Three years ago, DC Comics gave Batman an all-new origin story that he really didn't need. This week, the next chapter of that saga came out. Is it worth reading? Depends.
Batman: Earth One - Volume Two ostensibly exists for three different kinds of reader. The first is someone who got the preceding volume and wants to see what happens. That person can pick up the new hardcover by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank with no real issue.
(Spoilers follow. Hover over the top left of each image and click on the magnifying glass icon to expand it.)
The story presented here picks up months after the end of the preceding volume, giving us a Batman who's become a scary myth to Gotham City's underworld. This Bruce Wayne's competent at stopping street crimes with his combat skills but hasn't had much progress in tackling the deep-rooted systemic corruption crippling his hometown. Meanwhile, a mysterious killer calling himself the riddler is committing high-profile mass murders with no apparent rhyme or reason. In the midst of all this, Bruce's childhood love-turned-mayor Jessica Dent and her district attorney brother Harvey come asking for the billionaire to become a symbol for Gothamites to look up to and he has to think about how he's balancing his double life and how each of his identities can help in turning Gotham around.
It's the other two hypothetical reader types that present Volume Two with its biggest problems. Let's say that Reader Type 2 is somebody who doesn't know or care about the ins and outs of 75+ years of Batman history. They just want to know the how and why of this Bruce Wayne's evolution into a fearsome crimefighter.
That curiosity aligns with some of Reader Type 3's interests. This reader is like me, someone who's familiar with the evolutions of Batman's origin story, mythos and relationships with other characters. As I kept turning the 160 pages in Volume Two, I kept asking myself, "Why am I reading this?" The answer was that I wanted to see what changes are made to characters I and elements that I already know, in the hopes that those shifts illuminate a new or clever understanding of the character.
Like Batman: Earth One - Volume One, this story isn't shy about changing familiar elements of Dark Knight lore. Part of my problem with DC's Earth One books so far is that re-inventions are all so similar that they already feel shallow and rote:
- One character gets turned into two. Lex Luthor gets turned into married couple Alexander and Alexandra Luthor in the three-volume Superman re-imagining. Harvey Dent gets a sibling in that book's newest Batman counterpart.
- Characters who were once strangers-turned-enemies become closer in proximity to the hero. In Superman: Earth One - Volume 3, General Zod is presented as Superman's uncle, where he'd previously been an non-familial nemesis. The Dents here aren't just politicians looking to clean up Gotham, they're childhood friends of Bruce Wayne.
- Some form of symbology gets re-invented or subverted for the sake of visual impact or modernisation. In Superman: Earth One - Volume 3, Lois Lane rigs up a Super-signal to shine Kal-El's S-shield into the sky to call for help. The Batsignal moves the opposite way as far as ostentatiousness goes and becomes a cell phone.
- Parental figures are conspicuously updated, often presented as saltier or edgier. Clark Kent's parents talk to him about the-birds-and-the-bees and girlfriends in the Earth One books. The Alfred Pennyworth in this Batman universe is a grizzled combat vet who hassles and insults Bruce while helping him fight crime.
This manipulation of expectations can give a momentary tingle of entertainment for people who already know Bat-lore but nothing really makes these changes feel like they're blazing new trails. In other beginner-Batman stories, we see a spark of what will make him fearsome. But there's not enough of that here.
This Batman is not good at stealth. He gets seen and people sneak up on him.
He's a bad detective and needs mentorship in figuring out how to piece clues together:
This book's version of freakshow-strongman bad guy Killer Croc hands Batman his arse so, yeah, he's not a superhumanly skilled fighter here either. Tougher than the average street thug, yes, but not an adept.
Let's go back to those last two hypothetical Reader Types and what they might be looking for in this particular hardcover. If you don't know much about Batman, is there enough here to make you interested in him and his psychological make-up? Is he more than just another action character? I don't think there is. He's brave, determined and resilient but Volume Two doesn't present that special mix of brooding gothic obsessiveness that's made Batman so hypnotic to so many.
In Volume One, Johns made Bruce Wayne's mother a member of the Arkham bloodline, linking Batman to the tragic lineage that's best known for creating the asylum where Batman's most disturbed enemies get locked up. Tying into the longtime speculation that maybe Batman himself is crazy, that particular plot beat felt a little too on-the-nose. Johns doubles down on it here, using it as a reason that Harvey Dent tried to keep his sister away from Bruce Wayne when they were all kids.
But this Batman doesn't feel close to the edge of personal darkness. One of the best interpretations of Batman in the modern era casts him as someone who's channeled his trauma to create a greater good. He just presents as distant, behind-the-curve and, worst of all, a little too self-obsessed.
The closest we get to an inkling of any transcendent personality trait is a recurring beat of empathy when Batman has to reckon with other characters' deaths and the loss that any survivors or loved ones will have to deal with. But even that is presented in a growly fashion that doesn't communicate much in the way of compassion.
The most interesting thing about Volume Two is how it treats the story's villains. Killer Croc isn't a vicious feral murderer here; instead, he's a misunderstood guy with a weird skin condition demonised by a sensationalist press. And the Riddler doesn't play fair when compared to his mainline counterpart; he still kills innocents when his conundrums get answered correctly. He's an arsehole, just one with bigger pretensions and schemes. One other major Bat-villain makes a cameo here, in a beat that sets up things for a future volume.
And if you're a Reader Type 3, can you justify picking up Batman: Earth One - Volume Two for its take on an evolving Batman? Gary Frank's art might be the main draw, returning again with sharply rendered lines that tautly delineate the tensions and angst for everyone involved. But Johns' new take on Batman -- who doesn't know how to plan and doesn't do much more than react -- lacks the aspirational aspect present in the best iterations of the character. He may be a sophomore superhero at this point of his journey, but at this rate, it will be a slog to watch him rise above his inexperience to become a Dark Knight who can inspire. It's been fun to watch Bruce Wayne grow into being Batman in the past, but this Earth One take on the Caped Crusader isn't one of those stories.