By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
There are some interesting ideas in the pages of Batman: Earth One. But the book’s mishandling of the Batman character makes it something not worth sitting through just to experience those new ideas.
Though they have the noble purpose of exposing iconic characters to a broader audience, DC Comics’ Earth One line of graphic novels has never sat right with me. Why? I’m glad you asked…
1.It’s yet another attempt by DC to replicate the success of Marvel’s Ultimate line after the disintegration of the All Star line a few years ago.
2. It gives creators an excuse to keep needlessly rehashing origin stories, particularly but not limited to Superman’s.
4. As I understand it, the All Star line didn’t work because the creators involved couldn’t adhere to a monthly schedule. That’s why the Earth One line consists of original graphic novels as opposed to monthly comic books. But given that these Earth One books are apparently only coming out on an annual basis per character, that leaves a pretty big window for these new readers DC is hoping to draw in to either lose interest or lose track of the second book.
All this being said, Superman: Earth One had it’s high points. Shane Davis’ art was especially impressive, we saw a new villain introduced into the Superman mythos, and the image of the hoodie-wearing, moody and broody Clark Kent is a memorable one. The book wasn’t at all necessary, nor worth all the hype it got. But it had its moments. Batman: Earth One has similar high points and moments, but in the end isn’t as successful as its predecessor.
In Earth One, we see a less experienced Batman take to the streets to find the man who murdered his parents. At his side is Alfred Pennyworth, a hardened war veteran who served alongside Thomas Wayne, and apparently handled a large portion (if not all) of Bruce’s training. As Batman takes on the criminal element in Gotham City, he’s plagued by inexperience and malfunctioning gadgets. All the while Mayor Oswald Cobblepot (who most fans know as the Penguin) is elbow deep in corruption, including a particular disturbing partnership with a child killer.
This book seems to want to put some of the “man” back in Batman by having him be less experienced, more prone to mistakes, and thus more vulnerable in the field. This would theoretically add more drama to all the action sequences. Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli pulled this effect off to perfection with the fire escape sequence in Batman: Year One. Like the entirety of Earth One, that scene is about Bruce’s inexperience and naivety when he first puts the costume on. It illustrates how even with expert fighting skills and years of training, it’s still extremely easy to mess up and get killed when you’re dressing up like Dracula and running around punching people. They did a similar scene with Bruce, Jim Gordon and the cops in Batman Begins. In both those sequences Bruce looked entirely competent. He was just inexperienced.
In Batman Earth One, Bruce does not look competent. He looks like an idiot who’s had some karate training and now thinks he’s qualified to single-handedly take on the underworld and solve the mystery of who killed his parents. The mistakes he makes in this book don’t endear him to us as someone who’s human and fallible. They make him look like an arrogant fool who constantly needs to be bailed out by his butler (who by the way, looks a lot like Jeremy Irons).
On one of the first pages in this book there’s a scene where Batman, who at this point has looked as grim and scary as always, aims out his grappling gun and fires it, only to have the ropes become a tangled mess (shown above). Given Batman’s wide-eyed look and his subsequent tumble from a rooftop into a pile of trash, I’m not sure if Johns and Frank were going for laughter here, but from a tonal standpoint it just doesn’t work. There’s a similar scene where Batman tries to swing from a building, but his body contorts and he ends up crashing through a window. He lands on a table covered in assorted food, and in one shot we seem him covered in a mix of blood and misguided dinner. Is this funny? Is this dramatic? What are we thinking here?
Oddly enough, the most interesting character we see in this book is Harvey Bullock, who regular Batman fans know as a portly, unshaven cop with bad habits. In Earth One, Bullock is a cop show host who comes to Gotham for the sake of publicity and fame, but deep down he also has good intentions. He’s partnered with Jim Gordon, who’s had his hope sucked dry by this brutal and corrupt city. Frankly, I’d much rather have read a book about Bullock and Gordon than a bumbling Batman and his grumpy butler. Harvey’s naive game show host demeanor is a fun contrast to Gordon’s worn down state of being. Both also characters go through distinct transformations, and end the book at very different places than they started.
The book also makes Martha Wayne a member of the Arkham family, as in Arkham Asylum. We see that she grew up in the house that will presumably become the asylum later, and there’s a history of mental instability in her family. This opens the door for a more literal take on the question of whether Batman is as crazy as his villains. It doesn’t go anywhere in this book, but it’s interesting.
We also meet a frightening serial killer called “the Birthday Boy.” I can’t say much about him without spoiling things. But he’s another character I’d rather have spent time with than our arrogant, bratty title character. I never thought I’d be saying that about Batman…
Regardless, Gary Frank’s art is as strong as it’s ever been. The most notable aspect of the Batman costume he creates here is that he shows us Bruce’s eyes through the cowl, instead of drawing the white slits that have been one of the character’s trademarks since he was created. It’s a nice change, as Bruce’s eyes obviously give us a better illustration of whatever emotion he happens to be feeling in the scene. Similarly, Jim Gordon’s eyes sometimes have that far away look, which is a nice unspoken look at his mental state.
In a way, that shot of the grappling gun is exactly like what happened to Batman: Earth One. At first glance it looks pretty cool, but things get fowled up pretty quickly. In that moment we’re not sure what to think, except that what we’re seeing is yet another rehash nobody asked for. I’m hopeful that the writing of these Earth One books will pick up in quality once they get around to characters like Wonder Woman, the Flash, and others whose origins haven’t been trampled on quite as much as Superman and Batman.
Image 1 from multiversitycomics.com. Image 2 from ifanboy.com. Images 3 and 4 from comicvine.com. Image 5 from pixshark.com.
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