Three weeks ago, while discussing the Superman: Earth One series of graphic novels, I mentioned in passing that I “didn’t care” for the Earth One Batman series. Now as far as Internet critiques go, saying I “didn’t care” for a graphic novel is like a Red Sox fan saying that trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees was a “questionable” decision. It’s also a little misleading. So let me be clear—when I read the first volume of the Earth One Batman series a couple of years ago, I hated it. It was one of those things that makes you feel slimy all over when you’re done. That’s why when I finished reading it, I immediately shelved it and never looked back.
But then a funny thing happened. The week my Superman: Earth One column appeared, I was in a bookstore and there was the second volume of the Batman series staring at me like I had somehow wounded it. If you’ve ever been rude to a door-to-door salesman and then wound up having to see the person an hour later, you know that awkward feeling I’m talking about. As I stared at poor Batman all dressed up, shiny and new in his handsome, shrink-wrapped hardback, looking at me accusingly, I couldn’t remember what I had so disliked about Volume One. So I broke down, bought Volume 2, and read both volumes back to back. And you know what?
I don’t really care for it.
But I also don’t hate it. That genteel dismissal isn’t just me being polite. I now think I have a better sense of what Geoff Johns and Gary Frank are trying to do with the series, and they have made some daring choices, which is always good. And on a visceral level, I enjoyed my actual experience of reading the books. But as a lasting contribution to the Batman mythos and as an introduction to the character for new readers, I think the series comes up short.
Johns and Frank have teamed up before, most notably on a Superman run a few years ago that I mostly enjoyed. They seemed well suited for that, with Frank’s crisp, clean line work really complementing the brightness of Superman and Metropolis. I’ve liked Frank’s artwork ever since Midnight Nation, but something about his open, clear style feels out of tune with the grime of Gotham—like Tony Bennett trying to cover Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
As for the story, Johns appears to be giving us his best revisionist take on Batman, boldly re-thinking the character and the supporting cast and making wholesale changes in an effort to make the story seem more realistic and plausible. In fact, Johns makes far more sweeping changes to the Batman mythos than J. Michael Straczynski does for Superman: Earth One. That’s the sort of gutsy approach to a familiar character that I usually admire, but in this case … no.
As we take a look at it, I’ll try to limit the spoilers to the first volume and tread lightly on the new one. Perhaps the most striking change involves Alfred. In Volume One, Johns presents Alfred as a man with a military background who is hired by Thomas Wayne to serve, not as a butler, but rather as bodyguard. At first glance, this change makes sense. Formal English butlers seem like they went out of fashion soon after the days of Downton Abbey. Besides, the new Alfred can offer combat training and strategic advice. And yet, without the traditional version of Alfred, there is no one to keep the mansion running, no one to oversee Bruce’s social obligations, and no one to ground Bruce in the real world. In simpler terms, Johns’s Batman has traded in Bruce’s primary connection to the real world and replaced him with a paramilitary sidekick who’s perfectly willing to shoot and kill people.
Another notable change involves Harvey Bullock. As depicted in Volume One, Bullock is no longer the hard-drinking, overweight, slovenly police detective. Instead, Johns fashions him as a slick, handsome, former police consultant to a popular television cop show. Is that supposed to be more realistic? Instead, the new Bullock just comes across as a highly derivative version of Kevin Spacey’s character in L.A. Confidential. Even more troubling, by the second volume, Bullock appears to have developed a drinking problem, suggesting that he is slowly transforming into the more familiar version of Bullock after all. All of which begs the question, why make the change if it’s only going to circle back around to the familiar?
Johns also heavily re-works the villains. Thus far, they seem to follow a familiar pattern. They are introduced as more reality-based versions of the familiar characters, but then they are gradually revealed to be something quite different. Take the Penguin. In Volume One, the Penguin is depicted as Gotham’s corrupt mayor—a mobster-turned-crooked-politician who is believed responsible for the Waynes’ murders—but in the end, Batman learns he was not responsible after all. Then, the Penguin is unceremoniously shot and killed. Without going into details, the handling of The Riddler and Killer Croc follows a similar bait-and-switch pattern. Neither is what he seems, and when the dust settles, they are rendered irrelevant for one reason or another.
None of these depictions leave room for development. Instead of world building, it feels like Johns is zipping through the rogue’s gallery, demystifying whichever character he pulls off a shelf, then discarding them. The whole idea of the revisionist movement was to re-think characters to make them more plausible and viable. But what Johns is doing to the villains is not sustainable. It feels more exploitative: Here’s a villain, he’s not what you think, and now he’s gone. Wasn’t that shocking?
These are the kinds of shortsighted choices that seem brave and make the momentary reading experience interesting, but in the long run they seem ill-advised. And by the end of Volume Two, Johns repeats a plot twist involving Two-Face that is almost identical to one in Straczynski’s recent Superman. I don’t know which writer had the idea first, but the repetition of it in both books feels like gross editorial negligence.
Admittedly, providing a revisionist take on Batman is hard, considering that we’ve already had a definitive revisionist Batman. Unlike Superman—a character that has always seemed in need of “fixing” ever since the Mort Weisinger era—Batman is already the poster-child, along with Miracleman, of successful revisionist superheroes. The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum all set the standard for reworking the Batman universe. In that sense, it feels like Johns is trying to fix things that aren’t broken.
This leads to perhaps the most problematic change of all. In Batman: Earth One, Johns’s Batman is, frankly, not very good at being Batman. We’ve certainly seen Batman struggle before—Batman: Year One memorably depicted the failure of his initial outing. But Johns’s Batman seems wholly unprepared for his life’s crusade. He’s not very skilled at fighting, and, most troubling, he’s not very smart. At one point Gordon has to reprimand him for disturbing the evidence of a crime scene, prompting Batman to ask Gordon for some tutorials in detective work. Gone are the famous panel montages of Bruce lifting weights and experimenting in a chemistry lab—dedicating his early life to transforming himself into Batman.
To a lesser extent, that’s true of Straczynski’s Superman as well, but somehow I think misjudgment and personal failures work better with Superman. Perhaps it’s my love of classical tragedy, but I’ve always been drawn to stories where Superman struggles. Some of the best stories—“For the Man Who Has Everything,” Hitman #34, even All-Star Superman—focus on the pain, loneliness, and difficulty that comes with being the most powerful being on Earth.
But I don’t think that’s Batman’s appeal. As everyone knows, Batman has no powers. He’s an aspirational character—the one we could all potentially be if we worked hard enough. It’s like the difference between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Astaire moved in a light, graceful, and ethereal way, so all one could do was to watch him and marvel at his movements. But Gene Kelly was the opposite. He didn’t seem naturally graceful, nor did he seem ethereal. He was earthy, muscular, and athletic, and just like Batman in those training panel montages, Kelly looked like he was doing something that all of us could do—provided we worked as hard at it as he did.
So while it’s comforting to see that a “superman” is human, it’s also comforting to see that a human can be super. But the Earth One Batman does not seem super. He may get there eventually, but then again, if the only goal is to momentarily shock the fans before ultimately giving us what we already have, then what is the point?
If it sounds like I’m being hard on these Batman books, I think it’s because they don’t feel like a true attempt to launch an out-of-continuity reboot of the character. Instead, they feel more like Elseworlds books—attempts at momentarily feeding candy to the fans before ultimately returning everything to the status quo.