Batman Earth One retells the Batman origin in an alternate universe, where the characters are dramatically different from the ones we know.
Bruce Wayne is a spoiled rich kid, whose father is running for mayor. The Waynes hire Alfred Pennyworth, an former royal marine, as their bodyguard. However, they insist on letting Bruce have a normal life until after the election.
That fateful night at the movies is interrupted by a power outage and Bruce runs out demanding to see it at another theater. He bumps into a man and foolishly brags about how rich and powerful his parents, which results in them being gunned down in a robbery.
For the first time, we see the aftermath of the shooting: a traumatized orphan. Bruce wanders the crime scene wrapped in blanket like a makeshift cape. Just as you begin to feel sympathy for him, he lashes out at Alfred for trying to comfort him. Alfred assumes custody of Bruce but their relationship remains strained as he becomes obsessed with proving his parents murder is a conspiracy.
The authorities are little help. The entire police force is corrupt including Detective James Gordon. It’s not for money but to protect his daughter Barbara. Gordon goes straight only when his hand is forced by newly transferred Hollywood Detective Harvey Bullock, who is an uncharacteristically naive version of himself and serves as the audience surrogate in this much darker world.
It’s great watching these characters interact with each other for the first time because they’re just unfamiliar to each other as they are to us, which leads to scads of shocks and surprises.
Artist Gary Frank draws super expressive faces with lots of deep lines and cross hatching but what really helps convey emotion is what’s not there: the opaque lenses in Batman’s cowl.
“By leaving the eyes exposed, that was kind of a big head start in that respect,” Frank told Comic Book Resources. “Once you get the eyes, you have a lot of what you need. You can do things like wrinkling the brow, even through the mask in a way that it wouldn’t necessarily wrinkle naturally. You have a certain amount of license when you are drawing it to tweak this stuff. The cowl complicates things a little bit, but not too much, not to the extent that it would have done had we gone for the traditional white eyes.”
Batman’s costume has a definite DIY look to it. There are pins for his cape, visible seams, and even a fly! It’s actually pretty practical when you think about. Even the world’s greatest dick has to take a leak on those long stakeouts.
“I had ideas that were going to be specific to this story. I didn’t want him to be particularly armored or be particularly intimidating or imposing. He isn’t really that Batman, yet. We’re not at the point with the character so there was always the desire to make him look human — like a guy that has just made a costume himself. It couldn’t look too slick. It couldn’t look too designed, really. It was more the demands of the story which affected the way the designs came out.”
“Our book is very grounded” Johns told BuzzFeed. “Characters don’t come back to life. Batman: Earth One is its own universe and the rules of reality apply to it.”
We see just how grounded when Batman’s grappling gun jams during a rooftop chase of a suspect in his parent’s murder. Without any hesitation he sprints across the roof gritting his teeth. He jumps like a bat out of hell. There’s every indication that he’s going make it so when he doesn’t, it’s a huge letdown. Just in case you haven’t completely lost faith in your childhood hero, Batman ignores a robbery in progress while retreating to his car.
“It’s essentially the first piece of the jigsaw,” explains Frank. “He’s not the Batman people know, but he might be one day. He’s certainly not yet a superhero. The fun is to watch him piece the persona together drawing on his experiences and the influences of those around him and, at this stage, the idea of becoming a ‘superhero’ hasn’t even entered his head.”
A lot of the book expects at least a basic familiarity with the Batman Universe in order to truly enjoy it. There’s an allusion to the The Killing Joke, in which the Joker infamously crippled Barbara Gordon and ended her career as Batgirl. This time she’s tied to a chair when a psycho comes to the door but she’s sporting the same big glasses, the same hairstyle and similar clothes. However, there’s a complete reversal in the outcome. She symbolically breaks the chair leg and uses it as a weapon. The event inspires her to become Batgirl.
There’s noticeable lack of character development for the actual villains, who are little more than obstacles for Batman to overcome. The focus is on the heroes and more importantly how they impact Batman.
“From the beginning, Geoff had the idea that Batman would be an amalgam of the people around him,” said Frank. “From that point, it was a question of mold and for those people to fit the roles that we needed from them.”
That role is filled by Alfred, who is much more active in the caped crusader’s crime fighting including a tough love pep talk. Alfred literally smacks some sense into Bruce in all out brawl, which he wins! “You’re not willing to sink down to Gotham’s level,” he says looming over Bruce, who responds by showing just how far he’ll go.
If Alfred was his only influence, Batman would likely end up looking like Marvel comics’ Punisher but his evolution to hero is far from done. Johns and Frank are already working on Batman: Earth One Vol. 2. They plan to release two books a year.