Revamping the Bat is serious business. Unlike Superman, who arguably doesn’t have a definitive modern origin story, any re-imagining of the Caped Crusader’s beginnings is automatically pitted against Batman: Year One. Rather than telling an origin tale to compete with Frank Miller’s classic, however, Green Lantern mastermind Geoff Johns instead uses Earth One to tie together disparate elements within Batman’s DNA in order to portray Bruce Wayne as a more human, weaker Dark Knight, and in doing so gives us the freshest take on the character in over a decade.
Earth One’s biggest shift from regular continuity is casting Alfred as a war veteran who fought alongside Thomas Wayne rather than the posh, atypical butler we’re used to. It initially seems gimmicky, and it’s the hardest change to swallow, along with the idea that Batman is still at the stage where he’s making mistakes – yet persevere past this initial doubt, and Earth One begins to ask the right questions of the purist in you.
Why shouldn’t Batman’s world be re-examined in this way, and when was the last time Bruce Wayne was something other than the perfect detective? Examining those early cracks in his obsessed psyche proves to be the right choice, as we seriously question whether he’s ready for the trouble he finds himself in. This is a highly dangerous Gotham, overwhelmed by crime to the point where Jim Gordon has almost given up on enforcing the law. Criminals hold the city hostage in a way we’ve never seen before, and it feels very real, with Johns drawing links between possible corruption at the town hall – where Mayor Cobblepot rules the roost – and the death of the Waynes, which is used as a watermark for how rotten Gotham has become. It’s surprisingly emotional for a Batman story; Bruce is consumed by his parents’ murder to the point where it makes him vulnerable in his masked persona, a twist on the present continuity where it lends him strength.
Artist Gary Frank is a perfect match, making Gotham and its inhabitants as realistic as possible – we can see Batman’s eyes under the cowl, which initially seems incidental, but is plainly used to expose how human he is. It’s a beautiful touch, and this modern vision of Gotham frequently demonstrates that he’s among the strongest superhero artists of his generation.
Some of the initial novelty is in seeing how Johns has reinterpreted certain characters (Gordon’s partner Harvey Bullock is a failed TV cop personality, for example), yet he never overworks the mythology, hitting great character beats and proving that his method of storytelling is well-suited to the graphic novel format. Also – and label this firmly as speculation – we’re pretty convinced a character that will become the Joker is hiding in plain sight in Earth One – see if you pick up on that vibe, too.
This isn’t a definitive new take on Batman, but it is a more exciting interpretation of the character than Superman: Earth One offered the Man of Steel. It’s a bold twist on the fundamentals of the Dark Knight, with Johns once again performing his smart balancing act of courting new readers, who will no doubt be on a Batman high after The Dark Knight Rises, and those who permanently live in his world. There doesn’t seem to be a single DC character that Johns and Frank can’t get right, and in Batman: Earth One they’ve succeeded with the most airtight icon of them all.
Images courtesy of DC Entertainment.