Sunday, June 25, 2017

A particularly rambling and discursive "review" of Batman: Zero Hour

I found this to be a curious collection. On the one hand, DC has been rather focused on going back and collecting or recollecting comics from the 1990s, and the issues between these pages--all of the then extant Batman line's tie-ins to 1994 event series Zero Hour and all the #0 issues that were released the following month--are a near-perfect sampling of the line as it existed at the time. On the other hand, because the focus of Zero Hour was in-story continuity maintenance, with a new, surprise villain destroying all of the universe in order to remake it, the side effects which included time anomalies before the #0 issues offered then-current, canonical origin stories of all the characters, these issues are no longer "relevant" in terms of their original, intended function.

Reading it cover to cover then was, for me, a weird mixture of nostalgia and regret, as DC has changed so much of what is in here in the years since. The Batman origins, of which there are three direct ones and a fourth, more thematic one, still work okay today, as DC and New 52 Batman writer Scott Snyder didn't mess much with his basic story, but the Catwoman and, especially, the Robin origins have been wiped-out and overwritten, replaced by...well, by nothing good (I still wonder about the whys of the New 52 reboot, and it seems like the point of collapsing DC's generations of heroes into a single "now" was simply all about making heroes like Batman, Superman and the others seem younger, something of rather dubious value; this collection ends with a pair of ten-year timelines, which would put Batman at maybe his early thirties...did someone with some power in corporate and/or editorial really think that was too old for the publisher's gray, gray readership to relate to?).

Also of interest was the fact that their was no introduction or preface explaining what the hell Zero Hour was*. All you get is a paragraph on the back cover:
Time is collapsing in on itself. The villainous Extant has ushered in a series of black holes that are swallowing the universe--past, present and future! The Bat-family, like everyone else in the DC Universe, has seen time loops affect their lives. The result? The return of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, teenage Dick Grayson as Robin, and Bruce Wayne's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. Then, after the crisis in time has been averted, new details about the origins of Batman, Robin and Catwoman are revealed.
I guess "time is going crazy, yo" is all you really need to know to make sense of the first half of the collection, but I think some context would have helped, particularly to explain what the #0 issues have to do with the anomaly issues. (DC has collected Zero Hour into a trade of its own, by the way, although looking at Amazon, it doesn't look like Zero Hour: Crisis In Time has been republished since 1994...is that possible? Well, the series was "controversial" among some for its treatment of Hal Jordan and the Justice Society of America and, I don't know, however many Hank Hall fans there still were in the wild back then, maybe, but I liked it a lot, and Geoff Johns gradually un-did everything everyone hated about it over the years in the pages of Green Lantern and JSA.)

This trade is almost 300 pages, and collects 11 issues, so it completely dwarfs Zero Hour, which is only 160 pages and collects the five-issue miniseries, plus two prelude-like shorts from the pages of Showcase '94. Though it represents six different ongoing monthlies, the Batman line at the time was still relatively tidy compared to what it is today; counting all the satellite books, I think we're at around a dozen titles, depending on which you want to consider Batman books and which you don't, in June of 2017.** Back then, Nightwing and Birds of Prey had yet to launch as ongoing monthlies.

In the "anomaly" half of the trade, there's an issue each of Batman, Detective, Batman: Shadow of The Bat, Robin and Catwoman, each by the current creative teams of the time, which means a lot of very familiar names among the writers, and a lot of great artists. For the most part, Zero Hour provided a pretty perfect springboard for tie-ins, as it was a crossover event that presented a world-wide crisis that would find the heroes wherever the heroes were, rather than necessitating them all actively participating in a plot-line of some sort (that active participation was done in the Zero Hour miniseries proper). So the writers and editors were basically free to play with the idea of "time is screwed up," and think of the best way to use that premise to tell interesting Batman stories.

In Batman, Dough Moench, Mike Manley and Josef Rubinstein had an alternate timeline occasionally over-writing the current one, so that a Batgirl Barbara Gordon appears, and Batman and Robin Tim Drake find themselves dealing with a different Joker who killed Commissioner Gordon instead of paralyzing Barbara during The Killing Joke, a Commissioner Harvey Dent and a very confused Barbara (this Batgirl seems to be a different one that the one that appears as a major player in Zero Hour; Batman's Batgirl is apparently from an alternate timeline, while Zero Hour's Batgirl is this timeline's Batgirl from before she retired). The issue ends with Batman heading to Metropolis to meet with Superman so they can begin to figure out how to fight this new crisis, and I believe it leads directly into the fairly awesome Superman: The Man of Steel #37, which technically came out of the Superman office, but was a pretty dynamite Batman comic book, as it involved Superman being barraged with different Batmen.
Just look at all those Batmen!
In Detective, Chuck Dixon, Graham Nolan and Bob McLeod send Batman back to the night of his parents' murder, only to find that this time Bruce Wayne was shot to death in front of them, and, knowing the name of the murderer, Batman runs around pre-Batman Gotham City looking for Joe Chill to avenge his own death and/or that of his parents, only to find that apparently it wasn't Joe Chill after all...at least, not in this timeline (There's some discussion of a point of interest that Batman fans like to talk about, whether it matters if Batman ever catches the guy who shot his parents or not; here the answer is no, and it will be reflected in the "new" origins in the #0 issue portion of the books).

Man, I forgot how great Nolan's art was, and every time I see his pencils from this era I'm surprised anew regarding how clean his lines were and how elegant his figure work is. It really stands out next to the work of Manley and Bret Blevins, too, whose styles are somewhat similar, particularly in the way they draw their Batmen.
In Batman: Shadow of The Bat, Alan Grant and the aforementioned Blevins saddle Batman and Robin with an alternate version of Alfred, the overweight, bumbling, comical version who wanted to be a detective and fight crime alongside his Dynamic Duo. This issue had one of the better Zero Hour related covers, by regular Shadow cover artist Brian Stelfreeze, and it was rather well-suited to what was going on in Gotham City at the time, as the regular timeline's Alfred Pennyworth tendered his resignation towards the end of "KnightQuest," leaving Batman and Tim Drake to figure out how to feed themselves and do their own laundry.

In Robin, Dixon, Tom Grummett and Ray Kryssing team Tim up with a young, time-lost Dick Grayson, previously seen prowling around the rooftops of Batman, where Manley drew him in a charmingly Sheldon Moldoff-esque design. The Boys Wonder crack a case involving a jewel thief, but the main pleasure here is seeing the two together, allowing us to compare and contrast them (post-Flashpoint, Tim was unfortunately given a more Grayson-like background; I liked the fact that, back then, the two Robins had very, very different specialties, even though they were both competent at all-around vigilante crime-fighting and side-kicking). Well, that and seeing Grummett draw the classic Robin costume, which dammit, is a pretty great design, pants or no. This issue, like the one of Catwoman that follows, ends with the panels and art on the comic book being un-drawn as everything fades to white; this happened in many of the Zero Hour tie-ins. As Extant and Parallax un-made the DC Universe, the comic book stories were apparently fading away right before our very eyes!

Finally, in Catwoman, Jo Duffy, Jim Balent and Bob Smith have Selina Kyle waking up to find a Gotham City gone mad. There's a saber tooth tiger in her bed, and a hunky "caveman" who looks more like Ka-Zar than a primitive human ancestor in her living room. They run around the city, which is full of dinosaurs and randomly transforming vehicles and buildings until the issue disappears at the end. This isn't Balent at his best quite yet, but he's good, and, as I know I've mentioned before, it's easy to forget that the guy could draw pretty good superhero comics, given the peculiarities of the creator-owned project he's devoted his career too since.

At this point, I guess one would need to go read Zero Hour or, at least know that Superman, Damage, Green Arrow Oliver Queen and a handful of other superheroes defeated Parallax and re-created the Big Bang, essentially restarting the universe, with a few tweaks in coninuity...for the purposes of the Batman family of books, these were all pretty minor, and seemed more organizational than anything else. Batman, by the way, did not make it to the climax of Zero Hour, having been eaten by a white blackhole of nothingness while fighting dinosaurs or something in Gotham.

In Batman #0, Moench, Manley and Rubinstein tell Batman's basic origin story and abbreviated history, right up until a few months prior to the book was published, actually. In the present, they have Batman tracking down a series of killings that are a little too close to the one that took his parents for comfort, allowing for the flashbacks, each of which is colored in semi-black and white as if to evoke "Batman: Year One." The book ends, as a few of these would, with Batman thinking portentously about perhaps not being Batman anymore: "Can he really do what he must... ...and walk away from it all?"

These issues are all leading up to the next chapter of the Batman saga, which was "Prodigal," during which Dick Grayson temporarily assumed the role of Batman while Bruce Wayne went off on a mysterious "Sumatran Rat" adventure.

Shadow of the Bat #0 covered much the same ground as Batman, with Alan Grant and Bret Blevins also retelling Batman's origin, hitting a lot of the same notes. In the present, he is trying to capture a pair of thieves who are both pretty great fighters, during which time he scares a gang of young punks into hiding; knowing his reputation, they debate about what to do if they have Batman's attention, unaware of the fact that rather laying siege to them he's blocks away on more important business. The flashback sequences may cover much of the same ground, but there is a slight difference in focus, I guess, playing up Batman's fighting skills and use of fear as a psychological weapon. In another teaser to "Prodigal," the penultimate page has Bruce Wayne considering the fact that there are things that being Batman has prevented him from doing, but he knows the city needs a Batman. The last page features someone suiting up as Batman, but the language is intentionally vague: "A hand reaches for the costume," and like that.

Nolan's Batman
For Detective Comics #0, the cover of which was repurposed for that of the trade, Dixon, Nolan and Scott Hanna use the same basic formula of the previous two zero issues, showing Batman on a current case--here, a kidnapping which involves him fighting his way through a building full of bad guys--while flashing back to elements of his origin. In this case, they focus the origin on specific elements, however, so it's much different than those previous entries. Specifically, they tell of how Bruce Wayne and Alfred discovered and created the Batcave, and some of the vehicles and weapons that filled it.

There wasn't a Legends of The Dark Knight Zero Hour tie-in, but the title, like all of the DCU titles, participated in "Zero Month." This is a jam-issue of sorts, and a pretty great done-in-one, evergreen Batman story. If I can make sense of the credits correctly, editor Archie Goodwin scripted the framing sequence, in which a cartoonishly evil publishing magnate assembles a room full of writers and storytellers in his cartoonishly evil mansion to try to understand just who or what the Batman really is.
How evil is this guy? Look, he has a koala bear's head mounted on his wall. A koala bear!
And an actual room full of comic book writers and cartoonists offer various, one-page visions of Batman, including Gerard Jones, James Robinson, Steven Grant, Scott Hampton, Jeph Loeb, Mike Baron, J.M. DeMatteis, Ted McKeever, John Wagner and Roy Burdine. The all-star roster of artists that illustrate these passages are Karl Kesel, Tony Salmons, Mike Zeck, Hampton, Tim Sale, Mark Badger, Brian Murray, Steve Mitchell, John Watkiss, McKeever, Carlos Ezquerra, Frank Gomez and Phil Winslade.

The artist who contributes the most, however, is Vince Giarrano, whose work I like quite a bit. I know I've mentioned him on the blog, before, but if you're unfamiliar, Giarrano worked in a highly-exaggerated, almost Kelley Jones-like style that I like to think of as "sarcastic '90s," with huge, overly-muscled, heroic figures with lots of unnecessary lines, lots of points and melodramatic poses that, like the work of Jones, can teeter between operatic and ridiculous.
He draws the "devil bat" conception of Batman (above), which is paired with Kesel's more classic, heroic-looking "Dark Knight" conception, and the framing sequences. So it is Giarrano, of all people, who gets to draw the "real" Batman, despite the presence of so many artists with much more realistic styles. Here then, is what Batman "really" looks like:

This issue, by the way, features a cover by some kid named Joe Quesada.

For Robin #0, the regular creative team has Robin and Nightwing hanging out on a rooftop, waiting for a group of thieves to finish blow-torching their way through a safe in order to bust them. While killing time, Tim asks Dick about how he became Robin, and they essentially swap stories about their origins--and that of the late Jason Todd. They both know the broad strokes--Dick was even a key player in Tim's origin story--but not the details, as at this point in Bat-history Dick was more-or-less estranged from Batman, and had been spending most of his time with the Titans. This was between "KnightsEnd," in which Dick joined Bruce, Tim and even Catwoman in retaking the mantle of the bat from Jean-Paul Valley, and the aforementioned "Prodigal," when Dick Grayson was returning to the Batman Family fold, eventually getting his own, ongoing book for the first time.

Almost none of this issue are relevant anymore--I guess Dick's origin and Jason's origin still "happened," although they were dressed dumber in the new version and they weren't Robin longer than a year or so, and Tim's origin was completely erased and replaced. It was a nice jumping-on point in 1994 though, providing a brief history of Robin--or Robins--and setting up the Dick/Tim partnership that would be the focus of "Prodigal"...which this issue actually ends with a direct prelude to, with Dick suiting up as Batman to temporarily replace Bruce (for the first time; he would, of course, also do so when Bruce Wayne was temporarily dead-ish around the time of Final Crisis).

Because the previous issue was the end of Jo Duffy short-ish 14-issue run on Catwoman, regular pencil artist Balent and inker Bob Smith are joined by Doug Moench for Catwoman #0, after which point Dixon would inherit writing duties for a while. Moench, as was typical then, works a theme throughout the issue, comparing Selina to a cat in various ways throughout this story of her troubled childhood, some relatively subtle, some as subtle as a frying pan over the head. We learn that her mother died when she was young (after pushing her to devote herself to gymnastics), her father drank himself to death shortly after and she ended up in a typically Gotham corrupt orphanage for troubled young girls, where she taught herself rooftop climbing, thievery and overall sneakiness. There are a few scenes that seem to reference her role in "Batman: Year One," although rather than being an actual prostitute, Moench implies that it was just another form of thievery, wherein johns would hire her as prostitute and she would just mug them immediately, because they were bad guys anyway. Inspired by Batman's costume, she put on her gray, "Year One" costume and becomes a more spectacular cat burglar (That is one of my favorite Catwoman costumes from the comics, by the way). Most of the attention is paid to her childhood in the orphanage, though.

I'm not sure how much of this is relevant anymore though; both Jeph Loeb's Year One-era stories and Batman Eternal gave Catwoman biological fathers who were actually crime kingpins (but different ones at that), and while that doesn't necessarily negate this origin, I've seen just enough of the post-Flashpoint Catwoman to know her childhood was different there than it is here (Fun fact: This run lasted 96 issues, counting #0 and #1,000,000; the 2000 series lasted 82 issues; the New 52 series only lasted 53 issues). I suppose I should really set about tracking down various Catwoman origin stories that I've never read at some point, to try to make sense of the different takes on the character...that, or I guess I could just wait for Tim Hanley's next book.

It ends with the two timelines I mentioned, although I'm not sure where they originally appeared. The first is titled "Batman Timeline," and it spans ten years. The first three years all produced comic book stories with those names--"Year One," "Year Two" and "Year Three"--and while it's a pretty compressed timeline, it seems to hold up okay (Dick was only Robin for three years according to this time, which doesn't seem too terribly long, really; while Barbara retired from being Batgirl after just three years; two of which were after Dick took on his Nightwing persona). "Year 10" was a very busy one, staring with "Jean Paul Valley becomes Azrael," which means the miniseries Batman: Sword of Azrael, and contains "Knightfall," "KnightQest," "KnightsEnd," "Prodigal," "Troika," "Contagion" and "Legacy."

That's followed immediately by a "Batman Villains Timeline" which starts in 1921 with the creation of Arkham Asylum, and then runs through the same ten-year timeline, ending with the events of "Cataclysm" in "Year 10." I'm kind of curious what "year" it would be sans reboot, if we factored in "No Man's Land" and Damian's three years as Robin and so on...I think we would be in Year 15 or Year 16 now, although that seems mostly a matter of the ten-year-old Damian celebrating his 13th birthday in DC Universe: Rebirth. If Talia met Bruce in Year Three, and they had a ten-year-old son by the time "Batman and Son" rolled around, then that would have been Year 13, and then it's been another three years since then. Again, if Flashpoint and the New 52-boot never happened. Now it's Year Eight, and all of the events of the decade represented on these timelines supposedly happened in drastically different form during Years One through Five.



**********************



While reading this, I began wondering if DC would bother collecting any other tie-ins from the Zero Hour event, and I consulted Wikipedia to see just how many of the damn things there were. (It's a lot!)

A Superman: Zero Hour would certainly be the next easiest, as there were then six titles in that particular franchise: Superman, Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, Superman: The Man of Steel, Superboy and Steel.

A Justice League: Zero Hour title would also be relatively easy, as there were then three League titles: Justice League America, Justice League International and Justice League Task Force. I guess they could fill that out with...well, hell, I guess here it gets tricky, huh? They could use solo titles featuring characters from those line-ups, like The Flash, The Ray, Wonder Woman and Guy Gardner: Warrior...? I'm actually a little surprised to see that there were three Legion of Super-Heroes-related titles going into the event, so maybe they could do a Justice League/Legion of Super-Heroes: Zero Hour collection, and include the relevant issues of Legion of Super-Heroes, Legionnaires and LEGION '94...?

Or, given that none of those Leagues are really remembered at this point, and have been rebooted away anyway, maybe a theoretical Justice League: Zero Hour trade would include the big, non-Superman, non-Batman DC superheroes that we tend to think of as Justice Leaguers, whether or not they were on a League roster in 1994 or not: Aquaman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman and...Oh, that's all of the solo titles featuring long-time Leaguers. Unless you put Guy Gardner: Warrior in this theoretical collection...?

Looking at the complete list, its interesting to see the participating title that have long since disappeared (Damage, Anima, Valor, Team Titans, et cetera), and the handful of books that launched following the conclusion of Zero Hour during "Zero Month" (Fate, Manhunter, Primal Force), only one of which really caught on (Starman).

J'onn! Gypsy! The Ray! Triumph! L-Ron-in-Despero's body!
Aside from the Batman books, the #0 issues I remember reading and really liking were Justice League Task Force, when writers Mark Waid and Christopher Priest refocused the title from a book featuring rotating creators and squad of superheroes into a regular book with a regular line-up, premised on the Martian Manhunter training a motley crew of new superheroes (of one kind or another). The Sal Velluto art helped differentiate it from a lot of the super-comics DC was publishing at the time, which suffered from artists trying and often failing to ape that hot new Image Comics style that the kids liked so much at the time.

I also really dug the post-Zero Hour line-up of New Titans; while all of those individual comics weren't great, I loved that particular line-up, and the way it allowed many of the original New Teen Titans line-up to have their endings while carrying on with a rather weird line-up of young heroes from throughout the DC Universe at the time. Sadly, it didn't last too long (18 issues; which I would totally buy a collection of, as I still don't have all of the individual issues from this run).

Arsenal! Changeling! (A) Terra! Damage! Impulse! Green Lantern Kyle Rayner! Mirage! And, not pictured here as they hadn't yet joined the team, Darkstar Donna Troy, Supergirl and Minion!





*Which is weird, I think. I guess they wanted to keep costs down, but would spending a single page on an introduction instead of a house ad really have broken the bank? They didn't have to get a Batman line editor from back in the day or Zero Hour writer Dan Jurgens or Doug Moench or someone to write it. Maybe DC has an intern who they could have assigned it to? Hell, I woulda written it for ten bucks and a free copy of the trade. Oh, you know what? If you need more context on Zero Hour, this is a pretty fun way to learn more about it!

**Batman, Detective Comics, All-Star Batman, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batgirl and The Birds of Prey, Batwoman and Batman Beyond, sure; what about the Gotham-set Gotham Academy, and does Trinity or Red Hood and The Outlaws or Super Sons count? How about Harley Quinn...?

2 comments:

Jose Gregorio Bencomo Gomez said...

What is Vince Giarrano doing nowadays, anyway? Does he still draw comics? I haven't seen his art in a long time.

Also, Alan Grant's issue zero of Shadow of the Bat is suspiciously similar to his issue zero of Lobo, down to the punks holed up together and going through the protagonist's history while struggling not to wet their pants. There are major differences in the resolutions, of course, but that's because Lobo's M.O. is so wildly different from Batman's.

Caleb said...

I wish I knew! I just checked on comics.org after seeing your comment, and the most recent entry they had for him was some art in a Batgirl issue during the Cassandra Cain monthly...I want to say maybe 2004-ish...?