Just about two years ago, DC Comics launched the EARTH ONE
series of original graphic novels with J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davisí SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE
. The intent of these are to reintroduce the classic characters of the DC Universe without the constraints of continuity, as well as to allow the creators of the books the freedom to reshape the old legends as they see fit. Thereís definitely a similarity between the EARTH ONE
idea of remaking characters and the original conception of Marvelís ďUltimateĒ universe, the main difference of course being that EARTH ONE
titles are released as OGNs as opposed to monthly titles.
When I first read the SUPERMAN OGN back in October of 2010, I was pretty impressed, though on later reflection, that book seemed to depart from some of the basic concepts on which the Superman character is based. This mightíve been the intention, and while that book had a lot of great scenes with fantastic artwork by Shane Davis, I didnít come away feeling like I probably should in a world that has just been introduced to the beacon of hope The Man of Steel should be.
When I heard that The Dark Knight would be getting the EARTH ONE treatment, and that it would be shepherded by writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank, I was pretty happy. Iíd been hoping that Johns would write a Batman story since at least the early days of his run on TEEN TITANS, and had always been more than satisfied when he would write Batman into guest spots of his ongoing titles like in THE FLASH (Where Batman is the only one aware of The Flash after a reality-altering incursion by The Spectre) and GREEN LANTERN (as the skeptic refusing to believe Hal is still a good man, and ultimately accepting his one-time friend as a hero once more), and thought he got across a pretty compelling Batman in INFINITE CRISIS.
Iíve loved Gary Frankís artwork since the first time I laid eyes on it, in ACTION COMICS #858. Because of his fantastic work on The Man of Steel, I maintain that Frank is probably the best Superman artist of at least the last twenty years, and his realistic sensibilities and great sense of emotion and atmosphere couldíve easily transitioned into the world of Gotham City. Little did I know, however, that the Gotham City these two men would bring to life is familiar, yet very different.
Keeping with the tradition established by the intent of the EARTH ONE line, Johns and Frankís BATMAN: EARTH ONE immediately gives you the perception of this young Dark Knight as a relative amateur. Indeed, the first time we see him pursuing a perp on the rooftops of Gotham, he pulls out a grapnel gun from a holster on his belt to try and reel the runner into custody in a way many of us have seen a thousand times before. Instead of the intended result, however, the gun instead craps out , breaking into a few pieces forcing some improvisation that doesnít seem to have the best results.
This is a Batman that isnít prepared for every outcome. A Batman that isnít exactly very good at what he does, at least not yet. This Batman is fallible, and even more human than The Dark Knight we know and love, and in this story that first mistake allows for us as the audience to relate with Bruce Wayne in a way that even the great YEAR ONE didnít given us.
Another big difference between this Batman and the traditional character is in his cowl. As you mightíve noticed through a preview or even the cover, this Batmanís eyes are visible. No stark white ďlensesĒ and while that might not seem like a big deal, it proves the old adage of showing us the window to the soul. At first, I didnít see the big deal until I thought more about it due to Scott Snyderís BATMAN #5, where while in the grasp of the Court of Owls, our Batmanís cowl is damaged, showing a tired-looking, distressed eye on one side contrasted with the typical white, emotionless lens on the other. For me, seeing that image of Batman looking worried gave me a whole different perception of the threat present in that issue, and because of that, I also felt more connected with the man behind the cowl in this story.
The Batman and Bruce Wayne of BATMAN: EARTH ONE by Gary Frank
There are some very interesting twists on the traditional mythology in this book compared with the stories we know. With characters like Harvey Bullock, The Penguin, and especially the Arkham family, this Gotham City has definitely been set apart from the place and people weíre so familiar with. One of the biggest alterations to a character was to Alfred, who isnít quite the understanding father figure who willfully takes Bruce under his charge as a young man. The twist on Alfred makes for a pretty interesting part of the story, and one of the more creative changes Johns has applied to Batmanís world.
Some of the main storied events are still intact on Earth One, but the specifics and the implications are whatís changed. Particularly as it relates to the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne, an entirely different set of circumstances both lead to and result in some pretty different sets of circumstances. Thomas Wayne has a bit of a different role in Gotham than heís had in the past, and the families that built Gotham seem to be a little different than what weíre used to. The differences, though, arenít blasphemy for those of you that are absolute Batman purists. Some are more incidental, but yes, there are a few in here that fundamentally change the story of both Batman and Gotham at large.
Johnsí writing in this book, I would argue, is pretty great. There were really only one or two instances I found myself questioning the internal logic of the story, but it didnít distract from anything that the story was trying to say. The original graphic novel format works well for Johns here, as the writing felt like it had proper room to breathe without the compression that can often detract from a 20 to 22-page individual comic reading experience. Johns was definitely on a quest to build a new Batman from the ground up, and although there were a few points (mostly near the end) that felt a little convenient, he largely succeeds here with a compelling story about a desperate young manís search for answers, while also giving us a pretty solid and invigorating look at what the future holds for Gotham on Earth One.
His changes to certain characters may seem radical at first glance, but as the story moves forward and the intent of their actions come into greater focus, you might be surprised how much you may recognize an old friend from another universe. The largest departure is probably the aforementioned Alfred, but characters like Harvey Bullock and Jim Gordon might throw you off a bit if you think youíre looking at very different people. By storyís end, I imagine these guys will be putting a smile on your face, or at least some familiar understanding in your heart.
The biggest selling point of this book, though, has to be Gary Frankís absolute masterful work on display here. Frankís Gotham is suitably dark and dangerous, with the character designs and emotive facial expressions all adding to the tone of humanity that Johnsí writing strives for. In the hands of a lesser artist, this is a book that could have easily come off as second rate and melodramatic. In the hands of Frank, though, this is a book that soars beyond the limits of the sky, evoking terror, empathy, fanboy screams, and sheer, unadulterated awesomeness that help to truly make the story and characters excel.
With Frankís solid impression on both Superman and now on Batman, Iíll be interested to see more high-profile work from him in the future, since he is definitely the asset that helps set BATMAN: EARTH ONE beyond the compare of a lot of other original graphic novels. Johns knows this too, and his writing seems very well catered to the emotion and feeling that Frank puts into his characters, set pieces, and situations. I canít emphasize how worthy Frankís artwork is for the price of admission in this book. You need to see it to believe it.
BATMAN: EARTH ONE isnít an indictment on Batman as we now know him, nor does it try and make us forget the character weíre reading about. It takes some of our preconceived notions about Bruce Wayne and Gotham and does change them, but it also adds to the perception of The Dark Knight as a very malleable character that is often remade every other generation anyway. The character here takes from several different incarnations of Batmen past, while giving him a genesis that is modern, and more importantly, very human.
Itíll be interesting to see if this book will be followed upon in a few years and which direction it will head in, but as of right now I believe that BATMAN: EARTH ONE stands as the shining example of what this new line of books could, and indeed should be. While you might find yourself (as I do) questioning the final actions that put a definitive period on the end of this story, it does definitely leave the door wide open for further exploration of some of the characters that are both good and bad, as well as give an idea of where things can go from here. I liked BATMAN: EARTH ONE quite a bit, and Iím pretty sure that if you give it a try, you will too.
Are all the pieces in place for this Batman to become the one we all know? Maybe, but either way, this definitely has the potential to be a new dimension on the same legend that we all connect to, and that all of us that are Batman fans draw strength from. EARTH ONE just adds another layer to the tapestry of one of fictionís most enduring characters, and with a foundation like the one Johns and Frank give us here, I can think of no greater compliment to pay them.