There is no one true Batman. This is a quality which a lot of fans have difficulty accepting. The Golden Age Batman is different from the Silver Age from the Animated Series to the Brave and the Bold one. As Bat-Mite said in "Legends of the Dark-Mite": Batman's rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but is certainly no less valid and true to the character's roots then the tortured avenger, crying out for mommy and daddy.
Batman Eternal is the attempt to try and settle who the Batman is for the continuity of the new 52 universe. After the universe was rebooted after the Flashpoint Crisis, Batman was mercifully spared the often-radical reinterpretations other characters were subject to. This was due to Grant Morrison's award-winning run on the character right before. Even so, there was confusions about who and what was canonical anymore. DC wanted a "younger and hipper" version of the Justice League with Superman having only appeared in the past five years while Batman's recent success rested on his status as a legacy hero. Batman: Year Zero provided some of the information as to how Batman was being reinvisioned for the 21st century but it didn't give us a "present day status quo."
Batman Eternal provides us with the new status quo.
The premise of the comic book is Jim Gordon is framed (or is he?) for causing a train derailment that kills a hundred people. It's a freak accident but Gotham City's corrupt politicians and police rally around the incident to return to the city. Carmine Falcone, who wasn't killed in this continuity, attempts to rebuild the mafia in Gotham City, and installs his puppet as the new Commissioner of Gotham City. The Bat-Family frantically investigates Gordon's framing but are impeded by the fact all of their allies are turning against them.
Someone is the secret puppetmaster behind not only Gordon's framing but the inviting of numerous supervillains to the city. All to make Batman's life a living hell. We get the return of fan-favorite Stephanie Brown a.k.a Spoiler to continuity, Catwoman's new history as the daughter of an imprisoned mob boss, the introduction of Alfred Pennyworth's daughter Julia, and a starring role for long-forgotten Batgirl supporting character Jason Bard.
Batman Eternal is a very uneven series, perhaps to be expected with five writers (Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Ray Fawkes, Kyle Higgins and Tim Seeley). There's a lot of really interesting subplots which move at a glacial pace due to the fact they have to be drawn out to make room for the others. For example: Julia Pennyworth spends a large amount of time insulting Alfred for choosing to leave his career in the British military in order to become the Wayne family butler. Not only does the reader know that Alfred's role is important because of Batman but it also insults any soldier who has returned to civilian life.
And this goes on for issues.
The artwork for the book is pretty and I actually like the plot. I enjoy books which manage to bring Gotham City alive and this one is centered around the very enjoyable topic of Jim Gordon's value as a symbol rather than Batman's. There's some good character moments like Barbara Gordon uncomfortably attracted to the Red Hood, the feud between the Penguin and Falcone, plus the rather bellicose but good-natured personality of Catwoman's biological father. I could have done without the pointless plot where one-shot villain Deacon Blackfyre is resurrected in Arkham Asylum's bowels, but, otherwise, I mostly enjoyed this work. It's dense but informative storytelling.
I also love the twist at the end. I genuinely did not see that coming.
For me, what's really appealing about this storyline is they manage to touch on so much of Batman's seventy-five-year history for its milestone anniversary. We have characters from every period of Batman's history from the very beginning to the very end. As a long-time Bat-fan, this is a work which rewards heavily those who have memorized their Batcyclopedias.
Not all of it is sensible, the fact Batman is supposed to have had no less than four Robins in five years is utterly ridiculous, for instance, but it's still fun. I also like how they portray Stephanie Brown, closer to her days as Batgirl rather than the early incompetent portion of her career. I'm not too fond of newcomer Julia Pennyworth but I'm willing to give both her and Robin ally Harper Row a chance.
Volume 1 of the Batman Eternal saga is a dense trade paperback, amounting to almost five hundred pages (480 to be precise) of comic book storytelling. At twenty-five dollars, I found it well worth its purchase price and quite entertaining. In roughly three collections worth of material, it's full of far more hits than misses. It's not the best Bat-comic I've ever read. I'd recommend Batman: Hush for the art, Under the Red Hood for its storytelling, The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, or just Grant Morrison's collected run over Batman Eternal but it's is still pretty damn good. If you want to make an investment for an independent Bat-story or get back into DC comics, this isn't a bad place to start.