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Despite the cover, Earth 2 Annual focuses far more on Al Pratt, the Atom of this world, than it does on the new Batman making his debut. So adjust your expectations accordingly on that score. The new Batman does appear, but what is shown of him here doesn’t tell much more than you can already see from the cover.
Fortunately, there are far worse things to do than spend time learning more about the New 52 version of Al Pratt. We’ve seen him a few times already through the course of the series, but this is the first we really get to spend time focusing on the character. I’m a sucker for military-based superheroes too, so I’ve been itching to see the spotlight turn on him.
Al’s origin leaves readers with more questions than answers, but it does so in the right ways. The story tells us what happened to him without saying how. It’s a mystery that even the characters in the book don’t know the answers to. He’s the sole survivor of a nuclear explosion that wiped out his unit yet left him unscathed. There’s obviously a strong element of survivor’s guilt running through him now, but James Robinson doesn’t overplay it for dramatic effect. It’s there, but it’s mostly just simmering. I appreciate not seeing this kind of thing not played for overdramatics for once.
I’ve seen some criticism of the Atom’s New 52 costume, but honestly, I find it to be one of the better ones in Earth 2. I love costumes that actually reflect things about the character. The Atom looks like who he is. A nuclear powered soldier superhero.
This annual issue also sneaks in the debut of Captain Steel as we learn he’s actually been around for longer than other members of the cast. Unsurprisingly, he’s a member of the World Army along with Atom and in good standing. We don’t learn much about him yet, but his interlude does set up the story for a later issue of Earth 2 more focused on him. And considering what his mission is, it sounds like it should be pretty interesting.
But Batman is what we came for, right? Let’s talk about him. As I said, he may not be the actual focus of this issue but he is in it. The red and dark gray color scheme is reminiscent of Thomas Wayne in Flashpoint and looks distinctive enough from your typical Batman costume. However, we learn very little about who this Batman actually is. Clearly, he’s a more brutal one than people are used to, given how he ends up dealing with his enemy here. But nothing is said of who is under the cowl or how he came to adopt it. The most substantial thing his scene tells us is that Steppenwolf is not the only actor from Apokolips left on the Earth 2 stage. Kanto the assassin is still around and has taken a Power Broker-esque role, empowering criminals and now calling in their favors.
You’d think that would be enough, but there are even more appearances. Mr. Miracle and Big Barda return, giving us a short but far more substantial scene than they had in the WTF debut issue. Robinson’s portrayal of them doesn’t yet seem to be any different from the typical takes on either character, but we do learn they are seeking out Batman for unknown reasons. We also get a nice look at what Gotham City is like in the New 52. It turns out the war with Darkseid left it having more in common with the Savage Land than any Gotham City readers are familiar with.
Even Sonia Sato gets a more substantial appearance than she previously has. Prior to the New 52 revamp, Sonia was on the Justice Society of America as the new Judomaster. There’s no indication that she will be taking up such an identity in Earth 2, but this issue does set up a larger role for her in the series. The point being made here is that the alliance coming together with Green Lantern, Flash and Hawkgirl isn’t going to be the only game in town. The World Army is forming its own team of Wonders too with Sonia and Atom playing major roles. As I’ve said before, Robinson really takes great advantage of Earth 2 being more of an ensemble book than a team book. This is just one example of the potential in that.
Earth 2 Annual is a bittersweet issue. It continues the strong world-building that has been happening since Earth 2 began, debuting new characters and adding to the variety that is the book’s strength. However, all of this happens under the shadow of the news James Robinson is leaving this and DC Comics at large in a few months. Robinson is setting up many interesting things for the future, but it’s now an uncertain future when we don’t yet even know what writer will be taking over for him. But if this issue is any indication of how Robinson’s final story arc will be, at least we know he will probably end his run on a strong note.