They say the art of “good” criticism — be it film, literary, or what have you — is to never give away your opinion right off the bat. They also say that rules are made to be broken, and as I’m feeling a bit rebellious today, I’ll just come right out and say it — I’m not sure what the point of DC Comics’ new Batman : Earth One hardcover graphic novel really is.
I mean, I get that the whole Earth One line is supposed to be DC’s approximation of Marvel’s Ultimate “universe,” the goal of which is to prime the company’s economic gas pump by re-introducing familiar characters in new, “present-day” settings, thereby (theoretically) attracting new readers to Batman or whatever other franchise we might be talking about who would otherwise be frightened off — understandably so — by 50-plus years of continuity and backstory. But wasn’t that also, purportedly at least, the goal behind the entire “New 52″ relaunch a few months back? I’ll grant you that the Earth One (and by the way, back in the ancient mists of time when I was actually young, “Earth One” was the “main” Earth on which all the DC “present-day” stories were happening, and “Earth Two” was where all the “old time” heroes of the Golden Age lived. There were any number of “multiple Earths,” and then DC imploded their whole “multiverse” in the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series and pared it all down to one single fictional “universe.” I understand that they brought the “multiverse” concept back a couple years ago in their Infinite Crisis book, but I guess the universe where the regular monthly DC books take place is not the “Earth One” universe, nor is it “Earth Two,” since there’s a specific DC title relating to that parallel reality. Maybe the “main universe” Earth is “Earth 3,” or “Earth Prime” or “Earth 27″ — frankly, I have no idea) thing was already well into the pipeline by that point , but doesn’t that still make one or the other rather, you know — redundant? Besides, if one wants to jump into the Batman world fresh, there’s also been a fairly recent hardcover reissue of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s superb Batman : Year One, in a so-called “deluxe edition,” no less, that’s still readily available. All of which leads me to believe that readers looking for a good “jumping-on” point for the Batman comics would actually walk away more confused than ever about exactly where to begin once they see the plethora of supposedly “good places to start” that are out there.
At any rate, for what it’s worth, DC are certainly marketing this new book, written by current “hot property” writer Geoff Johns, pencilled by current “hot property” penciller Gary Frank, and inked by current “hot property” inker Jonathan Sibal as, at the very least, one of the really good places for newcomers to begin exploring the adventures of the Caped Crusader on the printed page. But it’s not where I’d choose to start off.
Don’t get me wrong — the art is absolutely gorgeous, apart from Frank apparently deciding to model Bruce Wayne’s facial features upon Tom Cruise. Frank has a hyper-realistic, highly-detailed style that does lend an air of “reality” to the proceedings, and Sibal’s inks are meticulous and quite rich. Colorist Brad Anderson deserves a nod here, as well, for his spot-on-perfect-in-most-instances color palette that provides a lot of welcome variation but maintains, by and large, a properly somber feel throughout. The art may be a little stiff at times, particularly during the action sequences, the panels of which feel as if they’re designed to be viewed individually rather than in any type of flowing sequential order, but it’s all so damn painstakingly defined and flawlessly rendered that it’s hard to quibble.
The problem here, then, is most certainly not the art — it’s the story. Simply put, Johns shoots his entire creative wad with the tinkering he does around the edges of the Batman “legend,” none of which makes a damn bit of difference in the end, and some of which, like the idea of the villainous Penguin as mayor of Gotham City, have already been tried elsewhere ( inTim Burton’s Batman Returns, in case you’d forgotten, which you probably hadn’t. Yeah, okay, he was only running for the office in that film, but still — the idea was out there). Apart from that, we’ve got is a series of what are supposedly “nifty little touches,” like making Alfred some type of ex-Marine/mercenary, Jim Gordon being a crooked cop, Harvey Bullock being a suave “reality” TV star, etc. that are shoehorned into a limp story about how Mayor Cobblepot is keeping a stranglehold on the city by employing a psychotic, ‘roided-out serial killer called — I kid you not — “The Birthday Boy,” to whom he happily sacrifices the daughters of the rich and powerful if they ever threaten to get out of line. Hey, it’s that’s one way to keep the big-money campaign contributors on your side, I guess. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory angle uncomfortably forced into the story of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents because the elder Wayne was running against Cobblepot for mayor, but don’t worry — it all comes to naught. As does the story itself, which just leaves us set up for a sequel at the end with a series of dangling plot threads littering the landscape, none of which are particularly interesting. If Johns had put half as much effort into constructing an involving piece of drama here as he did with tweaking the incidental details, then maybe the inevitable Earth One : Part Two would be something I’d be looking forward to, but as it is, I’m hardly holding my breath.
I guess it’s kinda cool, in a fan-geeky way, to see a book where Batman fucks up on the job a lot, wears combat boots, punches out (non-)Commissioner Gordon, and has a costume that actually shows his eyes, but if you’re not a hopeless devotee of Dark Knight minutiae, it’s hard to see how this thing could hold much appeal, apart from the gorgeously-rendered visuals. In short, Earth One is no Year One, and casual or completely “green” Batman readers would probably find Miller and Mazzuchelli’s seminal work a much more rewarding and, frankly, timeless take on the origins, motivations, and earliest exploits of everyone’s favorite masked billionaire vigilante.