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Batman: Earth One

“Earth One” is a series of new original graphic novels from DC Comics.  The idea is to re-invent their characters from zero by re-telling their origins as if they occurred in our world, a world without other super-heroes.

They launched the series two years ago with Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis.  I thought it was pretty terrible.

When Batman: Earth One was announced, I had no interest.  But then I read the graphic novel would be created by the team of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, who worked together on some terrific Superman comics a few years ago, including the spectacular six-part Superman: Secret Origin. (It’s a far superior re-telling of Superman’s origin than that seen in Earth One, and I also reviewed it in the above link.)  OK, I thought, let’s see what they can do with Batman.

They knocked it out of the park!  Now that Christopher Nolan has completed his trilogy of Batman films, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll soon see a reboot of the Batman film series and another telling of Batman’s origin.  In many ways, Batman: Earth One seems like a perfect pitch for an awesome new film version of Batman.  I don’t know if that was the creators’ intention, but I could absolutely see this graphic novel working as a film.

Let me be clear: this story was not intended to be an “iconic” version of Batman’s origin.  No, Mr. Johns and Mr. Frank have taken a very different approach, re-shaping and re-thinking aspects of the character and his origin. On the one hand, I am not exactly sure why that is something worth doing.  Why bother messing with one of the simplest, most perfect origin stories in comics?  Why change things that don’t really need to be changed?  Why fix what isn’t broken?  On the other hand, if one can let go of one’s sense of continuity and the occasional horrified “No!  That’s not what’s supposed to happen!”, then this bold reinvention of Batman is very exciting and, for the most part, very successful.

What works?

I love the new version of Alfred.  Physically the character looks totally different (yep, that gun-weilding dude on the cover is Alfred), and though the character’s central affection for Bruce Wayne remains, the changes are more than just physical.  This is a younger, more vigorous, more virile Alfred than we’ve ever seen before.  This Alfred is a military man, and in this story he becomes far more directly responsible for the training of the man who would be Batman than ever before.  (Although the idea that Bruce Wayne spent years traveling the world training to become Batman is a core element of his origin — and, of course, the basis for the feature film Batman Begins — making Alfred primarily responsible for Bruce’s training is actually a pretty brilliant simplification of the origin…)

I love the new Harvey Bullock.  At first, this seemed like an example of a change just-for-the-sake-of-a-change, and it bugged me.  OK, the familiar Harvey Bullock is a fat slob, so we’ll make the new Harvey Bullock a handsome super-cop.  Surprise!  But as the story progressed, I found myself really starting to like and then love this depiction of Bullock.  He has probably the most interesting and complex character-arc of any character in the piece, and that final full-page spread is shattering.

I loved this version of the Penguin.  In this story, Oswald Cobblepot is the long-standing, extremely corrupt mayor of Gotham City.  He is not at all a super-villain, but he is a terrifying villain nonetheless.  I love the way Gary Frank draws Cobblepot — just slightly deformed enough to make him look unpleasant, but not totally freakish.  This Cobblepot is, in many ways, far more horrible than the familiar super-villain version of The Penguin.  He’s a terrific villain for the story.

I loved Gordon, I loved Barbara, I loved Lucius Fox.  I loved the look of the  Batman costume — with a few more details that make it feel like a real costume rather than painted-on spandex, but still maintaining the simplicity of the classic Batman costume.  (It’s a FAR better redesign of the Batman costume than the much-ballyhooed Jim Lee design featured in DC’s “New 52” relaunch.)

I didn’t care for the rejiggered version of the death of the Wayne’s.  I don’t like the notion that bratty Bruce’s behavior was in any way complicit in their deaths.  I don’t think that was at all necessary, and I think it needlessly muddies the emotional waters of the Waynes’ deaths for young Bruce.

Gary Frank’s artwork is spectacular.  I wish I could draw the way he does.  Mr. Frank’s work is incredibly detailed and realistic, but still maintains a cartoonist’s strength for energy and simplicity in a drawing.  His panels are realistic but not photo-realistic, and I think that’s a key distinction that is critical to the power of Mr. Frank’s drawings.  The book is filled with one gorgeously rendered sequence after another, whether it’s Barbara Gordon bringing her father some lasagna in the precinct or a double-page spread of Batman crashing through the window of an elite Gotham City gala.  The inking by Jonathan Sibal and the colors by Brad Anderson are also magnificent and not to be overlooked when praising the art of this graphic novel.

Batman: Earth One is a delightful new take on Batman, and I definitely hope there is a second installment coming soon…!!

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