Monday, March 4, 2013

100th Blog Post Celebration! Batman: Earth One review

Happy 100th blog post everybody!

Hard to believe, but this blog has really gotten on a roll in the last 14 months, especially in the comic book review department. As such, I feel like I should review a comic for this blog. And not just any story, but a Batman story. And not just any Batman story, but the best Batman story to come out since I started this blog.

Today, I go over the graphic novel, Batman: Earth One. However, before I do, let me talk briefly about my thoughts on changes to the established continuity of characters in stories.

Contrary to popular belief, I don't let comic continuity irk my story enjoyment.

Now don't get me wrong here. Continuity within a narrative is important. I do get irritated when the rules of a world change without reason.

If the main DC Universe wants to make a change to a villain's origin, there had better be a freaking good explanation as to how the story has changed.

That's why I don't like how wrestling writer Vince Russo says he finds it funny how people get irritated by booking decisions that contradict rules that were in place, say, one year beforehand. It's still a narrative you're producing; Moby Dick doesn't change species every time he surfaces. YOU CAN'T SAY YOUR WORLD WORKS ONE WAY AND THEN CONTRADICT IT WITHOUT EXPLANATION.

But that's a discussion for my wrestling blog. When it comes to superheroes and major characters, I'm fine with some details being changed so long as the narrative produced is solid... to an extent. I do believe that some characters become so intertwined with certain characteristics that altering them is an affront to the character regardless of its purpose.

Examples: You can change a Superman story to give him limited or unlimited powers based on sunlight. You cannot change it so that he was a byproduct of eugenics instead of being a Kryptonian.

OR... You can change vampires so that they can be seen in mirrors or transform into bats. You CANNOT change the fact that daylight kills them so that they can sparkle instead.

The reason I am on this long rant is because today's story is an alternate universe's Batman. The "Earth One" line of graphic novels are periodically released as a modern take on classic heroes, similar to Marvel's Ultimate Universe but released in a large book at various intervals instead of in monthly comic form.

I'll probably get into my thoughts on Superman: Earth One at some point, but for now, let's focus on Batman's story.

The biggest change you'll probably notice is that Batman is still really new at his job. He's trying awesome stuff, but his gadgets break on him and he makes costly mistakes the usual Batman wouldn't ever commit.

Also notable is the way Batman is portrayed. It's long been asked whether Bruce Wayne or Batman is the true persona of the man. I've generally said that the modern Batman has been a young Bruce deep down, but while both personas connect to him, his heart is in the Batman role, and the Bruce he puts out to the public is a facade.

That is not true in this book.

From the get-go, it is clear that this Batman is really Bruce Wayne, and he's merely in this suit to attain a goal, which in this case is getting revenge for his parents.

It's easy to tell that that's the way it's going. Bruce doesn't stop a store robbery because he doesn't see it as his business. In a scene truly indicative of Batman's good nature, it's shown that he keeps money in a pouch to give to people down on their luck.

And most importantly, you can see Batman's eyes here. No white covers to bury his identity. You see right into Bruce's facial expressions, and it's always clear that what he's doing is merely an extension of who he is - not his entire being.

Also changed in this continuity is Alfred, who is much younger than normally and served as a bodyguard in the past. It appears that he and Thomas Wayne have history together on that front. How he winds up Bruce's "butler" is actually a really interesting story in itself.

Even better than just that adjustment is how these changes affect Alfred, who is a gun-toting badass in this continuity and capable of pushing Bruce to his limits.

Alfred's a badass here.
The basic origin story is still in effect but with some changes. In this continuity, Thomas Wayne is running for mayor of Gotham City, Martha is descended from the Arkham family, and Bruce is a stereotypical rich kid – a self-entitled, obnoxious little sh** – until his parents' murder.

Some people will find his motivations for becoming Batman (which are significantly more vengeful here and a clear attempt to absolve his own responsibility) not as fun, but I disagree. While it certainly can't be the mainstream continuity, if a story wants to tie itself more into a realistic psychology, this makes much more sense. It even blows the door off of Christopher Nolan in terms of grounding itself.

Another character who has a welcome alteration made to his character is Harvey Bullock. One of my biggest complaints about the usual Bullock is that people spend so much time portraying him as a brash, unthinking, drunken blowhard that it's forgotten that he is a good cop with a similar moral compass to Jim Gordon.

That's not missed here. Bullock is thin, clean and fresh off of five years of being a celebrity cop with LAPD. While he is certainly motivated by fame and success, he wastes no time trying to stop a shakedown and proves to be more than competent. Heck, he even gives Gordon a lashing for not being tough on crime.

This brings me to a character who unfortunately comes off weaker here: Gordon. He comes across as a broken policeman who isn't corrupt but certainly isn't active in fixing the process. His concern for protecting Barbara is touching, but it's odd to see such a fighter come off as so hopeless for most of the story.

The story is very much a story of how Gordon got reinvigorated as much as it is about Batman seeking more information about his parents' deaths. I'm not sure why it is that writers insist on making Gordon come across as a heavily flawed man (see Miller, Frank, Year One) but it's one of the few alterations I'm always on the fence about. It's done well here, but I really don't know what else to say there.

The story has two real villains: Penguin as the main and book-exclusive Birthday Boy as the secondary. Both are played as real threats (though the scene with Cobblepot eating the bird with his bare hands was more disgusting than anything else) and I would LOVE it if Birthday Boy became a villain in the main DCU for at least one storyline.

There is so much plot in this story that it has massive reread value and I honestly can't go through it all on one blog without giving away what makes it great in the first place. I will say, however, that the villain teased for Volume 2 is my personal favorite, and I am looking forward to Bruce's inevitable attempt to woo his old flame, who is related to another future rogue in this continuity.

As I've probably tipped off, the art here is immaculate. Gary Frank draws the mood so well here that the dialogue almost isn't necessary. And hell, in some scenes the dialogue doesn't exist. It's just Frank being allowed to own it.

I've said I don't think Geoff Johns should have the chokehold on universe-wide decisions that he does, but there is no denying that when it comes to his writing, he's the best in the business today. He took a character who has been portrayed in so many different ways and has somehow found one more incarnation that is must-read.

I'll tell you: I sold this book for someone. At a comic store, one guy was looking at the racks of graphic novels and asked about it and I put this book so over that he bought it immediately. There aren't many books I'd do that for, but this one deserves it.

Is it the definitive greatest Batman story ever? I can't say that. It's not that it couldn't contend, but what makes this story good is how it tells a Batman story outside of the traditional Batman format, which makes it hard for me to say it defines Batman.

I'd compare it to the way Superman: Red Son is in the Superman mythos. It's an incredibly well-told story, but what makes it interesting is how it diverges from what Superman truly is, so it's hard to call it Supes' best story.

That said, I do think this may be Batman's equivalent of Red Son and it's a must-read for any Batman fans.

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