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How He Became A Bat: Once More, With Feeling

Seventy-three years after he first appeared, Batman is beginning again. That is to say, yet again. Still. Some more.

Back in 1939, readers of the very first Batman adventure in Detective Comics No. 27 weren't privy to his origin. For that, they had to wait six months for Detective No. 33 and the two-page, 12-panel story, "The Legend of the Batman — Who He Is And How He Came To Be!"

Of course, it's that tragic origin — a young boy watches his beloved parents shot dead by a mugger and vows to wage war on all criminals — that makes Batman Batman, evoking as it does the satisfyingly pulpy themes of violence and vengeance. Even today, writers and filmmakers continue to iterate those 12 seminal comic book panels, which is why, over the long decades, they have attained an iconic power.

Time has rendered many of their particulars quaint, even comic, as when an adult Bruce Wayne, having "train[ed] his body to physical perfection," dons a satin smoking jacket and broods in his well-appointed study: "Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot," he thinks, sounding like the Noel Coward character he looks to be, "so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must become a creature of the night, black, terrible ... a ... a ..."

Just then a huge bat flies in the open window. "A BAT!" he thinks. "That's it! It's an omen! I shall become a BAT!" The mind reels at what would have happened had some other nocturnal mammal — a possum, say, or a skunk — chosen that particular moment to scramble over his windowsill.

Batman's origin has been told and retold so many times for a variety of reasons — sometimes to simply update those arch historical details and sometimes, as was the case with Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's noir gem Batman: Year One in 1987 and Christopher Nolan's literally and thematically gray films today, to infuse it with a new aesthetic.

Now, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank, the team behind Superman: Secret Origin (which is only the most recent bildungsroman of steel), have produced Batman: Earth One to again chronicle the first, halting steps of Gotham's Guardian. It's no mere dutiful update, but neither does it reach for the auteurist heights of radical, Milleresque reinterpretation.

Here, once again, are all the usual trappings we have come to expect from tales that follow the Dark Knight back when he was still just a Dim Squire: His precious gadgets fail him. He attacks criminals with fury, but without tactics, and proceeds to get his bat handed to him.

In a canny move, however, artist Frank chooses to leave out one element in Batman's design that has been a part of him since that very first adventure in 1939. Instead of glowering at the world from behind a pair of opaque white eye slits, Frank shows us Bruce Wayne's eyes behind the mask — vulnerable, unsure and all-too-human. As a result, his Batman is no mysterious avenger of the night, no tireless avatar of Chiroptera-themed justice; he's a schlub in an outfit, a vigilante haplessly attempting to strike terror into criminal hearts despite the run in his tights.

As Batman: Earth One exists outside the oppressive continuity of the ongoing Batman comics, writer Johns relishes the opportunity to shake up long-established characters and supply them with new personalities and motivations. To describe the nature of these changes in any detail would spoil what reads like an extended anagram, filled with moments that intersect familiar continuity at intriguingly oblique angles. Johns is clearly playing a long game here, planting seeds that will bear fruit in subsequent volumes. When, for example, young Bruce Wayne takes a swing at childhood tormentor Harvey Dent (who will, longtime fans know, grow up to become the villain Two-Face) his fist connects with one side of Harvey's face, temporarily distorting the boy's features in a way that sends a spark of recognition through readers.

Well, some readers, anyway. Because while Batman: Earth One is certainly accessible to those not steeped in Batmanalia, it's beholden to small moments like that one, which rest on tweaking reader expectations. Readers who come to the book without those expectations will not experience that singular electric charge. Even so, the basic narrative wiring Johns and Frank have installed is in good enough condition to deliver a smart, contemporary introduction to the oft-told legend of the Batman — who he is and how he came to be.

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Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.