When I first heard that Snyder and Capullo were going back to do an origin story, I was sceptical about another retelling. I have complete faith in this partnership but I was concerned how Snyder would combat the age old Batman adages. Then it was announced that the Red Hood gang were involved in Zero Year and I realised we were directing this book towards the classic Killing Joke story. This idea fits well with the book because we had just finished Death of the Family and our favourite villain took centre stage. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have given us two years of stupendous storytelling and magnificent art but I wondered what perspective they would take with an exuberant Bruce. Suffice to say it was unprecedented and invigorating.
As a slight recap it is worth discussing the Red Hood gang from the classic Alan Moore and Brian Bolland story. The Killing Joke serves as a Joker origin story as we witness the flagging comedian partake in nefarious activities to keep his family supported. The Red Hood gang are mentioned and Joker suddenly realises he has inadvertently been recruited, as he dons a red helmet to break into a chemical plant. This is where he leaps into a reservoir of chemical waste in a desperate attempt to escape Batman, leaving his face irreversibly scarred. Zero Year travels to this unique time period, which has not been covered in previous comics. Scott and Greg are now able to tackle specific aspects of Batman mythology but more importantly Gotham folklore, as we see the city develop its own personality.
I struggle to fault Scott Snyder as a writer because his ideas are original and well executed. I have always said his work can be a little dialogue heavy but this is never at the expense of the artwork or upsetting the flow of the book. This whole arc has been well paced and set apart from well known stories, giving the stamp of Snyder/Capullo originality. It delicately homages The Killing Joke and other events in Bruce’s life, such as the death of his parents, the Robin symbol and the famed oversized penny. The book also incorporates flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood in order to evoke memories of paternal lessons and youthful innocence. In any case, the details of Bruce developing his alter ego and reconnaissance strategies are refreshingly novice. His relationship with Alfred is very raw and fraught with dissonance. Scott takes them through a process of turbulence, which makes them stronger and more understanding of each other.
Greg Capullo is, as expected, exceptional in his artwork and I adore his style when drawing Bruce unmasked. He has such intensity with subtle inflections of anxiety, and his new hairstyle looks cool. When the mask is equipped, his façade changes completely as the detail is stripped to leave simplistic anger and malice. The large panels of Batman in action are all impressive and epic, with an unerring dedication to the Bat motif. Plascencia is the colourist on Zero year and has changed the tone of the book compared to the arcs before. There is vibrancy to his palette, which matches the youthful exuberance of Bruce Wayne and the fledging crime city. Given the earlier issues are focused on daytime illegitimate activities with Bruce fighting in camouflage as opposed to a Bat outfit, we see Gotham in a different light. There are brighter reds, yellows and blues and it is tonally in keeping with a character yet to enter the dark recesses of the city. The final fire sequences in the chemical factory are beautifully rendered and look amazing. It feels like a different book from the Owls and Joker arcs, which is of prime importance when we are in city far removed from present day, nurturing its own superhero.
Rafael Albuquerque draws the epilogue to the book and is suitable geared towards the aftermath of the arc. Alfred performs a lovely ode to Batman with reference to an actor taking stage to play multiple parts. The pencilling and colouring is darker, heavier and befitting of the discordant tones of a city under siege by a new adversary; The Riddler. I often complain of changes in artist during the middle of the story, but in this case it is not at all disruptive as the story has come to an end. The afterwords are reflective and the foundation of the arc to come.
The key to the success of Secret City is that conceptually it involves the maturation of our beloved Bruce, in a jungle unbeknownst to him. Little did he know that his future is intimately related to the inexorable nature of Gotham. There are many stories relayed from Thomas Wayne, Philip Kane, Alfred and Bruce himself about the character of Gotham. The bedrock of the city is made from mica schist, which is singularly inflexible, tough and resolute. It plays a wonderful metaphor for the disposition of the city and its people, and is described in Bruce’s speech as he announces his return home. The unforgiving social, economic and environmental nature of Gotham challenges you, and in order to survive, you have to be better. It strips you down to your essential core, and brings out the person you are meant to be, and in this case a hero. There is a lovely parallel played out here with an essential theme of the arc, revelation from the darkness. In the first issue, Thomas Wayne tells Bruce that fate is formed in the dark, which is apropos to Bruce falling into the cave as a child. The lifeblood of Gotham runs below the Wayne establishment and engulfs Bruce. He has to emerge form the darkness a better man, born of the city.
Alfred calls Bruce a coward because he persists with the presumption that he is dead. His family’s company is corrupted by the Kane partnership and the Red Hood gang steals their weaponry, putting the Wayne name in disrepute. Bruce hides in the darkness, but has yet to embrace it. In an act of desperation he calls out to his father for help, and in this moment he receives the signal to become a bat. The decision to fight in the dark is simultaneously taken with the decision to fight in the light, as Bruce. He finally understands that the ominous fate of the Wayne name is intertwined with the fate of the good city herself. The idea that an unyielding sentient Gotham tells you what to be is an intriguing one. This transformative journey through the dark, acts as a rite of passage, providing inspiration to Bruce to become a hero. The light and dark analogies continue throughout and supplement the classical notion of a Bat flying towards young Bruce in a dark cave. I was quite pleased that is was not a simple retelling of that classic trope, but more a metaphorical paternal aphorism. We are brought to a close by plunging Gotham into darkness, tying together the essential themes of the arc, bringing about the age of Batman.
“As long as you don’t install a fire pole, I’ll manage sir”.