Thursday, April 9, 2015

Batman Returns Again

Batman: Earth One Written by Geoff Johns, Penciled by Gary Frank

I’m going to just come clean hear and say that I have a strong prejudice toward Marvel Comics and, more importantly for my purposes here, against DC. This comes from my younger days (in the early 1980s) when Marvel’s storylines were really very much superior to those produced by DC. The first major story arc that I ever followed was Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga beginning in The X-Men #129 and reaching its stunning and tragic crescendo in #138 with Jean Grey’s comrades fighting a desperate and ultimately futile battle on the Moon trying to save her from the Shi’ar Imperial Guard. That was, for me, the high point of comic book storytelling.

It was only a few years later that DC seriously upped their collective game by releasing Frank Miller’s gloomy, yet gripping, The Dark Knight Returns (1986). This was a real step forward in terms of the application of literary naturalism to major label comic books. It featured (among other things) the Joker as a stone cold mass murderer, Green Arrow as a one-armed communist, and a main character whose main approach to information gathering was bone shattering torture. Yet, while I found this pretty compelling when I read it back in the day, I still retained by preference for Marvel standbys, such as the Avengers, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk (and of course the X-Men).

Gordon going "Bad Cop"
in Earth One
Of course, times change. Marvel has certainly done a great deal to expand its brand through movies and television. The movie renditions of The Avengers have moved from strength to strength, last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie was truly excellent, and after a bit of a shaky start, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has really found its footing. Still, many of my friends who are more (so to speak) comics purists have grown tired of Marvel’s improbable plot lines and returning dead characters back to life and have moved off into other, less mainstream imprints like Dark Horse and Image.

DC too has made forays into other media. The Dark Knight movies have been notably successful, and have shown that DC is committed to creating its own noir-ish niche. Their television offerings include Arrow, which has grown into an excellent, character-rich narrative, and The Flash, which hasn’t (at least not yet). They’ve also revamped their comics lines with The New 52, which has provided some different (and very interesting takes) on some traditional characters, particularly Batgirl. They’ve got a series of new releases coming up which I’ll talk about in a subsequent post, but for now I want to talk about yet another step in the emerging Batman narrative.

Alfred in Earth One
In 2012, DC released Batman: Earth One, a new take on the Batman origin story written into their Earth One story environment. Written by DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and penciled by Gary Frank (who has also worked for both Marvel and Image), Earth One continues DC’s comic noir approach, telling the story of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in a dark, crime-ridden Gotham ruled by a corrupt administration led by Mayor Oswald Cobblepot (aka The Penguin). Some other major differences include James Gordon as a detective beaten down by corruption, and Batman’s companion Alfred, not so much a butler as a former British commando and grey eminence. The art is darkly beautiful, often recalling Miller’s work (although showing more similarities to Martha Washington Goes to War than to The Dark Knight Returns) and the story has the kind of gritty, bordering on horror elements that one has come to associate with DC modern output.

Frank Miller's Batman
Batman: Earth One represents yet another transformation in the way that the Batman character is framed, one at once more profound and more subtle than that executed by Miller in The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s Batman is a product of the 1980s: cities decaying after the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s, spineless liberals and their coddling of criminals, and a federal government more concerned with international politics than with domestic collapse. The villains are horrific. Two Face threatens to blow up an entire building. The Joker slaughters the entire audience of the David Letterman Show and then poisons a pack of cub scouts for good measure. Gotham City is plagued by a street gang more intent on simple slaughter than with any economic motive. The solutions proposed are simple: savage beatings and some light torture. Eventually the federal government decides that Batman’s methods are unsound and Superman is sent to sort him out. He is ultimately forced underground, to continue his campaign to beat evil into (physical) submission with the help an army of former street gang members.

More of Miller's version
Batman and the Joker
The Batman of Earth One is more measured. Like Miller’s Dark Knight, this Batman is fallible and vulnerable, although for reasons of inexperience rather than (as in The Dark Knight Returns) age. At times he lacks self-assurance, and a lot of the plot line of Johns and Frank’s book is dedicated to exploring the difficulties faced by Bruce Wayne as he becomes Batman. Will he use weapons or gadgets or just his hands? What tactics is he willing to use, and what tactics will his opponents use against him? At the same time we find James Gordon, a police detective cowed by threats against his daughter’s life (this story arc predates her transformation into something more formidable), but spurred to action by being paired with a new and unscrupulous partner. Johns and Frank build up a great deal of narrative tension, between the former’s taught storytelling and the latter’s earth-tone color pallet.

Batman kicking butt in Earth One
Ultimately there is an important parallel with the Miller Batman in the sense that catastrophic, extrajudicial violence is shown to be necessary to right the ship of state. There is an element of this in most superhero comics, but there is a difference between Apocalypse trying to rejig the time line and Penguin siphoning off funds (although he does use a serial killer as an enforcer). For Johns, as for Miller before him, the important point is that the forces of evil are malignant and merciless and that good people need to be willing to use whatever means are shown to be necessary (like breaking bones or blowing someone away with a 12 gauge) to defend what remains of human goodness. Suffice to say, this is a debatable assertion, and long term readers books like The Avengers or Spiderman will now certainly have gotten the message that there are more clever ways to address even very malign problems than a simply (if satisfying) savage beating.

Still, Batman: Earth One presents a more complicated take on the world than its predecessor, and in a larger sense the program of change at DC seems to be well on its way. Trying to retell the story of a character as classic as the Batman is an ambitious enterprise, but they are clearly committed to it, as shown by the recent announcement of an upcoming second volume of Batman: Earth One to be released this summer. We’ll have to wait a few months to see where they go with this.

~John F.

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