Ewing's "Ultimates" Stand Guard Against Alien Empires & Cosmic Entities
Wednesday was Batman Day, the official date for celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. It’s fine to have a Batman Day, I guess — I’ve been getting emails from online bookstores saying “Celebrate Batman Day with our sales!” so it’s coming across in practice like President’s Day — but Batman is so ubiquitous in pop culture that you might as well have a McDonald’s Day or a Coca-Cola Day. (In a perfect world there would be a Rockford Files Day.)
Anyway, appropriately enough, each of the two regular Bat-books DC published this week looked at one end of Batman’s timeline. Batman Vol. 2 #33 wrapped up “Zero Year,” the latest (and perhaps the most epic) version of the character’s origins; and Batman and Robin Vol. 2 #33 presented “Robin Rises, Part One,” the latest chapter in Damian Wayne’s posthumous saga. While the former ended impressively, the latter is off to a slow start.
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Preceded by the four-issue “Hunt For Robin,” and introduced by last week’s Robin Rises: Omega special, this week’s Batman and Robin #33 is a talky interlude involving Superman and the Justice League in Batman’s quest to reclaim his son’s body. “Hunt” began in earnest in Issue 29, teaming Batman with Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Frankenstein and sending him chasing around the world after Rā’s al-Ghūl, who had stolen Damian and Talia’s corpses. Although “Robin Rises” seems calculated to revive Damian, Tomasi and Gleason recently spent five issues of B&R on Batman’s five stages of grief. Indeed, in Issue 31, Batman tells Frankenstein he doesn’t want Damian brought back, he just doesn’t want him desecrated by Rā’s. Revelations in the Omega special apparently changed his mind.
It’s a simple storyline, and so far it’s been laid out rather simply. Issue 29 had Batman and Aquaman destroying an island laboratory where Rā’s was creating Damian clones inside whale wombs. (Yes, it was pretty gross.) Issue 30 took Batman and Wonder Woman to Paradise Island, where an ancient Greek monster guarded a version of the Lazarus Pit. Issue 31 had Batman encounter Frankenstein at the former site of Nanda Parbat, also the location of a Lazarus Pit; and in Issue 32 they fought Rā’s and his minions. Last week’s Robin Rises: Omega was essentially an extension of that fight, involving Batman, Rā’s, Frankenstein and the Justice League against Apokoliptian forces led by Glorious Godfrey. (Seems the power crystal Rā’s had been using was really from Apokolips, and Godfrey wanted it back.) RR:O ended with Godfrey taking the crystal and Damian’s body to Apokolips, and Batman vowing to follow.
If you’ve seen Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, you know the scene where Admiral Morrow tries to talk Kirk out of going to the quarantined Genesis Planet. B&R #33 is kind of like that, spread out over 20 pages and involving Aquaman, Lex Luthor and Cyborg. It also ends in a similar way — which isn’t a spoiler, because we can all guess what Batman’s going to do. (Besides, the October solicitations have Batman on Apokolips looking for Damian’s body.)
I don’t envy Tomasi’s task. In Batman and Robin, he has tried to reconcile and distill the various points of Bat-continuity into his own narrative and characterization. Thus, the Omega special (drawn by Andy Kubert, who with writer Grant Morrison introduced Damian in 2006) kicked off with a seven-page recap of Bat-highlights from the past eight years. These included Batman’s death (apparently, in Final Crisis) and his time-jumps from the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, two milestones that strain the cohesion of the truncated New 52 timeline but that seem necessary for understanding Tomasi’s story. Now Tomasi has brought in the post-Forever Evil version of the Justice League (led by Lex Luthor, who doesn’t flaunt his recent discovery of Batman’s secret identity) to emphasize what it took to beat Darkseid originally — i.e., not in Final Crisis, but in the first six issues of the New 52 Justice League. The Batman of Batman and Robin is rooted pretty firmly in DC’s shared superhero universe, and so far Tomasi is using those connections to explore all of Batman’s afterlife-avoiding options.
Therefore, while Tomasi now tries to shift Batman from a parent dealing successfully with his grief to a driven avenger on a quest, “Robin Rising” threatens to be an exercise in plot gymnastics. The outcome is basically binary: either Damian comes back for good as Robin, or he doesn’t. (The latter includes Damian reviving and then “retiring” to some peaceful fate.) Issue 33 also features an interlude on Apokolips suggesting a more nefarious purpose for Damian’s body and the “Chaos Shard” Godfrey acquired. Those plot elements will probably combine into an entertaining arc, so what matters is the way in which writer Peter J. Tomasi, penciler Patrick Gleason, inker Mick Gray and colorist John Kalisz pull it off.
Overall, Batman and Robin #33 is a reasonable start. Tomasi is a careful writer whose scripts seem somewhat fannish, given that he stays within the confines of the existing Bat-canon. Starting with Aquaman’s admonition about the Justice League being the world’s front line of defense, this issue is full of well-reasoned arguments for and against a trip to the most evil of planets. Characters act like you’d expect, from Shazam’s petulance to Luthor’s admiration for Batman’s strong will. Gleason and Gray do very well with their renditions of the Leaguers, adapting the characters to their own style while not straying too far from the standard designs. They still draw Batman with barely-contained anger, either erupting with the League or smoldering in a quieter conversation with Superman. For that matter, their idiosyncratic work complements and supports the more over-the-top portions of Tomasi’s script in ways that Kubert’s efforts on the Omega special didn’t. It’s as if Kubert is just too controlled as an artist, while Gleason and Gray are always on the verge of exploding all over the page.
Still, this storyline has the potential for a lot of sturm und drang in the service of a predictable conclusion. Moreover, it comes after several months’ worth of Batman exploring his feelings about Damian’s death. That requires Tomasi to sell Batman’s emotional state fairly convincingly, but so far it’s expressed as a lot of unfocused energy. This is a Batman who’s buffeted by a lot of outside forces, not least of which is a writer’s desire to stay within established boundaries. Although I’m keeping an open mind about “Robin Rises,” the degree of difficulty is pretty high.
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Credits first: “Zero Year” has been serialized in Batman Vol. 2, issues 21-27 and 29-33. Four of those issues, including this week’s conclusion, are oversized; so the story spans more than 500 pages. It was written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Greg Capullo, inked by Danny Miki and colored by FCO Plascencia.
Second, just a brief take on Issue 33 specifically and “Zero Year” as a whole: The short version is, “Zero Year” looks great. It’s one of the best-looking Batman stories I’ve read in a long time. The last time I was this excited about the look of Gotham City was when Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin were drawing it — and believe me, that’s one of the highest compliments I can give any Bat-artist. Capullo, Miki and Plascencia should take well-deserved bows. Moreover, Capullo plays with layouts and even panel construction in clever ways, often dropping in out-of-sequence images (like on the first page of Issue 33) with no more hint than the traditional rounded panel corners. Snyder and Capullo want you to pay attention even as they want you to hold on tight.
The narrative density of Snyder’s scripts, and the occasional double-sized issue, mean that “Zero Year” probably got the space its creative team wanted — but that also means their digressions become more noticeable in the bigger picture. (Issue 33 must also overcome some inherent pacing concerns, because it has to be back-loaded with a sufficiently satisfying denouement.) Nevertheless, for the most part Snyder keeps the focus on Bruce’s development, and populates the story with enough compelling characters (including Gordon, the Red Hood, the Riddler and Bruce’s uncle Philip) to drive the action. Not every superhero origin will have “Zero Year’s” format (or advantages) — and now I want to compare it to Grant Morrison and Rags Morales’ Action Comics epic — but it has set a pretty high standard.
On to the specifics. Classic Batman stories and lore loom large over the 12-issue odyssey, not necessarily because they are referenced, but because of how they are incorporated into the new narrative. The story is structured in three parts, with each one dominated by a particular adversary. The Red Hood Gang represents the chaos into which the city descended after the Waynes were murdered, Doctor Death represents the city rebuilding itself (and becoming “stronger”) in new and sometimes horrible ways, and using the Riddler provides a contrast to the modern conception of Batman as a master strategist.
Each part also reflects a different state of being for Gotham. From the start of his pre-New 52 Detective Comics run, Snyder’s approach to Batman has centered around Gotham as antagonist. This is arguably an expansion of Frank Miller’s idea that Batman only “works” as a hero when society’s regular institutions don’t. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns famously featured a future Gotham overrun by gangs, and a President who had turned Superman into an imperialist enforcer. Similarly, Miller’s (and artist David Mazzucchelli’s) “Batman: Year One” showed that Gotham’s corruption had been endemic until Batman and Jim Gordon weeded it out. That not only facilitated Batman and Gordon’s relationship, it allowed Batman himself to become something of a Gotham institution.
However, where Miller focused on corrupt individuals, Snyder contends that Gotham itself works against Batman and his allies, for example through secret societies like the Court of Owls. This makes Batman’s task harder, less personal, and more complex. Paradoxically, it also allows for a more nuanced portrayal of the city. Where Miller and Mazzucchelli showed a disguised Bruce Wayne descending into the roiling morass of vice known as the East End — colored in ugly oranges by Richmond Lewis — Snyder and Capullo’s Gotham is a bright, almost cheerful place, with Plascencia providing blue skies and gleaming, pastel buildings. Their Gotham challenges its citizens, but it also makes the challenge inviting.
“Zero Year” is challenging as well, but in a good way. It throws a lot at the reader, particularly in the first arc (“Secret City”) and the early part of the second (“Dark City”). This includes a series of backup stories (co-written by James Tynion IV and illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque and Andy Clarke) showing flashbacks and other ancillary bits of the bigger picture. These backups probably make more sense in the context of single issues than they do in the collections, because the main “ZY” narrative moves at such a fantastic clip — and itself incorporates rapid-fire flashbacks and flashforwards — that an incautious reader might find himself disoriented. Indeed, while “Zero Year’s” single issues are satisfying on their own, and the story is paced with them in mind, overall it seems written for the trade.
Accordingly, “Zero Year” encourages readers to slow down and enjoy both Capullo’s detailed, expressive linework and Snyder’s stylistic flourishes. Not surprisingly, these include many nods to Bat-history. The Red Hood’s arc ends with a familiar fight at a chemical factory, and Oswald Cobblepot and Pamela Isley also make appearances. There are gratuitous (but appreciated) references to the covers of Detective #27 and The Dark Knight Returns. Perhaps in a nod to the old “Young Bruce wore a Robin costume” story, Bruce and his dad wear baseball caps with a stylized “R” logo. “Year One” featured two oblique mentions of Superman, but he merits a one-panel cameo here, along with pre-costumed versions of Selina Kyle, Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Barry Allen and John Stewart. Doctor Death, Julie Madison and Philip Kane are versions of Golden and Silver Age supporting characters, and current supporting cast members Harper Row and her brother also provide some perspective. One might even see the story following the general “victory-escalation-catastrophe” arc of the Christopher Nolan-directed movies.
However, all of these things work towards making “Zero Year” unique. In 1980, writer Len Wein and artists John Byrne and Jim Aparo reconciled all of the disparate bits of Golden and Silver Age Bat-lore into the three-issue Untold Legend of the Batman. In 1987, writer Roy Thomas and artists Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin did something similar, on a smaller scale, for the Earth-Two Batman’s beginnings in Secret Origins #7. When Miller and Mazzucchelli did “Year One,” they tried to work “within” the panels of the classic two-page Finger/Kane origin (“Who He Is And How He Came To Be”) from 1939’s Detective Comics Vol. 1 #33. “Year One” ended up making some pretty significant changes — most notably, establishing that Bruce left Gotham for some eighteen years in order to travel the world and train for his crusade, as well as changing the backstories of Gordon and Alfred — but it was meant as more of a springboard than as part of a larger mega-story. In its exploration of all things Batman, “Zero Year” feels like an organic part of the Snyder/Capullo run. The relationship to Gotham plays off the “Court of Owls” storyline. The Red Hood material ends up informing “Death of the Family.” Alfred tells Batman that as much as he pushes his friends away, people are still inspired by him and will want to follow him. Miller’s Batman played with the character’s archetypal, mythic qualities; but Snyder and Capullo present a more recognizably human figure.
Indeed, while “Zero Year” explores Bruce’s various relationships, ultimately the most significant one turns out to be his relationship to Batman. Snyder has young Bruce sneaking away from school to explore the wonders of Gotham, and ends up connecting those explorations — which expand inevitably into the future Batcave — to his parents’ deaths. Specifically, on that fateful night (as related in Issue 29) the Waynes see Zorro twice. The first time, Bruce thinks it’s corny. The second time follows Thomas Wayne’s realization that Bruce has been going off on his own because his parents aren’t always there for him, and going back to re-evaluate Zorro — so that Thomas can see where Bruce is coming from — is part of the family’s new beginning. It’s the kind of intricate plotting that doesn’t lend itself to being revisited in later stories (not like Miller’s instantly-iconic rain of bullets and pearls) but it allows “Batman” to grow more organically from Bruce’s childhood. It may even mean that “Batman” reminds Bruce more pleasantly of the new beginning his dad had promised.
And now, SPOILERS FOLLOW for Issue 33:
While Issue 33 has a lot of payoffs — including for the giant penny Uncle Philip placed outside of Wayne Enterprises — it also introduces and resolves one of the story’s final secrets. Batman’s desperate attempt to restart the city’s power grid involves sending a thousand volts through his chest. That recalls young Bruce’s desire for electroshock therapy, which would stop him being haunted by memories of his parents. Bruce didn’t go through with that procedure, because he realized there had to be a better way to work through his grief. “Batman” turned out to be the answer — “the crazy thing to keep [him] from going crazy” — and in fact Bruce describes Batman to Alfred as a “lightning rod” for all the bad elements that threaten the people of Gotham City. The Riddler practically describes Batman’s thousand-volt experiment as giving the city a new heart. The metaphors are a little mixed, and the electrical imagery gets to be a bit on-the-nose (thank goodness this isn’t a Flash story); but it results in a surprisingly profound explanation for Batman.
Part of that profundity comes from the way the story has treated Bruce Wayne. Initially he’s presumed dead and operating in secret out of a townhouse, with Alfred running interference. He resists becoming the Wayne Enterprises figurehead, but eventually embraces it, giving community-minded public speeches outside ACE Chemical and (at the end of Issue 33) the rebuilt Wayne building. The Red Hood Gang beats him almost to death, giving him another opportunity to go back into hiding; but it leads instead to “I shall become a bat.” An odd digression to follow a squad of soldiers ends up revealing why Doctor Death blames Bruce for his son being killed. After being swept away in the aftermath of Superstorm Rene, Bruce has to rebuild the Bat-costume and gear. Throughout it all, he’s smart and capable, but not necessarily the smartest or most capable. Where the Bruce of “Year One” called himself a “lucky amateur,” the Bruce of “Zero Year” is constantly developing and learning.
The story combines all of this with young Bruce’s explorations to drive home the point that “Batman” is something Bruce invented for his own sake, and further that it may even come from a semi-healthy place. This is a significant change from “Batman” being an expression of Bruce’s damaged psyche, or even a way to scare criminals the way a criminal scared him. Sure, those are nice collateral benefits; but they’re not what drives Bruce. He tells Alfred that Batman will “show the people of Gotham not to be afraid” and explains that Batman is “all that makes me happy.” Needless to say, the idea of Batman making Bruce Wayne happy is not one that has gotten a whole lot of focus over the past few decades.
In one last callback to classic Batman stories, Alfred imagines a future for Bruce where he marries his old flame Julie Madison, they have three rambunctious kids (the oldest of which enjoys the heck out of Zorro), and a mustachioed Bruce is eternally grateful to his faithful butler. It’s another “new beginning” in a story full of them, and its placement as the story’s coda illustrates the nature of “Zero Year” generally. Gordon gets a couple of new starts, both related to the beat-up trenchcoat he acquired while unwittingly helping his corrupt patrolman partner. We know the Red Hood gets a new start. Doctor Death’s whole gruesome schtick revolves around growing new bones. Bruce comes back from the dead about four times, at least. If “Zero Year” has a fault, it’s that Snyder and company want to do too much, and apparently can’t quite bear to let any of their ideas go unexpressed. (I know the feeling.) Heck, the Bat-Signal is foreshadowed at least twice, and in two different, independent ways.
In the end, however, “Zero Year” lives up to its ambition. It’ll probably stand for a while as the centerpiece of Snyder and Capullo’s tenure on Batman, if only because there’s so much in the story which reaches back (and, most likely, forward) into the rest of their arcs. It should reward multiple readings and give Batman scholars a lot to unpack. Not bad indeed for Batman Day.
And here is the Futures Index for this week’s Issue 12.
NOTES: The SHADE subplot got a bit more interesting with the revelation about the Engineer apparently being taken over by Brainiac. At the very least, that little three-circle logo connects Angie to the Laotian temple from a few issues back. The bit about Frankenstein’s human blood is also pleasantly surprising, and hints at his nightmare-future (conveniently seen at the end of this issue).
I wracked my brain and hunted through the Google trying to figure out if Mercy (or “Don’t Call me Courtney”) was a pre-existing character. I don’t think she’s Courtney “Stargirl” Whitmore, because she’s got “toxic waste site” powers and Courtney just has the Cosmic Staff. Besides, we saw Courtney in her familiar costume and hairdo at Green Arrow’s funeral in Issue 2. She’s probably an obscure WildStorm character, but I couldn’t find any Courtneys who knew Voodoo and twins. I’m also surprised that Justin brought Voodoo back to Grifter’s old hideout (where we got another good look at the decapitated alien from last week, so thanks for that). I thought Justin was getting out while the getting was good. Anyway, the whole Grifter-oriented plot about trying to hunt down and destroy evil aliens, or evil Earth-2lings, or whomever, has been a drag for a while.
Now I understand why the Masked Superman can’t stand Ethan the supervillain, because boy is he annoying. I’m guessing Dan Jurgens wrote this sequence, so congratulations to him for getting the “self-absorbed technophile” characterization down so effectively.
Finally, I wonder if DC planned for the Joker and his number-one nemesis to close out this particular week’s issue. Happy Batman Day from Brother Eye!
NEXT WEEK IN THE FUTURE: Still looking at the Plastique-borg! Big Barda among the refugees and with her hubby! Bearded with a hoodie and a gun! And … Kickin’ Cal Corcoran!