Monday, June 24, 2013

Batman: Earth One (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Original Graphic Novel

The only thing that surprises me about this is how long it took DC to put Geoff Johns on a Batman project. Teaming with him for it is Gary Frank, the artist of Geoffs all too brief run on Action Comics. It sounds good creatively, but do they manage to make a good book?

Right away, it's apparent this isn't the Batman we know. DC has done more than their fair share of stories regarding Batmans early years, but despite his inexperience or mistakes he makes, there's still a baseline level of competance there. In Earth One, Batmans first night out is an unmitigated disaster; his grapple gun backfires, he misses a jump and ends up in a trash heap. Hell, by the end of the book, it's plain to see that the legend of the Batman far outstrips the reality; Bruce Wayne will have to work hard to actually be on the level the public immediately assumes he is.

Alfred is one of the biggest changes. I remember during the hype phase when a lot was made about the characters new background as a Royal Marine. It isn't without merit, because it alters the dynamic completely; Alfreds mindset is that of a soldier, putting him at odds with Batman, who is against guns and killing. The new dynamic makes the book, providing ample fodder for an endlessly interesting take on the vigilante and his butler.

One aspect I like about the interaction is that Alfred does not understand why Bruce Wayne will not use guns as Batman. Obviously, his rule against guns is, by now, ingrained into the character. When you think a lot about him, the reasons make sense. We understand why he does not use them. But it's rare anyone ever challenges him about it. Everyone simply goes along with Batmans rules. Alfred doesn't push the matter too far here, but it does not seem like an issue he will just drop. It could be interesting to see a full scale blowout over the issue, with the mindset of a soldier clashing with the mindset of a man who wants nothing more than to keep someone else from losing their loved ones to a criminal act like he did.

Johns version of Harvey Bullock is also compelling. Essentially a glory seeking reality TV cop, Bullock comes to Gotham when his show dries up looking for new prospects. Everyone immediately writes him off, especially Gordon. But as we go on Bullocks better nature comes to the fore, his nature as an outsider shining a spotlight on just how screwed up Gotham has become.

Unfortunately, not every change works. So far the Earth One books seem intent on using original villains in their first outing. Trouble is, they're duds right from the start. Superman was saddled with a new villain who was as cookie cutter as it gets and ultimately amounted to little more than a plot device. A familiar rogue does come out to play in Batman: Earth One, but his role is minor. No, the book hinges on finding the victims of the new guy before he butchers them.

I'm talking about Birthday Boy, our "paint by the numbers" serial killer. He is ridiculous. That's not a bad thing to be, but taken in the context of what Johns and Frank have set up, he sticks out like a sore thumb. I mean, here we are with a relatively down to Earth take on the genesis of Batman and along comes this hulking behemoth with a party hat who says "make a wish, but don't tell anyone" before stabbing his victim. The only hint of motive is a throwaway line near the end and he lacks any sort of interesting facet to him. He's just there so Batman can fight someone in the third act. They could have slipped Zasz in there and I don't think anyone would know the difference.

What this leaves us with is a book without a compelling challenge for Batman, whether we're talking physical or psychological. Thankfully, the obvious challenges that face Bruce Wayne take up the slack. Johns and Frank do a fine job of showing us a Batman who might just be in over his head - who might not even be ready for the task he's set for himself - and that's where the heart of the book lies. The book could have done with saving any of the rogues gallery for the next volume and would probably have been better for it.

Luckily, what's good about Earth One is good enough to come back and see where Johns and Frank might be going with it.

My Opinion: Try It

Between this and Superman, it's clear the Earth One line is not for purists. Some people have very clear opinions about these characters and often lash out at anything that deviates. Trouble is, Earth One is all about the deviation, which puts it at a critical disadvantage. Walk in with an open mind and there's a good chance it will work for you.


  1. I'm interested to read this mostly because of Johns, who has shown little but contempt for the DCU version of the character in books like Green Lantern: Rebirth. My sense is that Johns resents Batman's almost preternatural ability at times to contend with any threat that comes his way, so it's interesting that here he's writing the character in a way that falls short of his own mythic status. All told, I have the feeling that reading this book against some of Johns' other portrayals of Batman could yield some pretty interesting results.

  2. Justice League had its moments, too. Plenty of cracks at Batman. He didn't really do much either. Origin gave me the feeling that Batman was only there because he kind of had to be.

    I've long had the feeling that, barring maybe Superman, Johns has far more affinity for the B listers. Which was a strength, when he was doing things like Teen Titans and treating them with care, but may be more of a weakness now that he's one of DC's top guys who is frequently put on the most important books above anything else.