Allegory and Symbolism in Zero Year


In issue 27 of Batman something stood out to me that I hadn’t noticed before with the timeline. I wrote about this in pull list playlist as well, but at the time I theorized that by listing the events of Zero Year six years prior in 2014 Snyder was making a pretty distinct reference the market crash of 2008. I’ve given almost all of Snyder’s Batman work multiple reading, but I hadn’t gone back and read any of the Zero Year material until now. Having reread everything from the issue zero month prelude through 21-27 I found that my initial assumption was wrong: since issue 21 it’s always been listed as six years prior. But what I’ve discovered in my reassessment of this run is Snyder’s most extensive use of symbolism and allegory to date involving numerology, ancient Egyptian and Greek mythology, and Red Hood One against several other references that haven’t fully developed within the story line like Pol Pot’s infamous Zero Year in Cambodia, Super Storm Sandy, war and the mysterious Tokyo Moon whose inclusion has been boldly featured throughout the story line without any clear intent of use. So come drop down the rabbit hole and see some of the things Snyder’s been planting in your favorite Batman book. Some things have crystallized already if you’re willing to look. Others are still waiting to reveal themselves. All of it has been a stunning display of using symbolism as a focal point in the narrative.

First let’s cover the obvious with Red Hood One. Part of what Zero Year has done is homage and honor classic Batman stories of years past including Year One, The Dark Knight Return, Year 100 and The Killing Joke. In Moore and Boland’s contribution to the Batman mythos, The Killing Joke makes a explicit implication of the Joker’s origin. Snyder has been writing Red Hood One pretty clearly as the Joker to the point that it almost seems too obvious but that might be a red herring in and of itself. Whether as an editorial directive or by Snyder’s own decision I don’t think there is anyway that Red Hood One can NOT be the Joker at this point. Everything about his actions throughout the arc match the Joker’s, from his sociopathic leadership to the mysterious death of what was thought to be the real Red Hood One where his body has been left outside an amusement park there are some rather large bread crumbs pointing in that direction while also connecting with both The Killing Joke and Snyder’s own feelings about the Joker. For The Killing Joke it’s a clear nod to the original story that was more or less an origin about the Joker falling into a vat of acid at Ace chemical while working with the Red Hood gang but with Snyder it’s a little bit more complicated. In his previous Death of the Family arc and the media around that story Snyder made reference that his interpretation of the Joker is he is almost in love with Batman and thinks he’s the only one who understands him.  In a an interview with CBR Snyder says

“Well for Joker, it really is. He genuinely believes, in our iteration, that he is Batman’s greatest love and ally. That’s the case that he’s trying to make from the very beginning. You love me more than you love this ridiculous family you’ve accumulated and pretend to care about. Otherwise, you would have killed me. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have let me sneak through the windows and doors at night. By not finding out who I am through my DNA.”

Joker feels a unique connection to Batman. How he describes his relationship to Batman as he thinks he’s helping him

“Now we can chat my king…..Don’t pretend. Not to me, your faithful court jester.”

Now Red Hood One to Bruce Wayne.

It changed my life…your parents death. Changed my life forever. Gunned down by a nobody over nothing. For no reason….Because at the end of the day what people are afraid of is the nothing of it”

Wouldn’t it make sense that the Joker would feel the same way about Bruce Wayne before he’s the Joker? Wouldn’t he feel the need to evolve once he sees that Bruce Wayne became Batman? If Bruce’s parents are the ones that change Gotham does that make him the king and Joker the Jester that understands him because of he has a unique understanding of that happened? I have a feeling that these questions will be answered in time and that in the end all of the things we’ve seen with Red Hood in Zero Year is going to point back to the Joker unless there is a huge wild card that either we’re not seeing or has yet to be unveiled. That’s all pretty obvious and really it’s just the tip of the iceberg with Zero Year and the deeper you go the more expansive the symbolism and allegory gets. That starts with the number three.

Almost every significant number in Zero Year is either the number three or a multiple of it. James Gordon discovers the dog fighting ring three weeks after he joins the force, Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered fifteen years ago, Alfred is sitting in a Japanese cabaret in 1946, the events of Zero Year take place six years in the past and Bruce disappeared nine years ago. In numerology three is considered a transformative number in the most basic sense. It’s 1+2=3 where the original two numbers come together to form something more.  The number three was not recognized in most ancient languages. Often times any number over two was just called “many”.  This could be interpreted that the number three is representing a change that will change everything from where it was before and something new that will change the way this world is perceived. Furthermore, three is also used in what many philosophers call a trichotomy, including Thomas Aquinas thoracotomy of the causal principles (agent, patient, act) a concepts that can be applied to Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman and Gotham’s transformation with him. All of this follows in the idea of Zero Year in that all these accumulation of years and time are leading to a larger scale transformation. Everything is changing for not only Gotham but technically also for the DC universe. Bruce is becoming Batman, Red Hood One is becoming The Joker, Edward Nygma is becoming The Riddler, Karl Helfern is becoming Dr Death, Jim Gordon is becoming commissioner and Gotham is becoming the home to all of this. Everything is an accumulation of all the events that transpired in the past and having the number of years leading up to this event be multiples of three is a signal for the transformation for the city of Gotham and its inhabitants. The one significant number that is not related to three would be 25, Bruce Wayne’s age at the time of Zero Year but that age leads to an even more interesting parallel with Zero Year, Ancient Egypt and Greek mythology.

In Zero Year, the Sphinx is referenced multiple times but the way it is referenced is what makes it significant. The Sphinx itself that Bruce climbs out of the museum is the Egyptian one based off the Pharaoh Kharfa. Pharaoh Kharfa is said to have ruled Egypt for up to 25 years and his reign was brutal and abusive use of power against his people. I feel as if the age of the Pharaoh represents Bruce’s lifelong mental torture of himself in regards to the guilt he feels of his parents death. Another interesting feature of that Sphinx is the inscription of the name of Khepera-Re-Atum on its body for the sun god of ancient Egyptian theology. Ancient Egyptians practiced a polytheistic style of theology, meaning they worshiped multiple deities. Khepera-Re-Atum is a sun god who was a lower-level deity whose name meant developer or coming into being going back to the theme of transformation. Khepera-Re-Atum was a symbol of creation or rebirth much like many of the characters are doing within the Zero Year storyline and is represented by the Dung beetle, a bug that is literally born in shit and transforms into a powerful sentient being much like Bruce Wayne in a city that killed his parents but was able to transform from that into Batman. Another interesting aspect of the Sphinx in Zero Year is how it’s used by its different inhabitants in relation to its Egyptian origins and usage in Greek mythology. The Greek usage of the word is a corruption of the Egyptian word for “living image,” suggesting that Edward Nygma’s preference to the Greek usage of the Sphinx legend shows his own corruption or how he is a corruption of Wayne corp and by extension Gotham City. Edward uses the Riddle of the Sphinx from the Greek myth of Oedipus but what’s interesting is that that riddle used is considered the older and less used riddle suggesting a corruption of the original by Nygma and can read as a corruption of Nygma and Philip Kane of the Wayne legacy.  In relation to Batman, Oedipus is in itself almost too on the nose but a still compelling comparison. The legend of Oedipus is that he was prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother so his original parents gave him away to another kingdom only to have Oedipus learn of the prophecy, leave what he perceives as his original parents and kill his real father on the road to the city of Thebes. The connection here isn’t a perfect one but it can fit that Bruce Wayne is feeling guilt for his parents death even though it truly isn’t his fault and his running away from home because of that matches Oedipus leaving home over fear of his parents murder. What they share is a misplaced idea that leaving their home is a way to deal with the death of their parents. Thebes is a city that is often used in Greek mythology and it represents interesting parallel with Gotham as Thebes of the DC Universe. Going back to my initial point the riddle of the Sphinx is solved by Oedipus in his birth city of Thebes like it is by Batman and the city is saved from the Greeks corrupted idea of the Sphinx. To follow the older versions of the story as we do with the version of the riddle used in the storyline the Sphinx is said to eat itself. There’s a further connection here with that older version and Edward Nygma’s discussion of the game Oroboros with the snake eating itself symbolizing cyclical nature of re-invention again pointing towards the theme of transformation in the story. Furthermore, Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx is said to represent a transition phase of the old Greek theology to the worship of the gods of Olympus which could be pointing to a shift in the DC Universe with the upcoming formation of the Justice League where hero’s like Wonder Woman and Superman enter the picture who are either descendent of gods or have come from another world with god like powers. This also goes back to the number three as the word trinity is often used in different world religions as a representation of the Holy Trinity which is a widely used although not exclusively Christian concept of god existing in three beings while the phrase Trinity itself was previously used by DC  in reference to Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman in multiple story lines and comics further pointing to Zero Year as a significant turning point in DC’s mythology and making Batman the catalyst for that.

Those are the connections I was able to make so far but there is still other symbols that haven’t fully matured within the story. The first is the name Zero Year being derivative of Year Zero which was the beginning of Pol Pot’s brutal military dictatorship over the country of Cambodia. Pol Pot’s reign over Cambodia was marked with rampant starvation and murder of its citizens at the hands of the government. I can’t see how this relates to Zero Year in any explicit way like I can with anything above. I suppose it’s possible that it’s meant to connect with the reign of the Red Hood although there involvement has been minimal for the last two issues so I have a feeling that isn’t the case. It could also be connected to Edward Nygma/The Riddler’s rule of Gotham City connecting him to Pol Pot’s rule of Cambodia but there isn’t anything concrete to make that reference stick. Most likely this connection, if there is one, will most likely reveal itself over time. Super Storm Renee also seems to be the comics version of New York/New Jersey’s Super Storm Sandy that devastated the region in the fall of 2012. Scott Snyder is a native New Yorker and Gotham has always been thought of as DC’s surrogate NYC so the use of the term Super Storm Renee coming down on DC’s version of New York City is a curios one because it doesn’t appear to be any explicit similarities outside of that. As someone that lives and works in the area I can tell you that the Gotham City of Snyder’s Batman feels much closer to the 70’s and 80’s NYC of Snyder’s youth then the gentrified big money corporate NYC of 2012. War is another curious reference point in Zero Year only in that it has been used more sparingly than anything else with an army platoon finding a door in the ground of a desert in Nigeria and a young Alfred military garb watching a cabaret show in 1946. This brings us to the mysterious Tokyo Moon. Tokyo Moon is listed on the Army helmet of one of the cadets in Nigeria which is the same helmet that is sitting on a desk when Batman discovers Dr Death’s workspace in Gotham’s Tombs, it’s referenced in the song that the cabaret singer is belting out in the Japanese night club in 1946 and it’s written on a post it note in Edward Nygma’s office in the Wayne Tower. I’ve looked far and wide though out the internet even using all of the lyrics from the song in the Cabaret and came up with very little. At this point as far as I can tell it is either a reference to a song about drug abuse ending a relationship or a sushi restaurant in Oklahoma. Though it’s most likely connected to the song that’s essentially a dead end as I can’t find any connection with that and the story being told in Zero Year but you’re welcome to try and find it yourself. These are a few themes to look out for as Zero Year continues. Some of the theories I have are probably wrong and some are probably right but all of it will become clearer as the story moves forward. In any case, Snyder has used that Ivy League PhD to its fullest capacity. I didn’t expect it but right now I think this might be the most well thought out and meaningful story of his run that’s showed a stunningly impressive display of symbolism and allegory in storytelling. It’s almost like Snyder saw all the dumb in comics, all the criticism that some of his stories have taken and all of by the numbers crap that we’ve seen as comics have become more corporate and said fuck it let’s see how subversive this can get. He’s clearly working within the editorial parameters but he’s managed to filter an even more complex message through that then what I thought was possible. This is the Batman story that we’ve all been waiting for. It’s a synthesis of Snyder’s own education with pure comics storytelling tropes that’s as much an homage to the past as a symbol for what DC’s superhero’s should be in the present and what transformation means for the individual.