Thursday, August 2, 2012

Trade Waiting - Batman: Earth One

Announced in 2009 along with its Superman counterpart, Batman: Earth One was created to be a whole new modern, standalone take on the Dark Knight with the superstar creative team of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank and be readily available for people at both bookstores and local comic shops. Since then, we've had the DC Universe reboot itself to be more enticing to new readers and offer a more modern approach to DC heroes, digital comics become a rather prominent addition to the industry as opposed to an afterthought, and Superman: Earth One's first volume received strong initial sales but rather mixed reviews. How does the Caped Crusader fare when it's his turn to shine? Hit the jump to find out my verdict.

When word of the initial creative lineups arrived, the Geoff Johns announcement as writing Batman seemed misplaced. At the time, the idea of JMS on Superman made sense, because of his work on Supreme Power and his love of the character. Granted, this was before that train wreck of a story in Superman Grounded appeared, but he seemed like the right fit for a modern retelling. Johns on Batman seemed a little out of place. For as long as Johns has written DC characters, it always felt like his Batman was nothing more than a caricature taken to the next level, and simply used him to be the angry hero who was angry to other heroes and spat out angry little quips as though he was the mean girl in high school. And in the DCnU, his Batman is a guy who foolishly takes off his mask and reveals his identity in the middle of an invasion as a way to win an argument. In comparison to how Johns had up to that point written Superman, Green Lantern and Flash, it seemed like an odd choice to put him on this book. In this volume, the character doesn't seem as angry, but there is still a feeling of uncertainty about what Johns is ultimately trying to do given a completely clean slate.

The book starts with Batman chasing a man across rooftops, trying to use his grappling gun to catch up, but it backfires and becomes a bunch of wires, resulting in Bruce having to make the olympic leap across buildings. Bruce falls into the alley and on the way down gets battered both physically and mentally, and is so despondent with his crash he doesn't even try to help a man whose convenience store has just been robbed across the street. He just sees what happens and looks the other way, feeling that he's not able to be the force for good that he thought, and heads back to his Jaguar sedan, the first Batmobile in this world. So right away Johns is trying to show the man who has bordered on super detective ninja god isn't going to be that way from the beginning. Compared to Frank Miller's Year One, there is no pre-Batman vigilante showing up to stake out the world or globetrotting for enlightenment, it's an athletic man putting on a suit of body armor and a cape and running on pure revenge.

We then flashback to Bruce's past, where we find Alfred Pennyworth, now a retired former British Marine working in private security, arriving in Gotham to become mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne's head of security. Thomas' opponent is Oswald Cobbepot, the corrupt mayor who doesn't abstain from using the mob's help. Thomas and Alfred both served together in what is inferred to be Iraq, Another change that is noticeable is that Martha Wayne's maiden name is Arkham, not Kane. This becomes important in the story and tries to establish Arkham not as an asylum off the edge of Gotham but as Martha's family house in the middle of the city where bad things happened that were just shy of what occurred in The Shining, and also to establish that Bruce is the offspring of both the good and bad the city offers. After ignoring Alfred's warning of not heading out on the weekly family time, the Waynes head to the movies to see the latest blockbuster (no mention of Zorro), and from there a more modern retelling of how the Waynes are murdered arrives. More notably than anything with this scene is how Bruce is not written as being the good obedient son, but rather a spoiled brat who can get away with anything because of his rich parents. It's a bit heavy handed, and if you've read how Johns writes the new Billy Batson in his Justice League backups, the same thing applies here. From there we moving into the obligatory struggle struggle, bang bang, parents dead, and an orphan who wants revenge and takes up the mantle of the bat to scare criminals.
Everyone feasted well until Batman fell on the buffet table
The problem that seems really evident about halfway through the book is how much Johns is writing redundancies that we have already seen so many times before, as though he has to make his own imitation of classic Batman scenes and history. Gotham is shown to be perpetually in the state New York City was in the early 80's, and almost one step below the Detroit as seen in Robocop. Yet at the same time, the book expects us to think this is some unseen, truly dark city beyond saving, and therefore doesn't carry the tension you need for Batman to come save the day. Bruce and Lucius Fox have a conversation very similar to what we saw in Batman Begins, only in this book it's in a smaller room and they are both younger. There is even a scene that seems to be Johns' take on the classic Year One showdown between Batman and the criminals of the city and saying the feast is over. By continuing to do this interpretation of iconic moments, Johns is making his job harder by courting these comparisons instead of just telling a totally new story. This copycat approach is also apparent in how Johns tries to add emotional depth or deeper meaning to what you see on the page. This is something that has never been the most subtle of things for Johns, going back all the way to his Flash run. When he wants you to know that there are things such as rape and grisly murders that occur off the page and that they are horrible things you should be weary of, his characters really let you know. Overt becomes the name of the game, and in doing so the idea of Gotham being a squalid place to fear the shadows loses it's atmosphere and any added tension is thrown out the window.

Gotham's always been going down the drain
Another flaw of the book, although it's limited to certain blips here and there, is how much the story tries to be a ready-made storyboard for a movie, as opposed to a comic first. The biggest example of this is Bruce and Alfred have an argument that results in the usual stuff about not being ready, will you do what it takes, etc. Then a scuffle ensues and Bruce kicks Alfred's prosthetic leg off of him, and this apparently shows Alfred that Bruce is ready to fight crime because he'll fight dirty. Trouble is, it really doesn't show Bruce is ready to do what it takes, as he didn't actually kick Alfred's real leg off of him or break his leg or what have you. THAT would show Bruce will do whatever it takes in this new universe. But this scene is positioned in the story as the big Act II climax to lead into Act III, complete with the art framing this big revelatory scene where you can almost imagine the musical score behind it telling you to take it seriously. The book also has clear moments of trying to beat you over the head into realizing the Penguin is a bad guy, and that there is some bad, bad stuff that happens because he's the main villain. If he had a mustache he would never stop twirling it. An original villain, the Birthday Boy, is basically the heavy, the #2 baddie the hero has to fight before the final showdown, it's as though it's taken out of every action movie ever seen, and I wonder if this is a remnant of Johns working with Richard Donner on films before he started writing comics. To add to this movie style structure, Johns does away with inner monologues that are staples of his Flash and Green Lantern runs, which attempts to streamline the motivations of Bruce but also takes away exactly how Bruce is going to be the Dark Knight. In many ways it feels like this was done simply because Johns didn't know exactly how smart or cunning he wanted Bruce to be, so if you don't acknowledge it, it doesn't exist and nothing to worry about at the moment. Experience? No idea. Detective skills? No idea. How to keep the Bruce and Batman identities separate? No idea. With an inner monologue you would at least acknowledge why Bruce doesn't do this or that. He's a newcomer to crime fighting, I'll give him that, so I'm not expecting him to outshine police detectives or pull his ninja vanish move now, but it would be nice to have a reflection of maybe what he did up to this point to connect the dots. I'd settle for him just saying he googled everything.

I know I've written some critical things, but the book has some nice changes from the regular universe. The brightest part is the most original piece of the story, as the Earth One version of Harvey Bullock steals every page he's on, to the point where he is nearly worth the price of admission alone. We know him as the cigar chomping husky fellow who always wears a hat and was formerly a corrupt cop. In this universe, he's a former Hollywood detective turned reality TV star, who joins the GCPD to solve the Wayne's cold case file. He's a pretty boy and a womanizer, but is a genuinely good cop who in many ways seems to be what Clark Kent or Barry Allen would be if he tried to operate in Gotham, and having to adjust to how the city operates. He gets partnered up with Jim Gordon, who isn't the cleanest guy but has legitimate reasons for falling into the big grey moral area. These two characters really have the most complete arcs in the book, and because they don't really follow the same old formula the outcomes they reach are that much greater in emotional impact. Alfred's modernized counterpart fits in being Bruce's confidant while at the same time not being so overpowering that he can constantly be on the front lines of cleaning up Gotham and shield Bruce as he learns his paces. We even get nods to potential future characters should the Earth One line continue indefinitely, and while she is never shown I have a strong suspicion who the new Cassandra Cain would be in this universe, which would be a nice way to blend the Bat-family together. That is, if DC didn't have Cassandra Cain on some kind of creative lockdown.

Batman and Jim Gordon's first meeting goes very bad
Gary Frank brings his standard high quality art to the book, and there is no trouble on this end. Everyone still has the usual high cheekbones and smiles that seem to make their lips disappear, but the art is consistent throughout, and the use of shadows in terms of establishing page and panel layouts works without going too experimental. Frank is a good choice to be the middleman between existing readers and potential newcomers who have yet to find their footing in terms of varying artistic styles. And when action scenes are called for, you aren't left in confusion about who shot where and how someone got a bloody nose.

Verdict - Check It. The book falls somewhere between a Byrne It and Check It, but despite my criticisms of how the story reads like a movie and lacks originality in places, it does deliver a full story arc about how Bruce becomes Batman. After thinking about it for a day or two, it really reminded me of the first arc of Mark Millar's Ultimates run. It's a book that will feel dated a few months after release, and seems intent on trying to convey big moments that aren't really there, but at the same time the strong art and novel changes to characters gives it a certain charm that might not be something you want to read every month, for instance, but at the very least keeps your eyes open for the second volume (hopefully it doesn't take another four years). Compared to Superman Earth One, it is a much more complete story that might not flesh out Batman completely, but it doesn't just completely miss the mark on characterization like Superman did. I can't recommend this book at the suggested retail price, but if you can find it for under fifteen dollars or it shows up on a digital sale for less at some point, give it a shot. Batman Year One is not dethroned as the definitive origin story, and Batman Begins would be the second origin to choose, but this is an acceptable third place showing when it comes to Batman origins.

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Dustin Lesperance said...

Really well thought out post; I'll keep an eye out for a sale in the near future, thanks for the tip!

Ultimecia said...

I think they should remove Batman parts and keep it minimal, and then release this title as "Bullock Year One". That would be much better than this title. Superman Earth One was a far superior title in all areas.

maybetoby said...

now we know how Bullock got fat, Gotham destroyed his body.

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