The early days of Batman have been ripe fodder for new stories since the days of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's 'Year One' arc of Batman, with lucrative takes like The Long Halloween, Zero Year, and even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film series. With that in mind, it was no surprise to see Geoff Johns take a crack at Batman's origins with Batman: Earth One with his onetime Action Comics collaborator Gary Frank. Unfortunately, this unfocused second installment suffers from many of the problems of the first, as Johns and Frank work on a character that runs counter to their strengths.
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank, Jon Sibal, and Brad Anderson
Lettering by Rob Leigh
Published by DC
'Rama Rating: 4 out of 10
Set after the events of Batman: Earth One, Vol. 1, the second volume of Johns and Frank's graphic novels continues to build up Batman as a burgeoning heroic force in Gotham - even if he's still figuring out his methods when the Riddler causes mayhem.
Beyond telltale references of the death of Mayor Oswald Cobblepot in the first graphic novel, as well as Alfred now being reimagined as a curmudgeon, similar to his portrayal in the TV show Gotham, there's little homework you need to get into this book. In certain ways, there's a real Criminal Minds vibe that comes off here, as the Riddler lingers in the shadows for much of the story - indeed, it's almost a letdown when we actually do meet him, because he's so creepy as he paints his trademark question mark. When this book connects, it does well for itself, particularly when Bruce and the Riddler square off in a battle of wits on a sabotaged subway car.
Unfortunately, whereas Criminal Minds has a likable cast to drive the story forward, Bruce Wayne doesn't really energize this book. Unlike the hyper-competent ninja-detective that is able to stand side-by-side with Superman, Johns' Batman is surprisingly awkward, messing up crime scenes, totally screwing up high-speed chases, and even getting nabbed by the police. While Johns tries his best to humanize the character with a love story, it's hard to get behind Bruce as a hero when instead of cheering his successes, you're constantly thinking, 'What on Earth is this guy thinking?' Superpowered heroes have the luxury of having human foibles - it's what makes them relatable to us normal joes. But like the Christopher Nolan movies said, when you're just a man, you need to cast aside these minor weaknesses to become something more.
Additionally, Earth One's structure - without the cliffhanger chapter breaks that so many comic book writers rely on - also seems to be a struggle for Johns, as he crams in not one, but three villains into this story (with a fourth one teased at the end), ultimately giving short shrift to many of the characters' development. Part of the problem is that most readers know these characters and what's going to happen to them, so there's not much new here. The story of Harvey Dent and his twin sister, for example, feels pretty predictable from the get-go, and while Johns' Killer Croc is the most sympathetic character in the book, his about-face from villain to hero comes across as abrupt and unearned. The Riddler himself might be the biggest disappointment, as while the main theme of this story is Batman's development as a detective, we never really get much in the way of insight about the Riddler's motivations or identity.
Gary Frank, an excellent artist in his own right, is also working on a character that doesn't play to his strengths. Frank is so expressive, almost cartoony with his expressions - it worked so well with his Christopher Reeve-inspired Superman, but his Batman winds up coming across as self-conscious, looking like a cosplayer rather than an imposing Dark Knight. It's a classic case of the right artist on the wrong property - just seeing how wide Batman's eyes are kind of robs the character of a lot of his mystery and his presence. Other characters, like the Riddler, also get some off-putting designs. It's the rest of Frank's characters that look great - his Detective Bullock is probably the highlight of the book, having a layer of dirt and grime that the rest of the denizens of Gotham could definitely use.
In a lot of ways, it makes sense for DC to keep coming back to the origin of Batman - it was that same origin that redefined the company's fortunes, and perhaps it's telling that they would come back again and again, hoping to strike gold the same way they did in 1986. Unfortunately, Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 isn't going to have that same kind of instant magnetism. Those who are interested in reading more Batman stories after the mega-popular Christopher Nolan movies are going to wonder who this bumbler in a bat-suit is, and diehard fans aren't going to buy this low-tension storyline when they have Scott Snyder or the Arkham City games to electrify them. The sad thing is, Johns and Frank might be one of DC Comics' best teams - but it just so happens that their styles are not the right fit for DC's biggest icon.
Johns and Frank have already completed work on the third volume - get up to speed on the upcoming Batman: Earth One Vol. 3.