Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Review: BATMAN: EARTH ONE (OGN)
WRITER: Geoff Johns
PENCILS: Gary Frank
INKS: Jonathan Sibal
COLORS: Brad Anderson
LETTERS: Rob Leigh
COVER: Gary Frank with Brad Anderson
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3208-5; hardcover
144pp, Color, $22.99 U.S., $25.99 CAN
Unlike many comic book readers, I have not been a fan of Geoff Johns, the popular comic book writer best known for his work on Flash, Green Lantern, Superman, and JSA. I neither like nor dislike him. I have not read many comic books written by Johns, and what I have read led me to wonder why fans and fans who are critics liked him so much. By the time I got to the middle of Batman: Earth One, I said to myself, “Oh, that’s why they like him so much.”
Three years ago, DC Comics announced plans to publish new graphic novels that would retell or re-imagine the beginnings of Batman and Superman. Each character would have his own ongoing series of original graphic novels depicting his earliest moments as a superhero and crime fighter. Each graphic novel would be a stand-alone story set on a new Earth with an all-new continuity. Superman: Earth One arrived in October 2010 and was hit – mainly because it was so good.
Over a year and a half later, Batman: Earth One arrived in comic book stores on July 4, 2012, and DC Comics generously provided me with a copy for review. This original hardcover graphic novel is written by Geoff Johns, penciled by Gary Frank, inked by Jonathan Sibal, and colored by Brad Anderson. Batman Earth One is a new interpretation of a classic character and retells Batman’s origins by altering players, events, conflicts, and motivations to one degree or another.
The Gotham City of Batman: Earth One is a gritty, contemporary city. This troubled metropolis is rotten top to bottom, with corrupt politicians ruling from the top and a vile street-level criminal class at the bottom that seems to kill with impunity. Enter a masked man the press is calling “Batman.” Neither hero nor vigilante, he is just an angry young man named Bruce Wayne. Fallible, lonely, and vulnerable, Bruce is Batman and wants no help on his mission of vengeance, but he is about to learn that grit and determination are not enough in cold, cold-bloodied Gotham.
Meanwhile, Alfred Pennyworth, a former Royal Marine and friend of Bruce’s late father, Thomas Wayne, is reaching out to Bruce, and only getting his hand slapped. Detective James Gordon is so marginalized that many of his colleagues don’t even know he exists. Mayor Oswald Cobblepot, the man who dresses in a tuxedo that deserves the term, “penguin suit,” rules Gotham City, and when people get in his way, they get a birthday surprise – even if it isn’t their birthday. Searching for the real killers behind his parents’ deaths, Bruce feels unstoppable as Batman, but Gotham City is about to show him that he can be stopped and maybe even killed.
This graphic novel is something like a “Batman Family” story because what Johns has written is an ensemble piece. I don’t want to spoil this for people who have not yet read the book, so I’m going to be careful describing the characters and details. You have probably read many Batman comic books in which Bruce Wayne is like a supporting character. Sometimes, it is almost as if he really isn’t Batman; it is as if he is just another supporting player.
Here, Johns makes Bruce Wayne dominant; Batman is a guise, a vehicle for his quest for vengeance rather than being some kind of separate identity or personality. In this story, even in scenes that feature Batman, Bruce Wayne’s personality comes through the mask. I think that approach of dealing with Batman as a man rather than as a “superman” gives Johns more freedom. He can dig into the supporting characters and make them fuller characters, and not just the people who orbit Batman. Johns’ take on James Gordon is the most complex and thoughtfully fashioned version of the character since Batman: Year One (which was first published a quarter-century ago). The extent to which Johns is able to enrich supporting characters is exemplified by this novel’s snazzy Harvey Bullock, a mercurial character who constantly surprises by the things he says and does.
Now, as much as I have praised Johns, I think the true star of Batman: Earth One is artist Gary Frank. Frank gives this graphic novel its sense of being contemporary fiction, of being more modern crime thriller than superhero comic book. Frank takes the meaty, but elegant style of Brian Bolland and the photo-realistic compositions of Bryan Hitch and creates his own style, one that creates art both powerful and graceful.
In Batman: Earth One, the figure drawing has an immensely physical appearance, suggesting the power and grace of the human body. Here, the fight scenes are like a blend of Jack Kirby’s superhero art (as inked by Joe Sinnott) married to a neo-classical painting style (think Jacques-Louis David’s The Oath of the Horatii). Frank draws Batman’s costume as a costume and not as plastic armor (like in the movies). It even seems as if you can see Batman’s junk moving in his trunks.
Batman: Earth One is already on my best comics of the year list. I want a second volume… now.