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BATMAN: EARTH ONE Vol. 1 & 2 (review)

Review by Clay N Ferno

Shortly before The Dark Knight Rises closed the chapter on director Christopher Nolans’ cinematic take on Batman, DC Comics released the hardcover original graphic novel Batman: Earth One (2012) written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank.

Johns, protege to Superman: The Movie’s Richard Donner, became famous for his Green Lantern, JSA and The Flash runs before becoming DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer. The Blackest Night scribe also is the link between comics and movies across the lot at Warner Bros., consulting on everything from Green Lantern to Batman v. Superman and down to the successful Flash and Arrow programs on CW.

Gary Frank, artist for Batman: Earth One drew an uncanny Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman in 2009’s pre-Flashpoint Superman: Secret Origin. While many artists have taken on the iconic DC heroes, Frank’s style rises to the top as a modern master.

Batman: Earth One Volume 2 featuring the same creative team was released earlier this month.

Batman: Earth One Volumes 1 & 2 are out of the current DC continuities as we know it, are perhaps meant as chain bookstore (mass market) sellers but the two great hardcovers make great gifts for Batman fans of varied interest levels. Everyone from the enthusiastic FOG! crowd to your more causal The Dark Knight Trilogy or Gotham tv series fans will get lost in this version of the Caped Crusader.

Johns and Frank introduce a Gotham that is familiar in tone, but a Gotham that pivots on some surprising heels to make for an interesting Earth One.

I would imagine that this Earth shares continuity with the three volumes of J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One (2010, 2012 and 2015) but the crossover has not happened yet and the worlds seem to be separate.

Sure, origin stories, especially those over 75 years old need a refresher, and often times we get these updates with little regard to the nut of what makes the character great.

Geoff Johns distills Batman into his essence, re-ups the familiar and boring story of Alfred and reconfigures entire chessboard where major players in Bruce’s life might rise or fall.

The character study of Alfred (pre-tv’s Gotham) is one we are familiar with from recent television versions.

First, there was the Cockney brawler seen in Beware The Batman, and recently we were gifted with Sean Pertwee’s Gotham counterpart.

Both of these Pennyworths (perhaps from Warner on-high) seem to be cut from this same East Ender Batman: Earth One cloth. 

Thomas (drawn, in my humble opinion to resemble Tom Selleck) brought Alfred in as security lead for his mayoral campaign, and in a Spidey-like twist, Thomas refuses Alfred’s aid upon his first night in town. Hence, pearls all over Crime Alley.

The backstory is that Thomas Wayne and Alfred fought in a war overseas together, and after a fateful night out at the movies — child protective services tells Alfred the news. He is to take care of young Master Bruce. He introduces himself as a Butler, out of awkwardness. Then, to Alfred’s chagrin, that title sort of sticks instead of his preferred bodyguard status.

Let’s not forget about poor Martha Wayne, who in this world has the maiden name of Arkham, resulting in a genetic soup that perhaps lends credence to Bruce being a bit crazy to dress up like a Bat and clean up the Gotham streets.

In a childhood flashback we meet the Dent twins, Harvey and Jessica. Both stick around for important moments in Bruce’s life.

Who else do we encounter in Vol. 1? There is Oswald Cobblepot, incumbent Mayor when Bruce puts on the cowl, with ties to the underworld and perhaps the murder of the Waynes.

Harvey Bullock is a hot shot shock news journalist turned detective joining G.C.P.D. to partner with our old pal Jim Gordon.

More familiar renderings here from Frank that I can’t quite put a finger on pointing out who he may have ‘cast’ in these roles, but great acting and storytelling all around.

Johns himself flips the Batman: Year One Bullock/Flass/Gordon relationship inside then out again that really gets the wheels turning and is fan service without a trace of spelling it all out for you.

Gordon is — of course — protective of his young librarian daughter, Barbara, and they both miss his wife who was killed in a car accident that may involve foul play.

A young Lucius Fox is employed by Wayne, similar to the Nolan films, to commission Batman’s famous grappling hook, Batarangs and a mysterious car under the Wayne Medical Group Design & Engineering team.

Volume One concludes with a mysterious new serial villain creation — replete with costume and that villian’s downfall. Gordon, Pennyworth, Bullock and of course Batman attack the problem from different sides. And as soon as one big bad goes down, another pops up, teased and primed for Volume Two.

Much like The Dark Knight, Bruce and Alfred have started to learn from each other and the city as new threats emerge months later. Criminals are starting to fear The Batman as rumors of another creature, the Killer Croc splay themselves across the pages of Gotham Gazette.

Lucius has a full R&D department, Bullock is having personal problems, and the Dents are running Gotham from the inside. Harvey is of course a fierce District Attorney, playing all sides of the law, and sister Jessica has taken over as Mayor after the downfall of The Penguin.

Gordon allies himself with the dangerous Batman as mysterious question marks appear around the city, most notably at a René Magritte showcase. An easier to swallow version of the Riddler (and simpler riddles) than we found in Scott Snyder’s Endgame rattles the social elite of Gotham, as the young Batman hones his detective skills (later in the story with the help of Gordon).

Subtly and slowly we’re building up to a more recognizable Batman and Gotham, even with John’s new distortions. Major villains are being revealed, our Batsuit gets more tech (and like Marvel’s Daredevil, for good reason!) and Bill Finger be praised — one solid train-fight to satisfy me in Volume 2.

It should be noted, in both of these books, our slug-friendly Alfred gets almost as much fisticuff action as young Master Bruce. He’s as tied into the action as any Robin or Nightwing before him, not a sidekick but a partner. This is yet another clever giant penny flip of the Dynamic Duo dynamic by Geoff Johns, because we all know that Batman is a loner but can’t do this thing by himself.

The action packed third act of Volume 2 sets up more of a complex set of problems for Gotham and Batman, perhaps to be explored in a third. I can live in this Earth One for quite a while. It should go without saying, don’t jump into Volume 2 without reading the first book.

I recommend reading both in succession. I had excitedly written a review of Volume One on its release and I standby my hearty recommendation from three years ago.

Johns and Frank are a superstar team, and each of these books are like immersing yourself into a movie. I appreciate the resurrection of the original graphic novel format for these stories and look forward to more. As a collector of Batman trades and hardcovers and frequent re-reader of my favorite stories, I plan on revisiting these books perennially as I do the volumes of Year One, The Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns and the more recent book Batman: Death By Design (2012).

Both volumes are really nice looking books as a form factor and art-wise, but the story is full of great Bat-Action and Gotham world building that will have me testing the tensile strength of the bindings for years to come. Read these books digitally only if you must! These feel like good old fashioned graphic novels in the hand.

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