By: Geoff Johns (story), Gary Frank (pencils), Jonathan Sibal (inks), Brad Anderson (colors)
The Story: Batman Begins. Again.
The Writing: Well, here we are again, another Batman origin story that is extremely faithful to the story we’ve always known. Hey, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, right? And that’s Johns’ approach to this graphic novel–don’t mess with the Batman mythos that works, just add subtle changes throughout. In many retread origins, there seems to be two camps with Batman: 1) random killing or 2) caused by someone in his rogue’s gallery. Think Tim Burton’s Batman against Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Now, what I love with this origin–and I hope this is just a tease and not a spoiler–Johns finds a creative way to do both (have your murder and kill someone too). The specifics of such, I’ll leave as blank as possible, but it was a unique take that was still very faithful to the original.
But just like Superman: Earth One, this isn’t so much as retelling an origin as it is reestablishing characters. It’s here we get some really unique developments from Johns. The first, and most pleasant, is a complete retooling of Alfred. We’ve always got hints that before being a butler to the Wayne family, Alfred was something of a badass. But in the comics and movies, we don’t get to see that, just hear about it. We generally see him as an older man, usually thin and frail-looking. Not the kind of guy you would imagine busting down a door with a shotgun. That’s the Alfred of Earth One. He does not start as a butler, he starts as an old war buddy to Thomas Wayne, and he’s an effin badass! He’s the kind of guy you can totally believe can train the Batman, and the way Johns writes this, his war experience is essential. Especially his stance on guns, which is: shoot the bastard with a shotgun and go home! Sure he has wisdom, like the Alfred we all love, but he also has experience that he is still able to bestow.
While Alfred friggin owns it, Gordon starts as a cowardly detective afraid to piss off the mob bosses for a very good reason, but something I’ll leave out. It’s hard to see Gordon like this–we’ve seen him turn a blind eye, sure, but to go so far as coddling the mob out of fear, knowing what he’s like regularly, it’s sad. But there is reward in this. Alongside Gordon is Harvey Bullock. Bullock is a Hollywood detective who even had his own show and goes to Gotham in search of headlines and stardom. Mainly, crack the Wayne murder case and you’re set for life. He is not a likable character, but Johns uses him excellently, and the more he develops, the more you reluctantly want to root for him. He does genuinely want to do right by the world, even if for selfish gain, but he is not prepared for Gotham. You can imagine what the city does to him (or, you know, read the book).
The big bad in this first installment is the Penguin, who I have always hated as a villain because he’s just so incredibly lame! This is really the defining moment of Johns’ retelling–is he going to go the Burton or the Nolan route? Creature Feature or Realistic Gangster? Danny DeVito or what might have been Phillip Seymour Hoffman? And the answer is Nolan. No flipper hands for this Cobblepot. Just a very very corrupt mayor with a wickedly ugly nose and a shnazzy tuxedo. He’s not stumpy and totally hideous, he’s just a little shorter than everyone around him, and aside from the nose, what you’d expect a mayor to look like. Reading this version of the Penguin really made me wish that Nolan and Hoffman really did get the chance to bring the character to life in the new films. This Penguin is much more menacing then I could ever believe the DC universe one to ever be. He’s more ruthless, cunning, and brutal. Of all the villains Johns could have used for Earth One, Penguin was a great choice. Iconic enough to make an impression, but with enough room for adaptability to really do something new with.
Finally, there’s Bruce Wayne himself. This is his first outing as Batman–and he sucks at it. It’s amazing that he doesn’t get himself killed–something that Alfred loves to point out to him. He thinks he’s a genius with tech–until his homemade grappling hook blows up in his face. He can’t jump rooftops, he can’t fight well… He’s just a rich boy in a bat costume. His developments as Batman come from humility. When he goes to a young scientist at Wayne Hospital named Lucius Fox, it’s because he really can not figure out his own mechanism and needs the help. This isn’t like in Begins where he kind of thinks he is tricking Fox into helping him–he seriously needs it. Going back further, we also get to see Bruce as a child, of course. And wow is he exactly what you’d expect a rich little boy to be like. Gone is the young Master Wayne who was sweet and kind to everyone. Say hello to a young Bruce Wayne who actually tells a random person he bumps into on the street “I don’t have to do anything you say. My parents are the richest people in Gotham City.” Guess who this random guy turns out to be? Little Bruce, up until his parents die, is a spoiled, rude little brat. There’s also a massive change to his lineage. Bruce is the descendant of the Wayne and Arkham families. And the Arkham’s have a history of going batshit crazy. Hence little Harvey Dent being a real prick to Bruce, even after his parents died.
Johns’ writing is mostly solid, but there is enough that feels like the same old story where you kind of have to push yourself through it. But it is pretty well-told nonetheless.
The Art: DC is definitely going for a certain flavor with these Earth One productions, and the art is pretty similar to Shane Davis’ in Superman. And just like that graphic novel, the art is what’s best. Everything is handled so wonderefully, from the small moments all the way to the big fights, that it propels the story along. The designs of the characters–especially Alfred and Penguin–are unique and different. Again, Alfred being the complete overhall here. The colors are vibrant, never being too flashy (unless they needed to be) or too murky (unless they needed to be). It’s seeing art like this that makes me think that monthly comics need to be restructured. As a graphic novel, with much more time to work, the art is just cleaner. We need more of this, and I suppose that means more straight to graphic novel productions, I apologize to shop owners everywhere–I still love you guys and buy my monthlies. Sadly, one of my favorite pages here would be a huge spoiler. I’ll just say it involves two bad cops and some baseball bats and all kinds of awesome. You’ll know it when you see it.
Production: Exactly the same as Superman: Earth One, with art printed on a textured cover and a black band going down the side with title and credits. For the cover price of 22.99, it’s a nice job. Even if it is up two bucks from Superman: Earth One, it’s still cheaper than Marvel Season One titles. And I would say for the current price on Amazon for 13 and change, very much worth it.