Batman gets even more gritty.
DC has been going all-in when it comes to creating new comic book imprints to cater to readers of different tastes. DC Black Label may be the most enticing of these new imprints yet. The goal with Black Label is nothing less than to create a new wave of books in the vein of The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns – adult-oriented, continuity-free stories that feature bold takes on familiar heroes. That’s a high standard to meet, however, and it should come as no surprise that Batman: Damned doesn’t immediately establish itself as the next Killing Joke.
Damned is the latest collaboration between writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo, who previously collaborated on villain-centric comics like Joker and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. Those projects should give some idea of the tone of Damned. Together, the two creator paints a very bleak picture of life in Gotham City. In some ways, it’s a much more grounded and realistic take on a decaying modern metropolis and the billionaire crazy enough to spend his nights dressing as a bat. There’s a grimy quality to this Gotham and its denizens. Batman himself is decked out in rugged armor, not spandex. And hero and villain alike are mired in misery and suffering. This is about as dark and adults-only as Batman comics get (and not just because of the already infamous Bat-nudity).
That sort of relentlessly grim approach loses its appeal pretty quickly. There’s only so much to be gained by treating Batman as a deadly serious tale of nocturnal vigilantism. This issue embraces darkness a little too heavily at times, particularly in its attempts to add new layers of despair to Bruce’s childhood and his relationship with his father. In short, the tone that worked for Joker doesn’t necessarily translate as well when Batman is the main protagonist and not just a brooding background figure.
Thankfully, this series at least seeks to balance its darkness and gritty realism with a strong dose of the supernatural. John Constantine serves as both Batman’s sidekick and the self-proclaimed “unreliable narrator” of the story. He’s joined by revisionist takes on several other supernatural favorites, including Zatanna and a fascinatingly grotesque take on Deadman. Where the book’s emphasis on a grimy, unwelcoming Gotham City falls short, the supernatural elements are there to add flavor and a dose of uncertainty to the narrative.
The real issue with Damned is that it doesn’t seem in any particular hurry to get anywhere. The narrative tends to meander, focusing more on Batman’s efforts to understand his desperate situation and contend with the gaps in his memory and less on what is ostensibly the biggest selling point of the book – the reveal that Joker has been murdered. Constantine is too passive a presence in the story. As much as Azzarello’s love of wordplay lends itself well to this character, Constantine doesn’t actually *do* much in this first chapter. If anything, the final page reveal reads like it should have come along much sooner.
If Damned does end up claiming a place in the pantheon of great Batman tales, it’ll be thanks to Bermejo’s art more than anything else. His Batman truly resembles no other artist’s take on the character. Bermejo renders every plate and rivet in his intricately detailed armor. His figures are incredibly lifelike, but not to the point where they become static mannequins and lose all sense of movement and flow. The harsh textures and moody colors only add to the mood and intensity of the story. Best of all, the level of detail never wavers. In his previous DC work, Bermejo tended to switch between this lush, detailed approach and a looser, scratchier pen and ink style at will. Here, his approach remains consistent and eye-popping throughout.
And again, it’s not just the painstaking detail that makes the book stand out, but the bold storytelling choices. From the opening pages that feature an EKG meter transitioning into the shape of Batman’s cowl to a terrific scene of Batman plunging into an icy river, Bermejo frames his work for maximum visual impact. Damned doesn’t even need the dialogue and narration to convey its story. If anything, I’d like to see DC republish this series in unlettered form, just to give Bermejo’s work that much more room to shine.
It should also be said that Damned is one of those rare comics that absolutely deserves to be read in print form rather than digital. DC really took advantage of the Prestige Format approach here. The book is larger than a traditional comic and boasts much nicer paper quality. There’s a lovely, tactile quality to the print comic that just doesn’t come across on an iPad screen.