Six years after the previous volume was originally published, we finally get to return to the world of Batman: Earth One, with the star-studded creative team of Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Jon Sibal, Brad Anderson, and Rob Leigh in tow.  The long-awaited third volume picks up shortly after the second, as Bruce Wayne grows more comfortable with his persona as the Batman, and tensions brewing beneath the surface of Gotham City come bursting forth.  New allies, new enemies, and new gadgets are introduced, along with the return of a surprising figure from Bruce’s past.  Building on the groundwork laid by the first two installments, this has the potential to be the best and most ambitious chapter yet.

Much like its predecessors, though, it’s just fine.

Get ready for lots of praise about the art, though.

Funny enough, I hadn’t even read volumes one and two of this series until just a few months ago.  While I’m not entirely sure what kept me away for so long, a lot of it could be attributed to what I learned secondhand from others, particularly about some of the changes made to Batman’s history and the characters who are a part of that.  I mean, gruff, grizzled Alfred?  Hunky Harvey Bullock?  Batman, not the World’s Greatest Detective, but instead the World’s Okayest Rich Guy?  Eh, not that intriguing.

Still, I finally read them to say that I had, if nothing else, and yeah.  They’re fine.  A lot of the changes are arbitrary, with the feeling that they were made because they could be made rather than they should, but they were quick, entertaining reads with some stunning artwork.  I’m still not a fan of this take on Alfred, and Bruce is kind of a bland, one-note cypher, but I really ended up liking where Geoff Johns took Harvey Bullock.  Casting Killer Croc as an ally is an inspired choice as well, and it pays off nicely here.

Broadly speaking, though, the story never quite gels.  There’s a lot going on here: Gotham’s adjustment to the death of Harvey Dent, an impending war on the streets, peeks into Bruce Wayne’s family history with mental illness, and a mysterious specter looming over everything.  Despite its lofty ambitions, the story still feels remarkably small-scale, even with the fate of Gotham City at stake.  Individually there are aspects that work, but I don’t feel like it really came together in the end.

That Gary Frank sure is good, though. (Told you)

It’s weird, because the thread that I had the least amount of interest in through most of the story ended up having the best payoff.  Bruce’s grandfather Adrian Arkham has resurfaced after decades of supposedly being dead.  He’s incoherent, confused, and even a bit violent, but Bruce feels compassion toward him and takes him in.  It’s a promising start, but quickly turns into Adrian raving and ranting about “evil spirits” that are haunting Gotham in general, and Bruce in particular.

It’s not great, and pretty dull.  This subplot leads exactly where you think it will, but then there’s a last minute reveal in the closing montage that… well, it doesn’t necessarily redeem that part of the story, but it makes me incredibly interested to see how they use this character in future chapters, assuming there are more installments.

The main story revolves around Jessica Dent trying to adjust to life as mayor after losing her brother, along with Batman learning of weapons shipments that are somehow making their way into Gotham.  This is a bit more interesting than the Arkham story, as even though Bruce is fairly one-note and bland, there are some nice scenes between him and Jessica.

Johns’ script is fine, peppered with some fun interactions in between long stretches of fairly boilerplate dialogue.  It’s an incredibly fast reading book, though, with a story that you could probably get through in under an hour.  Johns knows how to lean on and utilize the storytelling abilities of his artistic collaborators, though, so Frank, Sinal, Anderson, and Leigh get plenty of moments to shine.

There are tons of gorgeous splash pages throughout the book, and they aren’t just showy either.  I mean, sure, they’re a great showcase of the team’s knack for visual storytelling, but it looks cool without just looking cool, you know?

Take that sequence directly above, with Jessica Dent staring at the half moon.  It’s a bit on the nose, given the “Two-Face” comparison, but it’s still a beautiful sequence of wordless storytelling.  You can tell everything she’s thinking and feeling through the look in her eyes, and she doesn’t need to say a single word for it to be conveyed.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not a big fan of this series’ Alfred, as reimagining him as a grizzled and jaded military man seemed arbitrary at best.  He’s softened a bit over the course of the series, but still not as likable as Alfred should be.

Killer Croc, on the other hand, is pretty awesome, even if I never thought he’d make for a Batman ally. The craggy-skinned man with the rough exterior ironically helps to soften Alfred’s demeanor, though, which leads to some pretty great little moments between the two.

Again, great “acting” with the visuals and some fun dialogue help to make the book shine in its quieter moments.

Rob Leigh’s lettering is a bit of a secret weapon here, as his use of different fonts, sound effects, and word balloons give different characters their own personalities.  Croc speaks with balloons that are rough and “misshapen,” a similar shape which is also used more often than not with Harvey Bullock, who is sliding further and further into alcoholism.  Two different speech patterns for two wildly different characters, but the similar balloons still feel unique to each of the men in context.

Bruce also gains another ally through the course of the book, as a character hinted at in a previous chapter fully realizes their destiny in Gotham City.  It’s… a mixed bag, and I’ll take it to spoilers.

Spoiler

So.  Catwoman.

After popping up to help an injured Batman earlier in the series, it was only a matter of time before Selina Kyle donned a costume and started committing crime and also helping Batman to stop it.  There are a few scenes between the two that have some absolutely dynamite dialogue, as their chemistry even in this alternate world just sizzles.

The main problem I had was her look, which is… this.

It’s not a great costume, for a few reasons.  Most notably, it’s maybe a notch above Jim Lee’s Huntress design from Hush, which is not very practical, to say the least.

Looking beyond the objectification problem, though, this is just not a great looking costume.  It’s silly and over-designed, and even if Selina isn’t one to care what others think about her, I have a hard time taking some of her scenes seriously.  The suit gets a slight overhaul at the end, but it still could have used some more retooling to be palatable.

Johns brings in more characters to grow the world of Gotham City, and even has the surprise inclusion of a villain from Metropolis.  All of this should have made the story feel huge, but it really doesn’t.  Despite the threat of a war that’s meant to ravage the streets of Gotham, the stakes feel relatively small.  I never really felt like anything bad was going to happen, due to splitting the focus between street crime and the “Arkham family curse.”  Had one or the other been given the spotlight with the other elements to support it, then we might have had a tighter story.  Instead, they’re both given about equal weight, and the lack of focus keeps the fast pace of the story from working in their favor.

To put it simply: the pages fly by, and it doesn’t feel like there was a lot of substance.  Good ideas, yes, and partially realized story elements, but not a strong enough narrative through line to pull everything together.

Which is strange, because besides the story that’s meant to feel bigger yet falls short, you have Batman who is thinking about the future.  His focus is expansion and brining in other “Outsiders” to help save the city.  To do that, he sets up shop in an abandoned subway system, and recruits new allies to help save the city’s soul.  That the closing montage was the most exciting part of the story won’t be surprising, especially after you read it yourself, but it makes the overall story feel like a teaser for other tales to come.

Given the popularity of this series, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are plans for future installments, I just don’t like having to invest time reading three volumes before finally getting to a place where I’m fully invested.

Supplemental material: A process breakdown of two separate splash pages, showing Frank’s initial pencils, Sibal’s inks, and then the final page with Anderson’s colors and Leigh’s letters.  It’s cool to see, but other than that, nothing.

Recommended if:

  • You like different takes on Batman.
  • You enjoyed the other two Earth One volumes.
  • You’re hoping they make a fourth one.

Overall: With strengths and weaknesses that are about on par with the first two volumes, your appreciation of Batman: Earth One Volume Three will likely mirror your feelings of the earlier chapters.  Personally, I thought it was fine, as I’ve made peace with aspects that I don’t like, even if they still keep me at arms-length with this alternate take on Batman.  It’s visually stunning, with some great teasers toward the end, but lacks a strong story to keep all of its disparate ideas afloat.  By spending too much time on a variety of subplots rather than sticking to one as the main narrative, the entire book feels like a collection of loosely connected scenes rather than a strong Batman story.  It hints at greater things to come, but isn’t great enough on its own.

SCORE: 6/10