In a sense, DC’s Earth One series has the potential to prove far more divisive and frustrating than their New 52 reboot. The latter has taken every single DC series back to #1, which has proven highly successful for the likes of Batman, Superman and Batwoman, whereas Earth One is designed solely for writers to get a crack at re-telling the origins of the company’s biggest heroes. The Man of Steel didn’t fare so well in his entry into the series, so what can Geoff Johns and Gary Frank bring to The Dark Knight to spice things up?
Batman’s origins have been told so many times to the point that they’re almost tattooed onto the public subconscious, even with those unfamiliar with his comic outings knowledgeable enough thanks to Batman Begins. Earth One also stands to suffer to a certain extent as a one-shoot graphic novel simply because Frank Miller’s Year One exists, and it’s pretty hard to argue with the most popular Batman book of all time. Johns has an unenviable task with this book; keep things too familiar, and it’s boring. Change things too much, and there’ll be uproar. Perhaps wisely, he plonks Earth One squarely in the middle, maintaining just enough in the way of convention whilst tweaking a sufficient amount to let Earth One stand on its own. And, in some ways, at least, it succeeds.
This reimagining starts with Alfred Pennyworth, a grizzled war veteran arriving at Wayne Manor to begin work as security for his ol’ buddy Thomas. Alfred insists that with this candidacy for Mayor making him a target, he, his wife and his exuberant young son Bruce should hold off on a visit to the movies that evening. Thomas flatly refuses, and before you can say “Crime Alley”, Alfred is suddenly fostering a young, angry and parentless Bruce Wayne. This time, there is no global travelling; Alfred acts as mentor and butler, teaching his young charge all he needs to begin fighting back against Gotham’s worst. This, however, is Batman at his most primitive; devoid of a plethora of gadgets, uncoordinated and clumsy, he’s also the angriest he’s been in print for some time, consumed by avenging his parents death as opposed to helping his city.
The boys in blue also get a fresh coat of paint, with Harvey Bullock a dashing, famous young detective searching for a big case to solve and Jim Gordon paying criminals for protection. It’s a nice flip, with Bullock pretty arrogant but well-meaning enough so as not to be insufferable, but more could’ve been done with Gordon’s weathered turn as a cop on the take, however. Perhaps the most significant character alteration here comes in the form of Alfred. Missing a leg from an accident whilst serving in the army with Thomas Wayne, he’s still compassionate and offers Earth One’s most human moments when offering Bruce support. He’s much more brutal in exposing his master’s faults in contrast, which is another welcome twist.
Anyone brave enough to include Penguin as a central villain in their story deserves kudos considering just how wonderfully un-threatening Oswald Cobblepot actually is. His role as Gotham’s Mayor and potential suspect in the death of Bruce’s parents grants him a bigger part than he’s seen in years, but even with this in mind, it’s tough to feel genuine dislike towards him. Fair play, Frank actually goes to good lengths to make him at least appear evil, but there have been very few points in time where Penguin has been well-utilised, and Earth One doesn’t add to that list. His muscle, the one-dimensional Birthday Boy fares worse, with a needlessly brutal shtick coming across as lackadaisical as opposed to lethal.
Earth One is, as another tale of Batman’s origins, fairly solid. Its use of flashbacks and its tinkerings with Bruce’s past come are welcome, and Frank’s artwork is sufficiently gritty for what is a darker origins tale than the classics it follows. Unfortunately, it’s held back by a number of errors. Bruce and Alfred’s relationship feels underdeveloped with a huge leap from their first meeting and Batman’s emergence criminally unexplored, which is a shame as their relationship acts as one of Earth One’s highlights. Some of the decisions in Earth One simply don’t work. I’ve no fault with making Batman more vulnerable at this early stage of his career, but the threat he faces feel woefully unthreatening. Also, for every interesting reimaging (e.g. Bullock, Alfred), there’s one like Lucius Fox that barely deserves a mention.
Earth One’s task is unenviable, and Johns and Frank equipped themselves as best as they could, but they don’t quite pull this off. There’s enough quality in Earth One to make it worth a read, but perhaps not quite enough to make it a keeper.