Batman: Earth One is not Geoff John's first time writing the Dark Knight; Batman is a major part of Johns's DC New 52 Justice League, of course, as well as Infinite Crisis, Brightest Day, and Green Lantern, among others. But Earth One does represent Johns's first solo Batman story, and he does deliver something new: a Batman less assured and less capable than any Batman we've read previously. Johns also has the dubious distinction of writing what may be the first ever Bruce Wayne/Alfred Pennyworth wrestling match.
J. Michael Straczynski's Superman: Earth One made headlines even before the book hit the stands for what seemed to be an Edward Cullen-esque Clark Kent (far from the truth and sensationally overreported). Johns's Bruce Wayne in Batman: Earth One ought be far more recognizable to the mainstream reader and therefore far less controversial. The irony is that despite Straczynski's more youthful Clark Kent, the story Straczynski told was singularly "classic" -- an iconic "Superman and the Daily Planet gang" story, while Johns's Batman: Earth One is the one that's full of difference -- familiar faces with new personalities and familiar names on entirely different characters.
Quite a few of the characters here are scene-stealers, eminently followable into a second volume. If there's anything lacking in Batman: Earth One, it's only the comparative dearth of Batman here versus the other characters.
[Review contains spoilers]
Whereas Straczynski's Superman presented a Clark Kent reluctant to don the tights, in Batman: Earth One Johns introduces an almost too-eager Bruce Wayne who seems to have rushed headlong into his Batman persona without benefit of proper training nor gear. This Earth One is not a humorous book nor Johns's Batman a fool, but the opening pages off the Bat-grapple failing and Batman falling off a rooftop set the tone for the book -- a Batman who struggles, and not as in the Earth One Superman's case because of youth, but because of foolhardiness.
In fact, the greatest "realism" that Johns injects into Batman: Earth One is how spoiled Bruce Wayne is. It's not just the young Bruce who taunts his parents' killer with their fortune and snaps "Who the hell are you?" at his new guardian, Alfred; the elder Bruce Wayne feels equally entitled, moved quickly to fisticuffs when Alfred tries to get him to give up the Batman persona. Johns's Bruce Wayne is more "of" Gotham even than the classic version, a descendant of both the Waynes and the Arkhams, but also this Bruce is more a product of his environment, reflective more than the classic version of the wealth that sired him (a "Bruce Wayne for the one percent," even).
Also unlike Straczynski's Superman, however, Batman doesn't change much over the course of the book. He dons a new costume -- Johns is clever in his integration of both the original and "yellow oval" Batman digs -- and learns more about his parents' murder, but Bruce's character is largely set from beginning to end. Bruce enters the book on the trail of his parents' killer, but then falls almost coincidentally into the much more engaging Jim Gordon/Harvey Bullock storyline in the end. Batman gets top billing, but Batman: Earth One might be just as interesting without him.
Rather, it's the buddy-cop team of Gordon and Bullock who steal the Earth One show. Johns's best, most unexpected reveal here is that of svelte, handsome television detective Harvey Bullock, now "slumming it" in Gotham. Bullock partners with the familiar-looking Gordon, but a Gordon who's in fact been so beaten down by corrupt Gotham as to become a criminal stooge himself. Bullock misunderstands Gotham and Gordon understands it all too well, and the two come to meeting of minds only once young Barbara Gordon is kidnapped. This is a great take on the Gordon/Bullock partnership, one that again could support a story even without the Dark Knight's presence.
The other great "recreation" in this book is Johns's new Alfred Pennyworth, no longer an English butler but rather a grizzled war vet. Though Alfred's is still mostly relegated to serving as Bruce's sounding board within the confines of Wayne Manor, his more athletic demeanor does allow for him to go toe-to-toe with Bruce halfway through the book; he also, startlingly, gets to blow away the Penguin with a shotgun in the end. For both Alfred and Bullock, this is the benefit of Earth One; in removing what has become perhaps-tired character tics at this point (Bullock's girth, Alfred's British "properness"), Johns can give each a more active role in this Batman story than they might have otherwise.
(For all these good updates, the poorest is that of Johns's Lucius Fox. As in Christoper Nolan's Batman movies -- straight from them, in face -- Lucius is a down-on-his-luck Wayne technician recruited by Bruce; as in the movies, Lucius dutifully fixes Bruce's gadgets and keeps his secrets. Johns neither adds to Lucius nor gives him much of consequence to do here, and might've left him out entirely; hopefully this will be rectified in the inevitable sequel.)
Batman: Earth One's expansive cast helps Johns overcome one of Superman: Earth One's weaknesses. Superman to its credit read like a television pilot, but it also took place in the same stretch of Metropolis on a single afternoon; it was very insular. Batman, in contrast, still feels cinematic (assisted by Gark Frank's wide shots and thin, angular "actors") but not so closed off or "done in one." Also, whereas Straczynski checked off a number of Superman homages (including the Action Comics #1 cover), Johns manages to avoid just about all the Frank Miller Year One tropes -- there's no young Bruce falling into the Bat-cave nor bat crashing through the window; for Johns to tell Batman's origins without these sawhorses is a feat in and of itself.
Superman: Earth One, while enjoyable, carried with it the weight of what it tried to accomplish -- from the hooded Clark Kent to the book's opening page affirmation that "this is real," Superman: Earth One had to both tell a story and assert its own place. Emerging some two years later, Geoff Johns's Batman: Earth One benefits from the decreased hysteria around the Earth One line (no one expects the Earth One books to become a regularly-published "Ultimate" universe any more); as such, Batman: Earth One feels more relaxed, a meandering story with room to spotlight more than just the main character.
Fans looking for Geoff Johns's take on Batman might feel a little let down; fans interested in Johns's take on Gotham City and its residents, however, ought be pleased with this exercise in world-building. Let's hope it's not two more years before volume two.