Back in July, as I read Batman: Earth One, the latest in DC’s series of alternate-Earth hardbacks a la Marvel’s Ultimate universe, I jotted down one thing that struck me as the book’s most standout feature – you can see Batman’s eyes through his mask. In most Batman comics, the eyeholes of the mask are filled with nothing more than vacant white space. In Earth One, artist Gary Frank details the eyes behind the mask, so that we’re no longer looking at Batman, but Bruce Wayne in a mask. It’s an ingenious change, one I’d thought I’d be able to pinpoint before anyone else…until I read the back cover, where author Brad Meltzer notes the same thing. Damn it, Meltzer!
Still, it’s an important alteration. No doubt influenced by director Christopher Nolan’s Bruce-centered Batman Begins, Batman Earth One is not so much about the fear-based Batman persona, the mask, as many mainstream Batman comics are, but the man inside it. And while, like its predecessor Superman Earth One, the book has its flaws, it’s still a solid retelling of one of the greatest superhero origins ever told.
Batman Earth One begins with a look at an inexperienced Batman learning the ropes, good-intentioned, but uncoordinated. In a series of flashbacks, we glimpse Bruce’s childhood at the Wayne residence, with local politician Thomas Wayne hosting a party celebrating his candidacy for the upcoming Gotham City mayoral election. With the security of him and his family now at risk, Wayne invites his old war buddy Alfred over and asks him to serve as their bodyguard. Alfred refuses, but advises Wayne to cease his weekly family outings for his and his family’s safety. Wayne declines, maintaining that his family comes first above all. Taking wife Martha and son Bruce to a movie theater, we learn that Bruce is spoiled as all hell; coming from a rich family, he takes everything for granted and even taunts a thug with his status when the family leaves through an alleyway. Recognizing them, the thug holds a gun to Bruce’s head and demands money, ending with Bruce’s parents being shot. Alfred, seeing the guilt in Bruce, reluctantly takes it upon himself to raise and train him. Fast-forwarding back to the present, a now aged Alfred warns Bruce of the dangers of vigilantism. Bruce is convinced he must become Batman, but only until he’s able to solve the mystery surrounding his parents’ death and avenge them, after which he’ll be able to live a normal life. Among the ensemble are also muzzled police officer James Gordon, along with his partner and TV star Harvey Bullock, and the twisted Mayor Oswald Cobblepot, alias the Penguin.
Johns is doing some solid storytelling here, if a bit crammed and expository. I liked the greater emphasis on the guilt Bruce feels over his parents death – here, he’s even more responsible for their deaths than ever, an even greater driving force in his decision to don the cape and cowl. I also liked the change in the Wayne’s familial history, where it’s revealed that Martha Wayne was once Martha Arkham, belonging to the family that owned the eponymous insane asylum. It poses further questions about Bruce’s psychological state than most in-continuity Batman stories, and adds a bit more dimension to his constant inner struggle. It’s also fascinating watching Bruce struggle with his two personas, trying to hone his rage – in his first meeting with Gordon, he accidentally punches the old man out. The art is also some of Gary Frank’s best work, made up of beautifully dark, haunting imagery. He imagines Batman’s costume as a makeshift leather, a great idea for the character’s first appearances and another cool break from the spandex and/or armor-clad norm.
At its most basic level, this is a story of family tragedy, and Johns turns the focus closer to Bruce, his parents, and Alfred than any author ever before. Alfred and Bruce’s relationship is especially interesting; as a grizzled, bearded war veteran, the father-figure isn’t so much a butler as he is a hard-ass drill instructor, even coming to blows with Bruce at one point. But perhaps the biggest change Earth One presents is the character of James Gordon. Over the years, the character has consistently been the unwavering hero cop, fighting hard against corruption within the department. In Earth One, he’s jaded, compliant, even unlikable at times, playing by the rules of Gotham and leaving those who’ve paid them up alone. The city pushed him too far over the edge, and he’s forced to put his daughter Barbara before his own self-righteousness. It’s an ingenious change, especially with the character’s portrayal in Frank Miller’s Year One having been the standard for so long.
In fact, there are many huge changes among some of the more minor characters, with varying degrees of success. Harvey Bullock is now a detective and a TV personality, something which feels a bit too much like change for the sake of change. Underneath that, in a lot of ways, the book doesn’t really feel as bold as it should. Johns has never been one to tell particularly daring stories, so ultimately Earth One doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or newsworthy with the mythology. Still, better to play closer to home than radically revise a beloved legacy.
On a side note, I can’t help but feel that this book should’ve been out a long time ago, riding off the coattails of Superman Earth One’s success back in Fall 2010. With a year’s worth of New 52 stories in regular DC continuity in the bag, the Earth One line feels like old news, and Batman Earth One in particular seems to have been released to significantly lower fanfare than its predecessor. Even worse, the actual book was announced all the way back at the end of 2009, almost three years ago now. If they’d been able to deliver this a year ago at the very least, it’d have probably turned a few more heads than it has already.
In the end, Earth One is the same old Batman with a new coat of paint, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It does get closer to the heart of Bruce’s character than most other Batman comics before it, and while Batman didn’t really need the reintroduction, it’s still a damn good Batman origin and a solid beginning for the character’s alternate universe debut. Here’s hoping more DC characters get the Earth One treatment…provided Mr. Meltzer doesn’t get to the heart of them first.