It's been a long time coming, but this July we'll finally get writer Geoff Johns, and artist Gary Frank's look at The Dark Knight, in Batman: Earth One. The original graphic novel from DC Comics takes a different look at the life of the caped crusader, transferring him to a more modern context, and tweaking the origins of some of his supporting characters. In advance of the book's release, we chatted with Johns about what it's like to finally see the book come out, why these different takes were important, and some teases about what might be coming up in Batman: Earth Two:
MTV Geek: There’s obviously been a very long road to getting Batman: Earth One into print - what’s it like finally seeing it coming out on book stands? I imagine there’s a fair amount of relief there.
Geoff Johns: Oh, yeah. Gary and I worked together on Superman and had a really great time on that, and that came out monthly. After that, working on Batman... We’ve been working on it for at least a couple of years now, and so the fact that I actually have a printed copy of it... It’s kind of surreal. Gary is in Italy, but he has his, and it’s kind of unreal to believe it’s actually out. We’re excited for people to check out, because I don’t think anybody really knows what the book is about, or what it’s gonna be like, and we’re pretty proud of it.
Geek: When you started on the book, what was the main idea... And how did you go about modernizing it, or changing it?
GJ: When Gary and I work together, we hopefully go to the heart of the stories. I don’t know if you read any of the Superman work we did, but with Batman... Often it’s about the superhero, and the villain; and we wanted to make it about Bruce Wayne, and the people in Gotham City. The first step in that was removing the white pupils back in his eyes, so we could get to the human part of Batman... So whenever we saw him he was still Bruce Wayne: we could still see those eyes.
If we were going to tackle this, and I had never written a Batman story before - I’ve written him with other characters, but I’ve never really written a solo story... So to do story like this, and take it from the ground up, and strip away all the other stuff, except the people... I wanted to look at the people, and get to what would be a really interesting journey for some characters. I want to see why Bruce would do this, and how that would change, and who Alfred could really be that would resonate a little more for us... Even look at the cops, and change those up, change up our expectations.
Too often, with Commissioner Gordon... He’s Commissioner Gordon. You know exactly what he’s going to be like, and we’re done. I wanted to take a very different approach with everyone in Gotham. The DNA of the characters is still there, but there are very different takes. Hopefully, like the city itself being a maze, where you don’t know which way to turn, you’re not quite sure which way these characters are going to turn, either.
Geek: Let’s actually talk about this Alfred a bit, because he’s one of the characters who - on the surface at least - is very different from in the main continuity. Who is he, and does he - in your opinion - remain Alfred?
GJ: He always has a strong connection with Bruce, and always feels a strong connection with Bruce, and that hasn’t changed. The way the connection is formed, and what Alfred’s real role is, and Bruce’s upbringing, training, and everything else... Has changed dramatically. For us, I wanted to have an Alfred that was a little bit more physical, a little bit more reluctant, and a little bit harder. An Alfred who would be in this situation, and not want to be there, but have to do the best he can. And he’s not very good at it! He’s done some good things, but clearly him and Bruce don’t communicate on any kind of real level. That was all about breaking that down to try and see if they could come at that relationship than how it’s been done before.
One of my favorite things is, when you read it, you don’t even feel like, “Hey, where’s the Batcave? Or where’s the Batmobile.” You don’t really think about it, because it’s not really about that, it’s not about the villains, it’s about Bruce, and Alfred, and Gordon, and everybody else.
Geek: Talking about the villains, and skirting spoiler territory a bit, but I thought your choices were interesting... You could throw the Joker in the mix and be done with it, but instead, you went with who you went with... What led to these choices?
GJ: Partly because the Joker overwhelms it. If it’s the Joker, it’s going to be a Joker story, and this is a Bruce Wayne story. We wanted to go with the unexpected, we wanted to go a bit more grounded. This is before Arkham Asylum, and so the choice of villains were both personal, and also reflective of two different sides of Gotham. I won’t get into the villains specifically, but they threats are extremely different, and they’re designed to bring out character in our heroes. Those choices made sense. One is brand new, and one is a familiar face.
Geek: You mentioned expectations before... I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know who Batman is, but when you were writing this were you playing off those expectations, versus making the book entirely new reader friendly?
GJ: I think it’s both, but our goal was to create interesting characters first. You seem some hints at the larger mythology of Batman you might know... If people are really versed in Batman, they’ll see them, but it’s not about that. With Jim Gordon, it’s about a very different Jim Gordon, he’s in a very different place in his life - he hasn’t become Commissioner Gordon yet. So some expectations, and some are just interesting takes on characters. Clearly the other cop, who will I think will surprise people... He’s nowhere near the character you’d expect, but it’s an interesting character, and it felt like the right choice for this interpretation. So I guess the answer would be, both.
Geek: Continuing on this expectations track, the opening sequence did a great job of presenting the typical “Batman being a bad-ass” type panels, and then juxtaposing them with this Batman not quite delivering on that promise... What was the genesis of this sequence?
GJ: That was the very first sequence scripted, but it was also the very first sequence that was fully fleshed... To open like that, right away it tells you this isn’t the Batman that you read every month, or that you thought you knew. It’s a very different take on Batman. His very first word balloon says it all, when he’s laying in the garbage. That scene sets the tone for the book right away, and we wanted to set the tone right away so you knew what you were reading, what kind of Batman, or what kind of story you were reading. From there, we got right into it, we break it down a little bit more.
Often Batman - this story has some darkness to it - but there’s a lot of fun in these characters, and that balance is important for us, too.
Geek: There’s a lot of groundwork laid here for future stories... When you were putting this together, how much was there an eye for the long-haul, versus making this work as a done-in-one volume?
GJ: Both. We wanted to make sure it worked as a single stand-alone story - it’s very accessible - and also lay some groundwork for where we’re going with the series of books. There’s a lot there - more than people will pick up on. But it’s all going to be built to this tapestry Gary and I are trying to make with this different take on Batman.
Geek: In that case, are there plans for a Batman: Earth Two?
GJ: Oh yeah, we’re already working on the next volume. You can see from the last scene that we set up the next story.
Geek: What would you say is the purpose of the Earth One book at this point? It doesn’t seem like they’re tying into TV or movie continuity, so is it really just about getting a different take on these characters?
GJ: That’s more of a Dan Didio and Jim Lee question, because it’s a publishing strategy, but for me as a creator and writer of the books, it gave me and Gary a chance to do Batman stories where we didn’t need to worry about other books, where we could do a take on Bruce Wayne and Batman that we were more emotionally connected to than the kind of “superhero/what villain is it this time?” stories? For us it’s an outlet to tell this hopefully great, emotional story of a different kind of Batman that most people aren’t familiar with.
But we’re not trying to link up with anyone else. The format, the pages, the time we had to do this, everything was so free... It was really the most creative freedom I’ve had on anything. The deadlines were pretty much up to us, and the creative content was completely up to us. There were no mandates! We didn’t have to worry about any kind of previous stories, or crossovers, or anything else. We could just tell what is hopefully a really great, emotional story about this guy - Bruce Wayne - and surprise people with it. I hope people like it... We’re really excited for it to come out.
Batman: Earth One hits comic book stores from DC Comics on July 4th, and bookstores on July 10th. And here's an exclusive preview of a key sequence in the book: