|Synopsis||Geoff Johns and Gary Franks update the origins and early years of Batman in this graphic novel trilogy. Venture into the depths of Gotham as Batman takes his first faltering steps as the vigilante whose name will become legend.|
|Length||About 140 pages per volume|
|Release Date||July 2012, May 2015, June 2021|
Launched in 2010, DC Comics’ “Earth One” imprint reinvented DC’s superheroes for modern audiences with stories set outside regular comic book continuity. Presented as individual graphic novels, the series started with Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and was followed up by the first volume of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s trilogy of Batman: Earth One novels in 2012. Johns and Frank collaborated on the second and third Batman: Earth One volumes, published in 2015 and 2021, respectively. For this review, we’ll be examining the entire trilogy.
The “Earth One” concept feels very similar to Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, which updated several of Marvel’s heroes (such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Avengers) for audiences in the early 2000s. The three Batman volumes — which can be purchased individually or together in a recently released “Complete Collection” — depict Bruce Wayne’s earliest crime-fighting days. The novels owe a massive debt to Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One,” while also marking themselves as a unique retelling of the Dark Knight Detective’s fumbling first steps into vigilantism.
Violence: Street-level violence flares up throughout each graphic novel as characters engage in fistcuffs — several skirmishes see people punched, kicked, elbowed, tased, slapped, headbutted, slammed into walls, and tossed about. Bruce nails several thugs with sharp batarangs. Other characters are stabbed, cut, or shot. One character is branded. Someone is blown out a window with a shotgun. Several folks die in a rigged elevator. Some people are killed in exploding buildings and a train. A few thugs are suffocated into unconsciousness. Some people suffer disfiguring burns. We’re told about a suicide. Cars crash. Some deaths and injuries are insinuated or occur off-panel.
Sexual Content/Nudity: A couple of characters kiss. A few women wear revealing dresses or costumes. A character manipulates some women with language. Someone is catcalled. Someone encourages a male character to enjoy the company of both female and male party attendees.
Drug/Alcohol Use: One primary character becomes an alcoholic. Others are seen holding and pouring drinks, imbibing, or smoking.
Spiritual Content: Someone references Sodom and Gomorrah; someone else references the Garden of Eden. A few plot points center on the possibility of spirits haunting a family and city.
Language/Crude Humor: Multiple uses of God and Jesus’ names in vain as well as several uses of d***, a**, and h***. P*****, p****, b****, b******, and s*** also pop up infrequently. The British profanity “bloody” is used several times. We’re told a character uses “several expletives” at one point.
Other Negative Content: We see deep corruption infiltrating the GCPD, to the point certain cops refuse to handle particular crimes or lie. Batman, early on, ignores certain crimes he believes aren’t worth his attention. It’s implied children are used as payment for a serial killer’s services.
Positive Content: Batman does his best to rescue anyone he can, including criminals. He searches the wreckage of a train crash for survivors. Though people hotly debate his impact, some characters are positively influenced by his example. Alfred Pennyworth raises Bruce after his parents’ deaths, providing consistent wisdom and medical attention. A few police officers choose to stand up to corruption in the GCPD.
You know the story: Bruce Wayne, orphaned as a child, makes it his life’s mission to become Gotham’s greatest vigilante, weaponizing his substantial fortune towards the cause. To stir fear in the hearts of the criminals he encounters — that cowardly, superstitious lot — he dresses up as a bat and swoops down on thugs, bank robbers, puzzle masters, clowns, and guys who laugh like penguins. It’s an origin story we’ve read and seen dozens of times. Even if you’re not familiar with the vigilante’s first appearance in 1939, chances are you know Frank Miller’s “Year One” or on-screen portrayals seen in Batman, Batman Begins, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Gotham TV series, or Joker.
I approached Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One with this familiar mindset. Does the origin of Batman really need another retelling? After finishing the trilogy, I realized these graphic novels aren’t just retelling a tired, trampled tale. They reinvent Batman and his world from the ground up.
Let’s be clear: several story beats are the same between this version and others. The Waynes are murdered, leaving a traumatized Bruce to promise retribution on the criminal element which took their lives. He hones his skills, finds inspiration in those winged rodents that hang out in caves, and creates a costume to reflect the fear he hopes to instill. But Johns and Frank set themselves apart from other creators by fully reshaping the world around Bruce, not just updating classic characters and locations for a new millennium.
The Bat and the Man
Bruce’s humanity beautifully becomes a core aspect of the series. Several stories have sought to answer the question, “Is Batman the mask Bruce Wayne wears? Or is Bruce Wayne the mask Batman wears?” Writers treat the character almost as if he’s two distinct people. Johns leaves that debate at the door, suggesting a more nuanced portrayal of the vigilante. Bruce and Batman are one and the same. Batman’s mission and its complexity spills into Bruce’s life as more people become aware of his identity. The consequences of Bruce’s tragic childhood, as well as his family’s legacy, impact Batman’s purpose. It’s not an “either/or” relationship but an “and.”
This is where tension lies. I would argue Johns intentionally downplays the role of “Bruce Wayne, billionaire.” Here, Bruce is somewhat of a recluse, attending a fancy shindig early on in the first volume only to get close to an informant. Bruce’s extensive wealth exerts itself as necessary, particularly when he uses his company’s assets to engineer crime-fighting weaponry and gadgetry. (One scene where Bruce asks Lucius Fox to fix a grappling hook he uses for “mountain climbing” is reminiscent of Batman Begins where the billionaire requests his friend develop equipment for “spelunking”.) There’s a sense Bruce sees himself as the darkened sky against which the Bat-signal is illuminated. He provides resources for the mission, but otherwise, the billionaire philanthropist’s needs are subservient to those of the Bat. The war comes first.
Much like his arch-enemy’s hair color, this Batman is also a little green. The first volume opens with the hero chasing a thug, failing to leap a gap between buildings and falling. His aim with his Batarangs isn’t always accurate; his gadgets occasionally break; he’s knocked unconscious after another fall; he can be shot and hurt. This is not a Batman who has eclipsed his humanity and become a symbol. He glides in that direction, but he’s not there yet. Even his purposes as a hero become more defined and better articulated as the series progresses.
Bruce realizes he must become something more than a costumed vigilante who preys upon criminals. Alfred Pennyworth uses the word “legend” to describe how Bruce must develop himself, but even by the series’ end, Batman does not feel as if he’s become this insurmountable force, more myth than man. In other iterations, the Dark Knight is portrayed as a juggernaut, a peak human pushing beyond physical limitations. The Batman of Earth One feels more grounded, a tad more breakable. He’s not quite as whip-smart or prepared as his counterpart in the main DC Universe.
Cops, Crocs, Crooks, and Caretakers
Around Batman, a supporting cast accumulates. Johns offers engaging looks at several cast members, setting them apart from their main universe counterparts. Jim Gordon — a detective, not yet commissioner — is depicted as complicit in the Gotham City Police Department’s corruption; he must grow beyond his penchant for looking the other way to become a stronger ally. Harvey Bullock is transformed from a hard-boiled, pot-bellied detective into a former reality TV star driven to alcoholism after witnessing a particularly grisly crime. His story specifically showcases Johns’ adept ability at crafting a compelling subplot. Alfred Pennyworth sheds his butler persona, reframed as a Royal Marine charged with caring for Bruce after the boy’s parents are murdered. He’s a little lost with the whole parenting bit, but he can sure teach Bruce how to manhandle criminals.
“What if…?” permeates the series. What if Gordon was corrupt? What if Alfred was tough and sported a grizzled beard instead of a pencil-thin mustache? What if Harvey Dent had a twin sister? What if Batman (essentially) adopted Killer Croc and then Killer Croc adopted a dog? Changes in the status quo keep the content fresh; any time a familiar character appears, you start wondering which direction Johns will take them. Particularly with its cast, Earth One distinguishes itself from its counterparts, reveling in freedom that mainstream continuity does not allow. Johns uses the changes to craft emotional plots for each cast member — Gordon is forced to face his own culpability in the GCPD’s practices, Bullock strives to pull himself away from the bottom of a pint glass, and Alfred must embrace a more tender side of himself he’s never explored.
Here and there, Johns adds to the mythos rather than modify it. The first villain Batman faces isn’t a back-breaking baddie or a kooky clown — he’s a masked thug with a terrifying birthday theme. Johns molds something as childlike and fun as a birthday party to the contours of a muscle-bound madman, creating a short-lived character who stands out as terrifying and memorable through brief appearances. Johns gives Harvey Dent a twin sister, Jessica, offering an original riff on Harvey’s association with the number two by doubling the number of Dents. Jessica becomes a foil for Bruce, someone who sees the good he could do as a billionaire and underscoring Bruce’s shift from an agent of vengeance to an angel of justice.
Perhaps due to the third volume’s delays — which I will touch on further — Johns’ characterization doesn’t always work perfectly. Barbara Gordon is kidnapped in the first volume and is later rescued by Batman. Though she seems inspired by the end of the graphic novel to become Batgirl, this subplot never develops. Johns’ version of the Riddler falls into familiar tropes and tricks, and though his traps are devious and clever, the villain fails to incite any sympathy or betray even a hint of backstory. A few other characters, particularly villains, are hinted at without ever being fleshed-out. A villain reveal which should entice longtime fans falls flat due to how briefly the character materializes and how convenient they are to the plot.
Third Time’s the Charm?
Johns’ third volume, specifically, stands out as the trilogy’s weakest. Volume One is an engaging origin that could easily serve as a standalone graphic novel, and Volume Two nicely builds on the world Volume One introduces. Volume Three continues that story, though it does so haphazardly. Prior to developing this third graphic novel, Johns and artist Gary Frank partnered on DC’s quasi-Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, which suffered multiple delays during its production. How these delays specifically affected Volume Three, I’m unaware, but the third graphic novel lacks the tightness of the first two installments. Even if you were unaware of the gap between the second and third volumes, you can tell the quality dips.
Regrettably, John introduces new plot threads and characters while also picking up leftover plot points, forcing too much material into a single volume. The continuing story is strong, wrapped around the legacy of the Dent siblings and their story’s development. However, Johns also throws in Catwoman’s debut, a subplot revolving around a long-lost Wayne family member, escalating gang violence, and a bizarre spiritual component which needlessly confounds matters. In a volume which should be focused on concluding all that has come before, this graphic novel feels stretched too thin.
The “spiritual component” deserves discussion. Throughout the preceding two volumes, Johns alludes to “spirits” affecting Gotham City in general and the Waynes specifically. There’s brief debate between the effect of “spirits” and mental illness impacting the Waynes, and though Johns attempts to navigate the two, he ends up confusing the situation. The idea of spirits haunting Bruce’s family history feels out of place with Johns’ more grounded approach. Johns doesn’t use the idea to comment on religion or theology, so I have no qualms there. The concept of “spirits” just never finds its footing narratively, and to be honest, grounding Bruce’s narrative more deeply in psychology is a far more interesting approach.
In contrast, we’ve seen this play out well in The Batman, the Robert Pattinson-led film from last year, which owes some of its mythology to the Earth One graphic novels. That film’s second act explores this mental aspect, tracing Bruce’s troubled family history and mingling it with politics and violence. I’m unable to say if it showcases an accurate portrayal of mental illness, but it alludes to Bruce’s own crimefighting obsession and indicates that donning a mask every night is not the healthiest option when dealing with trauma. Johns scrapes at the surface of this portrayal, but despite how well he casts Bruce as this fledgling vigilante, the spiritual or mystical component (as if the Wayne family is cursed or if their history of mental illness was somehow supernaturally influenced) adds an unnecessary layer to a packed narrative.
The Dawn of the Dark Knight
This is a different Batman in a different Gotham. Gary Frank crafts a surprisingly sleek, modern-looking Gotham City, a far cry from the decrepit cesspit seen in David Mazzuchelli’s work on “Batman: Year One,” Tim Sale’s haunted designs in The Long Halloween, or recent movies. Frank’s Gotham has its back alleys, sewers, and sleazy hangouts, to be sure, but his Gotham also rises as a potentially prominent metropolis (not to be confused with a certain Man of Steel’s stomping grounds). Throughout the series, hope is pushed as a thematic element — hope that Batman is a force made for more than whomping criminals or that the Dents can offer healing for the city. Gotham is poised on a precipice. Fall forward and the city could be eclipsed by darkness. But take a step back, away from the edge, and Gotham could genuinely prosper and free itself from the shackles of gangs and corrupt cops.
It’s an inventive ploy… one used in other narratives, sure, but one which feels more prominent here. Christopher Nolan constructed his trilogy on the concept of Gotham needing a Batman; but more importantly, he allowed Bruce to struggle with his own need for being Batman. Johns toys with that question lightly, but his focus is more exterior. Bruce’s need for Batman is implicit, a core characteristic; no argument to the contrary is necessary. Now with that equation balanced, Johns spends most of his time navigating Batman’s growing impact on Gotham’s citizens… the fear and hope he simultaneously inspires.
Messy as the third volume is, and as much as it primes a potential fourth volume in an epilogue, Batman: Earth One concludes with hopeful ponderings. We’ve often seen the Dark Knight gazing out into the night from the rooftops as the Joker or the Penguin are led away in handcuffs, grateful to have stopped a crime and encouraged to maintain the good fight. But the Batman of Earth One has a broader scope. It’s not enough to see one criminal taken down and promise to take down a hundred more whenever they rise. What if the DNA of Gotham — plagued by despair, possibly haunted by ethereal spirits — could be altered? What if the war could end?
Removed from the confines of continuity, as well as a publisher’s agenda, Johns is freed from his story feeling like yet another chapter in an ongoing, decades-long saga. We’re given a Gotham promised prosperity and peace, and a Batman who, over time, develops beyond the limitations of his physique and material wealth. Batman is best framed as a symbol, an idea… or even an ideal. Counterintuitive as it may first appear, Johns showcases how a dude dressed in a dark costume striking from the shadows can actually offer hope for a city infested with hopelessness.
+ Engaging take on Batman and collective cast
+ Gary Frank's detailed art
+ Free from continuity
+ Killer Croc adopts a dog
- Stuffed final volume
- Bizarre spiritual subplot
The Bottom Line
Aside from some minor fumbles, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank craft a genuinely compelling look at the Dark Knight's early years, presenting an updated Batman fans new and old can equally enjoy.