I am a big fan of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One" story. It's one of those rare stories that instantly became a classic part of the Batman canon, referred to and idolized by many. The moment that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Zero Year" story was announced, it was impossible to avoid the comparisons. As a result, it's important to note two pieces of information regarding "Year One" and "Zero Year." First, "Year One" isn't much beloved because it's the early days of Batman, but rather because of the story quality from Miller and Mazzucchelli. It's a great and influential story, but it was hardly the first or last time an "early days of Batman" story has been tackled. (Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer's "Batman Begins" film script is a prime example of a successful tackling of the same time period in Batman's life that wasn't just a retelling of "Year One.")
Second, with an entire line re-launch and time period change to a more modern era, it is inevitable that origins will be updated. It wasn't a question as to if something like this would happen, but when and by whom. "Year One" is a truly fantastic story, but it's also a snapshot of 1980s New York, when it was first published. It makes sense that if a publisher is shifting all its characters into the modern day that a modern Gotham City needed to come along with them. And so, with that in mind, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo present "Batman" #21.
"Zero Year" opens with a five page sequence that is presumably near the conclusion of "Zero Year," set six years ago and in a Gotham City that's seen better days. The book will jump another five moths further into the past for the real beginning of "Zero Year," but it's this glimpse into what will happen throughout "Zero Year" that ultimately seized my attention. Long-time "Batman" fans might flash to events like "No Man's Land" with a ruined Gotham City, but it's equally hard to shake a more general feeling of an apocalypse having just occurred. Snyder and Capullo have pulled out the stops here. It's a dramatic opening sequence, and it works.
The rest of the issue is good, but it's certainly on more familiar footing. There are modern gadgets and technology being deployed, and even some snark from a younger Bruce as he adjusts to Alfred's presence in his life. This is a more modern Gotham City that Bruce navigates, one that requires more than a knit cap and a leather jacket to push his way through alleys on a mission of vengeance. Snyder's got a nice mixture of arrogance and desperation in Bruce's voice, and some of "Zero Year" will definitely be going towards his hero's journey as he eventually sheds both to become the calm and collected Batman.
Snyder and Capullo also bring back a villain that hasn't been seen much in the New 52. It's only a small glimpse so far, but it fills me with a lot of hope. They've definitely updated the character a bit, removing some of the more over-the-top elements from across the years. At the same time, though, the core of the character is still there. His most defining qualities are clearly still present, and we're given a better idea now of how that works thanks to the stretching of cords and strings to form literal connections from everything that he's mapped out to date. "Zero Year" on some level will clearly be this character's new origin story as well, and while it's only the first chapter, it's off to a good start.
I've already mentioned some of the things that I like about Capullo's art in "Batman" #21, but there's one other scene in particular that stands out for me, and it's the page in which readers get four glimpses of what a young Bruce Wayne does on his day alone in Gotham City. There's something about these looks into the different parts of Gotham that are entrancing; people often point to Capullo's big and splashy drawings as their favorites, but I love when he tackles something on a smaller scale. Capullo's good at pages where he's trying to set a mood through his art. He gets to do it in that previously mentioned five-page opening sequence, and he does it there as well. I'm a little less impressed with the way he draws the slightly older Bruce Wayne; I feel like in an attempt to go for youthful, it comes off as slightly plastic instead. It's ridiculously smooth and almost like a mannequin, but hopefully with time we'll get something a bit more expressive.
There's also a back-up story by Snyder, James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuquerque detailing Bruce Wayne before he returned to Gotham City. The story itself is unfortunately a bit of a throwaway and slightly forgettable, but Albuquerque's heavy ink washes are great for a fast-moving script, and each page has at least one image that feels like it's just sliding before your very eyes. It's a great usage of Albuquerque's talents, if nothing else.
In the end, "Batman" #21 is pretty good. People who are already prejudiced against "Zero Year" for merely existing probably won't agree, and while I see where they're coming from, I don't see why you can't simultaneously love "Year One" and appreciate "Zero Year" for what it is, at least so far. It's a good first chapter, and it holds a lot of promise for the next ten installments to come. If nothing else, I feel I got my money's worth in the first five pages. Snyder and Capullo's vision of "Zero Year" feels large and compelling right off the bat, and it makes you want to read more. This is how I want all of my epics to begin.