Lately I’ve been trying to get into reading more comic books. Yeah, mostly graphic novels but also some superhero stuff. Because when I was a kid, I never really read much of that stuff, apart from the occasional Phantom comic. Certainly, I had read a couple of Batman one-offs, but never anything extended.
So I decided to plunge back into the world of rich guy vigilantism with Geoff Johns’ reinvention of the caped crusader’s origins – and man, was I glad I did.
I suppose there’s a dichotomy in how Batman is presented. He’s either a colourful comic-book character (the sort that Adam West’s TV turn typifies) or a GRIMDARK MOTHERFUCKER as seen in the Nolan movies, or in Frank Miller’s version of the guy. Lately, there’s pretty much an aversion towards showing Batman as being anything less than a capable, almost superhuman dude that is never caught short by routine.
That’s not the case here. This is the story of how Bruce became the Bat, and he really fuckin’ sucks at crimefighting, at least initially.
See what I mean? Shit doesn’t work. He misjudges ledges. He gets poleaxed because he doesn’t check his blind spots. He breaks through windows into mayoral parties for fuck’s sake.
(He also punches out Jim Gordon at their first meeting, which is perhaps not the most auspicious of beginnings.)
Johns’ tweaks to the origin story might piss off purists, but they’re interesting: we see the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne as something that – while possibly politically motivated – is laid at Bruce’s feet. There’s a change to canon too in Martha Wayne’s maiden name: here, she’s originally an Arkham, foregrounding a familial strain of madness as a contributor (alongside some Japanese armour) to Bruce’s journey from arsehole to avatar.
Familiar characters abound. Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot is retooled as a corrupt politico, and Jim Gordon is presented as a man ruined (as Wayne is) by guilt: he lets thugs do their thing – at least in the book’s opening stages – because he’s terrified of what would happen to his daughter otherwise. Gotham is cruel and venal, and it’s highlighted by the commentary of perhaps the most changed character in this take on the story – Alfred Pennyworth. Rather than a Jeeves character, he’s a former Wayne comrade in arms.
And he’s a fuckin’ arsekicker.
Alfred’s character here offers counsel, just as he does in other versions, but here he does so with the odd elbow and dose of combat experience. As the unlikely guardian of the orphaned Bruce, he assumes the mantle of butler because he can’t bear to tell him the truth: improvisation is better than gripping with the responsibility. But he’s there, and he’ll help, even if Bruce won’t listen.
The art in Earth One is clear, with the requisite amount of Gotham shadow. The tones are muted, but the lines are strong – and we see Batman’s eyes a lot of the time, something which seems to become less important the more gnomic and exceptional he becomes at his job. At this point, he’s still a young man coming to grips with the currents of vengeance, and he’s visibly shocked and scared by what happens as he tries to make sense of his lot.
I’m looking forward to what comes next. I hope there’s as much well-observed Bat-fumbling in the next volume.