In the tradition of J. Michael Straczynski & Shane Davis' Superman: Earth One, a new and contemporary take on the Man of Steel, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank now bring us Batman: Earth One, which gives us a jarringly different kind of Caped Crusader – one who screws up. A lot.
The first thing we see is Batman's grappling hook gun backfiring, leading him into a catastrophically botched rooftop chase of a suspect in his parents' murder, where he misses a jump and plummets haphazardly to the alley beneath him in a pained heap – so pained that he doesn't even bother to stop a robbery in progress when it happens right across the street from his landing spot in a pile of garbage. This definitely isn't the all-world Batman we're used to – in fact, it bears noting that we can actually see his eyes, rather than the blank white lenses we see so often to enhance the cool detachedness of the Dark Knight these days.
This is Earth One, but it also seems to be his Year One, as he's still hunting down leads on a vast conspiracy to kill his parents, mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne and his wife, campaign manager and tireless charity worker Martha Wayne (née Arkham – yes, the Waynes and the Arkhams together). Thomas is a clear favorite to win, and as such, has been getting death threats – enough that he's called in his old war buddy Alfred Pennyworth to head up security. Yes, he's not a butler here – that's Stanley's job. Of course, as soon as they bring Alfred on, the first thing they do is ignore all his advice and go take young and bratty Bruce to a movie. That turns out pretty much the same – although it's more directly Bruce's fault this time, since he actually mouthed off like a spoiled rich kid to a thug in an alley, prompting the murderous mugging. After the tragedy, it turns out that Alfred has been named Bruce's legal guardian, much to his chagrin.
In the present day, Mayor Oswald Cobblepot has Gotham City in a tight-fisted grip of corruption, to the point where Detective Jim Gordon is world-weary, beaten-down and seemingly on the take – at least that's what his new, slick, handsome reality-TV star partner Harvey Bullock believes. Yes, I said 'handsome' and 'Harvey Bullock' in the same sentence. When he's introduced, he's an absolute self-promoting grandstander who wants to solve the cold case of the murder of the Waynes for publicity, now that his "Hollywood Detectives" show has been canceled, and thus we think he's going to be an annoying smarmbucket. However, it soon turns out that Bullock is stunned at the depths of the corruption within the GCPD. And it's only going to get uglier for Bullock from there once things get disturbingly real for him.
In another flashback, we also see that Harvey Dent and his sister Jessica were childhood friends of Bruce, although Harvey seems a little more of a tormentor, mocking Bruce for the craziness on the Arkham side of his family – apparently, his grandmother killed his grandfather and then jumped off the roof of the Arkham house – a house Martha made Bruce promise never to go inside of, because "bad things happened there." Perhaps it's this strain of crazy in his family that drives someone to become Batman – it's certaily something Alfred continually tries to talk Bruce out of doing.
With good reason – the next time the Bat comes out, he jumps his target, only to get clobbered from behind with a brick by goons he didn't see, flailing wildly in the ensuing fight enough to crack Gordon in the face. Then he gets shot, falls off a building, loses his crucial evidence and barely doesn't die – but he does make a ridiculous crashing entrance into a schmancy Mayor Cobblepot party, landing smack-dab on the buffet table. It's a complete mess. Even in the final showdown, he gets overconfident and quickly bloodied all to hell.
It's a different world. A different Earth.
Gary Frank's fantastic art is the best thing about Batman: Earth One. It's pitch perfect, amazingly real and disturbing when it needs to be – and it often needs to be, considering Johns has incorporated a sickening masked child-predator named Birthday Boy, a serial killer in direct employ of Cobblepot. Frank helps us feel the sheer hopelessness of life in Gotham CIty, every exasperated moment of Jim Gordon's nightmare life, an adorable Barbara Gordon who finds herself fighting for her life and later inspired by Bruce's example by the end of things, and the slow transformation of Harvey Bullock from the Hollywood douchebag into the take-no-prisoners hardass wreck of a man he will eventually become.
There's a central inconsistency in Johns' story that's nagging at me, however. SPOILER ALERT.
Throughout most of the book, it's intimated that Cobblepot masterminded a conspiracy to kill Thomas Wayne. To the point where anyone attempting to actually look into that case found themselves the recipients of swift and immediate vengeance to deter them from such curiosity. Covering his own ass. However, it's then revealed that yes, there WAS a plan from Oswald, it was still some random fool on the street who committed the crime before anyone connected to Cobblepot could. Hence, there's scarcely any reason for that case to be guarded so closely. The only reason it's uncovered is because one of the crooked cops was somehow spotted using a lighter that Bruce gave to Thomas for Christmas… and really, it said '#1 Dad' on it – how unique could that have been?
Anyway, aside from that and the awful incorporation of the mass murder of young girls stacked in a basement in the continued SVUing of popular culture, Batman: Earth One is a solid read, if a dark and ugly one, with interesting canonical tweaks and the potential for more to arise – with D.A. Harvey Dent and new Mayor Jessica Dent ripe for some new stories. But it's Gary Frank who makes it all work.