Recent world events saw Comics Bulletin Publisher Mark Stack and Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett revisiting “Zero Year,” an arc from the second volume of Batman. Written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Greg Capullo, inked by Danny Miki, colored by FCO Plascencia, and lettered by Nick Napolitano, “Zero Year” retells the origin of Batman for the post-9/11 world. Mark and Chase will be discussing their interpretation of the story’s themes and meaning in articles devoted to each of its three acts (“Secret City,” “Dark City,” and “Savage City”), but first they thought it might be a good idea to share some of their thoughts and feelings about “Zero Year” and what it has meant to them since its release.
Mark Stack: I was six years old when the World Trade Center crumbled. I saw it, all of us who were alive then– we saw it play out on television. We didn’t really know what it meant at first. A lot of people still don’t really know what it was or what it meant. I know more now than I did then. All I knew was that I was scared. The world changing the way it did, just as I was beginning to build a steady concept of The World, pretty much overnight. My parents were both in the military at the time and would be deployed in intervals; I’d have Mom at home for six months, Dad would come back, we’d all cohabitate for a short while, and then it would be her turn to go off.
Scott Snyder is older than I am and a native New Yorker. He’d lived longer in a world where the tone wasn’t set by such a large, violent act of terrorism. His home changed. I’m sure the concept of being mugged became less frightening. Someone pulls a weapon or hits you, asking for your wallet? That’s something you can deal with. There’s logic, there’s reason, behind that. You give them what they want and hope they don’t hurt you. How do you reason with an unknowable monolith that kills people? What is there to do except be afraid?
I’ve since reached adulthood. I’d said at some point that I’d join the military if we were still at war when I turned 18. However, by the time I reached that age, I realized that we were never going to not be at war, regardless of what ground any boots were placed on. Being a soldier wouldn’t change a damn thing. The killing of the leader behind the organization that had attacked us changed nothing in the world. At home, our own people were killing each other; massacres at schools, movie theaters, churches… We had and have every reason to still be afraid. To live in this country where dangerous people find easy, legal access to massively destructive weapons and cops murder the people they’re sworn to protect is to live at war. In fear. The world changes every day.
Snyder has children, a life decision I understand making while simultaneous never wanting to bring life into this world, and his work as a writer is heavily informed by that fact. In his work you find a lot of talk of fathers and naked exploration of the fears that come from raising children in this world. His superhero comics work is unique in that regard as a deeply personal, mass-market product – two elements that often seem opposed in the corporate comics structure’s grueling schedule – utilizing a decades old character. His “Death of the Family” arc on Batman grapples with the fear that being a great artist might mean being a bad father, if being a father might limit one as an artist, and if it’s worth pursuing both when one may not be capable of succeeding at either of them because of it.
“Zero Year” is Snyder’s take on living in a world of fear through, as always, Batman. It’s an origin story for the character in a modern setting with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents serving as not only a catalyst for him but the entire city of Gotham to descend into madness. The murder of the Waynes isn’t just the catalyst for Bruce to become Batman, it’s a catalyst for an exponentially growing wave of violence with the Red Hood Gang being the latest iteration. The gang has no goals, no demands. They want nothing more than to see a city buckle and break under the weight of living in a world where bad things just happen to everyone without notice.
There’s no warning. Mad men arm themselves with weapons, plan attacks, and carry them out without the world knowing until it’s too late. A family goes to the movies, they die in a hail of gunfire. A congregation attends their regular service and a stranger they welcomed shoots them dead. People go to one of the few sanctuaries in the world where they feel welcomed and safe only to see it destroyed.
Batman rejects this. He has to. The character can’t be faced with a problem he isn’t capable of combating. He doesn’t accept the Red Hood Gang’s talk about life being meaningless. Violence and death, they may be random but the lives they impact carry meaning. He stands up to the threat, says he will not live in fear, and empowers the people of his city to do the same as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Bruce Wayne tells the people that they’re brave for even living in Gotham and somehow managing to continue on with their lives (a very clear example of a New Yorker taking what that city means to him and transplanting it onto Gotham) and Batman presents the fantasy that one person is capable of preventing these terrifying acts or, at the very least, capturing those responsible for them.
Batman and the readers meet the character of Duke Thomas, a kid somewhere around age 10, in the wake of the Riddler’s devastating attack on Gotham that left the city without power or infrastructure. Being young, he handles things better. He woke one day to a world that had changed with new, impossible to suss out rules and decided to try working with them. The Riddler demands an unsolvable riddle to release his iron grip over the city so, rather than shutting down or lashing out, the kid starts reading so he can try to stump the question-marked clown. Of course, there’s no way that would make the threat stop. He doesn’t yet recognize that there are no rules, no sense of honor, that will leave the righteous victorious. One doesn’t reason with a shooter, a bomber, a mad man anymore than a hurricane. I see some of my younger self in Duke Thomas and even more of the people younger than me who don’t have a solid memory of 9/11. I think Scott Snyder sees that, too.
But this is a story with Batman in it and he figures everything out. He finds a pattern and he stamps it out with his big black boots, inspiring Duke Thomas to grow up and do the same. The Riddler goes to jail or is committed — Batman does not lead a unit that shoots him twice in the chest and once in the head — and the whole city learns a lesson about how one person can make the world a better place even if it’s harder to do that than it is for one to make it worse. The story asserts the value in working hard, working together, to transform our world into a safer one. We can’t even pass meaningful gun control laws. Batman offers inspiration to at least try to do something transformative rather than wallow in resigned acceptance.
The world of Batman and “Zero Year” doesn’t look like what we’ve grown to expect in our daily lives. Snyder understands that, ultimately, he’s writing escapist fantasy and the idea of terrorism is more important to convey than the look and feel of it. You can’t have Batman fighting Al Qaeda and even presenting him in the same context as a school shooting verges into tasteless territory. I can recognize my own fears in the threat of the Red Hood Gang and the Riddler; the fear that my friends and family might one day be killed for absolutely no reason at all.
I returned to “Zero Year” because it suddenly became too much. Someone woke me up and told me the world had changed. I turned on the news, saw the footage, and I couldn’t catch my breath because I knew people who had just been in that city and might have still been. It was impossible for me to conceive of a world where the forces that bring us together will ever be stronger than the hate and the violence that seeks to tear us apart. What I needed was to curl up and be told that things would be okay from someone that had the same fears that I did.
And, for as long as I kept reading, I believed that lie. I believed in Batman. And I believed in us. If only for that little while.
Chase Magnett: It’s amazing what kind of difference five years can make. I was only 11 when I watched those planes collide with the World Trade Center towers on a small television in Nebraska. While it seemed like those events were taking place a world away, even then I knew I was witnessing something that would change my world nonetheless. Seeing your teachers cry, hearing your parents admit they don’t know what will happen, and watching that footage play again and again on television is all the context even a child would need to figure it all out.
Yet when I saw those towers collapse, I knew everyone had experienced that moment with me. For a very brief moment it felt like we were all in this thing together, whatever exactly this thing is. We could talk about the before and after of the day. When I look at you Mark, I realize I’m looking at the generational gap between those who remember what it was like before 9/11 and those who never will. There are children legally able to smoke today who cannot recall a world without the “War on Terror”.
In some ways that’s scarier than the continued existence of the “war” itself. You mentioned that you’re not quite ready to consider having a family yet. That’s exactly where I am in my life, those five years shifting perspective in a big way once again. I’m planning a wedding with the woman I love and the majority of our conversations center on that day, buying a house, having kids, and getting a dog. Fifteen years later and I’m taking the first major steps towards being the husband and father I want to be.
And I am fucking terrified.
I’m not a husband yet. I’m not a father yet. I’m not even a homeowner yet. And yet I still find myself questioning how I can protect the things I love from a future I don’t understand and truly random acts of violence. How can I protect my home, my wife, and my children from a man wielding an AR-15 that he legally purchased at a sporting goods store down the street? How can I hope to contend with this?
I don’t have an answer to that question and I don’t think I’m supposed to. Because you can’t protect what you love against every tragedy. That’s one of the key elements of Batman’s origin and what has made the death of the Waynes so iconic in pop culture. When Snyder and Greg Capullo juxtapose it with an oncoming storm in “Zero Year” it’s not accidental. Violence can be as implacable, unpredictable, and unstoppable of a force as nature itself. It is something we must recognize, but cannot end.
That doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially in the face of rampant ignorance, apathy, and failures to act. It is one thing to accept there are mad men in the world, but entirely another to fail to place restrictions on the weapons of mass destruction they desire to use. Everyday we witness legislators refuse to act on climate change, gun control, drone warfare, and so many other clear and present dangers. While we may not live at a more dangerous time than our ancestors one hundred years ago, it feels no safer when our leaders have only thoughts and prayers to offer the dead.
Confronting this status quo it can feel like your only two emotional responses are either despair or rage. Both are appropriate. To admit that the NRA has won Congress against the pleas of a vast majority of Americans and in the face of thousands of the dead each year is to know that change for the better will be a long time coming, if it ever comes. You can slink away from this with the knowledge that this is the way things are. Or you can scream at these forces until your face turns red and your social media turns into a stream of fire. I’ve done both.
We are human though and we require respite. We need a balm for our souls, something to cool us and give us strength to carry on. That’s why despair and rage are not enough. We also need hope.
I think that’s one of the reasons we cherish the superhero genre. When the world gets to be too much, superheroes can give us a refuge and show us a world where the good guys win. It is never easy and the fight may never truly end, but the truth of the genre is that the hero wins at the end of the day.
Snyder and Capullo’s Batman has always been designed to comfort and provide hope in the face of hopelessness. Each of their epic tales brought the titular hero to his knees, but allowed him to win the day before all is said and done. Whether it was the brink of madness in “Court of Owls” or brain death in “Superheavy”, Batman had to face the unimaginable and overcome it again and again. None of their arcs do this better than “Zero Year”, which works through analogs for the most pressing fears facing young Americans today. That’s why I’m looking forward to revisiting this story with you. It’s a tale made for our generation and even more so for the generation we will one day create.
“Zero Year” is a comic that gives me some comfort when questioning my future as a husband and father. It’s a comic I imagine giving to my kids to give them some hope when we turn on the TV one day and I am left without any answers for them. It’s just a story, but sometimes that’s all we need.