*Spoilers ahead, folks
The opening of Batman: Earth One, the re-imagining of the Dark Knight and a comic book that seems to have created waves among lovers of the medium years before it came out, proved promising - nicely drawn, good pacing, and, best of all it felt like the Batman I know in full-on detective mode, even before anything was said. Then, about 15 pages in, we're introduced to a new Alfred, followed swiftly by some dodgy dialogue, and that's when Batman: Earth One plummets into a confused re-telling of the Batman origins - if you can even call it that -, mixed with few commendable moments, but none that are rather memorable.
I have no problem with reinventing characters, as that is how the big guns like Marvel and DC have operated since their inception. Updating classic heroes like Batman and Superman works because we can't always be living in the 1940s, shit needs to move with the times, and that is how the industry has survived for this long. Fitting comics into the 'world of the now' and seeing characters that a lot of us have grown up with growing with us too, and dealing with issues that are universal to the current world, is always a positive thing. Plus all of this proves that, no matter what the century maybe, these characters are still not only relevant, but important, too.
However, over the last few years, both Marvel and DC seem to have lost sight of what made most of their core characters, and the lesser-known ones, great. Batman: Earth One is an example of bringing a new audience to a key property in the DC universe, but losing a fan base with it, which seems to be the similar reaction to a lot of DC's 'The New 52' (the reinvention of 52 DC characters, where all issues of the selected characters started at number 1 again, getting a 'modern' reboot) that kicked into gear near the end of 2011.
I've seen many incarnations of Batman over the years, from the amazing, to the alright, to the downright terrible, but there are pieces of the Batman story that were introduced and work for a reason, hence why they have been kept in most recent versions - especially in the 90s - and one of them is the relationship between Bruce and Alfred.
In most Batman adaptations, Alfred is written as being the butler for the Wayne family, and, subsequently the sole carer for Bruce after the tragic murder of his parents. (Present to me someone who doesn't know this part of the Batman mythology, and I'll go crazy.) Alfred in Batman: Earth One has been completely altered, and, not necessarily for the better. Here, he is an ex-marine (I laughed even typing that), brought in by Bruce's father, Thomas, to protect him from people on the inside of his mayoral election campaign - he doesn't trust his own men, but Alfred is the only guy he can put his faith in. Fair enough, Thomas is the richest man in Gotham, people would be out for his shit, and, apparently, him and Alfred have a past-filled with unspeakable things, so those guys are on the same page.
Both Bruce and Alfred have had their difficult moments over the years with one another, but Batman: Earth One rips out what made their relationship a favourite of mine in the first place, and that boils down to the dynamics that they've always seemed to portray as a pair. They have a ping-pong-like relationship, batting back and forth with one another - sometimes they're cool, sometimes they're not. There is a sense of a father/son feelings between them, but of course the catalyst in turning Bruce into Batman was the death of his parents, and that isn't going to change. There has always been a massive emphasis on Bruce's relationship with his father in nearly every Batman adaptation I have read, and that creates this kind of underlying tension where we all know Alfred will never be a replacement for Bruce's dad. As the old saying goes, he can't tell him what to do, he isn't his father. In retrospective, it is quite sad - Alfred means a lot to Bruce, but he will never replace the love of his parents. Money can't buy that shit.
I could see Batman: Earth One going for that angle, the emotional lean which has worked on so many occasions for this relationship, but not here. The key scene I can think of that was just downright ridiculous was when Bruce and Alfred start fighting, like a proper-full on fight. I haven't read a comic, or at least can't remember one thankfully, where that has happened, but it just didn't fit; it was so out of place.
Alfred would never fight Bruce, even if he was trying to prove a point. In Alfred-fashion, he would have gotten through to Bruce with words, not brawn (or lack of).
The so-obviously ludicrous line that stuck in my head after the fight when, inevitably, Bruce beats Alfred (he was actually losing at some stage, what?!) was truly, and utterly absurd:
"Blood hell, maybe he is ready."
Ready for what, Alfred? He beat a crippled, ex-marine old man, what does that mean he is possibly ready for? Give me a few seconds in a room with Alfred, and even I could beat the fuck out of him. Ex-marine or not, he's not exactly at his best, is he? He can only move about with a walking stick, for Christs sake. If he couldn't best Alfred in a fucking fight, Bruce would have just had to have given up the Batman cape, like, right there and then.
Combining this with the fact that Alfred was given more badass moments in the comic then Batman was, who ended up bumbling around for most of the 144 pages, seemed stupid. I get it, these were all his first outings as the Bat, but, my god, you don't hand over the killing of the major villain - here, it was Oswald Cobblepot aka. The Penguin - to your fucking butler. That's not how shit goes down. And why would you you establish the fucking fact that Cobblepot was ultimately responsible, in a roundabout way, for the death of your parents; the reason why you're doing this shit in the first place - to find out who killed them - and then have Alfred finish the job? If Bruce had battered Cobblepot to a bloody pulp, and offed him, that would have been a massive leap for his character - discovering that killing is wrong; bringing back the death of his parents, and showing him that the way he was going about finding out the key to the murder of his loved ones wasn't necessarily a good path to go down. But no, Alfred had to go and do it himself, not really teaching Bruce a valuable lesson (which seems to be a common theme running in the Bat-verse, learning from past mistakes) through killing Cobblepot. He'd set out to bring his parents murderer to justice, but in turn, did exactly what their murderer did - excuses can't be made about that shit. That would've flipped the story on its head, for sure.
Going into the villain-side of the comic, it is a good turn for Cobblepot, who came across as quite menacing. Though I wasn't a fan of most of Gary Frank's artwork - I think it was the too-photoshopped like colouring that really let him down -, Cobblepot was definitely done well, look-wise, and had a rather disgusting feeling to him. For some reason or other, I've always found Cobblepot extremely repulsive, and Batman: Earth One brought that out in him - if only his death wasn't so downright ridiculous (thanks, Alfred), maybe he would have been a villain worth noting here.
So, with Alfred getting a headlining role and not a supporting one, another character in the Batman universe received the same treatment - James Gordon.
Batman: Earth One, a lot of the time, read like an origins story for James Gordon, too, a character I have always been fond of. I have swapped and changed, opinion wise, what I think of the inclusion of Gordon's heavy story-line, where he teams up with an actor-turned detective, Harvey Bullock (only there for comedy relief, really, unlike the Gotham Central version of him) and track down the Birthday Boy, some mass-murderer that Cobblepot employed for reasons that aren't really explained. I concluded that it didn't really work, not for me anyway.
In another context, I want Gordon - more Gordon, always! - but, Gordon's tale seemed to override Batman's on a number of occasions, writing wise especially. In fact, the comic as a whole would have worked a lot better had it been all from Gordon's perspective, and another detective outing of the Dark Knight, not an origin based story. I was left always wanting more Gordon in a comic that was supposed to give me a founding idea of Batman. The artwork and writing seemed to step up to a greater notch when Gordon was in the fold and Batman/Bruce wasn't around (when they didn't focus on his stupid corrupt cop storyline) - another point that confused me some. Why not tell an origin tale of Gordon instead, then, but, you know, one where he isn't like every other controlled Gotham officer, which is a trait not familiar to him at all?
In saying that, I did like the inclusion of Gordon's daughter, Barbara - a character that has gone through leaps and bounds after Alan Moore's The Killing Joke back in the 80s. It was nice to see her playing an almost-pivotal role in the comic as I think she is definitely an underrated hero (when she is or isn't Batgirl) and one that, even when she was rolling around in the DC world, wasn't used to the extent she could have been.
Keeping in line with positives of the comic, the continuation of corrupt themes in the Batman universe has always worked well for the character who started off being rather, well camp, and turned into a brooding sprawl of a damaged man around the 70s/80s, to what we have of him today. I'm happy to see that this was still a common thread in this Batman version, as it is always a welcomed story arc in my books.
But alas, when you bring in the corruption lines of it, you want Batman to actually get involved within this fight, and it didn't really happen - he merely skimmed on the outskirts, more interested in finding out who killed his parents, and he just happened to live in a corrupt world.
I liked this idea, though, and it could have worked like Bruce's selfish, hot-headed attitude has fitted into other comics, where he quickly descends into the saviour Gotham needs at the time. However, the things that happened, the stuff that Bruce did, well, I could see where writer Geoff Johns was going with this one, but even silly things like his first introduction to Gordon resulted in Batman punching him punching so hard that, come morning, he was without doubt going to be reeling from that shit, didn't sit well with me - no matter if it was an out-of-nowhere swing. When Batman and Gordon 'bonded', it didn't work at all. Maybe this will be more developed in the already-announced follow-up?
Nearing the climax, it did bring some kind of emotion on the lines of "GO BATMAN, GO!" when we actually bared witness to him - shock horror -beating the fuck out of a villain (Birthday Boy), like he should have done with the stubby Cobblepot. This is a Batman with his mojo, and I was more than happy to see his arrival (he'd never truly arrived in the comic, before). One 'badman' moment can't be the only thing going for Batman in a comic all about him - or one that was supposed to be about him, but never truly got there - and that leads me to the ending, by far the best part of the comic (and this isn't said in a bad-joke 'the ending was great because it actually ended).
The Riddler is a Batman villain you can do so much with - he has elements of Joker at his core, but he is a detective - much like Batman is - which makes him an excellent foe. You never know if that guy is one step ahead of Batman or not, and that's when his character really gets going. He's all over the place, but then he's a calculated deviant that could outsmart most other villains in the Batman universe.
My problem with the ending being so out of place with the comic overall, and the tone of it, was the fact that Bruce hadn't been out and about as the Bat, like, hardly in those 144 pages. What kind of riddle is that? I would have fully believed that ending (which I thought was really well drawn and generally a solid finish to a comic that, at first, didn't really leave me wanting more, but in a way it did based on the short appearance of the Riddler) if Batman was actually around, doing shit, where the people of Gotham could see him apart from, what, two times throughout the whole story in his bat costume?
Overall, and to finally tie this one up, Batman: Earth One isn't a bad comic. In the mix of trying to create a new Batman for readers, the ideals and fundamentals of him, and the things that made him become so well-loved and admired in the first place, where lost through Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's bold attempt at creating something entirely fresh. I hope in the sequel the Bat mans up, and hardcore (in so many words). He doesn't need the beastly power of Alfred to save him, he's fucking Batman.