The opening scene of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Batman: Earth One” Volume 2 sets the threat level and ramps up the body count in this latest installment of Batman’s early adventures. Inked by Jon Sibal, colored by Brad Anderson and lettered by Rob Leigh, this one-hundred-sixty-page adventure has plenty of action, adventure, suspense and surprise for readers of all levels of familiarity with the Caped Crusader.
Johns writes a Batman (and a Bruce Wayne) who is still figuring out who to be and how to protect Gotham City. The writer infuses Batman’s first appearance with the energy and mystery pervasive in the opening scene of the 1989 “Batman” movie. The Dark Knight is equal parts urban legend and boogeyman, with criminals scared out of their minds and unsure what is truth or fiction regarding this shadowy figure roaming the rooftops and alleyways of Gotham.
Johns chooses to maximize the potential of the platform, giving Harvey and Jessica Dent (they’re twins, not a couple) plenty of space to exhibit their personalities and opinions in the general direction of Batman and Bruce Wayne. The Riddler and Killer Croc are also included in this volume, as is a surprise additional character from Batman’s rogue gallery, whose presence becomes clear on the final page. James Gordon and Harvey Bullock also have space to grow, as does Alfred, and — to a lesser degree — Lucius Fox. Johns expands the mythos of Gotham City and answers some lingering questions from the first volume before getting too deep into this one.
Brad Anderson’s color work is bold and solid, making the world within the pages of the graphic novel vital yet tired, dusty and worn. He uses streetlight haze, screen glow and fiery explosions to grand effect, helping enrich Gary Frank’s drawings while amplifying the shadowy depths established through Jon Sibal’s inks. Anderson uses watercolor moisture in the backgrounds, supplying a visual changeup every so often. Rob Leigh’s lettering is also finely balanced, giving critical developments an amplified visual punch. His lettering choices for Croc are smart, giving the behemoth a tone grounded in realism while being just off enough to appear terrifying.
Frank’s art is simply masterful. After working on the first volume of “Batman: Earth One,” the artist clearly has the visual facade of this world well-crafted and thoroughly thought out. He also has put a great deal of time into thinking through the appearance of Gotham and its citizens. No character here is defaulted or cookie cutter, and every character is different from the one next to them. While Bruce Wayne and the aforementioned cast all have distinct looks, the minor characters — like the mobster Maroni, the judge hearing Maroni’s case and the passengers of the first class L-train — all have distinct posture and personality telegraphed through their appearances. Frank takes it all a step further and even drops in some nice visual winks to fellow Bat-artists Pat Gleason and Greg Capullo.
Batman’s costume is manufactured into believable proportions and appearance, and Frank clearly designed it to better transmit the Dark Knight’s emotions. Those emotions shine through in shadow or light, and Frank does a fantastic job of balancing characters with detailed backgrounds, Joe Kubert-esque lines and shading and a gorgeous mix of stroke and technique. Save for a shifty car chase, Frank’s work is about as perfect as it can get, and this book makes for a nice example of how pages can be structured to maximize detail, design and storytelling.
“Batman: Earth One” Volume 2 introduces a homicidal Riddler, increases the body count in Gotham City and expands the breadth of the universe being built in the “Earth One” series. Johns, Frank and crew aren’t simply retelling the origins of Gotham City’s most famous residents; they’re asking “What if?” and “What would happen?” throughout, tweaking circumstance and setting just enough to make this story feel new without totally abandoning the Batman mythology. This Batman relies on his fists to get the job done but is learning that other methods might be just as effective, and it’s fun to learn alongside him.