Give Geoff Johns the right character and enough room to run, and he’s capable of producing some of the most exciting work in mainstream comics. He’s proven it with Hawkman, Green Lantern, Flash and Superman, and now he tries to work the same kind of magic with this alternate origin tale for the Dark Knight. After months of hype, Batman: Earth One is finally here. So, did Johns hit that high mark once again?
When Bruce Wayne is a boy, he meets his father’s old friend Alfred, who arrives in Gotham to protect Thomas Wayne during his mayoral campaign. When something goes wrong, and Thomas and Martha Wayne end up dead in an alley, Alfred, a former soldier saved by Thomas Wayne, takes on the role of Bruce’s butler and protector. The young orphan grows up angry, bent on vengeance, and adopts the mantle of Batman to get to the bottom of his parents’ death. In a corrupt Gotham where Oswald Cobblepot is mayor and Detective Jim Gordon must obey the rules of organized crime in the city, Batman sets out to break the system and find his parents’ killer, and Alfred sets out to keep him alive.
Batman: Earth One has plenty of action, but it’s clear from page one that hero vs. villain brawls aren’t what Johns is interested in here. This is an ambitious character study, a deep dive down into the psyche of young Bruce Wayne as he struggles not just to fulfill his quest for vengeance, but to find some kind of identity in the mantle he’s so aggressively adopted. Alfred, a much more proactive man than the butler we know and love, is a big part of that. In many ways he’s responsible for whipping Bruce into shape, psychologically as well as physically. While a great many (very strong) Batman origin stories over the years have focused on the solitary aspects of Bruce Wayne’s ascension to legend, Johns throws that aside here to show us a Batman flailing, crippled by emotion and unsure of his footing, then gives him a foil and a mentor to show him the way. It’s a daring way to tell the story, but for all of us who’ve always loved the essential but clearly background role Alfred plays in the Batman mythos, it’s a welcome and powerful variation.
Gary Frank’s stunning art only adds to the emotional punch of what Johns is after. This is a stripped down, very limited Batman, and Frank portrays that both clearly and beautifully. This Gotham City doesn’t have the same kind of epic, whimsical majesty of many of the classic Batman stories, but in its place is a kind of elegant practicality, a clear sense of a city that’s long been thought lost to the crime lords. When Batman enters it he seems out of place, awkward and clumsy and lost. By the end he’s integrated, and though it’s Johns who steers the ship in that direction, it’s Frank who makes us believe it.
Batman: Earth One is a graphic novel worth the wait. It’s a rather brave attempt at giving us a Batman story that doesn’t focus on an epic, city-wide crisis. Like Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One before it, it’s a tale of pure human drive, a bold re-imagining of Batman as a kid with white hot purpose burning in his heart. Take that kind of flame, give it to two of the best creators in comics, and you’ve got what’s going to become an essential Batman story.