In my continuing effort to review something you’ve not seen throughout the year, I decided to turn a page and give a read to the DC’s “Earth One” series. First established with J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman, the “Earth One” is an established separate universe where DC’s most popular characters are given a complete overhaul. No point is off limits. Whole origins are retold with brand new twists and turns. Part “gotcha”, part actual attempts to modernize comic mythology… the series is akin to Marvel’s “Ultimate” line, circa its initial debut. Bold choices, both in art and in story telling, all for the sake of truly catching the reader off guard. But is it enough to just make modern fans go “Oh! I know that character, how clever!”, or is this just a novelty masquerading in hard-bound togs? Well, color me impressed… Johns’ Batman is clever enough to earn my respect.
Now I know, you’re already going “C’mon Fish! Last time you’re all like ‘ Geoff Johns sucks! Grrr! Boo!”, and now you’re back to giving him a shoulder rub!” Well… I’m a hypocrite. Sue me. But be warned. My people tend to be great lawyers. Anywho… Batman: Earth One takes decades worth of origins and factoids of Gothams Past to create this grimmer-grittier take on the already Dark Knight. Martha Wayne’s lineage ties back to the Arkham family. Harvey Bullock is thin as a rail, and handsome to boot. And Alfred? A former British intelligence agent who is far closer to sparring partner than loyal butler to young Bruce when the series begins. All of these little switches and zingers keep readers like me on their toes. Lucky for us all, Johns’ script is smart enough to bury these easter eggs beneath a solid origin tale. Solid enough that the gimmicks are good for a laugh, but always are quick to ground themselves within the narrative.
The story itself is fairly straight-forward. The cocky Bruce Wayne loses his parents to random violence that Johns is quick to hide in a deluge of mystery and corruption. Seems Thomas Wayne was set to be Gotham’s next mayor. The only person in his way? Why none other than Oswald Cobblepot. Wah. Wah. Wahhh. Cut to the modern era, and we’re treated to the “returned from whatever unforeseen training he had” Wayne in his clock and cowl shaking down suspects as he gets closer and closer to unfolding the true nature of his parents demise. As per the usual “First Year” Batmen before him, Wayne is a clutz, quick to anger, and not quite the demigod of detectives when we first meet. It’s always a treat to see the not-perfect Batman stumble and bumble his way through a case. But I’m dancing around the real gems of this book. Alfred and James Gordon.
Geoff Johns writes both Gordon and Pennyworth as true noir types. Alfred is severe, curt, and caring. James Gordon is blunt, defeated, and cautious. Throughout the short tale, both of these men are given depth and literary shades of grey no other characters enjoy. Even our titular hero is basically a generic wash of angst and anger. It’s early in his career, and the book is short. He gets a pass. Mainly on the strength of both his “butler”, and eventual partner in justice. By books end, both receive moments that elevate the book beyond the typical, and truly without either of them, I’d not be so content with what reached the page. Truly, Geoff finds a way to reinvent Alfred in such a manner that for the first time perhaps in all of his comic career, exists as someone as interesting as his young ward ever was, if not more so. Suffice to say, if we are to return to this Earth, I hope the gun-toting war-surviving butler-by-way-of-pity Pennyworth sees more than few scenes in the sequel.
Johns doesn’t leave this review unscathed though. One big issue I had was the always worthless “random serial killer” inserted to jolt the story towards its conclusion. While it’s believable that the emperor Penguin of Gotham would employ a crazy brute to deal with his random would-be-victims… it’s so schlocky that I couldn’t help but chuckle as we ambled through the predictable beats. Even worse, if there was an easter egg to the eventual “unmasking” of this would-be-terror… I missed it. So, what I got was a random roided-up knife-wielder with a generic from-the-bin MO. Meh. This, combined with the Barbara Gordon plot-line just came across as unneeded.
In the art department, Gary Frank is firing on all cylinders. Just as Shane Davis upped his game for this OGN, so too, does the stalwart Frank. With his weighty figures, hyper-detailed backgrounds, and strikingly emotive faces, every page has something worth stopping to admire. The production of the book itself is something to behold. Thick paper, rich inks, a spot gloss coat on the cover… matching to top tier colors, and amazing lettering. Simply put, the book is in a league of its own, artistically speaking. I’d make a gripe, if there were one to make. Frank skates by though… even when Johns was doling out scenes I’ve read a hundred times over, Gary Frank’s art simply made it a joy look over, if not read.
So there you have it. I don’t hate Geoff Johns. Here, in his element, he’s able to mix the gnarly realism that stokes the coals of too many old farts and delivers a modern retelling my generation eats up with a spoon. His worldview is marred by rape, murder, and copious amounts of failure. But with the steadfast pen of Gary Frank, his Batman of Earth One is as dynamic as near any other iteration of the character. With great reformatting of familiar faces, Johns is able to breath life into a concept so overdone in the last decade, that I nearly forgot it all while I tore through the pages. It’s a quick read. Because it’s hard-bound, it’s too expensive. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth your time. Pick it up. Just don’t tell Geoff I sent you.