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June 30, 2012

‘Dark Knight Rises’ and ‘Earth One’ : A hero lost in shadows

Posted in: Comics

The Batman we know best is unrelenting, unflappable, unforgiving and, on occasion, unhinged. But watch Bruce Wayne’s face during the next month and you’ll see something new and truly troubling in his eyes: uncertainty.

Two major additions to the Batman mythology arrive in the next three weeks — on Independence Day it’s “Batman: Earth One,” the hardcover graphic novel  by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, and then (of course) on July 20 it’s the opening day for “The Dark Knight Rises,” which closes out Christopher Nolan’s history-making Gotham City trilogy. The projects have more in common than their release month; each has the rare but authentic possibility of reaching a final scene in which a third family tombstone is added next to Thomas and Martha Wayne.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” moviegoers are reintroduced to Bruce Wayne but at first he’s just a sullen shadow of his former self. Eight years have passed since the death of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent and, with the weight of those memories, is it any wonder the recluse needs to lean on a cane as he wanders a sealed-off wing of Wayne Manor? Nolan said that Christian Bale got his “teeth into” the portrayal possibilities of “this guy who has been frozen in this moment in time with nowhere to go.”

Page 1 of “Batman: Earth One.” (DC Comics)

It’s a different but equally unsettled version of Wayne that waits for readers who pick up “Batman: Earth One,” which represents the launch of a new and completely discrete Gotham City mythology.     This is a different Bruce Wayne, one who believes his parents were murdered for political gain. This Bruce was raised by Alfred Pennyworth, but instead of a dutiful butler this guardian is a grizzled former Royal Marine who once saved the life of Bruce’s father.  When Bruce pulls on the cowl of Batman, his agenda is a limited one: to solve his parents’ murder and exact his revenge.

“He just doesn’t have a lot of experience in life, he’s been really sheltered and the only real teacher he’s had in his life is Alfred,” Johns said of his Wayne redux. “He speaks with a totally different voice and point of view [than the Batman in DC titles]. All the characters are changed. This Gordon is not the James Gordon we know, he’s had different things happen and he made different choices. Nobody is the same,”

The story begins with Batman in his early 20s and a novice in his crime-fighting career and, after misjudging a rooftop leap, he lands at street level with a bruised ego and perhaps a split rib. That scene will remind many fans of “Batman: Year One,” the landmark 1987 story arc by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, but as the story veers off it feels far closer in its rhythms and tone to a new entry under DC’s defunct Elseworlds banner (and if it was an “Elseworlds” it might be “Gotham Confidential,” with its apparent nods toward “L.A. Confidential,” the James Ellroy book adapted by Curtis Hanson for a feature film.)

Director Christopher Nolan on the set of “The Dark Knight Rises.” (Ron Phillips / DC Comics / Warner Bros.)

“Batman: Earth One” will sit on the same shelf as “Superman: Earth One” (by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis), which came out in 2010 and returns on Halloween with a sequel to the Metropolis book. For DC, the books are part of an interesting (but, so far, glacially paced) initiative that looks to re-energize iconic characters in a new way and also create easy entry points for first-time readers by jettisoning decades of lore and the strictures of cross-character continuity (Superman is the superhero in his “Earth One,” the same applies to Batman in his). The books have all been printed and bound with the look of reading-room keepsakes, too, and the $22.99 price tag for the 144-page “Batman: Earth One” signals that it’s intended as a signature moment not just this-month’s-latest-adventure. Johns said the series will continue with quality put above quantity.

Johns said tone was key and it started with the creation of a Gotham City that feels like Nolan’s black-eyed Chicago not, say, Tim Burton’s transplanted Transylvania.

“The whole world is dialed way, way down and there’s a sense of reality that Gary and I have brought into it that makes it more about the city — and the people – than it is about the costumes and the villains,” John said in a phone interview this week. ” There’s no Batcave. There’s no Batmobile. And you’ll see how well his gadgets work when we first meet him. This is not even the beta Batman, this is him when Bruce Wayne doesn’t understand what the Batman is or needs to be. He’s just a guy looking for vengeance right now. He starts in a different place.”

Alfred Pennyworth, left, is a very different persona in “Batman: Earth One,” according to writer Geoff Johns. (DC Comics)

The release is a landmark moment for Johns, the chief creative officer of DC Entertainment who (somewhat shockingly) has never had his name on the cover of an original graphic novel. You could fill a library wall with the dozens of trade paperback releases that collect up his work in monthly comics, but this epic is the first that was written for a prestige format. There’s another first, too: Johns has chronicled the solo adventures of Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman but “Earth One” is the first solo Batman story in his illustrious 13-year run at DC.

The milestone was not reached quickly — this is a book that was announced in December 2009 and scheduled for a 2010 midyear release. The deliriously busy Johns and the Italy-based Frank found it took far longer than either expected for the project to reach the bookshelf finish line. Part of the time was spent finding the right story to tell.

“For us it was about finding the emotional story and make it different,” Johns said. “There are so many interpretations of Batman and Bruce Wayne, so Gary and I talked for months before I even started writing so we could decide what the world would be and who the characters would be…there’s a very different Alfred.  Jim Gordon is not the Jim Gordon we know.”

That will sound enticing to many fans but others will roll their eyes when they see it advertised. That’s not my Batman they’ll say and they’ll be right. The nature of one of the basic departures is a visual one: Batman’s pupils are visible while he’s wearing his mask, a fairly small change but one that adds more emotion to his cloaked reactions.

“There’s a reason that Batman doesn’t have the white eyes that he usually has in comic books; without that you see a lot in his eyes.”

– Geoff Boucher

SEE IMAGES LARGER: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

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