One of the things about comic books — specifically, comic book characters — is how they change and adapt from generation to generation. Shakespeare suggested that actors be like mirrors to reality, I think comic book creators do very much the same thing — if, perhaps, with mirrors more suited to a funhouse than a living room.
The Dark Knight Rises completes a trilogy of re-invention for Batman on the silver screen, but it is just one example of how creators are looking at the World’s Greatest Detective through a different lens. While The New 52 purports to be a different version of the character, I think it is fairly clear that of all the characters in the not-as-new-52 universe, Batman is the least changed, unless you really, really care about stitching and body panels on his uniform. So, it was with no small degree of interest that I picked up Batman: Earth One by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and Batman: Death by Design by Chip Kipp and Dave Taylor Through changes both subtle and significant, the two books give the opportunity for these creators to really explore different aspects of the Batman mythos, not only his background and character, but of his relationship with the city of Gotham and his desire to protect it. In some instances, these “Don’t-call-themElseworld” -esque changes are gimmicky, seemingly changes just for the sake of changes, but in some other ways, they allow the user to look at the “real” incarnations of the characters we know and love with a new appreciation, not only of who they are, but just how consistently they’ve been portrayed over the years.
The back of Batman: Earth One informs the curious reader that this is a “long-awaited” graphic novel, which made me chuckle a bit, but I guess I was kinda waiting for this. I mean, I was very happy to see it arrive, but I certainly wasn’t pining for the book, especially given my experience with Superman: Earth One. I have been in and out of love of comics a lot this year, but I will admit to a certain (and considerable) glee when I opened the book and realized, “Oh right–Gary Frank! Geoff Johns! I love these guys! Heck, I love comics!”
Not unlike their tour de force runs on Action Comics, Johns and Frank just seem right together, like Morrisson and Quitely. Frank’s art never disappoints, and it’s great to see him use the same “real costume” feel that he did so well with Superman work nicely with Batman — as iconic as the suit is, I did find myself thinking, “Wow, The Incredibles had it right–that cape would totally get in the way!” The book opens with a classic “Batman chasing the bad guy across the rooftops of Gotham” kind of scene and, not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s epic chase scene in Vertigo, doesn’t end…well. While I could see some readers rolling their eyes (yet another “being a superhero is hard” story beat), I really kind of enjoy the whole “learning to be a hero” trope. We’re all doing our best in real life, making it up as we go along, it’s kind of nice to see our heroes doing the same thing, you know? In a thoughtful twist, Batman, after totally not busting nefarious robber, does end up dong some good, not by saving the homeless lady from being mugged, but by giving her some money, a power that he already has as Bruce Wayne.
The book’s narrative jumps back and forth from present day to Bruce’s childhood and early days and, not surprisingly, Johns balances out thepacing quite well, never dwelling too long on either time frame. As the story progresses, you see some interesting shifts in this “Earth One” version of Batman — young Bruce is more of a spoiled brat, and his snotty sense of entitlement leads to his parents’ murder (echoes of Peter Parker here), and other characters are tweaked as well: Alfred is the unwilling adopted father to Bruce, Jim Gordon starts out (for reasons that become clear later) a far less noble and honest detective than the one we are used to and Oswald Cobblepot is (as he firmly reminds Bruce Wayne) Mayor Cobblepot, thank you very much.
But all these changes, in the end, don’t really change Bruce Wayne all that much from the one we are used to. The primary difference, I guess, would be that Bruce’s crusade against crime stems from a considerable sense of guilt as opposed to his innocence being lost. Most of the story centers around him learning to be a hero, figuring out his gadgets and taking down not particularly original-feeling bad guy (creepy as he may be)…which is kind of refreshing, to be honest. Johns wisely lets Batman be Batman and sets the stage for the following novels to see different incarnations of fan favorites (Batgirl, for example) take to the fight. Gary Frank’s art is consistently “Gary Frank” as you can get — if you like his style, you will love it and realize just how long it has been since you’ve seen this kind of skill in contemporary comics. Not surprisingly, this Earth One book, I feel, is far more successful than the Superman version, which just irritated me to no end, because at the end of the day, the changes just reinforced why Bruce Wayne is so compelling, keeping the spirit of the character intact, despite the differences from the current incarnation of the character.
I learned about Batman: Death By Design by a friend of mine, who forwarded me a link discussing the book, where the author raved about Chip Kidd’s design work (I guess he does a lot of book covers) and architectural themes that are pervasive in the story. This book is not so much an Elseworlds story than a sort of dreamy “Batman in the past” tale, presumably in the late 1930s/early 40s. The note at the beginning of the story explains that the story was inspired by “the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in 1963, and the fatal construction crane collapses [sic] in midtown Manhattan of 2008.” [And the question] What if, despite the years, they were somehow connected?” While I can’t say I was immediately drawn to that question, I had already bought the book, and there were lots of pages to go, so I kept on going, regardless.
What follows is a pretty basic Batman story set in a very cool period with some art that is a time rudimentary and other times, pretty awe-inspiring. Dave Taylor’s pencils are front and center, and I really enjoyed seeing the graphite on the page, unencumbered by heavy inks. With some minor exceptions, this is basically a black and white (well, I guess “grayscale” is more accurate) book, and this treatment really does add to the “old-timey” feel of the book. Taylor is clearly an expert artist, rendering people and buildings with deft strokes and fine detail. If anything, both of these books feature excellent “acting” from the characters — you could read these books and get the story without reading any of the word balloons.
Based on what I had read about the book, I really thought architecture would play a more central role, and it is important, but it’s just an element of the story — there are a few architects in the book and some throaty arguments between Bruce Wayne and the alluring Cyndia Syl concerning the role of society in preserving architecturally significant buildings in a world bent on modernization. Bruce is intent on demolishing an awe-inspiring Wayne Central Station instead of retrofitting it, as Miss Syl would have him do. Of course, what Miss Syl can never know is that in addition to creating a safer and more modern transit hub, the new building would house a more effective base of operations for the mysterious Batman!
The story wants to be more interesting than it is, I am sad to say. The Joker makes an appearance but he feels much more like Cesar Romero’s version of the character than Heath Ledger’s. For the most part, this is a fun story, but there are a few specific “Bat-nerd” points that just rang patently untrue and ridiculous, including the introduction of an “impact neutralizer,” which Batman uses to create a force field to protect him and two others from dying in an explosion. Given how (somewhat) realistic this book strives to be, this device just felt incredibly out of place, used not once, but twice, to help save the day. I feel comfortable enough with you to admit that this annoyed me to no end, and just felt like a cheap way for the author to get out of a jam. Yes, I understand that this is “just comics” but it was wildly incongruous with the reality that Kidd and Taylor seemed to value so passionately, and served mostly as an unwelcome distraction than a capstone to an exciting action sequence.
The story ends very cleanly and happily, reminding me more of the ending to Thin Man movie than a Batman tale, but I guess that is in keeping with the look and feel of the book itself. Taylor’s art is really the highlight for this book, and DC seemed to know it—there are extensive sketches and doodles before and after the story, which lend itself nicely to the architectural themes in the storyline.
As the final images from The Dark Knight Rises cement themselves into our collective past, it is nice to know that DC continues to encourage creators to do new and wonderful things with the Caped Crusader. Despite some of my misgivings, both of these books are well worth reading (though, if pressed, I would suggest buying Batman: Earth One and checking out Batman: Death By Design from your library if purchasing two is not realistic) and offer entertaining (and thought-provoking) takes not only on the Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, but Alfred, James Gordon and the city of Gotham itself. If The Dark Knight Rises made you yearn for reading some solid Batman stories but you’re not ready to commit to reading the (excellent) monthly comics, then these two hardcover trades are both worth picking up — they are well designed, printed on excellent paper (and affordable if you go through Amazon!) and should satisfy your Bat-cravings nicely.
Batman: Earth One – Story: 4.5 / Art: 5
Batman: Death By Design – Story 3.5 / Art 4.5