By Jarrod Jones. Quick question: what’s so damn special about Earth One that it takes three years and twenty-five bucks to read about it?
Because, from what I’ve read (and spent), Earth One is home to the lousiest superheroes in the multiverse. Over in the now defunct New52, utter disasters like New Suicide Squad and Aquaman and the Others made it to stands on a regular monthly schedule, and Earth One’s next door neighbor, the underrated Earth 2, never once made its readers wait for the next installment. Every single one of these books told a story (albeit on a sliding scale of quality), and asked for a mere three dollars for the trouble. But Earth One is different. From what I can tell there are only two (possibly nine, maybe ten) superheroes on that entire planet, Darkseid ain’t none too worried about conquering it, and I, for one, can’t find a single reason to care about it. Batman: Earth One, Vol. 2 doesn’t do much to dispel these feelings.
If anything, it only strengthens the suspicions that behind all the pretense (it’s Earth One, you understand), DC Comics is merely looking to pad its sales with an overpriced hardcover that exploits the “New York Times Best-selling Series” tag. If there has been a real reason given as to why people should give one shred of concern (along with a single hard-earned buck) to Earth One’s collection of laughably ineffectual superheroes, I haven’t heard it.
Because Earth One, Vol. 2 is another disconcerting example of the pointlessness to DC’s prestige series. All the warning triggers are here: in this sequel, Batman is still working out the kinks to his one-man war on crime (that means upgrades from tech-guru Lucius Fox), names like “Maroni” and “Dent” are tossed into the fray, and Bruce Wayne has a former flame returned from the past with an altruistic verve to “fix” Gotham City, even if it means it could get her killed in the process. Sound familiar? It’s a book so hastily written and poorly executed, that any success that comes with it will owe more to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight than anything else. Writer Geoff Johns may have stirred the Nolan pot only to jump-start his own narrative purposes, but the parallels remain, and they are glaring.
That’s only part of the dilemma that comes with Batman: Earth One. So much effort has gone into making this Batman saga utterly different from most everything that’s come before, but this book’s innovative flourishes (concerning Harvey Dent’s past and Killer Croc) are mostly by-products of a lesson learned from attempting to break new ground. (I can’t be the only person who remembers the Birthday Boy.) All changes are utterly superficial, and require little to no emotional investment from the reader.
That’s partially because Johns has made the characters who populate this tale so thoroughly unlikeable. This new tale finds a Bruce Wayne still trying to forge his place as a superhero in a world that doesn’t need them, but his frequent lapses in judgment make him seem unstable to the people who know him, and downright idiotic to the reader experiencing him. Instead of fleshing out new takes on these characters, Johns gives Bruce Wayne, Jessica Dent, and Harvey Dent personality traits that faintly echo his Superman: Secret Origin mini-series, except here it’s Bruce (in place of Clark Kent) who’s the unreliable coward, Harvey (instead of Steve Lombard) who’s the doubting Thomas, and Jessica as the wide-eyed woman with suspicion on her mind (instead of Lois — aw, you get it).
What’s equally puzzling are the changes Johns successfully brings to this Dark Knight: he’s a Batman who doesn’t bother trying to scare people (he openly informs Detective Gordon when he arrives and leaves), or bothers taking time to hone his particular set of skills (a perpetrator eludes him after a poorly tossed batarang). He’s an ultimately ineffectual vigilante who chooses not to analyze a situation too much, and his pig-headed blundering gets him injured time and time again: the Riddler — the Riddler — finds an opportunity to knock our hero right the fuck out. (He’s also the worst at picking a lock.) Nevermind that he’s also a Batman in a world that keeps telling him it doesn’t need — or even want — a Batman. What’s more troubling is that all of this might be intentional.
Johns and artist Gary Frank once again eschew subtlety in favor of blunt realism, though it’s anyone’s guess as to why: the duo’s strengths obviously came from the vibrant, Christopher Reeve-infused optimism of their Action Comics run, so to witness the two men attempt a bleak glimpse into an ugly world becomes an exercise of patience. It’s a book that self-censors itself when it shouldn’t (the repeated use of the word “crap” is that much more perplexing when Johns is finally allowed an “asshole” or a “goddamn”), thus removing itself from the gritty reality the book claims it can achieve, and forces in self-aware nods to the Batman lore that preceded it, which completely defeats the book’s purpose. (What’s the point in draping half of Harvey Dent’s face in darkness? Foreshadowing? Come on.) It saps Batman: Earth One not only of danger, but character.
Speaking of characters, Johns’ Riddler is a Jigsaw-esque sadist, an unfortunately tattooed whelp who collects his victims in a group with limited time to solve his poorly-executed riddles. (“It smells like green paint. It pours like purple paint. It looks like a white van. What is it?” is but one example of this new Nygma’s inanity.) With such paper-thin characterization, Gary Frank is left with countless pages to fill on his own: splash pages are employed to little effect, scarcely adding punch to a sequence so much as padding the volume to justify its length (and its twenty-five dollar price tag).
Nothing comes together in this brisk, easily forgettable tale. History has proven that Batman will always bounce back, but in a format that only provides diminishing returns, one can hope that DC’s Convergence put the kibosh on this sordid world. Because as far as Earth One is concerned, the risk of revisiting it — to say nothing of the price — is too damn high.
Written by Geoff Johns.
Art by Gary Frank and Jon Sibal.
Colored by Brad Anderson.
4 out of 10