I’ve got Batman on the brain. In the last two months, I’ve watched the direct-to-dvd Batman: Year One several times, blazed through the Snyder/Capullo run on Batman, geeked-out over Batman & Robin by Tomasi/Gleason and completed the Night of the Owls crossover. All of this occurred before seeing The Dark Knight Rises…twice.
Now, I can honestly say I was a pretty big fan of the character as a kid. I can remember tearing through the ‘Venom’ arc of Legends of the Dark Knight, rushing home every day after school to watch Batman: TAS and freaking out when Bane wreaked havoc on the Caped Crusader’s life. As I discovered stuff from the past like The Dark Knight Returns my love for Batman hit new heights. But that was short lived, as the property fell into the hands of Joel Schumacher and killed my enthusiasm for the Dark Knight Detective. I turned to other comics but always kept an eye on the character. He was particularly amazing in the Morrison run on JLA. But the interested faded and I moved on.
Fast forward to now and it’s obvious that Batman is at the forefront of my pop cultural intake. So, when I remembered that Batman: Earth One was being released, I made sure to get my hands on a copy. Thinking about it, I was jazzed at the idea of a tale of Batman’s early years, written by DC Comics’ Chief Creative Office, Geoff Johns, and one of my favorite artists, Gary Frank. I was excited for a modern take on the Batman mythos from two extremely talented creators. What I got was not what I expected.
To say that it was a letdown is a lazy way to categorize this. Johns is obviously a devotee of the DC Universe. Aside from his position within the hierarchy of DC Comics, his writing drips with love of these characters. You can tell that he knows the continuity (Pre-Crisis/Post-Crisis/Post Infinite Crisis/New 52) but is tweaking things in ways that are designed to elicit certain responses from you, the reader. Unfortunately, this is wholly dependent on whether or not you are familiar with the trappings of the Batman mythos. And I’m not talking about everything you’ve seen in the Dark Knight trilogy or the 60’s tv show, but the nitty-gritty details of the comic universe.
Early on, we’re introduced to the young, handsome Detective Harvey Bullock. Fresh off his police tv show, he’s requested a transfer to Gotham; seeking a challenge to make another big splash. Suffice to say that things don’t go well and the sober Detective Bullock ends his arc, in this piece anyway, staring at a wall of liquor. The final reveal is hollow if you aren’t one of the initiated who knows that the Bullock of modern day is a smarmy, overweight drunk whose glory days are behind him. If I were a new reader (the demographic that I had believed these ‘Earth One’ OGN’s to be aimed at) I would not get this reveal. Is it simply a nod to those who know the established history of the character or is it a missed opportunity to use valuable page space to better acclimate the reader?
While we’re at it feel like, considering the looming influence of the aforementioned Dark Knight trilogy, Johns misses the mark in his portrayal of the Bruce Wayne/Batman. This Batman is a being wholly constituted of vengeance. Gone are the hallmark themes of altruism and justice. Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a good-natured, but spoiled child who grows up to become a single-minded vigilante. Does this change as the book goes on? Sure, but the fact that this is not at the core of the character as part of his parents’ teachings is a big omission and made me less willing to go on this journey with Bruce. The feeling of corruption and darkness permeates this book, but the writer seems to have forgotten that, for all his sturm and drang, the Batman can be a symbol of hope of the proverbial ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’
The strong suit of the writing stems from a slightly skewed take on Gordon and some interesting concepts that Johns introduces. The fact that this iteration of James Gordon is, in fact, afraid of the criminal element of Gotham is fascinating. He’s a good cop who is literally held hostage by the system and fears for himself and his family, if he does what he knows is right. The closing of his arc in this story set’s him on the path to becoming the Commissioner Gordon we all know and love, but the way he get’s there is a different, yet commendable route.
Furthermore, that fact that Johns makes Martha Wayne a descendent of the Arkham (ie Arkham Asylum) family line is fascinating. In established cannon, Martha’s maiden name was Kane (after Batman co-creator Bob Kane) and she was heir to the Kane Chemical Empire. Here, she is descended from a lineage with a history of mental instability. It’s even alluded to in this comic that the abandoned Arkham Manor is a place where bad things happened. It begs the question, is Bruce victim to some of the psychological deficiencies of his Arkham ancestors? Were these issues exacerbated by the traumatic death of his parents? It’s never explicitly stated, but I got the feeling that Johns was pointing in that direction.
And what of the art? Well, Gary Frank dazzles with art that shows his strengths as illustrator, designer and storyteller. His designs for Batman are sleek, simple and straight forward. They give you the idea that these are his early years, while at the same time conveying that a lot of thought has been put into costuming and armament. Also of note are the judiciously utilized slash pages. Though they lack the grandeur and power of stories including super-powered protagonists like Superman, they convey the sheer power and determination of Batman. Seeing Frank work his magic here makes me want to seem him on a monthly book again, but I know that’s really not his speed. But as a ‘special projects’ artist, he is the cream of the crop.
So, if you’re a fan of the character this is definitely for you. Though the writing falters in spots, it’s uniformly serviceable. Plus the art will make you wish that Gary Frank was drawing a regular Batman title. If you are a newcomer to the medium, you’re better off reading Miller & Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One and watching some of the direct-to-dvd animated features. You’ll get a much better sense of the Batman corner of the DC Universe from those than you will from this. That said, continuity is always confusing.
After all, if you are new to comics, you have to ask, ‘Why in the hell would this be titled Batman: Earth One?’