This week, DC Comics released the latest volume of their Earth One imprint. Batman: Earth One is the second such story from the major publisher, coming on the heels of 2010’s Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis, and continues the format with a complete, standalone story in graphic novel length.
Batman: Earth One tells the Batman origin story in a modern day setting, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. While the story does pull in quite a bit more of the Batman mythos than its cinematic sibling, it does so in a way that actually feels more grounded in reality than the Nolan films, which is no small feat.
Batman himself seems far more human in this take, likely the result of having received his training at the hands of Alfred as opposed to Ra’s al Ghul. His gadgets don’t work, his suit seems thrown-together, and he receives nearly as much physical punishment as he dishes out.
Geoff Johns has proven over the course of his celebrated career that he excels at reinventing and reinvigorating characters, boiling them down to their core concepts and making them feel new and interesting. This skill might seem superfluous for a character like Batman, whose titles have been a mainstay of comic books for nearly 80 years. There is really only one change to the character of Bruce Wayne himself, in the form of an altered family tree, but that addition is so ripe with potential for future storytelling that it almost feels that this first volume is missing an opportunity (which will almost surely be addressed in the inevitable sequel).
Johns shines in this book in his work on Batman’s supporting cast. From the time that the first concept art for this book was released, it was clear that these characters were in for some major changes. Alfred, as he is depicted here, is far from the stoic-but-affable manservant that fans know and love from his long history. This is the Alfred that has been hinted at but never explicitly defined. There are hints of a shady past that involved Thomas Wayne, and the changes that are made to the nature of his arrival at Wayne Manor lend a great deal of pathos to his eventual role in Bruce’s life as well as the story’s climax.
Despite the nature of Alfred’s update, his is not the most startling character makeover. Jim Gordon, operating in a Gotham that feels even more real than the one in Nolan’s films, is not permitted the luxury of operating as the city’s lone good cop. The nature of Gotham’s sickness means he is utterly surrounded by corruption, fearful for his own life and that of his daughter. This Jim Gordon has suffered deeply at the hands of Gotham and has very nearly been broken.
The shattered spirit of Gordon stands in stark contrast to the ebullient optimism of a surprisingly slim Harvey Bullock. Recast as a lean, charming Hollywood-ified cop-show guru, Bullock’s story is the most tragic in the book, as we see the circumstances that lead to the image that most fans have in mind when it comes to the long-time supporting character.
The relationship between Bullock and Gordon has a distinctly L.A. Confidential feel to it, which serves the story quite well.
When it comes to art, Gary Frank is at his best. He has made a name for himself over the last decade as the most realistic comic book artist in the business. While much of the industry has moved towards a more stylized approach, Frank’s characters appear to have leapt straight from a photo album. His almost frighteningly clear use of Christopher Reeve’s likeness in Superman: Secret Origin (also written by Johns) gave that book a timeless quality as if we were seeing the films that could have been.
Here, the most immediate change that he has made to Batman is the removal of the white-out eye coverings that have been a staple of the character for most of his existence. Being able to see Bruce Wayne’s eyes underneath the mask humanizes the character in a way that even Johns’ impressive dialogue could not have achieved on its own.
Batman: Earth One is a tremendous achievement, successfully showing a way that Batman can be approached freshly, and perhaps setting the stage for the film franchise’s next incarnation, as The Dark Knight Rises is the final installment in Nolan’s story. Its characters are human, as are their struggles. Its Gotham City is a dark, foreboding place that feels like the city hiding just down the alley from your own. Don’t worry, though—Batman, as always, remains the grim avenger stalking those alleyways. This book is a must-read for any Batman fan, so head out to your local comic book shop and pick it up. You won’t regret it.