2 graphic novels carry on story of the Caped Crusader

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Storytellers can't seem to help themselves when it comes to putting their own spin on Batman, and it's not just Christopher Nolan's trilogy of films. Two recent graphic novels offer fresh takes on the Caped Crusader, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939. The releases have little in common except for small threads that tie them to the sprawling web of all that has come before. For instance, both story lines include the perfecting of one of Batman's favorite gadgets, a grappling gun that allows him to rappel tall buildings and look cool doing it.

• "Batman: Earth One," by writer Geoff Johns and illustrator Gary Frank (DC Comics, $22.99).

Writer Johns, also the creative leader of DC Entertainment, gave himself a license to rewind to the moment of young Bruce Wayne's transformation from schoolboy to vigilante in a bat suit. In "Batman: Earth One," butler Alfred arrives on the scene as a tough war veteran.

Oswald Copplepot, aka The Penguin, and a disturbing serial killer are among the big baddies, with good guys Detective Jim Gordon and daughter Barbara and inventor Lucius Fox also in the mix.

Mr. Johns dedicates the reboot to "our beloved archivist Roger Bonas," and he shows an agility for mixing long-standing Bat-lore with sensibilities attuned to a Dark Knight for today's world.

The story is dark, bloody and beautifully cinematic, aided by Mr. Frank's unflinching, naturalistic style. He pulls the reader into action sequences as assuredly as he delivers faces in close-up, contorted with emotions, that pop like special effects on page after page.

If there's a question mark about whether "Earth One" will have a Volume 2, it seems to have an answer in the intriguing final panel.

• "Batman: Death by Design" by writer Chip Kidd and illustrator Dave Taylor (DC Comics, $24.99).

The involvement of award-winning designer Chip Kidd is the first hint that style will be a factor in "Batman: Death by Design." Even the title is a dead giveaway.

The physical book is made to stand out from others on the shelf, from its architectural cover text to its textured cover. The front shows Batman, shoulders to masked ears, hanging upside down and seemingly hovering in the sky over Gotham City; the back cover is the same pose as seen from the back, but with spotlights beaming from the buildings.

Inside panels of structures in perspective are particularly eye-catching, such as when characters are seen in free fall between tall buildings or bursting through glass. Mr. Taylor's illustrations are penciled -- no jet-black outlines and primary colors in sight -- with many frames including dashes of color, often representing illumination, such as a lamp, an explosion ... and then there's the Joker's hair, brushed in muted aqua.

The Joker is more annoyance than nemesis in this Golden Age story. Preservation vs. modernization are among key issues facing Bruce Wayne, and therefore Batman, as he seeks to flatten deteriorating Wayne Central Station and fend off a pretty woman intent on saving it. Sabotage, corruption, greed and past sins propel the story that features a less tortured Batman than we've seen elsewhere. It's also a kick when the bespectacled author shows up as a character in his story.

Mr. Kidd is an aficionado whose book designs include "Batman Animated" by Paul Dini and "The Art and Making of The Dark Knight Trilogy." For "Death by Design," he writes that the story was inspired by two real-world events: the demolition of the original Penn Station in 1963 and the fatal crane collapse in Manhattan in 2008.

"Death by Design" tells a fleeting tale, capturing a moment in the life of Batman and his city. It's a different take on a character who inspires endless interpretations, as only the most compelling superheroes do.


Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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