Jeff Jensen
July 02, 2012 AT 02:11 PM EDT

If you’ve been reading superhero comics for awhile, then you know that Batman’s origin story has been told and retold countless times. Or exactly 913 times, if you have been counting. “915,” corrects superstar scribe Geoff Johns, whose prodigious bibliography includes memorable runs on The Flash, Green Lantern, and Justice League. On July 4, just a couple weeks ahead of The Dark Knight Rises, Johns will add another title to the list: Batman: Earth One, a graphic novel drawn by Gary Frank and yet one more retelling of the caped crusader’s beginnings. But it also happens to be a very good one, marked by a fresh, accessible, emotionally resonant take on the character. “I hope people bring that perception to the book,” says Johns of possible ‘not another Batman reboot’ fatigue, “because I think they’ll be even more surprised if they do.”

The opening sequence encapsulates Batman: Earth One’s point of difference. We are introduced to a neophyte dark knight who is not yet at full competency — hero, but not yet super-hero. Sprinting across Gotham City rooftops in pursuit of a crook, Batman reaches into his utility belt, pulls out a grappling gun, and pulls the trigger — and it jams on him. He tries to leap from one building to another… but misses the edge, falls and lands hard in a dumpster. “Ow,” Batman complains, looking genuinely, painfully ooofed. Bottom line: This Batman graphic novel offers readers the chance to watch Batman actually grow and develop — through trial and error, success and failure — into an indomitable crime fighter.

Johns finds new angles on the childhood tragedy that seeded Bruce Wayne’s tireless war on crime (check out our exclusive preview here for a peek and further insight) and on supporting characters like Alfred, Jim Gordon, Lucius Fox, Barbara Gordon, and Harvey Bullock. Frank’s detailed, expressive, muscular artwork is top-notch, marked by an effective use of splash pages to capture emotional moments and reveal character, not just isolate and fetishize some bit of mug-smashing action business. (There’s a particularly haunting one toward the end, set in a liquor store.) With this Batman, you see Bruce’s eyes behind the mask, often full of worry and weary — not the ghostly blanks that tend to dehumanize the hero and make you forget that there’s a real human being in the suit.

The story has Batman investigating mysteries linked to the murders of his mother and father, which in turn leads him into the corrupt heart of Gotham City and puts him on a collision course with a serial killer named Birthday Boy. Johns says he didn’t want to use more iconic villains like the Joker because he wanted to focus more on establishing the relationships between the core characters. (That said, the Penguin plays an essential — and twisted — role in the proceedings.)

Batman: Earth One — which took 18 months to produce — is the first in what Johns hopes will be an ongoing series of graphic novels set in this particular Batman world; in fact, the final pages of this first volume sets up the antagonist for the sequel, which Johns is currently writing. Johns says he not only enjoyed working in the graphic novel format over the serialized comic book format, he prefers it. “When you do month-to-month comics, where your read one 20-page chapter one month, then wait a month to read another one, it’s really hard to have characters arcs that actually resonate. If you’re doing a story with any kind of scope, it’s really difficult for people to track. When you collect it in a trade paperback, it’s better, but it’s not designed to read like that, either,” says Johns. “[The graphic novel format] gave us more pages, more time, more opportunity. It allowed us to tell a complete story, and allows the reader to learn more about the characters and get more invested in them by sinking more deeply into them in a single reading experience.”

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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