“If it Ain’t Broke …”:

Revisionist Missteps in Batman: Earth One

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.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


1 Comment

  1. Great article, Gregg, you raised some salient points. I never thought about the fact that Alfred ‘needs’ to be a butler to keep Wayne Manor running before. I very much enjoyed Volume 1 of ‘Batman: Earth One’, so much so that it became the subject of my first online article for a site other than my own blog. Unfortunately I wasn’t particularly impressed with Volume Two, although I do believe the series has potential and I rather enjoy the amateurish approach of Bruce Wayne. Although I wasn’t impressed with how Geoff Johns handled the continuation of Wayne’s dalliance with Harvey Dent’s sister, I’m now very much looking forward to future appearances of this new incarnation of Two Face. Anyway, thanks for the article, and I’ve included my 3 year old review of ‘Batman: Earth One, Volume One’ below as it seems kinda relevant here. Cheers.

    “‘Batman: Earth One’ by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jonathan Sibal(inks) & Brad Anderson(Colours) is good, solid and entertaining alternate account of Batman’s origin, his world and its inhabitants. Along the way there are surprises, familiar faces in unique situations, and the inevitable promise of more to come in future installments.

    Almost gone are the billionaire zen jedi type we know as Bruce Wayne, and his very old school English Army trained medic butler, Alfred. In their place we meet an angry young (but still very rich) man and his reluctant, ex-MI6-style spook caretaker, who along with calling himself the butler out of sarcasm, appears to have been the one to train Bruce in the many ways there are to win a fight, and to stop at nothing to do so.

    Set in the first few months of the Batman’s career as an overdressed vigilante, the story follows but does not pay slavish attention to the known facts of the early life of the Batman. Orphaned outside the cinema in a childhood incident which eventually shapes and foreshadows the rest of the young mans life, he swears to become a symbol which strikes fear into the hearts of the cowardly & superstitious criminals of Gotham City, etc, etc.

    Since the events that unfold are set long before any of the Batman’s sidekicks( and other co-dependents) in the war on crime who populate the modern comics make their appearance, it is left to the nascent forms of his rogues gallery to provide some familiarity and suspense for us old timey readers. Many of the script cues and plot devices felt cinematic in execution, while Johns appears to have a lot of fun fusing different elements of the world together in order to create some new paths to cross. Intriguingly, where there is usually just lone, idealistic crusader Harvey Dent in the many previous origin tales, there is now Dent and his twin sister, who appears to have had one or two trysts with the younger Wayne. As a lifelong fan of the Dark Knight I cannot wait to see where that part of the saga goes. Although there are few comics readers who are unaware of the basics of ‘The Batman’s’ world(I heard about one once. Once.)there are many who will notice the big (and full of potential) changes in important aspects like Thomas & Martha Wayne’s’ family tree, along with the positioning of characters like The Penguin within the story.

    Writer Geoff Johns, of course, is no stranger to redefining DC’s Pantheon of Superheroes, and seems to do so as much for his own enjoyment as for readers intimately familiar, and otherwise, with the characters. Secret Origins(‘Green Lantern’, ‘superman’, ‘Justice League’)and crossover events(‘Infinite Crisis’, ‘Blackest Night’, ‘Flashpoint’) have long been Johns’ forte’, as evidenced by his sales and experience.

    As a comics reader, I have found his long runs on monthly titles ‘JSA’, ‘The Avengers’, ‘Green Lantern’ & ‘The Flash’ to be some of the best examples of graphic storytelling in the 21st Century so far, which isn’t to say he doesn’t have his detractors, although I am clearly not among them. A couple of times reading ‘Earth One’ I did notice straight lifts from other sources such as Chris Nolans’ ‘Dark Knight’ film series, but not enough to get all Alan Moore about. Pretty much all superhero legends have been built over several decades, so every time a new idea sticks it’s usually because it’s a good one in the first place. Geoff Johns is a writer who knows how to use other ideas to add to his own perfectly, without spoiling the recipe, which I think is the secret to the telling of a good superhero story. The themes of sacrifice, need for justice and lost innocence are all present and correct in ‘Batman: Earth One’, alongside a few engaging subplots such as the street rehabilitation of fame seeking Harvey Bullock, who appears here like a reality TV age version of Kevin Spacey’s glamorous ‘technical consultant’ character, Jack Vicennes from ‘LA Confidential’.

    Although there is a heck of a lot of violence and death in the story, those who have commented that this is not the Batman as created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane clearly haven’t read the early stories of the caped crusader. Along with fellow Batman greats like Jerry Robinson, Finger & Kane created an anti hero who was every bit as dark as the world he sought to protect and was as unafraid to get his hands dirty as those he sought to capture. It was later on, in the fifties and sixties, with the hysteria caused by Frederic Wertham and the resultant changes enforced by the Comics Code Authority, that the more cuddly, batshit Batman we think we know and love began to take shape.

    Meantime, the knowingly camp Sixties TV show Biffed, Bammed & Kapowed its way off the screen and into the pop culture history books to bolster the willfully wacky and wild image of the Batman in the public’s eyes. So, this may not be Batman as you picture him, but the genius of the character and his world are in their capacity for reinvention, which is as evident in ‘Batman: Earth One’ as it is in much of Frank Miller, Dennis O’ Neil or Alan Grant’s work, as well as ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, Tim Burton’s duology, or the recently completed ‘Batman: The Brave & The Bold’ cartoon show. The Batman is nothing if not adaptable.

    The artwork, too, deserves favourable mention, Geoff Johns’ frequent collaborator, Gary Frank, is as outstanding as ever. His city street, building and vehicle design work is flawless, while all faces & figures are instantly recognisable from their mainstream counterparts, even while undergoing the necessary changes to suit the storyline. It’s testament to Gary Frank’s artistic skill that, as soon as I seen Jim Gordon’s face, I totally balked at the state of the rest of him. Shabby clothes, dull eyes, defeated posture; if it wasn’t so obviously an ‘as-close-to-the-real-world-as-possible’ take on Batman I’d have thought he was possibly the Bizarro-Commissioner Gordon. Our understanding of Alfred’s place in this world, too, owes a lot to Frank’s talent for imbuing his character’s faces and eyes with heavy emotion, while the crazed need for justice, and the acknowledgement of his one in a million chance of getting it, are apparent in every single drawing of Bruce Wayne as The Batman.

    The inks and colours, by Jonathan Sibal and Brad Anderson are just right, and as good as one would expect to see in such a prestigious(and expensive!) hardback comic book. The tones and colours employed are just right to keep the story grounded and in shadow, something necessary when telling such a street level tale. Sibal has been the inker for many of Franks’ other projects for DC & Marvel, while Anderson is a new name to me, and going by this I look forwarfd to seeing his other colour work.

    So, if ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has whet your appetite for more tales of the Batman, particularly a modern and unseen take on the character akin to Nolan’s films you could really do a lot worse than to buy a copy of ‘Batman: Earth One’ “

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