This is Beer & Batman, a weekly feature here at Gutterball Special, in which I pair beer with a Batman story. I aim to work my way through the Batman canon in a loosely chronological manner (albeit disregarding most retcons and reboots, and probably indulging the occasional out-of-continuity detour), from Year One to Endgame, and beyond (and maybe even Beyond).
Beer and comics are more than just a great pairing, they actually have a great deal in common. Notably, the lion’s share of the market in both industries is controlled by two major companies (DC and Marvel in comics, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller in beer), which means that two companies control what content reaches the widest audiences. In comics, this is superheroes, and in beers, this is low alcohol, light, fizzy lagers. Both inspire fervent fan loyalty – a dedicated Spider-Man reader is going to be as adamant in their taste as an ardent Coors drinker. What this means, though, is that in both beer and comics, people want what they already know, so even craft brewers are inclined to put forth low alcohol, light, fizzy lagers in order to compete with popular taste. For example, if you like Budweiser, you’d probably like Mill Street Brewery’s Original Organic Lager. It’s a light, perfectly inoffensive beer, which, at only 4.2% alcohol, is refreshing and easy to drink. I already finished a whole bottle before finishing this paragraph.
The equivalent in comics is putting familiar characters, like Batman, in continuity-light stories that are accessible to new readers. This is why Marvel continuously leans so heavily on stories set within Peter Parker’s teen years, and this is also why DC’s Earth One line of graphic novels exists – it’s a daunting task to ask new readers to dive headlong into a series that has ran more or less continuously for seventy-five years, but by shedding continuity and reinventing the characters that everyone knows in a modern, concise graphic novel format, it makes an ideal stepping-on point for all those folks leaving the movie theatre after watching whichever iteration of Batman is on the screen (and we’ve never very long to wait between Batman movies, after all.)
There is something very much like a movie about Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One. As a graphic novel, they get to shed to pacing conventions of serialized storytelling, and due to the conceit of Earth One (which is to say, this is an altogether separate earth in the DC multiverse), they are not beholden to setting up existing continuity, allowing them to make more definitive storytelling decisions with a clear beginning, middle and end. But, also a little like a movie, the thing reads less like a definite work in it’s own right and much more like an adaptation of another work. Like an adaptation, some of their changes work, while others are distractingly different. But like Mill Street’s Organic Lager, it goes down easy and quick.
Right away, Geoff Johns plays with the audience’s notion of Batman as the calculating, ultra-competent detective who is prepared for everything. The book starts with Batman chasing down a crook across the rooftops of Gotham, in a fairly standard scene that’s played out a few times in Batman comics, movies and television. But then it takes a turn; Batman’s grappling gun jams, and he doesn’t make the jump from one rooftop to the next, falling into the alley below. Though Gary Frank’s realistic style is ordinarily not something I enjoy, I’ve got to give him credit for selling this take on Batman. As Adam West proved, a man dressed like a bat looks a little ridiculous, and Gary Frank’s Batman looks very much like nothing more than a man dressed as a bat.
Then, of course, the narrative shifts backward to tell us the story of how Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot (hey, did you know that Thomas and Martha Wayne were shot in an alley in front of their son?) Like Scott Snyder in Zero Year, Geoff Johns takes a particular interest in aspects of Batman’s origin which Year One did not examine. Earth One places Thomas Wayne into greater focus, through the lens of a very different Alfred Pennyworth. In this interpretation of these characters, Thomas Wayne is running for mayor of Gotham against the crooked Oswald Cobblepot. Alfred Pennyworth is a war buddy of Thomas Wayne, whom he hires not as a butler, but as a chief of security. Despite Alfred’s advice to the contrary, Thomas Wayne insists on not letting the campaign interfere with his family life, and takes his wife and son to see a movie. The rest, I’m sure, you know.
Though a little different, this makes a whole lot of sense. Regardless of the telling, Alfred is always Bruce’s legal guardian after his parents’ murder; however, Alfred has never before been a grizzled and paranoid ex-military man. This makes Bruce’s adult skill set make more sense, if he was raised to be prepared for any threat. Thomas Wayne’s bid for mayor adds a different angle to his murder which also feeds into Bruce’s motivation: Bruce is certain that Oswald Cobblepot is responsible for the murder. This puts a point on Bruce’s decision to adopt a secret identity and fight crime – rather than abstractly fighting all crime, this Batman is out to right a specific wrong.
Gordon gets a different treatment as well. Here, he is neither the naive newcomer, nor the lone example of nobility in a corrupt police force. The police force is undoubtably corrupt, and Gordon knows it, but he just keeps his head down, not willing to risk his daughter’s safety by stirring anything up. It is not Gordon’s role to provide us with a fresh view of Gotham; that instead is up to handsome, debonair detective Harvey Bullock.
Wait, you are surely thinking. Harvey Bullock is an overweight, morally flexible, deeply jaded tough guy. Usually, yes. Bullock might not be the only character in Earth One to get a complete makeover, but unlike the bold reinterpretation of Alfred, Bullock is not even in the same role as he usually is, making it a little unclear as why a different character wasn’t chosen (or created) to fill this role. This character isn’t bad (and he is actually enormously significant to the plot), but he is distractingly different from the Harvey Bullock we all know. A transfer from LA, Handsome Harvey is host of a TV show called “Hollywood Detectives,” and is in Gotham to make headlines by solving the city’s most famous cold case: the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
With all pieces in place, Geoff Johns then makes a dubious pacing decision and interjects with a handful of flashback sequences that are certainly designed to develop Bruce’s character, but mostly end up slowing the pace and sowing the seeds for ideas that never pay off. Martha Wayne, in this iteration, was an Arkham, a family with a long history of mental illness. Might her son also be crazy? No, no, he’s not. Bruce Wayne functions best as a closed book; most attempts at opening that book make him less interesting, or worse, a little whiny.
It seems almost like Johns is trying to up his page count, because even with these asides, Earth One is a very lean book. Other scenes seem to be extended for similar reasons; we’re treated to multiple scenes of Alfred berating Bruce for his sloppy vigilantism, which, other than showcasing their badass interpretation of Alfred, do little to raise the stakes or add a greater personal dimension to the plot. The book works best when it is at its most straightforward, and luckily, it resolves in just such a way, with Bullock’s actions placing Gordon (and inadvertently, Gordon’s daughter Barbara) in Cobblepot’s crosshairs, and Batman doing what Batman ought to do best: saving the day.
After an effective and intense rescue of Barbara from the lunatic birthday-themed behemoth serial killer who Cobblepot keeps on his payroll, Batman confronts the mayor directly, and the confrontation is a satisfying conclusion to the trajectory that Johns started his Batman on, twisting Bruce’s conspiracy theory in a way that makes it make sense for Bruce to carry on his fight even after Cobblepot is finished.
The book ends in such a way that feels like it’s setting up a modern, streamlined take on Batman’s continuity. As mentioned, it reads like adaptation, and I can’t help but feel like I’d enjoy it more as a pilot for a new primetime Batman TV drama, because, as adaptation, it’s largely effective and mostly satisfying, though lacks the richness, depth and detail of the source material (more than seventy-five years worth of richness, depth and detail, it’s worth remembering.) While there are some fun reinterpretations of familiar characters and ideas here, I really can’t think of why I’d recommend this book to someone instead of Year One, just as I wouldn’t be inclined to put a bottle of Mill Street’s Organic Lager in the hands of a craft beer novice. There are other, more flavourful, complex and satisfying beers to drink, and there are other, more interesting, complex and satisfying Batman stories to read, but nevertheless, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than with Earth One and a case of Mill Street’s Organic Lager.