REVIEWS

Batman: Earth One

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.

The new Alfred.

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.

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13 Responses to Batman: Earth One

  1. I agree the whole exercise seems unnecessary with the New 52 now existing. I agree some of the changes-for-changes sake were off (Jim Gordon can’t be a corrupt, it’s just not how he is). I agree this could have just been an Elseworlds one-shot instead of a big hardcover graphic novel. I also agree this uncomfortably makes torture seem a-okay.

    AND YET….I actually did still kind of enjoy this, flaws and all.

    Maybe it’s because I actually like this take on Alfred as a hard-as-nails security expert. Perhaps it is how I am intrigued by the idea of a new Batman being kind of fumbling and still trying to get the hang of stuff. Maybe its because some of the other changes seem to actually work well, like having Bullock start out a skinny Hollywood guy and it being foreshadowed he will become the big drunk we all know. It could even be no matter how many times they re-tell Batman’s origin I always lap it up. It definitely is in part thanks to the artwork.

    I don’t really know why exactly I like this (besides how the art is great), but for some reason I just kind of do, and would even maybe, just maybe, recommend it to a friend who is trying to get into Batman with various comics but doesn’t want all the heavy continuity–and has already read Year: One, the unquestionably best origin-story of Batman. A good number of the interesting changes may just go over their head, but they still perhaps will have a good time reading this if they hunger for more Batman after seeing the last of Nolan’s trilogy in theaters this Friday (and that’s gotta be why this book was so delayed, to line-up with the movie).

    I guess even if this book has so many issues, I still can’t help but enjoy it some, even if there are many reasons not to. And that my friends, is why we have pasteurization/some other random sentence to close out my rambles but seem conclusive.

  2. Cass says:

    Looks like your framing device ate your review. Less than half of the text above addresses the actual comic.

  3. Rick Vance says:

    To exist as a separate template for the inevitable forthcoming Nolan-less Reboot?

    • Hmmm…I doubt it. This is actually the closest a Batman comic has ever come to Nolan’s super-serious “battle for the soul of Gotham” tone, so it’s less a departure than a complement.

  4. Dedpool says:

    Um this was mentioned before the New 52, I’m sure that they were being developed at the same time, but these graphic novles are vastly different than the NEw 52 stuff. That stuff, while re-writing the ENTIRE DCU yet again is still connected to the decades worth of stories. While the Earth One line allows for new stories to be told from the beginning in a modern setting. I liked both the Superman and Batman volumes, and am looking forward to volume 2 of Superman later this year.

  5. C. Sandy Cyst says:

    Call me when you have a less arbitrary reason for Ultimate Marvel working better than this. Just say it. “Marvel did it first, and that makes this worthless.” Just say it. You didn’t manage to say anything more substantial than that anyway.

  6. Kevyn says:

    Dude, if I knew where you were and wasn’t straight, I’d kiss you right on the mouth!

    Finally, I find a reviewer who sees this thing for what it is; a piece of crap not worthy of the name “Batman”. I felt like I was losing my mind. How can people like this? This isn’t Batman! It’s Bat-farce! Literally everything comes off like this is a mean-spirited satire of Batman and his world. Maybe if it was intended to be that way I’d give it a break and laugh at its deconstruction of the Batman mythos. But since this is apparantly “A Dark Knight for a New Generation” (btw, nice work on that tagline. Doesn’t at all sound like “A Man of Steel for a New Generation” >Bb) I have serious doubts that was the intention.

    And that stuff about Martha being an Arkham and their family history. Zero Payoff. Literally contributes nothing to the central story at all. If flashing back to that is meant to be a sign that Bruce is questioning his sanity, like how Superman flashed back to his dad when he was questioning his motivations in Superman: Earth One (Far better than this, let me just say), then it’s very poorly implied and really adds nothing to the actual story.

    I totally agree that most of the characters got the shaft. I did like where they were going with Alfred, but it just wasn’t explored enough. I really want to see a story with an Alfred like this one playing a more active role in Bruce’s becoming Batman. Barbera was another charactor that seemed to come out okay, but, again, there’s so little of her I can’t really enjoy it or make much of it. Gordon got totally shafted (way to attract Nolan fans, Geoff). Bullock was just… I can’t even describe how not-Bullock this guy is. It’s mind-boggling. Penguin is wasted as the main villain. Birthday boy is a complete joke, which adds more fuel to my “this reads like bad satire” fire.

    But the worst, in my opinion, is the dark knight himself. This, Isn’t Batman. He just isn’t. To misquote Moore; He’s just Bruce Wayne. Wayne Pretending to be Batman. (Rorschach reference BTW) He isn’t trained. He isn’t smart. Hell, he’s not much of a detective. He sees a crooked cop with his dad’s lighter and thinks “Oh, he must have been involved in the conspiracy to kill my parents” instead of “That bastard swiped that off my dad’s corpse at the crimescene he was clearly at.” Duh! I’m sorry, but this isn’t Batman. He never becomes Batman. He’s only ever Wayne pretending to be Batman. He never closes his eyes as Wayne, and opens them as Batman (Rorschach reference #2). It never reaches that point, and seeing how these are non-canonical oneshots, I doubt he ever will.

    Well. That was excessive. Heh. I guess I had a lot of built-up bile towards this that I needed to let out.
    Anyway. Thanks again dude.

  7. Johnny_R says:

    Geoff Johns demoted from the chief creative officer position.

    High hopes for 2013. :)

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