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Johns & Frank Aim for ‘Surprising and New’ in Latest “Batman: Earth One” Volume

by  in Comic News Comment
Johns & Frank Aim for ‘Surprising and New’ in Latest “Batman: Earth One” Volume

When the first volume of “Batman: Earth One” — a reimagination of the Batman mythos set in its own continuity outside of any ongoing DC Comics storylines — arrived in 2012, writer/DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and his frequent collaborator Gary Frank told an origin story, combining familiar elements with new twists, including Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed after their son is taken as a hostage for ransom.

The second “Batman: Earth One” volume is now on sale, and moves to an active Batman operating as a crimefighter in Gotham City, this time encountering Johns and Frank’s new interpretation of the Riddler, and their take on Killer Croc. It also continues to explore the characters of Harvey Dent and his twin sister Jessica, further the Jim Gordon/Harvey Bullock dynamic and introduces an evolution of this Batman’s costume.

CBR News spoke with both Johns and Frank about “Batman: Earth One” Vol. 2, in a discussion centering on what can — and what can’t — be done when reinventing such a legendary figure in pop culture. As Johns puts it, “There’s both a freedom and a responsibility to working on a Batman series like this. Even though you can do whatever you want, Batman’s not going to suddenly be able to fly, or Alfred’s not going to be a teenage kid.” The duo also discuss plans for future volumes, and how this compares to other character overhauls they’ve launched in the past — including “Shazam” and “Superman: Secret Origin.”

CBR News: Geoff, Gary, for both of you, what were the goals going into the second volume of “Batman: Earth One”? You’re now past the origin story, and given the nature of the “Earth One” stories, you can theoretically go in a lot of directions. What statement did you want to make with this?

Gary Frank: The first book was so much of an introduction — it was a lot of fun, but it’s the foundations. When you hit the second book, you’ve got a lot that you don’t really need to cover, you don’t really need to explain. It’s not so much scene-setting — you can get into the rich stuff. You’re taking characters that people know, and you’re telling them more about them. You’re also, in some ways, revealing that they might not match the characters quite as well as they thought they did. You’ve got more meat to be working with.

It’s more fun for us, and I’m hoping it’s more fun for the readers, as well. Certainly from my point of view of drawing Batman, in the first [volume] there’s an element of not really being entirely sure how to approach him. By the end of the book, I kind of felt I knew him a little bit better. I know the character, I’m confident with the character.

Geoff Johns: I think the goal in this one was to tell a story of bringing Bruce to the next level of Batman, and really challenging him in a way that would force him to become a detective.

Looking at the villains of the book — based on how the last one ended, readers knew Riddler was coming, but it’s a character that is often depicted as somewhat lighthearted. This is as hard-edged of a Riddler that readers may have ever seen — what did you both want to do with the character, and how did you arrive at this interpretation of such a famous and iconic villain?

Johns: It was a reflection back on Batman and a journey of identity and discovery. For this take on the Riddler, we wanted to do more of a mystery of who he was and what he was doing — in a strange way, he’s kind of a homegrown terrorist of Gotham. And he’s doing these very cruel attacks on Gotham, frightening Gotham and confusing Gotham. It’s unclear what he wants, if he wants anything at all. He’s asking these strange riddles and hurting a lot of people. We wanted more of a mystery to who the Riddler is, and why he’s doing what he’s doing.

Frank: Our Riddler is less of a cartoon character than some interpretations. He’s not a particularly nice man, but he’s a man nevertheless. You know when you hear the words “rogues gallery,” and you know what you’re talking about? With this, I don’t feel that we’re necessarily going for a rogues gallery. It’s not like we’re creating an enemy for Batman to fight and then maybe he’ll come back and fight him again. These characters come in and they serve the story and they may live or they may die. I think it’s interesting if the reader doesn’t really know. A reader can get very comfortable with a convention. It’s nice to not have that feeling.

Johns: Especially with these characters. Everyone knows these characters so well, you really have to do something that’s surprising and new with them.

Gary, what can you say about your visual inspirations for where you took the Riddler? Not only does he feel different, he looks different, too.

Frank: It’s more like having an idea what you think Gotham is going to feel like, and having a version of the Riddler which our Gotham might belch forth. I don’t think we would necessarily have a guy with a green bowler hat and stuff. The visuals, for me, just comes from how the book feels, how the city feels, how the rest of the cast feels.

Killer Croc also plays into “Earth One” Vol. 2. That’s a popular villain, but not a no-brainer to appear in the second volume of something like this, certainly — what motivated his inclusion?

Frank: I think the thing with Croc is, everyone’s known who the villain was going to be in the next book. We don’t want to do, “Book Two is going to be the Riddler, and then the next book is Killer Croc, and then the next book is the Joker.” It’s not a useful way of using what we’ve got here; the format that we’ve been given. Given that we can paint these pretty broad strokes and bring in a lot of elements in a single book rather than having to introduce everything in a villain of the month kind of way, we can use characters like Croc in a way that you can’t necessarily use them in regular continuity. You can bring this character in and you can fulfill a different role in the story. It can do something else.

From that point of view, just doing a not-too-dissimilar version of Killer Croc doesn’t really take us anywhere. It uses up pages, but that’s not what we want to do with it.

Johns: For us, Croc has got a big role in what Bruce’s life is going forward. It’s cool, it’s a different take on Croc, but at the end of the day, it’s really to illustrate the change Bruce has gone through.

I’m curious to hear from both of you, as veterans of monthly comics, about the storytelling advantages in getting to do a graphic novel. Sometimes a book like this reads like single issue chapters that have been stitched together — this one doesn’t feel like that, and seems paced very deliberately with the format in mind. How did you enjoy that element of it?

Johns: For me, it was really freeing, working with Gary on something like this. It’s hard — everyone’s seen Batman, they all have their preconceived notion of who Batman is and what a Batman story is. When Gary and I were talking about doing this “Earth One” series, before we said yes, we really had to figure out what made us want to tell this story, and why was this story was a story worth telling, and why would we want to change Batman at all, because it’s such a great character as is. It came down to the personal journeys of the characters, and the emotional realities of the characters, and the time that we would have to tell these stories, and the space we would have.

Ultimately, when we hooked onto something that we liked — a Bruce Wayne who has to learn; and an Alfred who’s a little bit harder on him and has a different point of view; a Jim Gordon, who, when we first met him, is looking the other way; a Harvey Bullock who’s idealistic. It all just started from that, and then it’s just continued out. When we meet these new characters, like Jessica Dent or Harvey Dent or Croc or whoever, we want to go different ways than you’re used to, but we also want to try and stay true to the DNA of Batman and the mythology, and what’s always explored and represented — which is overcoming darkness, justice, finding each other in absolute darkness; things like that.

For me personally, and I know Gary will probably echo some of the same things, it’s a sense of freedom. And you don’t often get that with really established characters like Batman, that are owned by companies. This feels almost like a cross between a creator-owned book and a Batman book, because we’ve been given as much latitude as we want.

Is that a pretty natural balance to arrive at? “These are the things we want to change, storyline-wise and visually, but these are the things that can’t change and have to remain constant.” Is it easy for both of you to find that balance, or is it sometimes a work in progress as you’re putting these books together?

Frank: If you start with a pretty clearly defined idea of what you want the book to do, I think it’s easier. Those kinds of questions don’t crop up so much, because you have a direction — you know from the beginning what you want the book to be doing. You know how you want it to be different from other takes on the character. It should all grow from that, and feel fairly natural as it comes out. I don’t think there’s too much second-guessing involved.

Johns: Yep.

It’s been a couple years between “Batman: Earth One” volumes, and the ending certainly suggests more to come. Are both of you already working on the third? Is this viewed as a long-term project potentially, something you can keep coming back to?

Johns: We’re deep into [Vol. 3] right now.

Frank: The story is going to end. It’s not something that we’re going to be doing 10, 12 volumes into the future. There is an arc. We know where we’re going with it.

Johns: We have a beginning, we’re in the middle right now, and we do have an endpoint. We know where we want it to end and where it’s going to end, and that’s going to take a couple more volumes to tell, at least. We have a whole journey plotted out now for all the characters.

We jumped right from Vol. 2 to Vol. 3, and we’re pretty deep into it. The fact that we have an endpoint I think is really exciting.

That’s another thing that makes it different from monthly comics, which don’t ever really end. It sounds like here, you can have an end in a definitive way.

Frank: That is exactly it. We’re not flailing around.

Johns: We always knew the last page of the first volume — I think I pitched Gary in detail the last three or four pages of Vol. 2 when we first started. You do need to know an ending. The ending’s the whole point of the story. It’s not just the epilogues, it’s the effects on the characters. Hopefully you can clearly see where we’re taking them. Now that we’ve gone through two volumes, we have the entire series plotted out. Each volume will stand alone, but ultimately tell one big story.

Given the amount that both of you have worked together over the past 10-plus years at this point, has “Batman: Earth One” been uniquely rewarding? The opportunity to such a storied character from the ground up, over a period of time, and getting the room to do it?

Frank: I don’t know. It’s different from the other times that we’ve done it, but with “Shazam” and “Superman: Secret Origin,” we had the chance to play around with the birth of an iconic character. Obviously Batman’s the most famous of them all and the most popular of them all, but I don’t know whether that necessarily reflects in terms of making it more satisfying when you’re actually working on the book. I don’t know that I necessarily find it any more satisfying than say Shazam, which is obviously a much lesser-known character, but just as rich and just as interesting, and just as fulfilling in its own way.

Johns: The thing for “Batman: Earth One” that’s been so freeing is, there’s both a freedom and a responsibility to working on a Batman series like this. Even though you can do whatever you want, Batman’s not going to suddenly be able to fly, or Alfred’s not going to be a teenage kid. There are certain things you’ve got to adhere to so it is a Batman book, but the freedom to explore it in the way we want to has been great. Our editor, Brian Cunningham, has been so great about it.

Frank: There’s an element of freedom that comes with approaching Batman, because you don’t worry about breaking something which has been broken so many times before. So many people have taken this thing apart and put it back together again. You’re not so restricted to a single, dominant vision. There are so many versions already there that you can feel a little bit more relaxed, and a little bit more confident about doing your own version. You know that not everybody’s going to like your version, everybody’s going to have a favorite version — you get to do the thing you want.

Johns: Batman’s an amazing character, and there are so many amazing, talented creators that have worked on him and created characters over the years, into today. We’re just trying to tell a story that hopefully engages you in a different way emotionally and that surprises you, and is an enjoyable story on its own, and can sit alongside other good Batman stories. It is such a celebrated character, and has been done so well in so many mediums — we have to just plunge into with what we think would be fun and interesting for us to explore, and hopefully other people would react to. We’re just trying to tell stories that we find emotionally engaging, and hopefully people will dig it, even though it’s a different take on Batman.

He’s such an elastic character. He’s much more elastic, I think, than Superman. You can get super, super dark; or he can be for kids. Ours is a different take on Batman, but it still fits in that spectrum of interpretations of Batman. That’s the goal. You got to walk that tightrope. It’s really hard, because this is all just subjective — at the end of the day, every creative process is very subjective. It’s not math. There’s no right answer. We’re telling the best answer for what we want to try and accomplish with it.

“Batman: Earth One” Vol. 2 is on sale now at comic book shops, and in bookstores on May 12.

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