“Superman: Earth One” is a lost cause for me at this point as I still feel no inclination to check out the third volume which arrived earlier this year. Its counterpart, however, is a different story. “Batman: Earth One” arrived on the heels of “The Dark Knight Rises” and gave us another look at the character as he was starting out on his crusade against crime. Writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank delivered a polished story that had some unique takes on established characters like Alfred, Detective Bullock, and the Penguin, and delivered unique tension in showing us how this less-experienced Batman handled Gotham’s criminal element. Vol. 2 delivers more of the same, which is to say that if you were onboard with what the creators were doing previously then you’re likely to derive some satisfaction with it. The main problem here is that in the nearly three years since the first volume, another story has come along to steal the thunder from what Johns and Frank are doing here.
Even with Oswald Cobblepot dead, his criminal empire still endures in Gotham. That’s what Bruce Wayne and butler/bodyguard/cantankerous voice of reason Alfred Pennyworth have been fighting against for the past few months in Gotham to little avail. Until a certain woman comes calling at Wayne Manor. Mayor Jessica Dent has been fighting to make the city safer along with her brother, District D.A. Harvey Dent, and together they’ve found out that five key city officials have taken over Cobblepot’s operations. While the brother/sister team fights the encroaching corruption and chaos from within, Jessica entreats Bruce to act as a symbol to inspire the citizenry to rise above these forces. This is in spite of the fact that Harvey has never liked Bruce and isn’t sure if he can be trusted at all.
However, Batman has his hands full behind the scenes as well. After an elevator crash initially thought to be an accident turns out not to be so -- the painted question mark found at the scene is a clue -- our hero starts working with Detective Gordon to find out what this killer’s plans for the city are. After the killer continues to plan elaborate schemes, it’s clear that Batman will need to develop his detective skills in order to go along with his fighting.
What does this all add up to? A decently involving tale that shows us Bruce Wayne/Batman learning a thing or two about how the world works, and developing his crimefighting skills to take on the bigger and badder threats the city throws at him. We see him learning the value of detective work from Detective Gordon and applying it to tracking down the Riddler. His encounter with “Killer Croc” shows that not all situations need to be resolved through the application of violence as well.
There’s also the ongoing dialogue he has with Alfred about the value of the lives of the criminals he’s fighting and properly outfitting himself for this crusade with the appropriate equipment. That this Batman won’t let anyone die feels like a sly rebuttal on Johns’ part to Christopher Nolan’s “I’m not going to kill you, but I don’t have to save you” take on the character. Yet it also functions as a way of marking the character’s growth. You get the feeling that this Batman will have truly arrived when his skills allow him to save everyone and get all the bad guys in the process. Regarding the debate between Bruce and Alfred regarding equipment, that feels like it’ll be an ongoing issue over this series until they reach a middle ground. Until then, both sides make good points so it’s not a useless thread.
Johns also appears to be playing the long game with how Bruce embraces his public persona in his war on crime. While fully committed to the idea of Batman, he still views “Bruce Wayne” as a secondary concern in that regard. Better to remain a reclusive billionaire so that he has more time to focus on what’s important. Jessica’s entreaties to him draw him out of that shell on practical and personal levels. Not only does she have information that he needs, but there’s also their past as childhood friends to consider as well with romance thankfully only being hinted at here. Yes, this is going to be a very slow burn. The good news is that as long as tangible progress, of the kind we see here, is made with each volume then it’s not going to be a drag on the narrative.
The supporting cast is also developed with good-to-mixed results. Gordon is still Gordon as we’ve come to know him in just about every incarnation of “Batman:” The One Good Cop in Gotham who works behind the scenes with Batman. That’s probably due to the role he has to fulfill and Johns doesn’t tinker with the formula. He does better with Bullock, who is embarking on his expected descent from starry-eyed Hollywood Cop to bitter, disillusioned cynic with gusto. Even if he spends most of this volume under the influence, his “good cop” instincts still shine through in the end. The treatment of Killer Croc is one that diverges most from any established take on the character. Instead of a violent and bloodthirsty killer, he’s just a man with a terrible skin condition who wants to be left alone until the Riddler comes poking around in the sewers. That might not sound like much, but there’s a bit at the end which indicates that there are bigger plans for the character which don’t involve him hanging around in the sewers.
As for the Dents, there are some interesting and potentially deeply misguided things going on with how they’re handled. Harvey’s a good deal angrier here than we’ve seen him before, though most of it is directed at Bruce himself. It may seem like an attempt to generate needless conflict and tension between the two, but Johns fleshes it out with the backstory involving Jessica and Bruce’s relationship and the fact that the D.A. doesn’t want her getting involved with someone who has “Crazy Arkham” blood in his family. Though we do get to see Harvey doing his job as a D.A., the same can’t be said of Jessica who doesn’t even get one scene showing how she handles her duties as mayor. It feels like the character is there mainly to fulfill the role of the “beautiful woman who brings Bruce out of his shell” which is disappointing more than anything else. However, something happens towards the end of the volume which indicates that she won’t be remaining in this role. The means by which this is done are dubious bordering on ridiculous, but I won’t complain so long as Johns can wring some worthwhile material out of it.
Frank’s art impresses here and he even manages to address one of my longstanding issues with it. A lot of his characters tend to have eyes that look dead or aren’t reacting to the other people in the frame. It’s a distraction that usually takes me out of the story, regardless of how detailed and accomplished the rest of his art is. Thankfully, the eyes of his characters here look alive and responsive. This makes it much easier to get involved in the narrative and appreciate the many conversations as well as the action scenes in this volume.
All of this is well and good, yet there was one big thing that kept me from really enjoying vol. 2 of “Batman: Earth One” as much as its merits would allow. That thing is called “Zero Year.” In the two-plus-years between the first volume, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo delivered their own take on Batman’s early days and featured the Riddler as the main antagonist for that arc as well. Their approaches are quite different, with “Earth One” embracing a more grounded tone as opposed to the over-the-top craziness of “Zero Year.” Yet Snyder and Capullo’s take is the more involving one so far as the creators got to the heart of its conflicts -- Bruce needing to embrace his “Bruce Wayne” persona and rely on the help of others in his war on crime -- in quicker and more satisfying fashion. “Zero Year” was a story filled with lots of craziness that never lost sight of the human story it was telling. The best of both worlds, which is missing from “Earth One.”
This is particularly true in the stories’ use of the Riddler as the main villain. Johns has the character coming off as a killer with a gimmick who is ultimately defeated by a well-timed punch from our hero. Snyder set him up as a former Wayne Enterprises employee who was a calculating master planner with the aim of making the city “get smart” in order to deal with the feral new world he created for them to live in. I know which version of the character I’d rather read about.
Really, vol. 2 of “Batman: Earth One” is the victim of bad timing more than anything else. Had this volume come out a year after the first, then I’d have been able to enjoy it on its own terms and not make any comparisons to a similar and better story that arrived in the meantime. It’s fine for what it is and if you were turned off by all the craziness in “Zero Year” then this grounded take on Batman’s early days may be more up your alley. That said, I’ll probably go back to Snyder and Capullo’s story before I decide to pull either volume of “Earth One” off of my bookshelf. Hopefully this will serve as an incentive for Johns and Frank to get the next volume of this series out a lot sooner than they did for this one.