I didn't review the first volume of this series, and I haven't reviewed any of the three "Superman: Earth One" volumes either. But, here we go.
Although the first volume was a solid story, I'll be honest and say that it didn't seem to stake out any groundbreaking territory. Sure, some details were different. Thomas Wayne called Alfred to Gotham because he was an old war buddy and he needed someone that he trusted to work security for him as he was poised to become the new Mayor. Indeed, the Penguin, the current Mayor, had hired someone to kill him, but a random thug wound up killing Thomas and Martha before Penguin's men got the chance to do so. (Martha is also an Arkham, the other most important family in this Gotham besides the Waynes.) Otherwise, it's a pretty straight-forward re-telling of Batman's origin story. Alfred is a little more bad-ass, but it all sticks to a familiar, if well written, script as Bruce learns the ropes. My only real complaint about the first volume is a scene meant to be heart-warming, where Alfred embraces Bruce and tells him that he was never alone. But, to be honest, Johns never really showed us that any warmth even remotely existed in their relationship, so I found myself rolling my eyes at the forced emotion behind it. If Alfred is going to be a bad-ass, it's a stretch to believe that he would also be Bruce's emotional steward at the same time. In fact, I feel like Johns missed the chance to stake out said groundbreaking territory, since he could've made this story different by making Alfred emotionally withdrawn.
Johns perform equally solidly in this volume, but I'm not entirely sure that it's any more original than the first volume. The part that piqued my interest the most was the possibility that this Batman wasn't going to be the world's greatest detective. For most of this volume, Bruce looks to Gordon to help him piece together the murders that the Riddler is committing. In fact, Bruce relies on him so much that Alfred gets jealous. At one point, Bruce tramples a crime scene; when Gordon cautions him, he reminds Gordon that he (Gordon) is the detective. It's here where I felt like Johns was going to go a different route. After all, if Bruce isn't the world's greatest detective, Batman is essentially just a vigilante taking down street thugs. But, is that enough in this Gotham? We never find out the answer to that question, since Johns has Bruce become the detective that he needs to be. At first, I cut Johns some slack, since he initially set Bruce on the course of learning the tools of the trade from Gordon, and I though that could be interesting (if still ending at the same point of him becoming the world's greatest detective.) But, it's pretty clear that this sort of development would take too much time in this format, so Johns is forced to have Bruce develop these skills essentially off-panel. One minute, he's trampling crime scenes, the next one he's seeing a pattern that no one else can see. It's not terrible, exactly, but it was disappointing, in much the same way as Alfred eventually showing his emotional connection to Bruce was disappointing. By the end of this volume, both Alfred and Bruce are only slightly different from their prime counterparts.
Instead, Johns focuses his attention mostly on supporting characters to make this story feel distinct from the DCnU. Again, though, it feels rushed, since he's not able to fully explore characters. The most egregious example is the fact that we still don't know, at the end of this volume, why the Riddler did what he did here. At one point, he seemed to be a figure similar to Anarky, killing the rich that held themselves above the hoi polloi. However, we eventually learn that he's really killing the five government officials colluding to take over the Penguin's criminal empire. In a way, he's Gotham's version of the Punisher, just with more collateral damage, leaving 40+ people dead in his quest to kill five crooks. Batman hypothesizes that he needed the body count to throw people off the trail of his true intent, but he never explains why the Riddler wouldn't want the authorities to know about the five officials in the first place. Bruce originally thought that he was one of the cabal and he was trying to off the competition, but it doesn't seem to be the case at the end of the issue. We're just sort of left wondering.
But, it's not just the Riddler's actions that left me confused. We repeatedly see Harvey Dent jealously attack Bruce every time that he shows interest in his sister, but we're never told why he does so. Johns uses that lack of clarity in his favor at the beginning, since this level of existing emotional instability certainly makes it believable that he could become Two-Face at a later point. But, with that possibility discarded by the end of the issue, we're just left wondering why he was so overprotective. Moreover, it's hard to say that Jessica Dent ever becomes a fully realized character. She's mostly defined by her relationship with Bruce and Harvey, and it makes you wonder how she became Mayor in the first place. In fact, except for a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance by Catwoman, you'd be within your rights to wonder if Gotham has any women in it at all. (I guess that I should count the elderly woman that we learn was one of the five corrupt officials, but her portrayal was so obviously intended for us to be shocked -- Aunt May is a crook! -- that I just can't bring myself to count it.)
Honestly, I enjoyed the book more than this review probably implies. But, maybe all the Batman stories have been told. Maybe Scott Snyder was right to kill off Bruce Wayne. If even Geoff Johns can't tell a story where Batman isn't a shining paragon of brawn, intelligence, and morality, then do we just call it a day?
** (two of five stars)