Batman: Earth One: Johns and Frank Retrofit the Dark Knight for the Real World


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Just when you thought you knew Bruce Wayne (and Alfred!), Earth One presents a different spin on the origin of the Caped Crusader.

Despite its title, there’s no way to be certain which permutation of the DC multiverse the publisher’s Earth One books will eventually occupy or if a multiverse indeed exists post-Flashpoint (although the ill-conceived Earth 2 series would seem to suggest at least some vestige of the old DCUs still exist) and in the case of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s masterful Batman entry, I would suggest it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, this is a wonderfully realized reinterpretation of one of comics’ most sacred origin stories. At long last, this is a high profile book that deserves the hype.

Never mind the Avengers, DC and the WB would have us believe this is the summer of the Bat. Last month witnessed the rebirth of Batman Incorporated, by the inimitable Grant Morrison, a cleverly-told snapshot of Bruce Wayne’s ultimate plan for his crusade on crime. This month, just in time for the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s conclusion of his brilliantly streamlined screen interpretation of the legend of the Batman, The Dark Knight Rises, Johns and Frank remind us all of how elegantly clear, straightforward, and brutally honest Wayne’s original quest really was. Before he surrounded himself with gadgets, sidekicks, and beautiful femme fatales, Batman was simply an angry young man who refused to accept the loss of his beloved parents.

In the beginning, Bruce Wayne’s quest was one of vengeance, pure and simple. Decades of character development, a couple of sabbaticals (come on, you didn’t really think Darkseid offed him, did you?), and reams of psychoanalytical cock-and-bull later and Batman’s governing motivation has evolved into Gotham’s Dark Knight protector, a near-mythical force of nature, who is always one step ahead of his adversaries and colleagues alike. A remarkable passage from the Morrison-era JLA Secret Files suggests Wayne’s real motivation is preventing others from feeling the same loss he experienced when he witnessed the murder of his parents. This struck me as a stunning observation for its time and perhaps one of the finest examples of how the long shadow of the Bat has been lifted to reveal more than just a guilt-ridden billionaire playboy over the last seventy-plus years.

What we have in Earth One doesn’t necessarily discount previous creators’ interpretation of the character but it does distill the core premises of Batman’s quest down to its base elements. Johns and Frank do a commendable job of not only reimagining Wayne’s transformation into the Dark Knight avenger in a gritty, modern setting, they infuse their story with atmosphere and emotion and from the outset capture their audience’s imaginations with wonderful character beats and rich visual storytelling. From Wayne’s disastrous pursuit of a dirty cop in the book’s opening pages to his final assault on the true culprit behind his parents' murders, this is a Batman the likes of which we’ve never seen before and one in which we will have no trouble believing in.

As he’s demonstrated in the past in books such as JSA, Johns is a master at whittling away decades of editorial flotsam to reveal the true motivations of long-standing characters with convoluted mythologies. His work weaving Hawkman’s fragmented history (or should that be histories?) into a consistent, sensible origin should have garnered the man a sainthood, for Pete’s sake!

In Batman: Earth One we see a Geoff Johns at the height of his creative powers. A career spent repositioning old properties for a new generation – be it Sandy the Golden Boy or Hal Jordan – culminates in Johns’ exploration of one of DC’s most precious icons. Gone for the moment is the CCO’s hat. What fans are treated to in Earth One is Johns the writer and creator at his undistracted best. Even as he introduces shocking new versions of beloved favorites and lays the foundations for what we eventually all know will come to pass, Johns’ defining strength still lies in his ability to choose the most telling and poignant emotional beats possible. It may be really super-cool that Alfred is a kick-ass former SAS operative but what’s really the cat’s ass is how he schools Bruce Wayne in a fistfight for a few precious beats.

Turning in some of the strongest pages of his career, Gary Frank cements his status as one of the best mainstream superhero artists in the history of the medium with his work on Earth One. His clean linework and masterful spotting of the blacks compliments Johns’ intensely paced, emotionally-charged script perfectly. Frank’s panels ooze texture and emotion, while refraining from a popular trend towards experimentalism seen in past Batman OGNs that sometimes serves to muddy the reading experience with sloppy painting and poor page construction. There’s none of that in Frank’s work.

Earth One is a straight-ahead look at what would have happened had Bruce Wayne lived in the so-called real world and Frank’s clean, detailed style allows Johns to explore the ramifications of that mandate to its utmost potential without sacrificing the insight and emotion typical of his writing. Although probably not one’s first choice of seminal Batman artist before his work on Earth One, Frank should be at or near the top of everyone’s list afterwards.

A few weeks ago, in another column dedicated to a Bat-book, I asked whether or not we need another Batman story. When taking into account the sheer number of brilliant stories featuring the origins of Bruce Wayne’s quest, this question becomes even more important when considering Batman: Earth One. I mean really, didn’t Frank Miller put this particular baby to rest in Year One?

What sets this book apart from past examinations of Batman’s origin is its freedom from established continuity. Without the shackles of a shared universe, Johns and Frank have accomplished what 99% of the comic-buying market has been screaming for from DC for years: a well-crafted, self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Batman: Earth One, Geoff Johns (W), Gary Frank (A).DC Comics, Hardcover OGN, $22.99. On sale July 4, 2012.

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