By Thom Yee
Batman is a jerk!
That hallowed little missive, famously uttered by Kitty Pryde about Professor X during Chris Claremont’s classic X-Men run, rung through my ears as I read Batman: Earth One. A jerk and a moron. What an idiot. My favourite parts of Batman: Earth One all involved Batman generally screwing up. I laughed out loud twice within the first eight pages as I watched Batman misfire his batline and then miss his jump to the next rooftop as he chased after his target. Geoff Johns’ initial Earth One story begs the classic question from Grant Morrison’s impenetrable Seven Soldiers series, “How do you know you’re a super-hero and not a crazy fetish person with a death wish?” Of course all of this X-Men and Seven Soldiers talk means nothing to anyone not well versed in the comic world. And, ostensibly, the Earth One books are all about appealing to people without such knowledge.
They say that Batman, as an intellectual property, is one of the most adaptable characters in fiction, and that there’s a compelling story to be told with him no matter what the setting or media. From comic books to television to movies, from the distant past to the grim present to the extraordinary future, Batman is a character that transcends the limits of his usual surroundings. And the Batman in Batman: Earth One may be one of my favourites — a damn jerk moron with a crazy, fetishistic death wish.
So Grace, I hope you enjoy Batman: Earth One as much as I did.
You think you know Batman? You think you know everything there is to know about Batman? You think, even after watching the Dark Knight Rise, Return and Strike Again, that that’s all there is to see? If you think you’ve seen how Batman begins… you’re probably right. But if you read this new take on Batman, you’ll be in for something you haven’t necessarily had enough of in your Batman: a good laugh. And not just from listening to Bane’s voice.
When the enigmatic and rarely-pants-wearing Thom handed me this graphic novel and told me to read it, I had a few reservations. Now, I’m not exactly a newbie when it comes to Batman. I mean, all right, I don’t have thousands upon thousands of comic books, and I don’t have the original TV series starring Adam West, and if you ask me about Infinite Crisis I’ll respond with an eloquently-worded “huh?”
I know that Batman is Bruce Wayne (which, for some reason, the rest of Gotham doesn’t seem to know) and that his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, were, in most stories, killed by a guy named Joe Chill, who was working for someone else. I know that Batman took in the orphaned Dick Grayson and made him his sidekick, Robin (who in turn became Nightwing, but we won’t get into that). I saw Burton’s Batman and Schumacher’s sequels, and I saw Nolan’s brilliant trilogy, which has simultaneously rebooted the franchise and raised awareness of throat cancer. So I’d say I have about the average amount of Bat-knowledge, but I feared this might not be enough.
Thom informed me, however, that this novel was a reboot, and the ideal starting place for anyone unfamiliar with the story. So the other day, while heading home on the bus, I cracked it open.
My first thought upon reading the back cover — specifically, a review by a best-selling author, praising the fact that Johns and Frank chose to show Batman’s eyes — was that this was unnecessary. Why do we need to see his eyes? Batman doesn’t need to be humanized. He runs from his humanity by donning the cape and cowl, becoming more than a man: a symbol. Yes, we can see that the “real appeal of Batman is what hides within him,” but I need to point out that, upon actually reading this book, we can also see that this particular Batman is a brat. He has none of the strength that is characteristic of Bruce Wayne, a child who lost his parents and was forced to grow up too quickly. This Bruce had a hissy fit which resulted in the death of his parents, and it was a tantrum he never grew out of. I really have nothing else to say about Bruce Wayne, particularly since his character development is somewhat neglected.
Alfred Pennyworth, on the other hand, is a badass with a rutted, battle-worn face and a prosthetic leg. He constantly challenges Bruce to be more than he is, and supplies a steady stream of emotional support, all of which goes unappreciated. I was initially uncomfortable with the shift from the familiar British butler archetype to an ex-Royal Marine with iron-grey hair and a cane, but found it to be an exhilarating change of pace. And I still read all of his words with a British accent.
Part of the backstory is Thomas Wayne’s run for mayor against Oswald Cobblepot. Does that name sound familiar? No, probably not, unless you’re a hardcore Batman fan. Spoiler alert: he’s the Penguin, and he hasn’t changed much in this most recent incarnation. In the present day, he has been in office for several consecutive terms. He has a large collection of birds, his signature “penguin suit” tuxedo and top hat, his trademark squawking laugh, and atrocious table manners. Oh, yeah, and he tried to orchestrate the deaths of the Waynes (which happened anyway, but without his help), and he’s got a serial killer called the “Birthday Boy” on his payroll.
I gotta tell you — despite the name, the Birthday Boy is scary as hell. This guy kidnaps girls, brings them back to the long-abandoned Arkham mansion, stages a horrible parody of a birthday party, tells them to make a wish and blow out their birthday candles, and then murders them horribly and dumps them into a mass grave in the basement. One of the great — or terrible, depending on your perspective — things about graphic novels is their ability to show content that’s… well, graphic. This’ll probably enrage all the purists out there, but I love these newer comic books and graphic novels with their gorgeous art and compelling storylines and bluntness in communicating the dark world in which these people live.
This novel has three sides and three teams: the Waynes (and Alfred), the Mayor and his staff, and the Gotham Police Department, featuring the always-incredible James Gordon, now saddled with the former TV star Harvey Bullock (and his blinding smile that makes you want to punch his stupid face). Bullock digs into the Wayne murders (which anyone can tell you is a bad idea, regardless of which fictional universe you’re in, because someone is always watching those files) and learns a few lessons about morality in Gotham from Gordon — namely, that you have to get your hands dirty. Nobody is able to affect change when they keep to the letter of the law. But then, law and order had a breakdown decades earlier. It’s just a little jarring to see Bullock, previously such a pure and unsullied — if completely irritating — character, make the transition from “good cop” to “good cop with a baseball bat and a vendetta.”
This reads more like a plot summary than a review, but honestly, it’s Batman. This stuff comes up in schools all the time. We’ve discussed it to death (although that’s never permanent in comic book universes anyway). Betrayal, heartache, parental loss, the never-ending search for justice in a cruel world… none of this is new. All I can do is present this newest take on an old story and hope it’s enough to convince you that if you’re unfamiliar with Batman, you need to get on that. But he’s been around for almost seventy-five years, so if you still don’t know Batman, you’re either hella old, in which case congratulations on learning to use the Internet so proficiently, or you were recently born, in which case… well, congratulations on learning to use the Internet so proficiently, I guess.
Overall, this novel is a stupendous introduction to a new story. I am emotionally invested — whether positively or negatively — in the characters, and I want to see how this plays out. I want to see whether Gotham can be redeemed, or if it’s beyond saving. I want to see how the whiny Wayne orphan, who views his parents’ death as just one more personal inconvenience that needs rectifying, gets over himself, gets his life together, and becomes a legend.
I still hate the eye thing, though.
- There’s a party scene in which every single woman is dressed like she’s expecting to make money off it. It’s super nice to see that the trend of underdressing the ladies hasn’t changed over time.
- Martha Wayne’s maiden name is Arkham. Yes, that Arkham. I squealed for like ten minutes because hereditary insanity is a truly excellent plot device and another hurdle for Batman to leap.
- A young Lucius Fox, working behind a door marked “The Fox Hole.” I’m talking about trench warfare. What are you talking about?
- Gordon and Bullock laying down the hurt on a street thug. “What is this supposed to be? ‘Good cop, bad cop’?” “…This is Gotham City. It’s ‘bad cop, bad cop.’”
- Barbara Gordon, buried behind a stack of martial arts books and sketching Batgirl costumes. Yes, please.
- Penultimate page full of newspaper clippings: “Who is Batman?” Final page: the Riddler trying to puzzle it out. YES, PLEASE.