I think I need a break from constantly posting reviews that are prefixed by something in brackets. The New 52 has reached something of a nadir for releases in my mind right now – with the possible exception of the new Batman and Robin, which I’ve acquired but have yet to read – until the early August hits of Action Comics and Deathstroke. So while I procrastinate from writing real material for my thesis – or reviews for June’s Red Lanterns and Green Arrow releases – let’s look at something a little different: more Goddamn Batman.
Now I know I’m quite biased when it comes to my favourite superheroes and teams (being Bats, Green Lantern, X-Men, Iron Man etc) but if my Faces of Death review did anything it was prove that I’m not above slamming one of their books if it turns out to be shittier than a house with faulty bathroom plumbing. Since it was the most recent Bat-book I experienced I found myself a little jaded when I came across Batman: Earth One, much the same way a chocoholic might be wary and depressed when approaching fresh brownies after their first WeightWatchers meeting. Consequently – and also backed up by my general dislike of most elseworld/parallel universe interpretations of well-known superheroes – I was fully prepared for Earth One to suck worse than a malfunctioning Dyson.
In defiance of all my naythinking, it did the exact opposite. Batman: Earth One is not only one of the most solid graphic novels I’ve read this year, it’s one of the most solid graphic novels I’ve read ever.
The story takes place on Earth-1, shockingly, and follows a reimagined genesis of everyone’s favourite caped crusader in a Gotham City still rife with murder, bent cops and apparently-cavernous alcohol stores. The differences between this parallel world and the Prime equivalent are subtle but nonetheless present – while the salient elements remain (the Waynes are shot and killed, Bruce is cared for by Alfred) the nuances about the characters have been altered in a way that makes them fresh without moving too far away from the original template.
The best example I can come up with is Harvey Bullock; in our present-day universe he’s a fat, slightly-drunk buddy of Commissioner Gordon who has a knack for one-liners and a penchant for still being able to slug the crap out of someone if they cross him. In Earth One he’s a slim, muscled hunk from TV with a very Hollywood-influenced take on what crime actually consists of and a stream of one-liners to go with it – almost all of which are ripped-off cliches from the kind of television that makes Magnum PI look like The Lord of the Rings in terms of dialogue.
There are various other changes that are no less unwelcome as well; Gordon is a slightly-bent cop, the Penguin is an implied rapist with slightly better looks than his modern predecessor, and Lucius Fox is a teen prodigy with a great ability to untangle spools of Bat-wire at a moment’s notice. The interactions between Bruce and Alfred are different too; instead of the latter supporting and fathering the former, the two of them seem to come to loggerheads frequently and even engage in a bit of very intense “sparring” which ends rather brutally. They do end up coming to an understanding with each other, though, so as with the above differences it’s a change that’s not too far away from the familiar.
The story seems to take a bit of a back seat for a large portion of the story, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; something Earth One does quite well is expand upon and flesh out the setting and supporting players, making each of them (apart from the bad guys) genuinely sympathetic and interesting. Even Hollywood ass Bullock has his sympathetic moments, especially during the story’s climax which involves a rather disconcerting room underneath a rather disconcerting house featuring a number of rather disconcerting elements that make Bullock (and almost myself) want to retch in disgust. His final scene in the liquor store (which I swear is the size of Moria by the look of it) just left me going “Awwww,” in a sad, watching-a-puppy-die kind of way.
While the important players are rather well-detailed, the villains on the whole are a little neglected. The worst victim is new roidasaurus Birthday Boy, a professional assassin employed by Penguin to do…something to little girls involving knives and a lot of implied rape. He’s never really fleshed out besides being as single-minded as a sack of potatoes and having enough muscles to presumably craft his own Eve from the leftovers, and while his defeat is satisfying (and inevitable – come on, it ain’t a spoiler) it wasn’t as fulfilling to me as the way villains like the cannibals from The Walking Dead or the Hangman from Batman: Dark Victory were dispatched over the course of their short stories. A bit of elucidation on his motivations and such would’ve helped a bit, but I guess he wasn’t really the main villainous focus here.
On a related note, the defeat of the actual main villain (being the Penguin) was a humungous F&*% YEAH! moment for me when it happened; while I knew Penguin would obviously be defeated, the actual method was really goddamn awesome. Props to Geoff Johns for putting that twist in.
The artwork, by Gary Frank, was nice – nothing too explosive or rubbishy either way. The tones and colours were beautifully fleshed out, but on the whole it felt somewhat utilitarian; it certainly wasn’t bad at all, but it wasn’t there to draw the same attention in tandem with the story the way Batwoman and The Black Mirror‘s artworks did. I did like the faint inspirations to Earth-1 Bats’ suit that seemed to be taken from David Finch’s Batman Incorporated design, though. Makes me glad that not everyone on DC’s writing team is ignoring the impact of Morrison’s stories on the universe at large.
The dialogue is quite well-written, and delivers the usual Geoff Johns level of quality writing. It didn’t quite reach the heights he did in Justice League with the Avengers-esque influence of awkward camaraderie but was still quite enjoyable. I did like imagining former-Royal Marine Alfred’s lines delivered similar to a mashup of Sean Connery and Liam Neeson, given his characterisation as an ass-kicking former soldier with a rockin’ goatee and no shortage of awesomeness. Plus Penguin’s lines – while they were comparatively few – were genuinely creepy, and made him an effectual villain rather than the usual squawking ball of cellulite we’re used to.
As its own book, Batman: Earth One stands proud and tall as one of the defining examples of parallel universe graphic novelisation I’ve ever experienced. It was a fun, enjoyable ride with cerebral characters, enticing artwork and a number of very welcome changes to the usual Batman status quo that worked crazy-well with the story’s place in another world.
What waters my enthusiasm a little is knowing that this is the second Earth One story to come out, being nearly two years after the first of Superman: Earth One in 2010. I’m sincerely hoping Johns doesn’t give us that long a wait until Volume Two (which he’s confirmed he’s working on already) because there is a lot of potential on display for making it one of the biggest and most ingrained examples of Batman fiction in the entire DC canon.
Plus, I wanna see Earth One Alfred go nutso on another villain like that. I mean…damn.
BEST QUOTE: “You can’t fight a corrupt mayor and his goons with a tangled spool of wire.” – Alfred Pennyworth