‘Batman: Earth One’ Vol. 3 ‘reframes a number of classic elements in an entertaining way’

Tom Bondurant reviews the latest in DC’s line of Earth One graphic novels, the long-awaited third part of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman trilogy.

This week I read a lot of Batman, which sounds stereotypical, but it’s kind of unavoidable. The new issue of Detective came out this week, along with the third issue of Batman: The Detective; and both featured Bruce Wayne battling overmuscled man-mountains with handlebar mustaches and crazy glints in their eyes. There was also issue #3 of The Batman/Scooby-Doo Mysteries, plus a decent amount of the Darknight Detective in issue #2 of Justice League: Last Ride. And I’m still in the middle of a New 52 Batman re-read, getting into the “Zero Year” epic.

All that said, I’m going to talk about Batman: Earth One Volume Three, written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Gary Frank, inked by Jon Sibal and colored by Brad Anderson.

Speaking of epics, this probably qualifies. The previous two installments came out in August 2014 and June 2016, and I didn’t re-read them before diving into this one. (Of course, in the meantime, this team produced Doomsday Clock and Johns wrote the Three Jokers miniseries, among other things; so it’s not like they weren’t busy.)

Anyway, for this series Johns and Frank have gotten a little more loosey-goosey than Doomsday Clock, but not quite as DC-reverent as their Superman or Legion of Super-Heroes collaborations. The Earth One series is hard to pin down, because ironically enough the various books don’t seem to be interacting with one another, or even taking place on the same Earth. Instead, they have each leaned into a particular genre: fantasy for Wonder Woman, YA adventure for the Teen Titans, space opera for the Green Lantern Corps. (I didn’t read much of J. Michael Stracyzinski and Shane Davis’ Superman series.)

It’s therefore tempting to claim glibly that the Johns/Frank Batman: Earth One is a sort of cinematic take on the legend, somewhere between the Christopher Nolan movies and the Arrowverse in its attempt at verisimilitude. Certainly it started out with a strong DIY aesthetic, kind of like Gotham By Gaslight updated for the 21st Century. (For example, no high-tech costume with bright white eye-slits.) However, by the time Volume Three opens, Bruce and Alfred have recruited a small squad of operatives, including Waylon “Don’t Call Me Killer Croc” Jones, Jim Gordon (who doesn’t know Batman’s secret ID) and Lucius Fox (who does). Also part of the team is Gotham’s mayor Jessica Dent, sister of the late Harvey Dent and wearer of a Seven of Nine-style application to cover her facial scarring. Jessica and Bruce are a couple, so naturally she knows his secret. Johns also established that Bruce’s mother wasn’t a Kane, but an Arkham.

That’s a lot to keep track of, but the plot is just getting started. It revolves around a couple of characters coming back to life. One of those appears to be Harvey himself, and the other stirs up gothic fears that Bruce will succumb to an old Arkham curse. Johns and Frank then introduce their version of Catwoman, who owes a lot in look and attitude to Harley Quinn. This means weaving together Bruce and Jessica’s relationship, the notion that Bruce and/or Gotham City are cursed, the mystery of Ghost Harvey and the other character, and a comparatively-mundane spine involving high-powered weaponry being smuggled into the city. On this structure Johns and Frank hang a car chase and a few Bat-fights to break up all the character work. Nevertheless, towards the end the references and introductions start coming faster, with a handful of key characters introduced in a handful of panels over a few pages. One double-page spread shows the expanded team, which wouldn’t be out of place alongside television’s Team Arrow. Even if this is the end of the series, Volume Three wants to make sure it’s built a good foundation for future Bat-adventures.

So is it all worth it? I read Volume Three basically in one sitting and wasn’t bored or overly confused. (Maybe re-reading the other books will settle the differences between the Arkham and Wayne homes.) Again, the tone isn’t quite as serious as you might expect from Johns and Frank. The latter especially has fun with Croc and Catwoman. It’s hard not to compare this to late-period Arrow, particularly once Oliver and company had really embraced the costumes and codenames. Johns does rush past some things and leave others unexplored, but by and large he and Frank keep their eyes on the ball. Although I am not quite ready to say that this would be a good introduction to Batman, it reworks and reframes a number of classic elements in an entertaining way. At the very least, it’s made me want to re-read all three volumes, which is something I’m not ready to do with Three Jokers.

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