Robot 6

Grumpy Old Fan | Old names, new roles spark Batman: Earth One

"First test, Bruce: try to take my umbrella."

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:

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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.

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Comments

23 Comments

I really dislike it when writers decide that the Wayne’s murders had to be anything but a simple mugging. There’s a power in the original version, that what happened to Bruce could happen to any child. Unfortunately every so often a writer who doesn’t get that or whose ego demands he put his own stamp on the character decides that the murders had to be part of “something bigger,” whether it be a hit ordered by Lew Moxon, something to do with a Owl cult or now this.

To Hank: The Owls weren’t responsible for the Waynes’ murders. They tried earlier, but it appears they did not have a hand in the actual murders.

I won’t get mine till next week in the mail, but I am looking forward to it!

So Martha is an Arkham now instead of a Kane?

Interesting change-up.

“In this respect it avoids the philosophical issues which tripped up Superman: Earth One …” Exactly, and as you say, Batman: Earth One is much the better for it.I thought it was an interesting contrast that whereas the Superman book had a reluctant Superman, his supporting cast was pretty much the same; Johns keeps a pretty recognizable Batman but changes everything else. I think this makes Johns’s book less controversial — JMS was rebuilding Superman, which was a big deal; Johns is rebuilding everything else except Batman, and it made for a more expansive and world-building, but less controversial, book. And it’s good overall that the Superman and Batman books are tonally similar (young hero, TV pilot-esque, etc.) but philosophically different, so we don’t feel like we’re reading the same book twice.

Amazing Spider-Man should have gone the Batman: Earth One route. Johns dispenses with the “Bruce builds a costume, Alfred sees him in it for the first time, ‘I will become a bat’ tropes because we’ve seen them before, they’re familiar, and we don’t need to see them again — there’s more that the story can talk about. Amazing Spider-Man, in contrast, goes right back over the spider-bite, Uncle Ben’s death, etc., boring just about anyone who saw the Tobey Maguire movies. Rather, I think, like the Batman book, Spider-Man should’ve started with Peter Parker in costume, and let some of those origin items come out in well-tailored narration and flashback.

If you don’t mind, here’s my review of Batman: Earth One: http://collectededitions.blogspot.ca/2012/07/review-batman-earth-one-graphic-novel.html

I was quite dubious about this, as Geoff Johns is a little hit and miss for me, and I was pretty disappointed by his Superman Secret Origin book. Gary Frank can do no wrong however. The reviews have been pretty good for this one and I am thinking that I may have to order it.

To ask a separate question, my nephew (11 years old) is a huge superhero fan. He liked Superman Earth One and All Star Superman, Thor the Mighty Avenger and the Avengers movies. Is this book suitable for him as a gift? Is there anything particularly gruesome or violent that might not be appropriate? I am little wary as I thought that some of the New 52 stuff was targeted at older age groups (Detective comics etc.) and am trying to be a responsible uncle.

I really don’t like how Johns writes Batman… ditto for his version of JLA.

Drew Melbourne

July 7, 2012 at 7:21 am

To Hank: Someone above pointed out that Court of Owls isn’t responsible for the death of Bruce’s parents. I don’t want to spoil Batman: Earth One, but suffice it to say that there’s more to the story there as well.

It’s pretty clear that both Snyder and Johns appreciate the exact point you’re making. Both comic runs are extremely enjoyable and if that (assumed) plot point was what was holding you back, I’d suggest you give both a try.

I pretty much loved this. After the extreme disappointment of Superman: EO this one was a breath of fresh air. The only problem was that it was way too rushed at just 145 pages.

i honestly think this was one of the worst batman stories i’ve ever read. characters were so out of…well character. i know that is kind of the point but it was like taking your favorite drink then finding the recipe has been changed. it just doesn’t taste well, no matter the marketing.
while as an elseworldesq story it is okay, i would not recommend it to friends. In fact I am very happy I only borrowed a copy from a friend because I think this would have been a waste of money to buy,

I’m sorry to everyone who liked it but I this is what I feel.

What about these remarks and comments about “HOW”, “WHY”, about a graphic novel because it is written on an iconic character like Bruce Wayne?

Any murder comic book story can be used, transformed, rewritten to correspond at what the authors have in mind for the story. And it is the same about any characters. They are eternal ones, but they may have a different “birth”.

Now, about the book, what I have in my mind is the price of this one: $24.99!!! It really hurst my credit card!!! And Superman: Earth One 2 is at the same price… OUCH!!!!

Oh goody an over priced re-telling of an over repeated story. There’s no way on god’s green earth anyone can persuade me to buy this.

“Now, about the book, what I have in my mind is the price of this one: $24.99!!! It really hurst my credit card!!! And Superman: Earth One 2 is at the same price… OUCH!!!!”

$13 each on Amazon.

Read it, Not bad, but definitely NOT a classic and adds nothing significant to the Batman legend. Could have been written MUCH better.

TGC,

Yep, I ordered Batman: Earth One from Amazon for a mere $13, too.
I’m waiting for it to ship next week.

Glad that I didn’t buy this book. I have never liked that way Johns writes Batman. I’m am sure that Frank’s art is amazing, but sucks and I have not interests on picking the book up. I agree with some one that stated that SUPERMAN: SECERT ORIGINS was boring writing wise, while the art was the only great thing about the series.

Poohbearalpha

July 8, 2012 at 1:35 am

This article states that there are at least four villains…

SPOILERS

There is Penguin, the major villain
Two face the one w a twin
Then two are teased… Riddler and…?

Who else was teased? Not the Birthday serial killer.

Anyone help?

I didn’t much care for the villain in Superman: Earth One Vol.1 (or for them leaving the super-briefs on in a supposedly modernized take on the character), but I didn’t really mind him (or the costume) either and the quality of the portrayal of the characters and the telling of the story was just excellent.

Batman: Earth One Vol.1 in a word is bland. The new version of the night of the Wayne murders is interesting, but the present-day parts feel like a failed halfhearted attempt at deconstruction by a writer who’s made a career out of doing the exact opposite.

The only thing that makes the characters remotely interesting is the connection we have to them through previous portrayals, the pacing is a certified mess and worst of all the plot is a complete borefest. The choice for the identity of the mayor feels like a waste, Gordon’s story is an (aside from Babs) much worse retread of his arc in Batman: Year One and Bruce went from (tiresomely, I may add) sucking terribly at being Batman for most of the book to being pretty good in the third act and to being a legend similar to mainline Bats in the epilogue far too quickly. It’s plain jarring.

Sure, the art is pretty and there are some easter-eggs and teasers for potentially enticing future plots and characters, but that doesn’t save this book.

@Iambenjie: Well, what specifically the Birthday Boy does to his victims is never explicitly shown or told to the reader, but it’s horrifying enough to utterly traumatize one of the characters, so going by my own nieces… if he were two years younger or older, I’d know what to tell you, but 11? I don’t know; it’s nothing too “bad”, but if he’s got absolutely no taste in horror, he might still get some nightmares.

@Poohbearalpha: MINI-SPOILER I think a Crane, maybe the Crane (Scarecrow) was mentioned in passing.

@CE: I couldn’t disagree more. Despite vastly preferring it over the Raimi version, I do have my own set of issues with TASM, but much of it being a chronological telling of his origin in itself is not among them. To compare it with another recent Marvel reboot: Incredible Hulk is way better than the first film (and while The Avengers has the best Hulk, Norton was the best Banner — similar goes for the IM/IM2 Howard/Cheadle situation), but to me it really suffered from his origin being in a nebulous state with scarce details sprinkled throughout the movie.

Love Gary Frank’s art. Inks and colors complimented the final look nicely.
I hated reading he story of a totally clumsy, wimpy, talentless Batman. No training in the world could evolve this Batman into what we know him to be now. The baseline that they start Batman at is a goofy joke. I get that they are trying to show the formative years, but watching these fights scenes was pathetic. I am surprised he didn’t get his cape snagged in a revolving door and be stuck for half the issue trying to get himself out.

If it didn’t have Geoff Johns name on it as writer I’d think it was some more of Grant Morrison’s talentless writing. Reschedule the whole thing and let Jonathan Hickman or Scott Snyder write the story.

@Poohbearalpha – Also MINI-SPOILER – Watch Bullock very closely toward the end of the Arkham scene …

@twincast – Respect your opinion and respectfully disagree. I was very glad Incredible Hulk didn’t rehash the origin but rather just “went with it” — in that move especially, since it was supposed to be in the same “continuity” as the first Hulk movie.

Of course Amazing Spider-Man is a reboot, and would be more deserving of telling the origin, but even the movie seemed tired of itself — the spider-bite, done much quickly and with less suspense than the Rami version; and then Peter just falls into the wrestling match and gets the idea for the costume. It’s a wink and a nod to the role the wrestling plays in the original origin, but also given that the Rami version actually stuck with the wrestling for a while, it seems like ASM was just checking off boxes and not with a whole lot of heart, either.

And also, Batman Begins does the origin, but quickly and significantly different from the Tim Burton movie. Batman Begins uses the origin but isn’t *about* the origin, whereas ASM is 99% origin — sure, there’s a difference because Bruce’s parents are killed when he’s a child, etc., but going back to Incredible Hulk, I’d rather a superhero movie at this point that acknowledges the origin and then actually tells a story, than one that’s stuck in the origin for 90 minutes like ASM was.

Again, your results may vary and I understand how a lack of origin might have hurt the movie, too; I’ve just already seen Uncle Ben die once on the screen in the last ten years and seeing it again didn’t reveal more to me than it did the first time.

I don’t know.. I can’t really find many possitive things to say about this book other than that Gary Frank’s Artwork looks pretty.

I think that where this story really fails for me is the fact that Gary Frank’s artwork is very realistic, and the book’s tone follows that same realistic approach, and yet the story works only because the writer says so, it doesn’t flow naturally according to its own rules. Batman looks like a crazy guy in a costume about to show up dead in an alley. The Nolan pictures work because he shows you that despite being kind of crazy, Batman has the skills to back up his vengeance-driven character.

Johns introduces too many characters that are shallow and uninteresting, and fails to focus the story on Bruce and Alfred’s relationship. It makes sense that a Buttler acts like a Buttler, but it doesn’t make much sense that a tough former british soldier tells a 10 year old that he is his buttler. The tough-love session is simply ridiculous… Alfred smacks Bruce around and then feels proud and moved when he retaliates destroying his artificial leg “you can pull it off my… pupil”. I’m sorry but this book is as bad as Superman: Earth One, if not worse.

“And also, Batman Begins does the origin, but quickly and significantly different from the Tim Burton movie. Batman Begins uses the origin but isn’t *about* the origin, whereas ASM is 99% origin — sure, there’s a difference because Bruce’s parents are killed when he’s a child, etc., but going back to Incredible Hulk, I’d rather a superhero movie at this point that acknowledges the origin and then actually tells a story, than one that’s stuck in the origin for 90 minutes like ASM was.”

I have to disagree. Batman Begins was all about the origin….it’s right there in the title. How does Bruce Wayne become Batman. That full story had never been told before. All previous versions including Batman Year One provided snippets of intel but not the full story that we could follow. Also Burton never told an origin story just a “year one” story ie Batman’s first few adventures. But by the time we see him in the movie chasing those guys on the rooftop he’s already an urban myth among criminals. It was really well done but Nolan specifically went for the full origin because it hadn’t been done before.

That wasn’t the case with Spider-man. We saw the origin before with Raimi and we saw it again with Amazing, but i didn’t have a problem with it. I was more engaged by the differences in characterization. That alone set it apart for me. So yes they were “checking the boxes” so to speak with regard to his origin but it was handled in a way that didn’t feel like re-treading old ground. I for one loved it’s emphasis on Pete’s intellegince, not just being a smart kid or geek but his mechanical know-how like building the remote controlled door lock. That foreshadowed his ability to build webshooters. And boy did I love the webshooters. Skipping the origin would’ve had people scratching their heads about the webs like “why does he need webshooters I thought that was a power”.

Back on topic. what worked in BAtman Begins and for me in Amazing was the characterization. The protaganist is a fully fleshed out character. I’m not expected to care about him just b/c I know he’ll become a hero, I’m given insight into who he is to the point of wanting to care about him. That wasn’t done well in Batman Earth 1. While Alfred and Bullock were interesting, Bruce wasn’t. To be quite honest an unskilled Batman would die. Simple as that. Batman year one and Begins both showed his learning curve, that he started out making mistakes but they handled it much better than this in that they show his arc and his potential. This story just wasn’t that good overall.

@Iambenjie

No it’s not appropriate for an 11 year old. It’s definitely inline with the rest of DC 52. If features a serial killer who targets teenage girls. Whatever he does is off screen but the implications are gruesome. Slow near the end on character falls into a hidden area full of the corpses the killer’s victims. Definitely not for children.

Overall all the things I think that draw kids to Batman are missing from this title. No fancy gadgets, no Batmobile or other cool vehicle, he’s a descent fighter but nothing spectacular, no exciting villains just disturbing ones. If you want to get something for you nephew you might want to look elsewhere.

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