Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank
Like many comic book fans I found the prospect of Geoff Johns finally tackling Gotham City’s Dark Knight Detective to be the stuff of dreams and to have him joined by his Superman: Secret Origin collaborator Gary Frank simply sealed the deal as one of those ‘dream books’ a fan will fantasize about. Sadly with a ‘dream book’ what you imagine can be better then it actually turns out and DC certainly gave us plenty of time to imagine this book, having announced it nearly 3 years before publication. I really feared that Batman Earth One would turn out to be a real let down but boy was I wrong.
First some background. The Earth One line was designed with an eye on book stores and reaching a wider audience than monthly issues and their collected editions often do. To this end the line is a fresh start made up of self contained graphic novels, featuring new and yet still iconic versions of DC characters, Superman and Batman to begin with (or at least that was what they said as we’ve had no more titles announced other than sequels to the Superman and Batman books) that are not bogged down by the kind of continuity that can send new and casual readers running for the hills.
In everything from Else-Worlds titles to games and films, we’ve seen Batman portrayed very differently, but few versions, Batman: Year One and Batman Begins being the only exceptions that springs to mind, have shown us a Batman like this, under prepared, brash, and bordering on the incompetent. It’s a pretty fresh angle to take for a hero often shown being a dozen steps ahead of his enemies, having him fail and fall, literally in some cases. Johns shows us a hero in the making and while he’s interesting he isn’t our lead character here, Alfred Pennyworth is. And what a lead he is.
Alfred is hired by mayoral candidate, head of the Wayne Medical group, and former army medic Thomas Wayne to act as his family’s head of security. Alfred is not the refined gentleman’s gentleman we know oh so well. Instead, he is a grizzled veteran, a man that has seen much violence in his life and following the obligatory deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne (some things never change) a reluctant father figure to an angry and hurting Bruce.
Alfred is a good example of what writer Geoff Johns manages to do with many characters in this book. He makes the old seem fresh. Even the tired tale of Jim Gordon, a good cop in the den of thieves that is the GCPD, seems more new then it deserves to be because he gives Gordon a character arc. It feels like there is progression for him as a character and for several of the characters over the course of the story. Even if we might know how they might end up Johns makes us forget that at least a bit.
Our Earth One version of Harvey Bullock however is a pure breath of fresh air, a supporting character that lights up the page whenever he appears. His character arc is the best in this first volume and showcases Johns’ ability to make us like a guy that we really should think is an ass. That’s a trend in a lot of his work, really shouldn’t you wanna hit Hal Jordan for being so cocky at times?
In a book where the most interesting characters don’t wear costumes or masks it benefits hugely to have a talent like Gary Frank on art duties. His skill with facial expressions and conveying a performance from his art are really what shines here. He also manages to make some of the most memorable panels in this book feature not a man in a cape and cowl but human faces expressing emotion. A rather cool take on the ‘Good cop/Bad cop’ routine is a highlight.
OK now for the bad. As with Superman Earth One we don’t get that great of a villain in the book. I mean the primary villain is OK, and I won’t spoil his reveal, but I had much higher hopes when you think of the power Johns has had to make even silly villains frightening. The secondary villain, a serial killer called the Birthday Boy, is more of a physical threat, and a bit of a creepy one at that, but isn’t a villain that truly tests our hero even if he is still a hero in the making.
My largest criticism of the book however, is that it took so long to reach us. I am a big fan of the self-contained graphic novel format but such a wait is hard to take. If volume two is another 3 years away then I fear this line will lose momentum, as it will if DC don’t broaden the line of characters to beyond the ‘Big Two’.
This type of book has the potential to get new readers into comics, and if like me you have friends asking where to start reading comics, DC have offered a good starting point here and one I massively recommend it to fans new and old.
4 out of 5 nerds