Friday, July 6, 2012

Batman Earth One

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Company: DC Comics

For DC, Elseworlds have always been a mainstay in their arsenal of entertainment. The re-imagining of their first tier characters, their heart and soul changed or tweaked to bring something new to the table that is unexpected, is a genre unto itself that has been going for as long as I've been reading comics. The Earth One series, if two graphic novels (one Superman and now Batman) can be called a series, takes this stance and proceeds to launch itself in a sideways like motion into unseen territories. The only problem with that is that with Batman, a lot of territory has already been covered. I mean A LOT. Hell, he's been a Vampire, a Pirate, a Victorian Era Crime Fighter, a Reverend, and a Scotsman to name just a few off the top of my head.
I know I'm forgetting a sack-full of others too, but I'm straying from the point. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it's hard to bring something new to a character like this. Or to put it a little more concisely, Batman Earth One is a bit of a mixed bag.

At the helm of this endeavor is Geoff Johns, Chief Creator Officer and prolific DC Comics writer extraordinaire. He's been the man with the plan and has brought great re-imaginings to countless characters, chief among them being able to take a block of wood like Hal Jordan and whittle and cut and bring him to life like a Ring Slinging Pinocchio. He's never written a full on Batman story, so the possibilities seemed endless.

The story however is predictable. It's another Origin story. It's a tale that has been beaten to death at this point, or at least it feels as though it has. Johns does bring some great ideas to the table though, things like making Bruce Wayne one part Wayne and another part Arkham. That's such an insidious little tid-bit, one that opens up countless doors and paths to explore. He also does a great job of making the vast array of characters that he introduces all have wants and needs and motivations that propel them forward. His Batman, an amalgamation of a lot of versions that have come before, isn't the typical bad ass. He's untrained but determined, annoyed and pout-y. I'm not super into the ineffectual Batman, but as a story arc, it works. And while I do think the varied character arcs are great and some of the best that this book has to offer, there's just too many of them. Names that any dedicated Bat Fan would know, people like Harvey Bullock and Harvey Dent, are spat and dropped, Tommy Gun style, at you with great regularity to the point where you're anticipating the kitchen sink being tossed in your general direction. It's distracting and feels more like quick set up for the inevitable adventures to come. A more narrowed story that focused on a few characters probably would have been better.

Another item that's fairly notable is that this book is Dark. Johns isn't shy about adding grim and grittiness to his tales (ie JSA and a good chunk of what he's written to date). His Gotham City is atrocious and its corrupt fingers seem to be around every single character's neck. Not only that, but the characters themselves are darker than what we are used to. Alfred is a war vet who grumbles and growls and punches people, Harvey Bullock (who feels very Kevin Spacey Ala L.A. Confidential) is a man seeking fame but finds something else entirely, and Oswald Cobblepot is...Well, he's something else altogether. The darkness is kind of oppressive and the realism is right in your face, for better or worse. I was sort of hoping for something like Superman Earth One, which where it did have realism and darkness, it didn't forget to throw out a joke or two to add some levity. Blood and bodies and depravity are the side dishes that we find on the table here with Batman Earth One.

The other man at the wheel, Gary Frank, first caught my eye with his work on Midnight Nation with JMS years ago. He always brings his A game though and since then he's worked and brought to life Supreme Power and Supergirl and working with his partner in crime Geoff Johns, Superman: Secret Origin. Here, like always, he riddles the pages with beauty. His realistic and detailed style goes hand in hand with the story, punctuating the beats with such skill. His ability to provide depth in his characters, both visually and emotionally, is one of his best qualities and he goes to town in just about every panel that is on the page. You feel and see the pain that is being inflicted and the action scenes are just as all consuming. The realism here that he gives the book, the way that Batman literally looks like a man in a costume (something resembling Adam West via Frank Miller) is intriguing and a bit disturbing, but it works.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, Batman Earth One is a mixed bag. It has various highs and lows to offer, of that there's no doubt. However, ultimately the darkness mingled with the origin story then mixed with a less than stellar villain (not who you might expect)...The numbers just don't add up to a very memorable tale. Which is too bad.

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