I'll be honest with you: I've not been able to keep up with the various Bat-related monthlies. I've heard good things about most of them, but frankly it's just hard for me to get every issue and stay on track. I've been craving a book that can get me on the ground level -- and present a Batman that I can relate to today.
The Caped Crusader from the new graphic novel "Batman Earth One" is this generation's Batman, in a way that goes deeper than the movies or the current comics. Writer Geoff Johns provides new details about the hero's origins that subtly -- but ultimately, significantly -- changes things up. But our heroes need that sort of evolution. And perhaps sometimes the only way to do so is to start at the beginning.
The book takes us from Bruce Wayne's first, ill-fated go at superheroics, flashes back to the murder of his parents, then catapults into a dark conspiracy involving Mayor Penguin and a bag-faced serial killer. But it is the the cast of supporting characters -- including James Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and a rather badass Alfred -- that really provide the narrative with the robust and textured quality that shifts "Batman Earth One" from merely "OK for a comic" to great.
Take the case of Bullock, originally a beer-bellied lout of a detective many may remember from "Batman The Animated Series." At first glance, it seems like Johns has completely rebooted this character into a handsome and trim ex-TV Host. He's also a complete jerk, a seeming lightweight and dilettante. But Bullock's journey through the story reveals a far more complex character. His loss of innocence not only mirrors that of a young Bruce Wayne, but is one that we as readers can more readily relate to. By the end of the book, it is very likely Bullock will pack on the pounds and develop physically -- and emotionally -- into the character we originally remembered. And that's really genius.
I am also currently finishing up the novel "Wayne Of Gotham," recently released by Harper Collins. Between that book and "Batman Earth One," I am definitely noticing trends that will most likely become fixtures in the Bat-Universe's most current incarnation. Among those are a far more physically active (and secretive) Alfred -- doing away with the notion that he is simply a "faithful butler" -- and assigning a dark "sins of the father" type taint to Wayne's parents. It is the particularly the latter development that might be controversial with fans, shattering their image of Thomas and Martha Wayne as almost mythically-perfect and innocent martyrs.
But I think the idea of "innocence lost" is not only key to "Batman Earth One," but to the journey of the Johns comics oeuvre. He started out writing relatively sunny runs in "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E.," "The Flash," and "Teen Titans," only to segue into far darker material such as "Blackest Night." His current, rather meta, story arc in "Justice League" is about a writer who first idolized the team, then wanted to destroy them, and "Batman Earth One" is just awash in a sense of loss and betrayal. In a key scene, Alfred schools Bruce Wayne on the art of fighting, telling him:
"It's everyone for themselves in this town. In this world. You can't do it -- because you aren't willing to do everything you're going to have to. You aren't willing to sink down to Gotham's level."
This isn't just about capes and tights. This is stuff that, like the best of fiction, goes beyond the parameters of its particular genre.
Also: the Penguin, as drawn by the book's artist Gary Frank, looks like Richard Nixon. Read into that what you like.
With an intelligent story by Johns and gorgeous art by Frank, "Batman Earth One" is the perfect read both for Bat-fans and casual readers alike. My only criticism would be that I'm not sure where these characters fit into the overall Batman "continuity." But with various movie, TV and videogame adaptations -- and the rise of a digital comics world where every storyline is, in a sense, "new" -- I'm not sure if continuity is really that important anymore. Maybe being "slaves" to continuity has strangled mainstream comics somewhat, previously preventing fresh takes like this to come out.
"Batman Earth One" hits stores today.