Gotham City is a big place. Maybe too big. At the very least, too big for one graphic novel like Batman: Earth One.
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Jonathan Sibal and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
That's the lesson I picked up from the long-awaited Batman: Earth One, a gorgeous book that nevertheless bites off more than it can chew. The thing is, Geoff Johns throws together enough decent ideas to fill six graphic novels, but having them all together leads to a scattered, unfocused read.
For my money, the most interesting addition Johns has brought to the mythos is the idea of legacy — that Bruce isn't just the scion of the Wayne dynasty, but a second, more sinister family that you'll recognize instantly. That said, Johns only hints at that greater insight to Batman, either for fear of retreading themes from his old Teen Titans days or just to build up the world around Bruce.
That's where things get out of control.
Establishing Alfred Pennyworth as a badass or Oswald Cobblepot as a true power player would have been plenty. Heck, Johns's twist on Jim Gordon — and his daughter Barbara, who is far and away the most endearing character in the entire book — is different enough to justify your attention. But because Johns has to flit from plot point to plot point, you never really stick around with anyone long enough to get to know them.
There are two major victims of this treatment, as well: the villain of the piece, and Batman himself. The villain is about as bland as they go, with little motivation to define the "true evil" that may possess Gotham. (That would have been an interesting theme in general — is Gotham just insane, or is there something truly deliberate and evil at work?) Batman, meanwhile, starts out green and... kind of stays that way, to be honest. If you're actually satisfied with the way one villain gets defeated, well, you're easier on this Dark Knight than I'd ever be.
But the thing that gives this book its greatest edge? Artist Gary Frank. Reading this book made me realize just how much I missed Frank in DC's 'New 52,' where he probably could have given the relaunched Superman a real shot in the arm. Frank is just a gorgeous storyteller — the page where Bruce sits in the street after his parents die, for example, has a haunting distance to it, cutting in and out with black panels as if we too were in shock.
Batman: Earth One Volume 1 preview
Frank also gives Jim Gordon's subplot a needed jolt, particularly with a gleefully wicked splash page where he bites back against the scum of Gotham. And it goes without saying that Frank makes Barbara so cute and endearing that you're practically begging him to draw Batgirl: Earth One next.
Ambition is never a crime in the comics industry, and to be honest, I wish more books failed because they were too ambitious rather than the other way around. Batman: Earth One is one of those books. There's plenty of material to work with, and there's a ton of setup for future storylines. But what this book doesn't do is ultimately too damaging to ignore: for all its enthusiastic world-building, it fails to set up an exciting alternative in characterization to either the current Batman books or the epic Batman movies.
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