THOUGHT CLOUDS: Batman Earth One (comic book review)

(This review originally appeared on The Spirit Blade Underground Podcast.)

BATMAN EARTH ONE

Geoff Johns, writer; Gary Frank, artist

Here’s what the critics have to say about Batman Earth One, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank:

“. . . new, breathtaking . . .” – Brad Meltzer, important writer guy

“. . . the right stewardship . . . awesome . . .” – David Goyer, big time movie writer

“Original, surprising and emotional . . . must-read . . .” – Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the best TV show to ever be on TV and the guy who made Prometheus less alien-y

“Sigh . . .” – Ben Avery, stranger and alien

I really had high hopes for Batman Earth One. Maybe too high?

DC Comics’ Earth One series is, in concept, perfect: High quality, hardcover graphic novels, telling a stand alone story that takes the classic character and starts fresh with a new story. The characters still exist in the regular comic series that come out every month, but the Earth One graphic novels are for fans of the characters who don’t want to be bogged down by all the continuity that comes with thousands of back issues.

It’s such a great idea, that Marvel immediately copied it with their series of “Season One” hardcover graphic novels. That copying, of course, probably had something to do with Superman Earth One, the first in DC’s series, becoming a bestseller. As in New York Times bestseller.

But while Marvel has managed, since Superman Earth One came out, to churn out five Season One graphic novels, DC seemed to be taking their time. Part of that may be due to the New 52, which rebooted many of their characters, including Superman. Part of that may be because they were concerned about quality and not rushing the job. Part of that may be that they used super popular and super talented creators for their Earth One books (Superman is by J. Michael Stracynski) Part of that may be because the second character to get the Earth One treatment is Batman, and synergy being what it is – wanted to release this new Batman graphic novel to coincide with, oh, I don’t know, a big budget summer tentpole movie or something.

I really enjoyed Superman Earth One (you can read my review here). And when I heard Geoff Johns was writing this one – a writer who is worshipped by some for his work on titles like Flash, Green Lantern, and Justice League and who finally gave Aquaman exploits and a characterization that regular people AND fans of the king of the seven seas could appreciate and enjoy – I thought I’d enjoy Batman Earth One just as much.

I was wrong.

Batman Earth One strains to make the familiar story of Batman’s origin something new. But that’s the problem: it can’t be. It’s one of, if not THE, most well known origin story in comics. Spider-Man: bit by a mutated spider. Superman: rocketed to earth to escape his home world’s destruction. Batman: parents killed by a criminal, so he devoted his life to fighting crime.

All that can be done is to put a new spin on it or change it. And when Batman Earth One does this, it fails. It bounces back and forth between repeating things we’ve already seen before, changing things to make them new and fresh, and trying to update things we’ve already seen before by making them edgier and darker.

Perhaps I’m being harsh when I say it fails. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it just doesn’t succeed. Geoff Johns gets the unenviable task of taking a series of iconic moments and trying to make it feel like we haven’t seen it before.

So we get changes: Alfred didn’t serve the family as their butler, he served with Thomas Wayne in a desert war; Gordon isn’t the upstanding cop fighting an uphill battle, he’s a cop bowing to criminal threats; Martha Wayne isn’t the heir to the Kane cosmetics empire, she’s part of the Arkham family; Joe Chill’s crime against the Wayne family was as a hired hitman specifically targeting Thomas Wayne.

I don’t mind changes. If you’ve read Flashpoint, I’d love to talk with you about that alternate universe – the changes there were surprising and interesting. And some changes I liked. Penguin is exactly the take I would have expected Christopher Nolan’s in his realistic Batman universe. Barbara Gordon is a breath of fresh air, and Gordon’s love for her is nice to see. Bruce fumbling as Batman the first few times he goes out is humorous, and there’s just enough of it not to get annoying. And a couple things happen, lasting consequences of people’s actions, that could never be done in the regular series . . . without being undone in a year or two.

Two other problems that I didn’t have with Superman Earth One, and both problems are related: first, there are too many characters running around, getting introduced, and vying for “screen time”. Second, a lot of this book felt like set up for the sequel. Characters pop in, get introduced, and do things that have no repercussions for the plot . . . in THIS book. I would have liked a more streamlined cast.

Now, the artwork? I have NO complaints there. None. It is a beautifully drawn book, full of quiet, character moments in some panels, and awesome, action-packed splash pages and double page splashes.

Spiritually speaking, there many themes in the book that arise from just being a Batman book. Bruce’s story arc alone hints at ideas of justice verses vengeance, as he seeks the murderer of his parents, and commitment to your cause, which sees just how far he will go in pursuit of justice. It’s interesting, because on one hand he seems to go too far, but on the other hand that is portrayed as a positive thing. Jim Gordon’s arc has him dealing with the consequences of his decisions, as he knows right and wrong  but is forced by outside pressures to do wrong. I didn’t feel sympathy for him, because it seemed to me he could have just walked away to protect his family instead of compromising himself. Penguin is there to be a nasty bad guy – and he IS NASTY. Not Batman Returns perverted, but ugly evil nasty. Alfred is there as a support, but ends up taking a more proactive role in caring for Bruce than I expected, as he acts as father figure, sidekick, and protector. But the changes to the character make it less poignant.

All these themes are common in superhero fiction, although this one explores them with a darker view than is commonly seen. And while these things are there, they are only there as background elements. When these elements are brought to the foreground, it feels like it’s only to use the negative to show the positive.

If this was the only Batman origin story out there, I probably wouldn’t judge it so harshly. But it’s not. This story has been told, and told often, and told in better ways. I will read a volume two of this series, and maybe when read together with some pay off to the set ups, I’ll enjoy it more. But that’s not the way a stand-alone graphic novel should be. You should be able to read this and just enjoy it for what it is, not for what the next one is going to be. So I can’t give Batman Earth One a high recommendation.

~ Ben

You can read more comic book reviews here: Strangers and Aliens comic reviews

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