Batman: Earth One original hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils/Cover artist: Gary Frank
Inks: Jonathan Sibal
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Eddie Berganza
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $22.99 US/$25.99 CAN
DC’s “Earth One” line of graphic novels (though one can hardly call it a line at this point) really got lost in the shuffle when the publisher relaunched its entire stable of ongoing super-hero comics last fall. I think it’s a safe bet these graphic novels — which, like many of the New 52 comics, offer new takes on familiar characters — was something that was dreamed up and had resources dedicated to it long before DC embarked on its successful New 52 initiative. The problem with Batman: Earth One lies not with the storytelling or creativity. Instead, it confuses the DC brand, especially at a time when the publisher is garnering more headlines for a gay character in Earth 2 than with a retooling of its most popular property in a book awkwardly subtitled “Earth One.” Once one ignores the poor management and marketing decisions, though, one will find an entertaining and offbeat take on DC’s Darknight Detective. Describing it as a “fresh take” would be a misnomer, though, as the choices writer Geoff Johns makes here for the Batman aren’t entirely new.
Just days before he was a shoo-in to win the mayoralty of Gotham City, Thomas Wayne is murdered outside a movie theatre along with his wife and in full view of their young son Bruce. Convinced his parents were taken from him as a result of a massive conspiracy, the boy grows up to be a driven man who’s opted for an unconventional avenue to achieve justice. Aided by former soldier of fortune-turned-guardian Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne sets out to bring his parents’ murderers to justice and to wage a war on crime throughout the city. Unfortunately, things don’t go entirely according to plan…
Gary Frank was an excellent choice for this project, as he brings a gritty intensity to his characters with his realistic, highly detailed style. I was reminded often of the crisp, focused edge of Steve (Preacher, Punisher) Dillon’s artwork here, as well as Brian (Batman: The Killing Joke) Bolland’s (whose work I’m sure was a major influence on Frank as he developed his craft). He conveys the youthfulness of Bruce Wayne, just embarking on his adulthood, incredibly well. The emphasis is on his fallibility and brashness. The design for Alfred is a significant divergence from what we’ve seen before of the character, which is fitting, since his characterization and background are quite different as well. The look of the Batman is a convincing one. It looks like a guy in a suit, not some looming, dark avenger of the night. That’s in keeping with Johns’s take on Bruce Wayne being in over his head.
The cover image is an odd choice since it doesn’t depict a scene in the story. Obviously, we know young Bruce and Alfred Pennyworth would’ve stood at the side of the grave of the former’s parents, and yes, we know the pain of the loss Bruce experienced is what drives him to patrol the streets and rooftops of the city, waging a war against crime. But it’s also a redundant scene, one that’s not unique to this reinterpretation of the title character.
Johns doesn’t completely reinvent the wheel here. The notion of Batman as a clumsy vigilante who survives thanks to dumb luck has been seen before, perhaps most notably in Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One. Johns’s reinvention really doesn’t feel so much like something new but rather than amalgam of bits and pieces from different Batmen, from different Gothams.
One of the most interesting aspects of Johns’s writing here is how he brings together two Gotham dynasties: Bruce is the son of a Wayne and of an Arkham. Mental illness and even murder run in Batman’s family, at least on the maternal side, and it’s an intriguing tweak to the decades-old character. Half of Bruce’s heritage is considered something of a scar on the city, whereas the other half represents altruism and success. The shame of the Earth One line is the rarity of the stories, making it difficult for the creators to reap the harvest from the seeds planted in the inaugural books. I was taken aback by Johns’s radically different take on Harvey Bullock here as well. He’s thoroughly unlikeable at first, and he remains so later on, but he’s nevertheless an intriguing character who, despite his flaws, is actually interested in justice, interested in serving and protecting. Ultimately, though, the story arc is about how Harvey Bullock gets torn down by the job, by Gotham, by evil. Johns hints at his coming transformation into the bloated, gruff cop in the stained shift we’ve met in past Batman stories.
One of the most surprising aspects of the book is how the Joker doesn’t turn up in this retooled origin story (at least not clearly or overtly). A new killer instead plays an integral role, one that casts aside the super-villain riff and instead comes off as more of a darkly possible (though unlikely) evil. While I thought it was an interesting omission, there are also inclusions that seem a bit out of place, at least for this early point in the character’s career. An adult Barbara Gordon seems drawn into the world of the Bat far too quickly and early for my taste, for example, and Oswald Cobblepot’s role — taking some cues from one of the film incarnations of the property — doesn’t quite work as well as other retooled concepts.
Some might suggest this graphic novel/reinterpretation of the Batman stands up well on its own, and while I thought it was a great read, it really doesn’t succeed solely on its own merits creatively. A lot of the fun stems from seeing how Johns and Frank have changed the iconic characters and the socio-cultural backdrop of Gotham City. In other words, the reader will get the biggest bang for his or her buck if the reader is well-versed in All Things Batman. 7/10
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