Friday, April 14, 2017

'Batman: Earth One' improves on second reading

Virtually everything you need to know about the world of BATMAN: EARTH ONE is in the first 30 pages or so.

When I read this graphic novel years ago, I was less than impressed. Writer Geoff Johns does a capable job of tweaking Batman's origin, but it doesn't stick to this lifelong fan's ribs and certainly does nothing earth-shattering in its telling. I stand by most of that.

Reading it now though, I realize Johns may not have been focused so much on creating a definitive take on Batman, but on jimmying the supporting characters — specifically Alfred Pennyworth, Detective Harvey Bullock and Detective Jim Gordon.

Bullock is a naive, pretty-boy fresh off his canceled reality TV series "American Detectives." He's also an opportunistic sweet-talker, so yeah, it's hard to like this schmuck. Bullock is assigned to partner with the already grizzled and weary Gordon. They get along about as well as oil mixes with water. Gordon's daughter is kidnapped after Bullock checks out the cold-case files on the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne under Gordon's name — and that's when EARTH ONE truly clicks.

When I first read EARTH ONE (which was long after its release), I didn't appreciate Johns' take on Alfred. At first I thought he was making Pennyworth a grumpy hardass just because he could — big deal.

Now I see Bruce Wayne's legal guardian as the one man who can give the young man a dose of reality, especially after he begins his crusade as Batman.

Pennyworth's return to Wayne Manor to prematurely celebrate Thomas Wayne's expected election as Gotham City mayor in the beginning of the story is fateful. That's the night Wayne and his wife are killed in a random mugging even though Pennyworth had told him it wasn't a good idea to go out that night to the movies as a family.

Suddenly thrown into being the caretaker his friend's son, Pennyworth comes off as a truth-teller — albeit one who was a Marine and later is willing to give a vicious elbow to Bruce Wayne to make a point. Johns' Batman is a hot mess in his first couple outings. He botches things so poorly he's lucky to escape his unfortunate circumstances alive.

Penciller Gary Frank's art is what shines the most, stealing the show. Let's be brutally honest — just as Alfred and Gordon are in the story — if it weren't for Frank's dynamic art, EARTH ONE would be just another Batman origin forgotten shortly after you read it.

Frank excels at two things which are extremely difficult and takes more nuance than any comic book fan realizes — a variety of facial expressions and adding lines and creases to a characters' faces that give them personality without making him or her look elderly. He also draws Barbara Gordon cute as a button and his women are stunning without making them va-va-voom ridiculous — something I always respect.

His design of Batman's costume closely resembles the one from the pre-New 52 Batman Incorporated era of the regular continuity. Memory fails me as to which came first. And Frank may indeed have designed that same costume in that story written by Grant Morrison. Pennyworth reminds me of Sam Elliott, just as Frank's Clark Kent and Superman from Johns' highly recommended SUPERMAN: BRAINIAC and SUPERMAN: SECRET ORIGINS resemble the late Christopher Reeve.

This adds to the realism that Frank's art brings to EARTH ONE. Jonathan Sibal's inks and Brad Anderson's coloring perfectly complement his pencils.

BATMAN: EARTH ONE is a much better read the second time around. Much like watching "Man of Steel" after I saw it in the theater, but on a much smaller scale.
Grades: Story: B-; Art: A

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