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Batman: Earth One (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I think it’s fair to say that I approached Batman: Earth One with a reasonable amount of skepticism. After all, Batman already has two almost perfect origins. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is really the perfect introduction to the character and his world, but Frank Miller’s Year One is also still a hugely iconic piece of work on the character. Miller’s Batman origin has, for example, withstood multiple re-examinations of Superman’s origin. (John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Mark Waid’s Birthright, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Superman: Secret Origin and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics among others.) So Batman: Earth One, a modernised “reimagining”of Batman’s origin story, does feel a tad unnecessary. However, despite the sense that it’s not really needed, it’s actually a fairly interesting take on the mythology judged on its own merits.

Yes, father… he shall become a bat…

One could argue that the Earth One concept is a tad redundant in this era of the “new 52”, where DC recently massively rebooted their shared continuity in order to make their books more accessible to regular readers. The Earth One series of graphic novels had been launched two years ago with a similar mission statement. The idea was to create a series of graphic novels that would reimagine and rework classic characters for a modern audience, providing an accessible “jumping on” point for readers who are scared of decades of poorly managed and convoluted continuity.

In the two years since the line was launched, only two characters have been reimagined in this new and accessible way. J. Michael Straczynski reimagined Superman to massive commercial (albeit mixed critical) success, while Geoff Johns and Gary Frank seemed to be working on Batman: Year One for quite some time. In fact, it seemed that the project was at risk of losing momentum, amid all the reshuffling at DC and all the focus on the relaunch of their entire line. Releasing the hardcover book in time for The Dark Knight Risesactually feels like a clever piece of cross-media marketing, and the book does provide an exceptional place for fans of Christopher Nolan to get on board with the character.

Grappling with the mythos…

For the most part, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank tend to adopt an “if it ain’t broke” approach to the back story of one of the most iconic characters in popular culture. After all, almost everybody knows the origin story of Bruce Wayne, in the broader sense. My mother and father, for example, could tell you that he was a rich kid orphaned in a mugging who took to dressing up as a bat to fight crime. My grandmother can rhyme off not only some of his iconic villains, but also his supporting cast – Alfred and Commissioner Gordon chief amongst them. Johns and Frank wisely keep these core elements in place. There’s going to be very little confusion when any reader picks up the book, no matter how casual they might be.

Don’t get me wrong, there are changes to the standard Batman mythos, but they don’t seem quite as radical or fundamental as they might have been. For example, James Gordon is made explicitly complicit in the corruption of the Gotham City Police Department, while Nolan’s Batman Beginsonly dared to suggest that he had been implicitly complicit. (He still doesn’t take money in return for ignoring the corruption and crime at work within Gotham.)

Armoured and dangerous…

In many ways, it seems like Johns is rather heavily influenced by Nolan’s take on the character. Alfred is reimagined as a former Royal Marine who provides military advice to a naive Bruce Wayne, much like he did during The Dark Knight. There’s even a variation on the scene from Batman Begins where Alfred collects Bruce after a disastrous night out, the young man collapsed in the back seat of the car while Alfred takes him home.

I will confess that I really like this take on Alfred as a character, if only because it helps the character assume a more proactive and important role in Bruce’s crusade. There’s something quite insightful about the idea that, despite the fact he’s organising a “war”, Bruce knows much less about combat than his own butler. I like the idea that Alfred isn’t just a man born into service, but instead is a close friend of Thomas, who owes the man a debt of service. “You called me because you wanted someone on security you could trust.”

Faithful butler…

There’s something to be said for the idea – suggested by Nolan and by Johns – that Alfred is perhaps singularly unsuited to care for Bruce, at least emotionally. “I’m not a parent,” he states here, and it makes sense. The man is a former soldier and a bachelor, who has no idea how to engage or relate to children. If Bruce had been afforded a father figure who knew how to connect with him in a more engaging manner, would he have ever become Batman? In Batman Begins, one can see Alfred inadvertently plant to seed of Batman when he tells Bruce that it was all the robber’s fault, rather than actually engaging the boy in a more meaningful discussion.

Appropriately enough, given that Nolan’s films employed what might be described as a “Johnsian literalism” towards the use of fear by Batman, Johns himself leans rather heavily on the idea of Batman employed fear as an agent in his war on crime, explaining the otherwise ridiculous costume. “The kind of people you’re hunting don’t get scared,” Alfred warns him. “Everyone gets scared, Alfred,”Bruce replies.

He can call you batty, and batty when you call him, you can call him Al…

Johns’ Batman even adopts the same “home for Christmas” attitude that Nolan’s Bruce demonstrated in The Dark Knight. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne believed that – if he could topple the mob – he might be able to hang up the cowl and retire. Here, Johns gives Bruce a very clear personal objective to pursue. “When the Mayor goes down and I find his gunman, we can both have closure,” Bruce vows. “We can both move on. We can both have a normal life.”

There are other similarities at play, albeit less fundamental. Here, for example, Johns introduces us to Bruce’s childhood friend, Jessica. She seems a stand-in for Rachel Dawes, right down to taking a career fighting institutionalised crime in Gotham. (Her last name is Dent, perhaps reflecting the fact that Rachel filled a plot function quite similar to Harvey Dent in Batman Begins.) Johns even borrows the Lucius-Fox-as-Q motif, right down to the shallow excuses Bruce offers. Asking Fox to fix his grappling gun, he explains, “I use it for mountain climbing.” There’s even a rather noteworthy similarity between the climax of Batman: Earth One and The Dark Knight Rises.

Breaking the shackles of complex continuity…

In other cases, Johns builds off ideas Nolan established. He presents a version of the Penguin here that seems to evoke Nolan’s manner of reimagining classic villains. David Goyer, Nolan’s collaborator on the films, even credits Johns’ work with the character on the back cover. The last page teases a Nolan-esque reimagining of another iconic character, and one that makes me wish I didn’t have to wait two years for another volume of this story. I like the idea that Johns is “Nolan-ising” villains that Nolan didn’t get around to during his film series, as it provides an interesting way of exploring Batman’s iconic selection of villains.

Johns also builds off Nolan’s interpretation of the death of the Waynes, and the role that Bruce played in it. “My anger outweighs my guilt,” Bruce states in Batman Begins, and Nolan repeatedly suggests that Bruce’s aggression towards criminals serves to distract his pain away from his own sense of responsibility, leading his parents out into the alley where they died. Here, Bruce also forces them to go to the cinema. “I want to see it tonight!” he demands. When he bumps into the mugger, he helpfully states, “My parents are the richest people in Gotham City.” Johns implies that this version of Bruce is motivated at least as much by guilt as by vengeance.

First impressions, eh? Or should that be “fist” impressions?

Johns does plot a similar character arc for Bruce as Nolan did, although he’s very careful to put his own spin on it. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne became more than just a man to transcend his personal flaws. Here, Bruce has to come to a realisation about his quest for vengeance. The opening pages see Bruce ignoring the opportunity to be a hero, because the crime in question doesn’t revolve around him. It’s telling that the same crooks reappear in the final few pages, and Bruce’s reaction is quite different.

Where Johns has distinctly put his own mark on the character and his world, I actually find myself warming to his ideas quite well. I like the notion, for example, that Bruce might be a descendent of the Arkham family, the notoriously insane family responsible for that iconic mental institution. When Bruce refuses to clarify why he won’t venture into the old Arkham house, Harvey Dent answers for him, “Because he’ll go crazy. Just like every Arkham did.” I like the idea that Bruce’s decision to dress up as a flying rodent might be predicated on a family history of instability.

Jump on in!

More than that, though, I like the explicit articulation of the idea that the Arkhams are responsible for building Gotham. As he explores the old Arkham house, Bullock comments, “Place is laid out as crazy as your streets.” Gordon informs him, “The same people who build this house built Gotham. The Arkhams.” It suggests that perhaps – like Bruce’s genes – there’s some measure of insanity within the very concrete of the city itself. It’s a fascinating idea, that Gotham itself could be the product of unstable minds with irrational thought processes.

Outside his reworking of characters like the Penguin, Harvey Dent or James Gordon, Johns’ most substantially original character here is the Birthday Boy, a “theme” goon who serves as the Penguin’s psychopathic muscle in Gotham. Although the character is barely defined, he is suitably creepy as a supporting character in a Batmancomic. More than that, though, Johns constructs the character as an interesting contrast to Bruce. Like Bruce, the Birthday Boy is an overgrow kid playing out a childish fantasy with a sense of selfish entitlement.

He’s crashing…

Batman: Earth One is a very strong Batman story, and certainly a superb reimagining of the character, but it’s not perfect. Even ignoring the debate over whether Batman needs another take on his origin, the ending feels a little anticlimactic. Yes, Johns uses a plot device that Nolan employed during The Dark Knight Rises, but Nolan set it up much better there – and it wasn’t the climactic beat. It was merely one nice surprise moment in a much larger climax. Here, that moment is the climax and so it feels almost anti-climactic to resolve the whole conflict with Oswald Cobblepot in such a manner.

Still, it’s a minor complaint. I think it’s fair to argue that this is perhaps the strongest story Johns has written since Sinestro Corps War, which is quite an accomplishment. He’s ably assisted here by Gary Frank on artwork. Frank is an amazing artist, and his collaborations with Johns are always worthy of attention and discussion. Here, he draws the entire adventure remarkably well, but there is one absolutely fantastic element, one that writer Brad Meltzer cites in his cover blurb.

A Dark Knight…

You can see Batman’s eyes. Under the cowl, most artists draw Batman with white slits where his eyes should be, to the point where The Dark Knight included a nice in-joke about the design of the character’s cowl. Frank imbues Batman with a very human quality, something that I think speaks to part of the appeal of the hero. Franks draws wonderful human figures, and the story is populated with fascinating creations that remain distinctly and undeniably human. It really is a fantastic looking Batman comic, and Johns’ script is certainly in good hands.

Batman: Earth One might not, strictly speaking, be essential, but it is a good read. It’s a fun and engaging reimagining of the Batman mythos, and one told with enough skill that you don’t mind that it’s (mostly) a story you already know. In fact, despite my reluctance going in, I find myself eagerly anticipating the second collection.

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