Grumpy Old Fan | Old names, new roles spark Batman: Earth One
Admittedly, it’s harder to get Superman right — that is, it’s easier to craft a satisfying Batman story than it is to tackle the Man of Steel. On top of that, the creative team of Batman Earth One is the well-oiled combination of writer Geoff Johns and penciler Gary Frank, who proved fairly effective on (yes) a series of Superman stories a few years back — not like the first-time teaming of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis on Superman: Earth One.
Therefore, I had higher expectations for Batman: Earth One, because Johns and Frank (with inker Jonathan Sibal and colorist Brad Anderson) had the wind at their backs. In fact, that tailwind helped them craft a satisfying standalone introduction. Batman: Earth One takes full advantage of the graphic-novel format, mixing bits of the Darknight Detective’s history with a few new wrinkles to make a distinctive, cohesive whole that rises above its various high concepts. The worst thing I can say is that all the references reminded me superficially — and only superficially — of Johns’ fan-serving Justice Society episode of Smallville. Still, even if BME1 were just a TV pilot, I’d be pretty excited for the series.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, of course:
For those concerned about such things, I presume that Batman Earth One shares the globe with its red-and-blue predecessor. I mention this because where Superman: Earth One had virtually no Easter eggs and kept the familiar villains to a minimum, BME1 is practically teeming with old friends. Besides the all-new, all-different Alfred Pennyworth and a beaten-down James Gordon, there are significant roles for Harvey Bullock, Lucius Fox, and Barbara Gordon. The plot revolves around one major villain, teases two more, and reveals that a fourth (guess who!) has a twin. I think there was even a Huntress reference.
Again, most of these characters have been tweaked to various degrees, but it’s hard to tell at this point whether the tweaks serve them or the larger plot. While BME1 deals with the Wayne murders, beyond that it doesn’t go deeply into the whys and wherefores of “Batman.” In this respect it avoids the philosophical issues which tripped up Superman: Earth One, in favor of creating a setting which could produce a Batman.
Specifically, on Earth One Dr. Thomas Wayne and Martha Arkham-Wayne represented two pillars of Gotham history. (As one character explains, “[t]he Arkhams built this city. The Waynes paid for it.”) When Thomas Wayne ran for mayor, he hired Alfred Pennyworth, a Royal Marine who had saved his life, to provide security for his family — but Alfred’s first night happened to be the Waynes’ regular Movie Night. Thus, the Waynes were killed to ensure that various corrupt interests controlled Gotham; which in turn caused Bruce to dedicate his life, etc., etc. Batman gets to do some detective work, but the solution to the Wayne mystery arises out of circumstance more than sleuthing. Indeed, we meet one key part of the Wayne murders in the first few pages, which makes the rest of the book pretty easy to follow. (Most of BME1 is just following the cast around as they put the pieces together.) There are final confrontations in Arkham Asylum and a skyscraper office, and at the end of it Bruce and Alfred swear to make “Batman” a legend.
All this is told with a minimum of embellishment. To me, Johns works best without first-person narrative captions, and such is the case here. Johns also uses flashbacks efficiently, opening the book with an almost-wordless ten-page sequence of Batman (and an unreliable grappling gun) scrabbling across rooftops after a hood. For most of the book, this Batman has more good intentions than actual talent — there is no wandering-the-world training sequence establishing his credentials — and Frank and Sibal are careful to show the costume’s mundane seams and fasteners. Batman: Earth One benefits from this scruffiness by showing how vulnerable Bruce still is. This is hardly the hyper-competent Batman of the regular comics, or the just-slightly-less-hyper-competent Nolan/Bale movie Batman, or even Miller and Mazzucchelli’s emerging talent. Those who are put off by the extent to which conventional Bat-takes border on the blindingly arrogant may still find this Bruce appealing.
I suppose the biggest fault in BME1 is the relative lack of characterization; or, if you’re being charitable, the extent to which Johns relies on those old, familiar interpretations. Bruce runs in one grim, determined gear for most of the book, but that may be the point: when the Waynes’ deaths have been avenged, he finally lets up and admits he’s afraid of being alone. Alfred 2.0 has a little more nuance, trying to juggle his own guilt with his paternal impulses and some frequent tough-love episodes. Gordon has basically the same arc from “Batman: Year One,” except it takes a little longer to get going. Bullock here is a reader-identification character, allowing Gordon to show a new guy around town. He actually ends up driving some of the plot, and I got a kick out of his slick reinvention, but he too ends up in a familiar place.
Regardless, the cast is uniformly entertaining. I especially liked Earth One’s Barbara Gordon, a peppy librarian dedicated to keeping her dad’s spirits up. (Wasn’t Johns going to write All Star Batgirl? I wonder how much of this Barbara came from that.)
As for that major villain … I go back and forth as to whether he needed to be in that particular role, and/or whether that particular role needed to be him. Essentially he’s the guy at the top of the Corrupt Society Org-Chart, which usually means he’s going down sooner rather than later. The only difference here is that you see his particular predilections along the way, and if you know his background from the regular Bat-books, he seems to have “gotten the job” based on those elements. Still, the hypothetical new reader who knows only the name and face may well enjoy this version. While his villainy is a bit too obvious — as soon as you see him, you know he’s absolutely to blame — under Johns and Frank he is fairly dangerous. Not quite an Aquaman-level makeover, but close.
In terms of plot necessity, the book’s actual new villain comes off better (as it were). “Birthday Boy” is the codename of an imposing serial killer who co-opts cakes, candles, and party favors as he goes after teenaged girls and the occasional mob contract. He’s also the subject of the book’s most disturbing moments, which involve a corpse-laden section of the abandoned Arkham. Otherwise, as basically a big bruiser in a homemade mask, he’s not much more than a bogeyman, but he’s an appropriately unsavory addition to this Gotham’s seamy underbelly.
Speaking of which, Frank and Sibal are a good fit for this book. Frank’s exaggerated realism helps the more fantastic elements (like the various costumes) blend in with what is mostly a real-world approach. There isn’t a lot of stylized architecture and there’s not much — not yet, at least — in the way of grotesque Bat-villains. As mentioned above, Batman’s costume looks like it was cobbled together from a blend of store-bought items and handmade pieces, so much so that the occasional Batarang feels like a luxury. The overall effect is not necessarily “Batman on the cheap,” but “Batman quick and dirty.”
I thought the book was paced extremely well, with only a couple of odd scene transitions. Occasionally Frank’s characters can be a little bug-eyed and off-putting, but there’s very little of that here and it probably wouldn’t be that out-of-place. In fact, my first impression is that the two handsomest characters, Bruce and Bullock, are the two who Gotham changes the most. (That reminds me of a funny moment late in the book where Bullock and his ID photo have the same phony grin. I wonder if that photo will reappear in the inevitable sequel.) Maybe my biggest complaint about the art is that it’s occasionally too dark, with shadows and other blacks overwhelming the pencils’ details. BME1’s color palette isn’t all muted, but it is brightest in the early flashbacks and (not that the two are connected thematically) in the climactic fight with Birthday Boy.
Overall, the various recognizable characters and elements in Batman: Earth One work together fairly well. The main duos (Bruce and Alfred, Gordon and Bullock) play off each other in interesting ways, and the reimagined characters help sell the new landscape. I daresay even someone coming to this book solely from the Christopher Nolan movies will realize, from Alfred 2.0 if nothing else, that this is a true alternative to the main-line Bat-mythology. Still, as much as it cribs from that mythology, Batman: Earth One feels like the product of a creative team doing what it wants. There are some Johns-isms (the aforementioned pile of corpses; gratuitous meat-eating; someone loses a limb, sort of), but they’re nowhere near the unpleasantness of his Infinite Crisis-period work. Instead, Johns and Sibal seem very intent on courting those hypothetical new readers, and especially in laying the groundwork for future volumes. While Superman Earth One may be striking out in new directions, this series is eager to relaunch three more villains and a sidekick.
It’s easier to do Batman right because so much of Batman works already. However, that makes it harder to have a truly original take on the mythology. Batman: Earth One is an engaging blend of old and new which uses the familiar to strike out on its own. The parade of recognition can be distracting, but beyond that is much to recommend. Batman: Earth One doesn’t aim to be definitive, just entertaining; and there it succeeds.