Geoff Johns and Gary Frank finally get to deliver their take on a modern reimagining of Batman’s origin story with Batman: Earth One, featuring really interesting new ideas for two of Batman’s iconic cast. The story does, however, struggle along with its two most iconic characters and ultimately doesn’t stand out as one of the great retellings of Batman’s origin because of it.
Earth One started out as a great idea but has become a truly awkward thing since DC went with the New 52 reboot. Many are asking what the point of Earth One is now that the New 52 is trying to do the exact same thing. Honestly, I don’t have a good answer. I think the truth of it is that there is no point any longer but money can be made from Earth One so DC is sticking with it despite the obvious redundancy.
The stars of Batman: Earth One are actually Alfred Pennyworth and Harvey Bullock. It’s obvious when reading this that these are the two character reinventions Johns is most captivated by, and to be fair, it’s easy to see why.
It’s nothing new for Alfred to have a military background, but Johns chooses to emphasize that aspect of the character. So rather than have a typical butler with being a military badass just an interesting little bit of his history, it becomes a more defining quality of the character. This Alfred wasn’t hired to be the Waynes’ butler. He was an old friend of Thomas Wayne’s hired on to see to their security and became Bruce’s butler after the tragedy we all know happens. This is a much stronger development for the Alfred character, and it doesn’t really take anything away from him. He retains that personal connection to Bruce’s parents -- or just parent as in this case he really didn’t get to know Martha -- and that paternal connection to Bruce. But now, Alfred has an even more emotional connection to the Waynes’ death and a more tangible evolution from soldier into butler.
Now, Harvey Bullock is more of an reinvention. Where Johns mostly just emphasizes something about Alfred that was already there, he really brings something totally new to Harvey. This Harvey is a slick, Hollywood detective who has dabbled as a reality television star. He’s a charismatic man looking to make an even bigger name for himself in Gotham City, and over the course of the story, we see how Gotham has other plans for him. His is the most interesting character arc of the book, and where we leave him will be much more familiar to fans of the character. Now, do I think this is a superior take on the character? I don’t know. Honestly, I think I prefer Harvey as the formerly crooked cop looking to make good. But this really is a good concept too.
So if those are the two characters that benefit from this reimagining, who are the two that I said don’t fare as well? Unfortunately, I’m talking about Batman and James Gordon.
Before I get into what I think goes wrong with Batman here, there is a change that Johns makes that actually works really well. It turns out that Martha Wayne has a different maiden name here. Arkham. Johns takes the concept of a few family dynasties being responsible for Gotham City’s development and simplifies it down to the Waynes and the Arkhams, making Bruce a product of their union and the truest child of Gotham you could get. That’s interesting, but what I really like about this idea is that it introduces the idea of mental illness from the Arkham side of the family. Now, Bruce’s family has a history of mental instability thanks to the Arkham side. That’s pretty great. It gives us a Batman for whom being crazy is actually a very real possibility. Johns doesn’t really play on this idea very well, but the idea is at least there.
Johns goes for the same thing we got in Batman: Year One with Bruce starting out rather inexperienced, except he really doesn’t do it as well. This Batman isn’t just inexperienced. He actually rather sucks. So much of this story has Bruce being a brat, screwing up, getting hit and surviving thanks to dumb luck or the intervention of others. It’s like Johns is so focused on showing that Batman doesn’t have all his skills yet that he really neglects to depict Batman as being capable at much of anything. It also lacks of the development of Batman: Year One where we see Bruce adapt and formulate the Batman identity. Here, Bruce just starts right away with the costume and doesn’t progress very far from there, besides a brief scene stolen from Batman Begins where Bruce gets Lucius Fox to build something for him.
As for James Gordon, Johns seems to have decided that Gordon being the lone cop in Gotham with integrity wasn’t interesting enough, so he takes the integrity away. This version of Gordon has been beaten down and chooses to turn a blind eye to the crime and corruption of the city. He practically has to be dragged kicking and screaming to become the Gordon readers are more familiar with, and that is more frustrating than interesting. It means we spend most of this story with Gordon as a bad cop and a weak-willed individual and only get a glimpse of a better Gordon at the end. I get that Johns is trying to show a character arc here, but it’s a journey the character never really needed to take.
It’s not hard to see what happened with this story. Johns’ reinventions of Alfred and Bullock comes at the detriment of Batman and Gordon. Batman is portrayed as struggling so much with everything so that we can see Alfred picking him up and saving him. Gordon loses his integrity so he can parallel Bullock’s own journey and allow Bullock to be the one actually interested in solving crimes. It’s a trade-off, but it’s not one that I think is in Batman’s best interests. As much as I like what Johns does with these two characters, I don’t believe it’s worth diminishing arguably the two most important characters. Not only that but I think Johns could have managed the same reinventions without the negative effect on Batman and Gordon. He didn’t have to push his new takes on Alfred and Bullock that hard. A better balance could have been found.
Barbara Gordon also appears in this story, but it’s disappointingly just a damsel-in-distress role for her. All we get out of her is a Batgirl tease that really is shoehorned into the story and not earned by it.
The plot Johns hangs all of this on is kind of awkward but also hard to talk about without spoiling it. It revolves around Batman still trying to solve the murder of his parents. I worried about where Johns was going with this, but he does go the right way in the end. Sort of. What makes it awkward and not work so well is that he tries to have it both ways. The idea this all hinges on is whether the murder of the Waynes was a random act of crime or an orchestrated one. Staying vague, it turns out to be one but... both. Yeah.
Gary Frank does a good job on this story. His Alfred is the best thing about it and really adds to the different take on the character. Seriously, this may be my favorite Alfred of them all now. I also really like Frank’s Gordon, and his Bullock sells Johns’ take on that character well too. That said, his Batman doesn’t work as much for me. You know how Batman generally looks best when you white out and obscure his eyes? You know how Frank’s art sometimes has this tendency to overemphasize people’s eyes? ...Yeah. Now pair those two things together. It doesn’t help matters that the design for Earth One Batman’s costume is very bland. I will say at least that I am pleasantly surprised not to see Clark Kent whenever I look at Frank’s Bruce Wayne.
A big question about this story that needs to be asked is how does it rate as far as being modern reimagining of Batman’s origin. That is the purpose of Earth One, after all. Take these characters and recreate them as if they were being created today. In this regard, I don’t think Batman: Earth One earns many points. It certainly has its share of fresh ideas, but there is kind of this elephant in the room. Everyone is white. If this was honestly being produced with today’s sensibilities, the Gordons would be black. Or Bullock would be. Or they would be Hispanic. Or hell, James Gordon would have been Jane Gordon. Or Martha Wayne would have been running for mayor instead of Thomas. There is a pretty easy test whenever a comic company claims they’re doing something to be more modern and relevant. Take a quick look and see how many major roles are still being occupied by straight white men. If the answer is most or all, they’re being disingenuous.
The other question is how it stacks up against Superman: Earth One. Between the two, this definitely comes out on top as the superior product. For me, it’s not even a close contest. With things like the new interpretation of Alfred and tying Batman into the Arkham family bloodline, it does genuinely feel like Johns has taken a real look at Batman and searched out areas that could be rethought and improved. He did not look at Batman and decide it would be better if Bruce Wayne was more like Peter Parker.
I come away from Batman: Earth One with two impressions. One is that I wish this version of Alfred Pennyworth should be the primary version of the character. It really is such an enhanced take on the character. Second is that Geoff Johns and Gary Frank are good creators who are not well-suited for Batman. He’s just not the ideal character for either of them. I’ve already said how Frank’s style doesn’t mesh with Batman. With Johns, give him Aquaman, Booster Gold, Green Lantern or the Justice Society and he will work magic that redefines all the characters involved. Give him Batman, and he’ll give you an unremarkable origin story that borrows from Batman: Year One and the movies more than it explores any new or interesting ground.