Maybe “dark,” “gritty” and “realistic” don’t signal fresh material when advertising a Batman tale, but writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One went a different route. The murky backgrounds are still there, and Frank’s version of Batman’s eyeballs, exposed completely under the black mask, shows that Earth One leans on realism. But most importantly, like with every other continuity-shucking Earth One installment, the graphic novel forced comic readers to take on entirely different relationships with well-known characters. Through Batman’s opening volume, we saw Bruce Wayne evolve—and not immediately into the cape-clad hero we know today—but into a budding street fighter with skills left to hone. Readers saw growth in his relationship with Alfred, who fills the butler role only in title. Alfred, after all, is Bruce’s main coach on the streets of Gotham.
This week, Johns and Frank returned with Earth One: Volume Two, a second graphic novel installment that forces readers to question their assumptions about a few Gothamites whose books we’d already closed. The Riddler poses huge questions about Bruce Wayne’s identity. Killer Croc has a surprisingly emotional progression. Harvey Dent has a new twin sister, Jessica—and maybe you can already guess how that works within the book. Maybe most importantly, we see a budding Batman take on a new role: Detective.
We spoke with Johns and Frank about expanding Earth One, Bruce Wayne’s emotional connection with Gotham’s residents and how important humor is in the Earth One series.
The first volume of Earth One was about reexamining the relationships we had with Gotham’s characters, and we see an expanded cast for the second volume. Was it a challenge to keep that theme going as the cast grew?
Johns: No. Expanding the cast, if anything, was liberating and exciting. It was exciting to work with Jessica [Dent], Harvey Dent, Killer Croc and The Riddler. It was actually fun to continue to explore our takes on Bruce, Alfred and Harvey. That wasn’t the challenging part, I don’t think. It’s a different type of storytelling. We’re telling this massive Batman arc in massive novel chapters. It’s almost cinematic, and we’re trying to really dig down into these characters in new way. That’s the challenging part. Taking a different look at these characters while staying true to who they are. It’s a very different take on Riddler, Dent. Jessica Dent [Harvey’s twin sister] is a completely new character. But there are aspects of it, even the bat signal. We have a completely new bat signal in volume two, and even the start of some of the features of bat mythology. I think if we explore Batman, we want to explore it in a way where we say something about these characters that hasn’t been said, or look at them in a way that hasn’t been done before, all while remaining true to the Batman mythos.
Does that cinematic approach make a second Earth One installment a more daunting task from the beginning, as opposed to monthly installments?
Johns: It’s actually a little more rewarding. We can do story arcs and character arcs that are a little more subtle. If you saw that Harvey/Jim Gordon scene in the book, that’d be all you get in a monthly book. It’s not the same experience. You have months and months to wait to see where that goes. The time between that takes away, for me, too much emotional resonance. The fact that you can see things like that play through all at once, in one sitting, that’s really rewarding. We can’t do that stuff in monthly books. It’s daunting in a way, but it’s exhilarating to be able to tell this story, to take the time it takes. It’s going to come out when we think it’s great. It’s not going to be on any schedule other than what it takes to produce a really great graphic novel.
One of the most significant developing relationships was Batman and Gordon’s. With a book that’s made to look at these relationships in different ways, what elements were important to keep in tact?
Johns: That they’re allies, and that they’re allies in a city where there’s a reason that Bruce and Jim work together. That there’s not a whole team of cops around Batman, or a whole team of vigilantes who work with Gordon. These two connect on a level that others don’t. They trust each other, and I wanted to forge this mentor relationship with Bruce, both with Jim and Alfred. But by pushing Jim and Alfred apart, by giving them each their own distinct point of view, I liked having Bruce caught between these two mentors. Having both of them helps Bruce make his own decisions. Alfred and Jim Gordon, if they’re on the same page, they serve the same purpose. By having them at odds a bit, for me, it rounded out that relationship between all three. It’s more interesting for us to explore. That’ll continue with volume three.
In-progress drawing of Killer Croc, by Gary Frank
Killer Croc is another character that’s re-examined, but after a point he takes on very different physical characteristics. Gary, can you tell me about how you approached Croc’s evolution through the book?
Frank: It came from the nature of the story, the nature of the other characters in Gotham. Even though we may do monstrous things, we’re not dealing with traditional monsters in the Batman universe. They’re not cartoon characters, they’re people. It’s important to convey humanity through the way they look. Croc isn’t a crocodile monster. He’s a guy with a very specific appearance, obviously, but underneath he’s a very real human.
He’s also known for mostly his physical presence. Where did you see the potential for this rich, emotional backstory?
Johns: There’s a great news article that’s floating around in the background that Gary drew early on. It says “City of Monsters” and there’s a picture of a bat and a crocodile. This whole volume is about assuming somebody is somebody else—including yourself, by the way. But it’s layered with identity. The mask the Riddler’s made, the mask all these characters have made, Croc is one of these character’s who is completely misidentified all the way through except by Bruce. But going back to that original concept of the character—which is not an alligator monster, but a man with a skin condition—we went back to the roots of it. I wanted to look at it in a very different way. That’s what’s going on with the story, the twists and the characters. There’s a twist to everything, a reveal to everything, and Croc just plays into all of that. If we just did a straightahead monster in the sewers, the story doesn’t call for that. Bruce’s journey calls for him to understand that his assumptions aren’t quite true.
But the Riddler also forces snap decisions on Bruce in this volume. Bruce is forced to make judgments on the fly.
Johns: Yes, this whole volume is about giving him the detective element of the Dark Knight. Our very first panel is the number 27 for a reason. [Ed.—Detective Comics #27 was Batman’s first appearance] We’re all about the detective theme. The whole journey was to see him try and fail and ultimately learn from the experience. Not only in becoming a detective, but in seeing that people probably aren’t what they seem. He still has things to learn. This isn’t going to be like—oh, here he learns how to fight. It’s about learning how to relate to people, how to talk to people, how to trust people, how to trust himself.
We also see that theme in how Bruce relates to Gotham’s people. In both volumes, if there’s a problem, Bruce literally throws money at it. Is Wayne sympathetic toward Gotham’s residents, or is he still on his own singular crusade?
Frank: I don’t think we’re quite there yet. He’s not Gotham’s guardian angel. We might get there, we may never get there. But I don’t think we’re there yet.
Gary, this version of Gotham is one of the most maze-like designs we’ve seen. On a page-to-page basis, with the landmarks and world expanding, has it presented any challenges with its design in mind?
Frank: There were a couple decisions I made in the first volume in how I wanted to approach the style. It’s Gotham—is there any way to approach it in an original way anymore? I’m not sure. It’s an environment that’s very dark, you can’t have too many fun things that you wouldn’t expect. But the thing I really liked to do was tying it into the characters. It’s not really in my character to do anything too distracting, so I wanted very much to use it as a backdrop with characters. There were certain things I did that made me nervous. Sometimes you might draw a block and it might have the same vanishing point, the same perspective. With this, occasionally I’ll fill that out a bit to give that feeling of being not quite on the level, not quite right. But if anybody notices that, it’d probably be a failure, but now I just pointed it out. [Laughs]. But it’s something that I want to happen subconsciously, I want them to be concentrated on the characters.
Geoff, did your time living in Michigan—specifically with what’s going on in Detroit now—inform this version of Gotham?
Johns: Absolutely. Where you come from and what you know—my time in Detroit’s influenced my entire writing career. I’ve done The Flash and I’ve done this, but Gotham needs help. The city itself, Gotham, suffered a real loss when Thomas and Martha were murdered. Both were massively influential on the city. And we’ll continue to see that influence and what that influence was. But Gotham has a heart. Bruce has a heart. The point of this is, underneath all of it, you still have these relationships. Alfred really cares for Bruce, Jim really cares for Bullock, Jessica really cares for her brother. There’s a lot of love there under all the grit and the darkness. That’s really trying to come through. Bruce is subconsciously trying to hold onto that and let it grow, but he’s been closed off to that so long. It’s a process. It’s a process for everyone. Alfred has that, but he obviously cares about Bruce. And sometimes it’s tough love, but that’s what Gary and I are interested in exploring. The relationship between these characters. You can see it’s all about building bonds. You can see the bonds forming between these characters, and I think that’s what makes the book for us.
Modern technology—cellphones, a new bat signal—has a bigger place in volume two. Was it important to integrate these features into the story now?
Johns: I don’t think Gary and I set out to say, hey, we’re going to make everything modern. I think practical is the word to use. [laughs]. Also, it’s just funny. We want to acknowledge all of the elements of the Batman mythology. Some of it will be right on cue, some of it will be different. And today, we thought this was the perfect choice.
Frank: It wasn’t going to be a theme or anything. If you make that stuff big, it fades so quickly. In five years time, what will that look like? I think you have to be conscious. Whatever you do today, it might look redundant tomorrow. Which might be fun, but it’s not something that you want.
Johns: Also, if we just go the route of “oh, here’s how he got the spotlight. Here’s how he does this,” everything’s expected. We’re not changing anything for shock’s sake, but we want some freedom so we can do new things and we have enough of the real essence of Batman that people know, that people will go with us when we do these changes to the character and the mythology.
That’s where a lot of the humor in the book comes in. You go to a panel, you expect to see a spotlight, you expect certain things. You don’t get that here.
Johns: I think there’s a few places where that happens. There’s one where Jim turns around for the first time, and Batman’s gone. He’s like “over here,” and there’s this extra balloon where Jim’s like, “Thanks.” But I think you need to have some humor in this. It’s really important for Gary and I to have some fun with it. Even if it’s Batman. I think Croc is fun. The relationship between Croc and Alfred is funny. But it feels natural for me when that happens. You’re thrown for a loop, but it feels natural for me.