In the tradition of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One, we have Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One. The idea behind the original graphic novels of the Earth One universe are to re-imagine the origins of our favourite DC characters in a fashion that is similar to the Ultimate Marvel line. The Superman book came out to mixed reviews, but I have to think that this Batman book will do better, as it successfully disassembles Batman’s beginnings before reconstructing something familiar but fresh.
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Franks
Batman: Earth One starts in an unfamiliar place, the characters we know are not the same as what we are accustomed to and sometimes I was left wondering if they would ever end up recognizable at all. The only thing that never really changes, as it is too fundamental, is the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. We are given more opportunity to get to know them though, which makes their deaths more effective. Bruce Wayne is not the perfect son at any point, he is instead a much more realistic young boy who behaves like a spoiled brat, running around and getting everything he wants. Maybe the well-behaved Bruce Wayne was a depiction of the era that Batman was created in, but nowadays this spoiled little kid makes much more sense. His transformation from that, to a very angry child and adult presents a more complicated and perhaps realistic story.
Besides Bruce’s transformation from spoiled brat #1 to Batman, the most interesting revamping of the Batman story is the unique take on the relationship between Alfred and Bruce Wayne. Alfred is an ex-soldier buddy of Thomas Wayne, who is brought in to work security for him as Thomas is a mayoral candidate who has been receiving a lot of death threats. After the unfortunate demise of Bruce’s parents, it turns out that Alfred is named the boy’s legal guardian. It’s a role he does not want, but he cares too much to let the boy go to social services. In time he serves as a mentor and militaristic advisor to Batman.
Geoff Johns adds humanity, as pointed out by Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis) in a quote on the back, by showing Batman’s eyes. Typical representations of the caped crusader are with these white slits, which are great for hiding Bruce’s identity but not so great for the connection between reader and author. Ever notice how many seminal Batman stories feature Bruce’s cowl getting partially tipped off or destroyed to reveal his eyes and face? There is a reason for that. It’s a subtle change but effective. In order to add failure and more humanity we also have Bruce’s malfunctioning grappling hook and the numerous times that enemies get the jump on him. He is vulnerable, and severely pissed off at his predicament, which is understandable.
It is actually monumental for a writer to decide that they will strip away all that doesn’t work with an iconic character and leave only the humanity. How many times will this origin story be retold? How many times can it be effectively revamped? Will a book like this isolate its fans from the character of Batman? All these questions are important and need to be answered. Fortunately Johns and Frank get to answering them from page one.
It\s clear that at this point in his career nothing has been honed into a fine crime-fighting machine. This is reminiscent of Batman: Year One, which is the book that Earth One will be most often compared to. The comparison is expected, but not entirely fair. Batman: Earth One is trying to forge its own direction, not add on to the canonical legacy of a well-established archetype. Year One had a definitive feeling to it, especially since it has become a definitive Batman story. In order to see the long lasting impact of Batman: Earth One, time will have to pass. The immediate impact of it is this: many characters are introduced as winking nods to the fans, the Batman legacy comes together in an unexpected way, and the core fundamentals are all there. The biggest difficulty for me, as a reader, is the idea that I am expected to wait another 2 and a half years for a new release. This book was delayed, whether due to creative issues or due to a hope to maximize the profit by piggy-backing on the new movie, but it was delayed significantly. Most readers, myself included, enjoy this new world that has been set-up, but will not be willing to eat the intro and wait, cash in hand, for the expected sequel. One colleague put it like this: “it’s like I’ve been shown the first hour of Batman Begins, and now I have to wait for the end.” Alternate character histories worked in the Elseworlds line-up because there is also a sense of closure, while Earth One promises continuance. This is a good thing, but needs to be provided at a regular pace.