Batman: Earth One is a graphic novel written by Geoff Johns and brought to life by Gary Frank. It tells the origin story of an alternate version of Batman from the Earth One universe (for those not familiar with the DC multiverse, Earth-One is the name given to a different universe; not the universe where the current series of DC Comics is set). As a result of this being a different universe, there is a fantastic opportunity for Jones and Frank to put a unique spin on the familiar story of Bruce Wayne and his journey to becoming Batman. And it is this that makes Batman: Earth One such a successful graphic novel.
In this version of Gotham City, Bruce Wayne was the spoilt child of the soon-to-be Mayor of Gotham City, Thomas Wayne, and heir to the Arkham estate, Martha. During a trip to the cinema, which is cut short due to a power outage, Thomas and Martha are murdered and Bruce is orphaned, left in the care of his father's friend, Alfred Pennyworth, whom he served alongside in Vietnam. Bruce grows up, convinced that his parents' murder was planned by Thomas Wayne's rival and current Mayor of Gotham: Oswald Cobblepot.
This description should give you a very good idea of what Earth One is all about. It's the same story that Batman fans have been ready for decades now, but every subtle detail is changed, turned on its head and designed to surprise the reader, leaving them feeling exhilarated by the story that is being told, but at the same time, creating a strange, unnerving feeling, as though something isn't quite right with the world. The Bruce Wayne of this universe isn't the well-trained, emotionless, professional vigilante that you've seen before, whether that's on the big screen, the small screen or in other comic books. This Bruce Wayne is mentally unstable, highly emotional, reckless and for most of the book, rather incompetent at fighting crimes. This is highlighted by the fact that for the first time in decades outside of films and video games, Batman's eyes are visible beneath his cowl. This creates an altogether more emotional character, but at the same time, seems to amplify the "man dressed in a silly bat-costume" feeling. This is a Batman before he became the icon we all know him to be.
But Batman himself isn't the only difference here. It seems that every character has been completely turned on his or her head. From Alfred, who instead of being the kindly butler that we know him as, is a kind but responsibility-fearing ex-serviceman, to Commissioner Gordon (who has only risen to the rank of detective in this version), who, in striking contrast to Frank Miller's Year One, is as bent and crooked as the rest of Gotham's Police Force. Harvey Bullock, the sometimes bumbling, always alcoholic detective is an ex-Hollywood police star in this version. It seems that in bringing the origin story up to date, every person in Bruce's life has undergone an extreme change of character; one that only makes the universe even more chilling.
But enough about what's different; essentially, the story is the same. But behind the carefully constructed origin story is a classic tale of kidnap and murder, a classic villain in a new role, and a brand new villain that shares some characteristic with some of the more familiar villains. And that's what's so great about Earth One; it's a brand new, very gritty story, able to capture the things that have always made Batman great without having to rely too heavily on old villains. There's no Joker here, and I'm quite convinced that Jones and Frank will avoid introducing him any time soon, simply because this version of Batman is weak enough on his own. He doesn't need a nemesis to bring him to his knees just yet.
This is a fantastic novel for anyone who is wanting to be introduced to Batman, even if this is a variation on the classic tale. But it's the long-term fans who will get the most out of this. The references and subtle hints are a-plenty, but they never distract from the seriousness of the narrative. This is, after all, a brand new, much grittier Gotham City.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It's everything you could want for in an Earth One book; an altogether familiar tale, told in a brand new, darker and more realistic fashion. It was an absolute joy to read, and I am thoroughly looking forward to reading it again in a few weeks time.