Batman: Earth One
“It Could have been different. It Should have been!”
And for twenty five years it was. Ever since Frank Miller’s seminal origin story Batman: Year One was released readers have assumed that they knew the true story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman and for twenty five years no one has dared dispute that fact, but with Batman: Earth One Geoff Johns and Gary Frank do just that. They tell their version of the origin, a version that will sit in my mind as equal to Miller’s; even though this wasn’t entirely their intention. See, the trick of this book is right there in the title, it’s not set in continuity (which would be Earth 616 for those with social lives) which means that for both better and worse this is a drastically different Dark Knight than those you’ve seen elsewhere.
Though this is an alternate world tale rather than a re-boot it is hard not to involve it in the current conversations regarding clean slates in comics. DC recently relaunched Batman as part of their New 52 but the term barely applies, the character carrying over all of his baggage and Bat-family; Snyder’s work there is stunning but in comparison Earth One is the braver book. The other major DC event of late is of course Before Watchmen, a series that many fans feared would at worst sully the original and be at best a waste of time; Watchmen being a book that fills in all of its own blanks. Earth One could easily have been a book that fell into the same kind of flawed storytelling that these people predicted of Before; it could have been a simple series of nods and winks to Bat’s story as we know it and…well in a way it is but that’s what makes it so brilliant.
There was another major origin story that made its debut this week, this time a Marvel character: The Amazing Spider-Man. The movie has been mauled by many as utterly unnecessary and despite enjoying it i don’t disagree; it does tell a tale that we are all familiar with, one that we could recite as if memorized before the movie had even begun. On the surface Earth One should be open to all the same criticisms, but thankfully Johns’ script is much cleverer than Spidey’s: this book isn’t pointless, it’s not a point-one style re-cap but nor is it a perfect jumping on point. In a really interesting way Earth-One requires that you have read Year One, that you do know how Batman began, because its real strength stems from the surprising ways that it subverts the beats of those stories; the zag only works if you now to expect a zig. Johns playfully pitches a slow-ball and sets it spinning mid-flight, toying with our expectations in a really enjoyable narrative exercise.
The book then works best for big Bat fans, but those with only a cursory understanding of the character will surely still find this a most satisfying story, offering as it does everything you could want from one of his books. Despite the childish joy of the comics meta-conflict Earth One actually presents a very gaunt and gritty version of Gotham, one of the bleakest that I’ve seen in some time. It also tells a rather dark and depressing tale; at this stage the cities saviors not yet switched on and so the sky stays black. Then there is Birthday Boy, a chillingly creepy new villain; Bullock wasn’t the only one who had to reach for a drink after witnessing his actions. This though is never a book that wallows in the bleakness, instead it blisters forward, constantly bringing new threads into its twine to up the tension before tying them all off in a terrific knot with an action packed climax.
None of this would be possible without the great Gary Frank art that adorns the books interiors. His style seems very straightforward at first, visually the pages are a simple artistic recreation of reality, but upon closer inspection there are some strange things happening on his pages. Specifically his storytelling style struck me as somewhat unique; the panels are very often obtuse, shadowy and slightly askew. He keeps things hidden from us without the act ever feeling forced. When it comes to his characters though things seem amazingly clear, his faces are all distinct and full of features; you can tell instantly what everyone, even the masked men, are thinking. Then there are the amazing splash pages which, more than any others I’ve seen, seem entirely earnt. He’s never trying to force an epic feeling, in fact it is rarely the big moments that get these pages, instead they come at emotionally potent times and this is what makes them so stunning.
This fact speaks to just what it is that makes Earth One work as well as it does; it has all the technique and trickery that your mind could want from a comic, but this stuff is always secondary to the stuff that serves your gut: the phenomenological trumps the plot, character comes first, as of course it should in an origin story. However having this stuff tempered with actual stakes is what sells it. To again reference Spiderman, with no responsibility comes no contrivance; because it is a one off this book is free to do whatever it wants with its world, as the conclusion shows and this helps it stay fresh. Even so, I really wish this were a re-boot because it is a book that i would love to read on a regular basis, but if this is all we get then I am happy and for both better and worse we aren’t so far from where we need to be to believe that this Bats is our own. A new take on the Batman origin should have been horrible but this book is everything it could have been and more.