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Sometimes the sequel is better: ‘Batman: Earth One Volume Two’

by  in Comic News Comment
Sometimes the sequel is better: ‘Batman: Earth One Volume Two’

Well, this is more like it.

I wasn’t a fan of the first volume of the Geoff Johns-written original graphic novel series that attempts to reinvent Batman for a new generation (to put it somewhat mildly). In addition to being wholly unnecessary — the Dark Knight is almost constantly being reimagined for mass audiences — Johns made a series of strange changes to the basic story and cast, seemingly reflective of a desire to be different for the sake of being different. That, and, ultimately, he  presented a story that contradicted Batman’s idealistic “no guns, no killing” philosophy by having another character save Batman from certain death by killing the villain with a gun.

Given how confounding I found that first volume, I was surprised – and happily so – to find this sequel is a much stronger work. Johns, penciler  Gary Frank, inker Jon Sibal and colorist Brad Anderson return to their very particular story of the beginning of Batman’s crime-fighting career … or, at least, a Batman’s crime-fighting career. It’s a distinction likely lost on the intended audience, but this is the Batman of the current, post-crises alternate Earth designated “Earth One.”

If I had to guess why this volume is so much more enjoyable than the first, I would suppose that the shock of the new has by now worn off a bit. That, and as the story progresses, some of the characters who began in odd places are now evolving into more familiar, more optimistic, more heroic forms. James Gordon is Exhibit A: He started volume one as a corrupt cop going along to get along out of fear for his daughter’s safety, and slowly became more noble. Now he’s the genuinely good cop we’re more familiar with.

The main villain of the piece is The Riddler, who was teased near the end of the previous volume, and appears throughout much of this on as a voice over a radio, and a presence just slightly off-panel. Here he’s a serial killer pretending to be a terrorist, staging a series of complicated mass killings in which he first gives the victims the chance to guess his riddle in order to save their lives (as a riddle-writer goes, I found Johns somewhat lacking; I actually correctly guessed more than half of them).

Killer Croc also appears in several scenes, and we witness the origins of Earth One’s Two-Face.

The former is rather refreshingly played closer to his original origins, as a guy with a horrible skin disease shunned by society and made to feel like a monster, while over the past decade and a half or so Batman writers and artists have been pushing the character more and more toward actual monster territory. He’s also played as an essentially good guy, one who eventually joins Batman’s circle of crime-fighting allies, along with Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox.

The latter is quite a departure from the source material, maybe the most dramatic of any of the characters to appear so far, and should prove interesting in future volumes. I don’t want to say any more, for fear of ruining one of the bigger reveals of the book.

While Johns continues to engage in a great deal of world-building – this Batman doesn’t have a Batcave, a Batmobile, a Batsignal or body armor yet, but talks about getting all of these things eventually – this volume is mostly concerned with The Riddler story, a rather taut, action/thriller plot that sends the Caped Crusader running through various stock Hollywood scenes to solve murders and stop explosions. He walks through a crime scene with Gordon, he has a rooftop fight, he runs along the top of a speeding train; there’s a huge brawl at police headquarters, a climactic car chase, and so on.

If the first volume read like a pitch for a big-budget TV show, this one read more like a movie, albeit the middle movie in an intended trilogy. Which isn’t to say it’s not very comic book-y; it reads well as a standalone graphic novel, but it isn’t terribly ambitious in its use of the medium. That is, there’s nothing in this comic book that couldn’t have been done in prose or film.

The greatest improvement, however, is that Batman isn’t proved wrong about things the way he was at the climax of the original. Sure, this Batman is still young, still raw and still learning, but Johns doesn’t have his graphic novel conspiring to call bullshit on the Dark Knight’s respect for human life and aversion to firearms, at least.

Frank and Sibal’s art remains strong, and Batman seems a much better fit for their more realistic art than either Superman or Captain Marvel/Shazam, the other two characters on which they’ve collaborated with Johns extensively in the past. In addition to the fine acting they accomplish with many of the supporting characters (particularly Gordon and Pennyworth, whose heavily lined faces are fun to read), Frank has tweaked Batman’s costume, giving him a new Bat-symbol that holds his cape in place a bit like a brooch, and Batman’s visible eyeballs continue to make this Batman look like the most human of all the Batmen running around DC’s line.

The Riddler is a rather weak design, though. He’s basically just a scruffy, shirtless guy in a long green coat, with a question-mark face tattoo. But after keeping him off-panel for 120 pages before finally revealing him in a splash, they sort of blow it, having his head tilted in such a way so as to obscure the tattoo.

Despite the occasional, minor weaknesses, however, Johns and Frank were both apparently much more comfortable and confident in their work on this volume, and it’s a vast improvement over the first volume. By the time I finished reading, I was actually excited to see what they would come up with in Volume Three, which will apparently prominently feature Catwoman, who makes a plain-clothes debut here, and the new, very different version of Two-Face.

Looking forward to the next volume is pretty much the exact opposite of how I felt after reading Volume One, so that’s quite a turnaround.

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