Overview: In the first and second volume of this non-continuity bound modernization, Batman: Earth One reimagines the Batman mythos. Bruce Wayne struggles with his identity, his feelings for Jessica Dent, corrupt Mayor Oswald Cobblepot, and the mysterious Riddler who seeks to gain control of Gotham’s criminal underworld. DC Comics; Written by Geoff Johns, Illustrated by Gary Frank. Published in 2012 and 2015.
Batman Begins…Yes, Again: “Now are you a madman wearing a mask and parading about for validation of some kind? Or are you a selfless vigilante taking on the burden of protecting Gotham after watching it wallow in its corruption and dirt? Are you both or neither?” It’s these questions, posed to Batman by the Riddler in the second volume that form the central thesis of Batman: Earth One. How many times can you tell stories of Batman’s beginnings? Well if our media tells us anything, a lot. Batman’s origin is simple and that’s what makes it great. We all know that the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents led him to become Batman, but that’s not what makes him interesting — it’s his drive to better himself and dedicate himself to a single ideal. We love Batman because out of DC’s pantheon of godlike characters he’s the one that you and I could become, y’know if we wanted to spend all our time working out and studying instead of watching movies. So what makes this version of Batman different and this re-imagining worthwhile? The Earth One version of Bruce doesn’t have years of studying abroad, training with ninjas and masters of deception all over the world. He’s an angry, isolated young man with a family history of mental illness who is searching for purpose. He’s the embodiment of the millennial generation of kids who grew up thinking they could do anything, who were given trophies even for losing, and only came to find in adulthood that they were grossly underprepared and were owed nothing. Despite the lives he saves, Bruce’s actions also act as a catalyst for far greater dangers and losses of life. Batman is ready for Gotham and there’s a good chance that the city not only doesn’t want him, but doesn’t need him either.
We’ve seen Bruce learning to be Batman before, most notably in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. But even that seminal story is backed by years on unseen training that allow Bruce to become a great Batman pretty quickly. Miller’s Batman served as the template for the ridiculously unbeatable and fantastically over-prepped character of paranoia he is today. While this summer, in the in-continuity Justice League, Geoff Johns will soon be tackling the literal notion of Batman as god, here he makes the character more human than ever. In Earth One, Batman is kind of a shitty superhero. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he’s not a superhero at all, just a regular hero unequipped to deal with everything the city throws at him. He’s a capable fighter but not a great one, he struggles to even leap between roof tops, misaims batarangs, and while he’s intelligent he lacks the detective training to earn the moniker “world’s greatest detective.” He fails…a lot, but somehow expects the city to react to him in the way he imagined. He may be a good man, but he’s also a delusional one. So is Earth One still Batman? Sure it is. It may not be the definitive take on the character but it’s a chance to explore different avenues, make modernizations and adjustments similar to what comic book films do.
Reinventing the Bat-Wheel: One of the most exciting aspects about Johns and Frank’s volumes of original graphic novels is how much they do to establish a different world from the mainstream one, while still making it recognizable. One of the biggest changes is Alfred. Instead of a butler, he’s a former head of security and only operates under the guise of Bruce’s butler. And while the Batman we’ve come to know and love over the decades has no need for a bodyguard, this iteration does. In this take, Alfred is a gruff Sean Connery-esque character whose military training and willingness to kill puts him at odds with Bruce, who doesn’t even have the skills to dispatch villains on his own. Along with Detective James Gordon, Earth One takes the key elements we’ve come to associate with Batman over three characters. Alfred is the grim fighter, Gordon is the careful detective, and Bruce is the special kind of crazy it takes for someone to put on a costume.
Each of these characters and the rest of the supporting allies and villains are written in ways that never feel static. Although we’re only 2 volumes in, the characters undergo major shifts. Some of the results of these changes are somewhat starling in terms of pacing, given how slow development is in normal single issue comics, but Earth One has an endgame in mind. While our main, in-continuity comics are meant to last for decades upon decades, Johns and Frank’s series is finite which allows for major developments to happen and major characters to be killed off permanently. For the series to work and end, Batman must be more fallible than we’ve ever seen him before.
In Service to Something Greater: Batman: Earth One pulls from various Batman lore over the decades and combines them into something that’s fresh and familiar, similar to what Marvel did with their Ultimate line in the early 2000s before it got bogged down by poor creator decisions. While the three year gap between the first and second volume make it difficult for the story to gain much momentum, Batman: Earth one still manages to create clever plot developments to keep readers invested for future installments (Vol. 2 especially). Gary Frank’s artwork is some of the best in the business. His hard line style creates a realism in terms of facial expressions, posture, and body language that ensures no two characters looks the same.
While the series doesn’t quite match the grand scope of movies, it does tread a similar ground and display a creator-minded freedom. So ultimately, who is this Batman? He’s proof that becoming a legend is something easier said than done.