Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. Over the course of their travels through comicdom, they have encountered numerous stories via the wonder of trade paperbacks and graphic novels. Once a month, Nick and Greg will review one of those collections in The Longbook Hunters.
Greg: Welcome to The Longbook Hunters, the column of thunder and rock-‘n’-roll. We are the Hard-Traveling Fanboys, and we’re here to once again dust off our bookshelves to review a graphic novel. This month’s edition is particularly timely, as DC Comics recently released the second installment of the Batman Earth One graphic novel series by writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank.
In honor of this occasion, we’re taking a look at the first volume in this series, released in 2012 as an original graphic novel (or OGN for short), meaning there are no chapters involved. Unlike most trade paperbacks or hardcovers, this isn’t a collection of single issues, but a single story.
Nick: This column will also mark an opportunity for us to participate in one of our favorite pastimes — verbally fellating Geoff Johns. Greg and I are both massive fans of GJ, and as such were looking forward to this one with bated breath in 2012.
Our favorite author taking on Batman with the outstanding art of Gary Frank coming with it? I was pretty much sold based on the announcement alone. The book itself could have been underwhelming and I likely still would have sung its praises, but as you’ll learn over the course of this column, what we got was leagues away from underwhelming.
Greg: Quite the opposite, in fact, but perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Geoff Johns, the object of our mutual admiration, is of course best known for writing a string of mega-hit events for DC, including Infinite Crisis, the Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night, and for a 10-year stint resurrecting the Green Lantern brand.
Gary Frank is a skilled, longtime superhero artist perhaps best known for his collaborations with Johns, which include “Superman: Secret Origins” and a series of Shazam back-up stories in the pages of Justice League.
This project was the second to be released under DC’s “Earth One” branding, following J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman Earth One. As you might figure out from the titles, these books are designed to be rebooted alternate-universe takes on traditional characters, similar to Marvel’s launch of the Ultimate line in the early 2000s. The hope is to capture a new, more modern approach to the origins of the biggest icons in comics, again like Marvel did with Spider-Man and the X-Men in the aforementioned Ultimate line. Unlike the Ultimate line, however, the Earth One titles are all OGNs and are designed to be sold in traditional bookstores as standalone reads.
Nick: This enabled each high-profile creator who was involved with the birth of the Earth One concept to take their characters and build them from scratch. While some might question the need for another Batman origin story, Earth One brought some elements that hadn’t been attempted in stories of Bruce’s crimefighting beginnings.
Chief among them was a completely revamped Alfred Pennyworth, who here is given a harder edge, lethal military skills and an attitude towards Bruce that can come off as antagonistic at times, and not in the dry witty way of the mainstream Alfred. This take on Alfred has informed what is by far the best aspect of the television show Gotham.
Greg: Yeah, this is an Alfred who isn’t afraid to stand up to Bruce Wayne when he thinks he’s wrong about something. And I don’t mean verbally. This Alfred gets his hands dirty and is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with Batman or his enemies.
It creates a brand new twist on the age-old Bruce-Alfred relationship, painting Alfred as a reluctant tough-love father figure and Bruce as a rebellious, headstrong, angry young man. It’s very different, and that will undoubtedly turn off many people averse to any change in the status quo. But the key thing here is that it works. It’s different in the best way — a way that subverts expectations and gives you a new insight into something that has been trudged over for decades.
And that’s a great microcosm of this book, because it does the same thing with virtually all of the characters and relationships Batman fans are familiar with. It changes them, shifts them, twists them just enough to maintain the heart of the characters while giving a distinct, truly unique take on these icons.
Nick: You briefly mentioned Bruce there. The Bruce we see here, especially in the book’s early pages, is really kind of a jerk. No, that’s not accurate — Bruce is 100 percent an asshole. He’s almost completely unsympathetic. ALMOST. Johns does such a masterful job of showing that Bruce’s heelish tendencies are just a defense mechanism for the intense pain he feels after his parents’ loss that it winds up working for the story.
Greg: And I think it works because it feels more contemporary and modern. It makes sense to me that a spoiled rich kid would act like … well, a spoiled rich kid. There’s a scene near the beginning when child Bruce bumps into a thug and has an exchange that ends with Bruce boldly proclaiming “I don’t have to do anything you say! My parents are the richest people in Gotham.” While I can admit that line is a little on the nose, it is one of the key scenes that adds to the crushing guilt Bruce faces. It becomes clear throughout the course of the story that Bruce’s anger isn’t just directed at whoever killed his parents — it’s directed at himself.
I should also mention that the opening rooftop scene is one of the funniest involving Batman that I’ve seen. Why? Because it plays off our expectations. Anyone who has seen any Batman media since Tim Burton’s 1989 film will know how this scene is going to play out after a few panels … or at least they will think they do. It got me again on my recent rereading of Earth One, that’s for sure.
Nick: Yeah, that scene really does a great job of establishing that this version of Batman is very much a work in progress. In many ways, this is the story of Bruce going through “Batman 101,” learning the basics of what it’s going to take to become the weapon he wants to be. His gadgets don’t work, his suit is ineffective at protecting him and his fighting skills leave a lot to be desired.
That actually adds to the drama, as it’s clear that this Batman doesn’t have an exit strategy for any situation he might find himself in. Rather, each fight scene feels like it’s on the brink of disaster for Bruce.
Greg: And then there’s a very small but very important artistic choice Johns and Frank make in Earth One: no eye lenses for Batman’s cowl.
I’m sure, on the surface, that sounds like an unimportant detail. Only when you see it in action can you appreciate what this change does. For the first time in recent memory in the comics, we can see Bruce’s eyes when he’s suited up. Frank gets all the credit here, because the eyes truly tell the story when it comes to Bruce’s emotional state. We see when he’s angry. We see when he’s confused. And, yes, we see when he’s afraid.
It all adds up to what I think is the most human take on Batman I’ve seen. This is a man first, a superhero second. He feels fear like we all do, it’s just covered by rage and purpose. He can lose a fight, and does. As you pointed out, Nick, his equipment can fail, and does. There is a sense of genuine vulnerability to the Batman character that is extremely difficult to replicate in the mainstream DC Universe. It’s almost like a traditional Marvel approach to DC’s most popular character.
Nick: As Greg said, it might sound silly to harp on one artistic decision, but that decision to reveal Batman’s eyes was HUGE. These are perhaps the best eyes I’ve seen in comics. They’re that good.
In addition to the new takes on Bruce and Alfred, we also get a completely revamped Harvey Bullock. This Bullock isn’t a hard-drinking overweight slob. Rather, he’s a reality TV star that has come to Gotham to rebuild his celebrity status after the cancellation of his show. At first glance, I hated this new Bullock, but by book’s end, he was one of my favorite characters in the story.
Greg: The best parallel I can think of for Earth One Bullock is Harvey Dent from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” Now, granted, Bullock is much more of a self-obsessed prick than Dent, but like Dent in that movie, Bullock’s role here is as the head-in-the-sand idealist who genuinely wants to stop crime wherever he sees it … and to build his brand.
It’s a great take, and it’s frankly a more compelling take on Bullock than most of Harvey’s comic book appearances I’ve read. It also builds the Bullock-Jim Gordon partnership from the ground up.
Nick: He also reminded me a bit of Arnold Flass from Year One, a fact that seemed intentional given his use of a baseball bat during a key scene.
In a strange way, it’s also Bullock that inspires Jim Gordon to become a cop much closer to the Gordon we all know and love. Gordon has a tragic backstory here, and has clearly given up all hope on cleaning up the streets of Gotham. But Bullock’s naivety and the emergence of the Batman soon give us a Gordon that we’re all pulling for by the story’s thrilling conclusion.
Greg: I mentioned to Nick in a phone call shortly after the book came out that where Year One is very much a story about Jim Gordon inspiring Batman, Earth One is the opposite. Here, it’s Batman (and Bullock) who shows Gordon that good men still exist in the cesspool Gotham has become. They prove to Gordon that it’s still worth fighting for.
That inverted Year One approach really makes for an interesting lens through which to read Earth One. Perhaps it also explains why this is one of the darkest superhero stories Johns has ever written. The subplot involving a serial killer called the Birthday Boy (cheesy name, but trust me, not portrayed in a cheesy way) is downright chilling, featuring some of the creepiest scenes you’ll find in any DC comic. Birthday Boy brought back memories of “The Silence of the Lambs” for me.
Nick: Birthday Boy was fantastic. It’s rare in this day and age to see a writer successfully create an original villain, but Birthday Boy was so well done here that I’m truly surprised and more than a little disappointed that BB hasn’t found his way into the New 52 yet.
However, the main villain of the piece is a new version of the Penguin. Here, Oswald Cobblepot is Gotham’s mayor and a former political rival of Thomas Wayne. There are hints of the more traditional Penguin, but for the most part, Cobblepot here is somewhat toned down. Greg, I know you’re not the biggest fan of Penguin most of the time. How did he strike you here?
Greg: I loved him here. The biggest problem I’ve always had with the Penguin is I’ve rarely bought him as a legitimate threat to Batman. The best takes on the character, in my mind, are the ones in which he is a social climber who uses money, power and influence to gain an edge on the Dark Knight. Less convincing to me are the umbrella-firing gangster and mutant penguin-human hybrid versions. Thankfully, Earth One presents a Cobblepot who is believable and convincing. In the public eye, he’s a snazzy dresser and a high roller who only wants what’s best for Gotham City. Behind closed doors, he’s a disgusting human being who has more in common with a rat than a bird.
I’ve always viewed Penguin, at his best, as the Lex Luthor of Batman’s rogues gallery (in terms of characterization, not stature). Both are most effective when balancing the socialite and supervillain personas, and this Cobblepot certainly fits the bill.
Nick: Completely agree. You’ll notice we haven’t really discussed the plot very much here. The reason is that this is not really a plot-based book. It’s a pretty straightforward tale of criminal corruption and the actions of a few good people. Earth One is really about the characters and how they evolve over the course of the story. With that in mind, I have to say that Johns did a remarkable job of giving each character their opportunity to shine, even if they are all stars revolving around the sun that is Batman. It’s a juggling act, but Johns pulls it out with beautiful precision.
Greg: Likewise, Frank draws all the characters to be unique, multi-dimensional people. The faces aren’t the same, avoiding an issue that often occurs in monthly comics, and Frank’s detailed style allows Earth One to embody the “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling.
What allowed that attention to detail, perhaps, was the format of Earth One. Johns and Frank worked for quite a while on this graphic novel, and it shows. Removed from the pressures of meeting a monthly deadline, Johns and Frank are allowed to put their all into this one. The art is the best work of Frank’s career, creating the feeling of a great movie, but what helps is that the length allows him room to breathe. In other words, we get pages with no dialogue here, where Frank can let a scene develop using only shifting eyes, crinkling foreheads or quivering lips to show us what’s going on. By the same token, Johns doesn’t have to write cliffhanger endings throughout, giving it a more cohesive feeling, combining the best of the worlds of novels, short stories and comic books.
Nick, what do you make of the OGN format? Is this something you’d like to see more of? Do the requisite delays bug you?
Nick: I actually love this format, especially as a change of pace. It doesn’t force the creators into the hole of being required to have a cliffhanger every 20 pages or so. This makes for a more fluid, consistent reading experience than your average trade paperback or collection. I wouldn’t want to lose the monthly format permanently, but this is a good way to shake it up from time to time.
As far as delays go, I have no real issue with something as beautiful as Frank’s art in this taking time to produce. Plus, Johns isn’t exactly hurting for things to do these days.
Greg: I definitely agree, though I will take it a step further and argue that this may well be the future of the print industry. As more and more people go digital for their monthly comics fix, I foresee a day when original graphic novels become more of an emphasis for publishing companies. Many people in our generation grew up reading trade paperbacks and graphic novels rather than traditional monthly comics. They’re much more easily accessible at chain bookstores and online retailers, and most monthly comics today are “written for the trade” anyway. What the OGN format does is remove the need to placate tradition. It’s a different, valid approach to the art form. I believe people today, more than ever, want to read stories at their own pace. The 20 or so pages of a monthly comic are less likely to satisfy that desire than a 100-plus-page OGN.
Don’t get me wrong: monthly comics are great and aren’t going away. I just think the OGN format is a really effective way to reach new audiences, and that’s something for which the industry will always strive.
Before we finish, I’d like to address the rather unfortunate timing of this book’s release, which coincided with a complete reboot of the DC Universe and came just a year prior to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s own take on Batman’s origin, “Zero Year.” Earth One probably would’ve stood out even more in my mind if there wasn’t a simultaneous, competing revamp going on in the mainstream universe. Luckily, Earth One and Zero Year are two entirely different experiences that both succeed as revamped origins because of what they do differently, not in spite of it. And as risky an excursion as Zero Year was, Johns and Frank took even more risks in these pages, risks that paid off in a major way.
Nick: Yes, it was unfortunate timing, but the stories did enough differently to stand on their own merits, which is remarkable given some of the fan cynicism towards origin stories, particularly new Batman origin tales.
Greg: This is the point in our columns where we usually recommend buying or passing on a book, but what’s the point this time? We loved it. Buy it as soon as you get a chance. Nick, your thoughts?
Nick: Go to a place where original graphic novels are sold. Or rented. And buy. Or rent it. AND READ IT. It is delightful. HAHAHAHA!
Greg: I can think of no better place to end. We hope you enjoyed our look at volume one, because we’ll be back in two weeks to review volume two! I’m looking forward to it, and we’re looking forward to talking more comics in the coming weeks.
Nick: In the meantime, let us know your feelings on Batman: Earth One via Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.