It’s barely exaggerating to say that everyone knows Batman’s origin story by now. It’s one of those universal constants, as ingrained in popular culture as Mickey Mouse and the Coke logo. It’s easy to sum up: As a kid, Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents, and subsequently dedicated his life towards eradicating crime. And because criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot, he decided to do it while dressed as a giant bat.
And yet for as many times as the story’s been told, in comics and books, film and radio and on television and on stage and shaved into the fur of slow-moving long-haired cats, people keep trying to find new ways to interpret the mythos, to say something new and profound. Bruce Wayne and Batman change with the times, and in Batman: Earth One, we have the latest attempt to reinvent the wheel, to create an all-new Batman legend. A younger, hipper, edgier version, if you will. But writer Geoff Johns—currently one of the major movers and shakers at DC Comics, renowned for his ability to breathe new life into the classics such as Green Lantern and Aquaman—takes the opportunity to make more than a few tweaks. The result?
The core of the story remains the same. Thomas and Martha Wayne, two of the richest, most influential people in Gotham City, are tragically gunned down while exiting the theatre one night, and their son Bruce is the only witness. Traumatized by the experience, raised by loyal family friend and retainer Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce eventually dons the dark costume of the Batman, and sets forth to right wrongs and fight injustice in an increasingly corrupt city.
But there are small, subtle, intriguing changes. In this continuity, Martha Wayne was born Martha Arkham—a familiar name for long-time fans, and one that has an ominous resonance. Alfred Pennyworth is a grizzled, battle-hardened ex-special forces soldier with a limp, more bodyguard than butler. Lucius Fox, instead of being the wise old advisor played by Morgan Freeman, is a scrappy young inventor. James Gordon, still a cop, is beaten down and demoralized, apparently as corrupt as the city he serves and protects. And the sharp new cop on the scene is Harvey Bullock, a self-aggrandizing former television personality. Worst of all? Gotham City’s mayor is Oswald Cobblepot, resembling Richard Nixon more than either Danny DeVito or Burgess Meredith. Familiar faces, but unsettlingly different.
The rest of the story is fairly straightforward, as far as these things go. Bruce Wayne wants to find his parents’ killer, and is convinced that their deaths tie into the underlying corruption that’s seeped into every pore of the city, from the street criminals on up to the mayor’s office. Harvey Bullock wants to do a little cold case solving as well, but for fame and glory. Alfred believes that Bruce is too soft for the job, and needs to approach it like a soldier, not a vigilante. Naturally, it gets messy. This is, after all, an origin story, and Batman has a lot of trying and failing to do. In his first appearance in costume, his cable-gun malfunctions and he ends up landing on a pile of trash in an alley, before dragging himself home, battered and bruised. He makes mistakes, is foolhardy and bullheaded, stubborn and angry. Oh, is he angry. But he’s bound and determined to get things done.
Oddly for a Batman story, this particular one steers clear of the usual costumed crazies and super villains who plague his existence. Apart from Mayor Cobblepot, we only catch glimpses of the people who will one day become his enemies. Harvey Dent is but a cameo, Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane just a name. There’s absolutely no sign of the Joker, or Catwoman, or Calendar Man, or anyone else. Well, save for a surprise at the very end, a teaser for future installments. In fact, the city itself is Batman’s worst enemy here, a dark and treacherous place full of looming shadows and dirty secrets. The closest thing we have to a traditional villain is a serial killer named Birthday Boy, a looming figure with a taste for killing young women, and he’s not exactly going to go down in history as a keeper.
This is definitely an edgier, angrier Batman, born out of modern sensibilities. Despite this being a superhero book, things feel more realistic, more down-to-Earth, with a lack of overtly fantastic elements. Artist Gary Frank pours himself into bringing this world to life, painstakingly detailing every seam and crease and shadow on Batman’s uniform and making every character unique and fully fleshed-out. Heck, you can almost count the hair in Cobblepot’s eyebrows. Harvey Bullock starts off as a clean-cut golden boy, but as Gotham changes him, you can almost watch his slow evolution into the coffee-swilling, donut-munching slob readers know and love. Barbara Gordon is young and beautiful, but also real in a girl-next-door way. For a project steeped in naturalism and realism, Frank’s the perfect artist, finding that balance between style and substance. His Gotham is much like the characters: the sort of place you can imagine visiting, but not sure you’d actually want to see at the wrong time of day. Gritty, dark, foreboding, possessed of a dichotomy between the dirty alleys and the glittering skyscrapers.
Is this a perfect Batman story? Of course not. That’s a hard thing to define. Is it a great story? Possibly. I really don’t see Earth One going down in history as a definitive volume like The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. While it’s perfectly adequate as an alternate universe Batman story, much like the Elseworlds which recast Batman as a pirate, a vampire, a Green Lantern, or a cowboy, it doesn’t have that spark of brilliance which would elevate it above its peers. Recasting Alfred as a one-legged tough guy with a shotgun and the Penguin as the mayor doesn’t exactly reinvent the franchise, after all. This is a great way to give the concept a soft reboot, to tell new stories unbound by continuity and cast bloat—no Robin in sight yet!—and to test the waters for possible expansion later on, and it comes out at the perfect time to appeal to fans of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, but in the end, it’s really just another Batman story. A very well done version, mind you, as might be expected from such a top-notch creative team, but in the end, I think they played it a little too safe. Hopefully, future installments will take advantage of the wide-open playing field and really go wild with the possibilities. As a result, it’s easy to recommend this as a Batman story but hard to recommend it as a hardcover graphic novel. I leave it to you to decide how much a story like this is worth to you.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.