Why does this comic exist?
To start Batman afresh, and provide a more accessible entry point for newcomers? That was the ostensible purpose of the New 52 soft reboot of the entire DC Comics line, its new first issues and streamlined continuity soon to be soft-rebooted even further with a month full of zero issues. Given how completely the New 52 scooped the Earth One graphic-novel line’s mandate, I think one can be forgiven for suspecting that some of these publishing decisions were made in a hurry.
To provide superstar writer and executive Geoff Johns with an opportunity to write Batman his way? He’s already got that in the New 52’s flagship Justice League title. I can’t imagine anyone gainsaying him if he wanted to straight-up retell Batman’s origin within that shared-universe monthly-comic framework either, given that he’s done exactly that for Superman, Green Lantern, and the Flash in the past.
To reach a wider, bookstore-oriented audience? That only works if you meet the audience halfway with a mainstream promotional push. Compared to the Superman-meets-Twilight high concept DC pitched to its pliant big-newspaper reporters for J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One, the PR blitz for the New 52 initiative which swamped Earth One, and the ongoing onslaught for Before Watchmen, this book came and went with barely a whisper.
To have Batman comics in a graphic novel format? There’s no shortage of those already, and many of them are either actually very good or visually accomplished enough to pass for very good in a pinch. Indeed, Batman is one of the few comics characters whose books experience a significant sales bump from the success of his films precisely because of his strong book-format backlist, and how easy it is for film audiences to come across fine standalone volumes with a tonal resemblance to the movies.
To explore Batman’s origin and early days as a crime-fighter? This extraordinarily well-trod territory had a trail blazed by no less than Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli in the hugely influential and very very good Batman: Year One, and pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars via film incarnations from Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. Bruce Wayne’s childhood, the murder of his parents, his relationship with Alfred, his decision to fight crime, his adoption of bat imagery, the Wayne family’s long history in Gotham City, the identity of his parents’ killer, his first cases as a vigilante, the foundation of his relationship with police detective James Gordon, the first appearances of his prominent villains—untold hundreds of comics have told these stories time and time again.To provide an “Ultimate Batman”-style return to the roots of what made the character work? Unlike the changes Marvel made to some of its core franchises in the early years of its Ultimate line — aging Spider-Man and the X-Men back down to teenagers, making the Avengers the earth’s mightiest heroes in no uncertain terms — the changes Batman: Earth One makes to its characters mark no revival of their original appeal, nor do they offer interesting commentary in such a revival’s stead. The supporting cast is particularly ill-served in this regard. Jim Gordon as milquetoast and corrupt instead of dogged and good-police; Alfred as a security consultant whose first day on the job saw his bosses the Waynes murdered instead of a butler who’d served them for years; Lucius Fox as a young peon instead of an older executive; Harvey Bullock as a thin, handsome Hollywood transplant instead of a fat and slovenly Gotham native; on and on it goes — these are changes for change’s sake, arbitrary and uncommunicative. Batman himself fares moderately better, insofar as making him a descendent of mad Amadaeus Arkham on his mother’s side has a pleasantly mythic feel to it. But in other areas — making him something of a bumbler the first few times we see him in action, dialing down the impact of his formative encounters with bats — it suffers in direct comparison with the more dramatic presentation of these ideas in Year One and elsewhere. Johns has written many comics I’ve enjoyed in the past, particularly in the Green Lantern franchise, which he singlehandedly transformed into one of DC’s biggest by identifying an appealing core element — magical multicolored power rings — and going yard on its potential; he had an effective run on Superman’s Action Comics as well, based primarily on touring his rogues gallery and giving each bad guy a fun makeover. In that light I’m surprised to see him drop the ball in this area.
To be free to increase the violence level in Batman’s early years? They certainly do that: The Penguin, never so called in this book, is reimagined as the thoroughly evil mayor of Gotham City who keeps its wealthy and powerful in line by periodically kidnapping their daughters and giving them to a hulking serial killer in his employ called the Birthday Boy, who like no serial killers I can think of is built like a WWE superstar and wears a bag mask and a party hat. The culmination of Gordon and Bullock’s character arcs from patsy and egotist to clean-up-the-streets real cops respectively comes when they join forces to torture an informant with baseball bats. Bullock becomes an alcoholic after falling into a room filled with the corpses of little girls. Alfred shoots the Penguin to death with a shotgun. I don’t feel that Batman’s origin story benefits from these developments, to say the least. Indeed I think they present a message about the redemptive power of torture and extrajudicial killing with which I am increasingly uncomfortable in my heroic fiction.
To provide frequent Johns collaborator Gary Frank with a showcase? This one I’m willing to grant. I understand that his trademark high cheekbones, rictus grins, and bug eyes grate with some viewers (as will his fancasting of Tom Cruise in the title role), but I’ve long thought his characters look as keyed up and furious as you’d expect people in a superhero/supervillain universe to look all the time. There’s a physical tension in their comportment that reads powerfully, even sensually in fight scenes. Frank is not a visual stylist, which ironically means the big splash pages and double-page spreads that dot the narrative are even more impactful — these are not opportunities to show off some design flourish, they’re just a chance to draw people getting their asses kicked on as large a scale as possible. But all of this would work just as well as a cool image gallery online somewhere. Wedded to this eminently superfluous comic, it’s just not enough.