17th Sep2019

‘Batman Damned’ Graphic Novel Review

by Dean Fuller

Written by Brian Azzarello | Art by Lee Bermejo | Published by DC Black Label | Format: Hardcover, 192pp


DC Black Label, which still sounds to me like a perfectly fine Scotch, is an imprint of DC designed to showcase more mature takes on DC characters. To my mind Vertigo already did that back in the early 1990’s, as did The Dark Knight Returns in the Eighties, so not so much an innovation as returning yet again to that well. Don’t get me started on how successive comic creators have misunderstood Frank Miller’s take on Batman, the ultra violent, weary, almost psychopathic obsessive, by using that take in the present day. The point was he was an OLD Batman, worn down physically and mentally. Like I said, don’t get me started. It is relevant to this review though, as Azzarello’s Batman in this book has a certain similarity to Miller’s. No Darknight Detective here, just an emotionally damaged Dark Knight. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Although this series was the first Black Label book, released as three separate issues, this review is of the absolutely gorgeously packaged oversized hardback edition which includes all the various covers and a little writers commentary as a bonus. It’s a fine looking book, that’s for sure. Think of this as an adult Elseworlds, a book that takes place in Azzarello and Bermejo’s so-called Jokerverse, with characters you recognise but who are just a little bit different. Deadman is still Deadman for example, but here is essentially a ghost ‘junkie’, addicted to inhabiting living bodies and happy to let someone burn because he gets to ‘feel’ again. Not the Boston Brand I remember, but a bleaker version to suit this bleaker world. And bleak it is.

We start with an injured Batman, a very badly injured Batman, who is found in the streets of Gotham by Hellblazer himself, John Constantine. No surprise he is to play such a pivotal role, as Azzarello and Bermejo enjoyed a great run on that character back in the day. Constantine is here to help, though as the original ‘unreliable narrator’ you never quite know what he is up to. We also get the first of many flashbacks to Bruce’s youth, and see some of the reasons for why he turned out the way he did. His veneration of his parents, his hatred of guns, why he chose the Bat symbol, all are explained along the way. Also, a curveball as we see The Enchantress has been stalking Bruce since childhood, molding and guiding him a certain way. Batman’s psyche is the star of the first part for sure.

So, it turns out Batman may or may not have killed The Joker. A lot of people think he did, but he can’t remember anything, so he has to retrace his steps, all the while crossing paths with various supernatural characters like Zatanna, Swamp Thing, Deadman, and an unrecognisable Etrigan, reimagined as a rapper (a rare misstep by Azzarello for me, didn’t work at all though I can see why he thought it would). Always in the background is The Enchantress. Although The Joker ‘murder’ is the framing structure of the book, it’s real reason for existing is the study of Batman, of a man compelled to do what he does because of the existence of evil in his past, both obvious and hidden. It is a character study, pure and simple, and as dark a book as you may have read in quite some time.

Azzarello’s writing throughout veers between deep, thought-provoking prose and self indulgent, confusing dialogue, sometimes on the same page. At times he gets a perfect grasp on Batman, on Harley, on Constantine, on Zatanna, and then ruins it with three pages of overly dramatic exposition. On balance though, the writing is strong, and the good does outweigh the bad. It’s deep, it’s thought-provoking, and it’s never what you’d expect to find in a comic book in a million years. Is it too dark? too nihilistic? Perhaps. There is certainly no happy ending. There is always confusion, a blurring of the lines between good and bad, but then that’s life. Batman does good because of bad things that happened to him. The Joker does bad because of bad things that happened to him. Duality. Free will. Anarchy. Logic. Order. Who is free and who is trapped. It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s a very unique vision.

The art, though. Wow. Absolutely staggeringly good. Breathtaking at times. The oversized, glossy pages make already outstanding art just absolutely shine. The level of detail on every page is just incredible, Batman’s costume alone is a work of art, but some of those two page spreads of the city, or full page character pieces, just defy description they are so good. I read the book once, then just leafed through the book again, just to look at the art on each page without the text in the way. Stunning.

Although I think this project has its flaws, mostly in the writing, I also think it is such an impressive attempt to innovate by a major publisher that that has to be appreciated. The creators were allowed to cut loose, which they certainly did, and although not my favourite interpretation of Batman and his fellow DC characters, they work in the context of this story (except Etrigan, of course). You couldn’t read this version of the DC Universe every month, far too dark and disturbed, but as a standalone project it is hugely impressive.

Not your Dad’s Batman, but then again, that’s the whole point. A flawed masterpiece.

***** 5/5

The oversized hardcover of Batman Damned is out now.


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