Batman: Damned #1
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Letters: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artists: Bermejo (regular)/Jim Lee (variant)
Editor: Mark Doyle
Publisher: DC Comics/DC Black Label imprint
Price: $6.99 US
DC announced new imprints and publishing initiatives earlier this year that would bring different formats and content to its readers, and its Black Label branding appears to be a home for more mature super-hero genre storytelling. Basically, we get a strong Batman story from accomplished writer and DC mainstay Brian Azzarello and meticulous crafted, realistic artwork from Bermejo, whose career highlights have also been at DC. Honestly, this new imprint wasn’t all that necessary for the mature-readers content, but it does serve a purpose: to isolate this story from regular DC continuity. Azzarello plays around with some other characters from DC’s supernatural stable, and some of the new spins on these familiar figures were as intriguing as the plot of a Batman broken by his past and his forgotten sins.
Fatally stabbed and disoriented after a climactic encounter in Gotham, Batman desperately scrambles to get to safety, to reach out to his most trusted aide for rescue, but a very different figure – a magician and con artist from England – is who shows up in his stead. As he recovers from a near-death experience, Batman’s realization that the Joker has been killed sends him back out into the night, but instead, he finds himself in a maze of his own memories and confronted by ghosts, some from his past and other ghouls he’s never met before.
Bermejo’s vision of a bulky and believable vigilante dressed in a leather batsuit is always striking and unsettling, and it speaks to the seriously disturbed state of mind that would drive someone to take on such a role. Of course, this story is a walk through that damaged psyche as well, and Bermejo’s convincing and detailed suits it well, given the haunted atmosphere he brings to bear. My favorite visual in the book is Bermejo’s depiction of a certain spectral hero. His regular, ghostly form looks pretty much like it does in regular continuity, but I found the textured, sickly appearance the artist gave his hosts to be inventive and striking.
Azzarello’s alteration of that character’s abilities struck me as particularly clever and even necessary, limiting his power. In theory, the ghost could assume another’s life for himself, but in this world, his “visits” inflict damage, cutting his time among the living short. I also found the edgier take on a certain sorceress as a street magician to be interesting as well. I was also surprised to see another supernatural character turn up in the story in a mysterious role, and what was more surprising was the design used for her. I’m talking about the Enchantress — at least, I think I am. Bermejo’s depiction of the witch mirrors her look from the Suicide Squad movie, and given how poorly that flick was received (and specifically how derided the interpretation of the Enchantress was), I was taken aback by her “appearance” here. Of course, that more ritualized, filthy look for the character certainly works well with the unsettling and macabre tone of the story.
The premise behind this book was spelled out clearly in the advance promotional effort: this is a world in which the Batman has finally killed the Joker, giving rise to the question: what would happen next? It’s one worth exploring, because when discussing the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime, fans have been talking for decades about why Batman just doesn’t end the villain’s murderous legacy. By sparing the Joker, doesn’t the hero bear some responsibility for his subsequent atrocities?
I was pleased to discover that Azzarello doesn’t approach those issues from a straightforward perspective. The story is much more ambiguous, and its near-stream-of-consciousness approach immersed the reader in mystery. The titular character is driven to surreal self-reflection, and the supernatural elements that dominate the book suggest an even greater import. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I’m riveted and can’t wait to hunt for answers in the second part.
I wasn’t paying close attention when I picked this book up at my local comic shop today, so I didn’t realize it was offered with two different covers. I ended up with the edition adorned by the Jim Lee art, and honestly, I’m disappointed. Lee’s imagine fails to convey the maturity, darkness and gravitas that are such essential aspects of this story’s appeal.
This larger, tabloid format gives the book a greater sense of heft and permanence, and the paper feels like it’s of better quality. It’s also priced affordably. In terms of mature-readers material for the Black Label book, we get a naughty word here and the silhouette of a dick there. None of those elements seem particularly necessary for this story. They don’t make it more convincing, more engrossing. In fact, those elements take the reader out of the story when they arise, but fortunately, it’s fleeting. 8/10