strike is delayed and Batman is able to overcome the Riddler in time.
It feels a little cornball when superhero comics get into the value of superheroes as inspirational figures and “Savage City” isn’t really an exception. The people of Gotham being moved by Batman isn’t about them, though. It’s about us and how we can take something away from this reading experience. The Riddler claims that the destroyed and overgrown Gotham of his Zero Year is a microcosm of what the world will eventually become, and this invites us all to see ourselves as Gothamites. If you say something enough times, you can convince yourself that it’s true. And what Batman says to the reader in this comic, standing amid the destruction of climate change and terrorism, is that we’re going to make it through and find a way to be okay. It might crazy to get up after every defeat and think that we’ll eventually be able to overcome but “it’s the kind of madness [Gotham City] rewards.”
We’re invited to take part in Batman’s madness, a perseverance that the world just might reward if we keep it up long enough. It’s only crazy if it doesn’t work, right?
Magnett: It’s important to note that Batman is not trying the same thing again for the third, fourth, or fifth time when he finally succeeds in “Savage City” and stops the Riddler. Each step of his journey has allowed him to add an important element. In “Secret City” that was the guise of Batman itself and in “Dark City” it was the necessity of allies.
The Batman who is rewarded for his craziness in “Savage City” is not the same one we saw before. He is a man who understands the role, both symbolic and real, that he plays in the lives of many others. He is a man who understands that he cannot succeed in saving Gotham, much less survival alone. One of the most significant changes in this story is that he is now working with a team composed of James Gordon, Lucius Fox, and, eventually, Alfred.
Each of these men fills a specific role within the Batman mythos and within the salvation of Gotham City. It is here that they pull together as individuals of great determination, intelligence, and know-how to do the impossible. Despite having incredible internal and external resources, Bruce was unable to stop the Zero Year from occurring. Here he is saved again and again by his friends. When he is about to be crushed by cars, Gordon opens a door. When the Riddler is about to finish his plan, Lucius makes great use of a giant penny.
And then there is Alfred. He is the friend and mentor that Bruce did his absolute best to discard at the start of this story. But he is the one who has found him not once, but twice and brought him back to life. Here it is after Batman runs one thousand volts of electricity through his body. In a page of absolute black, Batman appears to think he is dead and fights back against it wanting to keep going. When he awakens, it is Alfred kneeling over him performing CPR. The friend who was separated from him through all of “Savage City” has returned when he was needed most to save someone he loves.
This is how “Savage City” functions as an answer to “Dark City”. The previous story ended on an image of Bruce Wayne screaming “Help!” Here that cry is answered. Batman worked to isolate himself, trying to save both himself and Gotham City alone. That tactic failed and resulted in a nightmare landscape. It was only by acknowledging the friends around him that Bruce was able to save Gotham and return from the darkness. While in “Savage City” this need for friends is used to fight a supervillain, it applies to a lot more. It is what allows Bruce to battle his inner demons, the darkness inside, and what allows him to achieve his goals. “Savage City” is a reminder that the people who love us will be there when we cry for help and give us the strength to survive.
Stack: The Riddler doesn’t understand that. People are tools to be used, factors to be calculated for, riddles to solve. Batman isn’t an enemy so much as a challenge to his rule. The stakes that he has created and the people he has killed only exist on paper. He understands the concept of desperation but not the drive that instills his opposition with.
The Riddler’s intelligence is the reason he thinks the world should be in service of him, bowing down to recognize his greatness. Batman challenges him with the view that genius is recognized when it has a positive effect on the world and is otherwise meaningless. The Riddler’s whole game of taking over the city and attempting to kill everyone in it is born out of neither ideology nor hate. It’s wanting to make everyone take notice. The only thing the world notices is that he’s completely mad. Batman wins not by playing his game, one he’s proven capable of winning, but by dismantling it, refusing his ego the satisfaction of a response. The Riddler is surprised by the lengths Batman is willing to go to for others as he is unable to conceive of sacrifice as anything other than a calculated move and still attempts to gloat. What the Riddler gets is being cut off mid-sentence by a big, black boot.
A large part of my emotional connection to “Zero Year” is in this final act that goes back to show us pieces of Bruce’s life growing up after his parents were killed and before he traveled the world. He’s experiencing something that resembles PTSD that causes him to hallucinate gunshot wounds on the people around him. The imagery is striking and, in true Greg Capullo fashion, really upsetting without going for all-out gore. Bruce can’t handle stressful situations and his interpersonal relationships are strained because of this and he makes the decision to do what he can to stop living with it.
The revelation that Bruce sought electroconvulsive therapy because he wanted doctors “to shock [him] until [he]wasn’t [him]self anymore” before deciding that he wanted to find some other way to stay sane is an important addition to the mythos here. These scenes of Bruce gearing up for ECT in the past become really poignant when juxtaposed with his decision as Batman to electrocute himself in the present to save Gotham by rebooting its grid. In the past, he decides to remain who he is and find a way to keep going. In the present, he decides to risk his life and mind for the preservation of others. It’s a sacrifice he would refuses to make for himself but never hesitates to make in order to help other people. This will eventually receive a callback in the “Superheavy” arc in which Bruce electrocutes himself to the point of death in order to restore his memories as Batman, a decision to return to the trauma that gave him his singular drive, for the benefit of others.
I don’t know if there’s a right way to live with a trauma or a mental illness. I don’t know if there’s a way to live in the world unharmed by what goes on at home, in your head, or outside your window. I just know that if you try, especially with a little help from your friends, you might be able to find something that works. Something that makes you feel less crazy. At the end of this story, Batman isn’t a vengeful creature of the night. He’s a symbol of hope. And being him is what makes Bruce happy. A life in service to others, channeling his drive into something proactive, works for him.
The decision to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds becomes an act of heroism in and of itself. Readers aren’t promised a key to doing this but they are given an impossible example to keep in mind. Even when we don’t win, Batman does and we may find a small measure of comfort in that even if it’s only for as long as we read. I don’t know how Snyder does it, but I’m grateful that “Zero Year” was what he chose to write.
I’m grateful on behalf of myself and my younger cousin whom I gifted “Zero Year” to while he was undergoing chemotherapy during the holiday season. Thanks for shining a bat-signal during times of trouble. Message received.