Batman: Damned #1 // Review
Note: This review was delayed due to a controversy with the printed copy of this comic. As such, this review is on the digital release, which is still available.
This last year, DC Comics announced another imprint to their comics releases. DC Black Label will, similar to their Vertigo line, work on comics that are generally not part of the main central DC universe. Focusing on miniseries and limited releases, the Black Label books will either contain reprints of the more mature DC content, or will be new mature reader releases. However, there had not been much advertisement for these books, in spite of items like Frank Miller’s Superman: Year One being on the release list.
The first of the DC Black Label releases, Batman: Damned has gotten a ton of hype online very recently for several reasons. Odds are good that, if you’re reading this, you have heard about the “mature content” of the book. Written by Brian Azzarello and with art by Lee Bermejo, these two creators intended to push the Black Label line to the limits that DC editorial was willing to allow them. Letterer Jared Fletcher joins them on their journey, and it is definitely one worthy of a Black Label book.
Batman: Damned is a story told from one of the most unreliable narrators DC has in their universe, John Constantine. His narration flows across most pages like an editor looking over life and providing existential commentary. As it turns out, the Joker is dead. Killed and dropped into the Gotham River. However, Batman doesn’t remember their battle, if indeed he was fighting the Joker at all. This lack of memory, lack of certainty, drives Bruce to look inside at who and what he’s become, while he tries to find out the truth.
Brian Azzarello is no stranger to the world of The Bat. He’s written Batman on-and-off for quite some time, and even recently worked with Frank Miller on the third volume of The Dark Knight. His work here is nothing short of spectacular. Azzarello knows how Bruce works as Batman, and he also knows how the darker side of DC works, with some excellent use of Constantine and other Justice League Dark members. There are several flashback sequences that are hauntingly written, focusing on a young Bruce and his parents…but before long, something about those flashbacks also feels off. In short, this may be the best thing Azzarello has written, and he’s just one of the three responsible for such a unique work
Also not a stranger to Batman, Lee Bermejo has worked with DC for over a decade now on various smaller releases. Probably best known for his run with Superman on the beautiful Wednesday Comics back in 2009, Bermejo brings his skills to a broken and confused Batman. The design on this costume is intricate, but also looks like Bruce has seen better days and higher budgets. Gotham’s citizens all feel worn down and tired, like they’re just waiting for this vigilante thing to end. Gotham itself is moody and dark, but without seeming evil like under some renditions. Instead, Gotham plays as a backdrop here rather than as an actual character in the background. The flashback sequences mentioned above are also beautiful, but in a way that uses actual colors and sepia tones to fully distinguish the page from the modern. The intruder in Bruce’s flashbacks is a wondrous creature, one that doesn’t look out of place in the dark magical corners of the DCU, but feels intrinsically wrong for young Bruce. Deadman doesn’t show up much either, but his appearance when he possesses people is completely unique and downright disturbing, showing veins and muscles of people like their flesh has turned transparent. In short, Bermejo has done a fantastic job on a work of art that just happens to have Batman on it.
Normally, letterers don’t get a whole lot of respect. Often, they’re just listed as that guy who put words on a page. Jared Fletcher really shows how wrong that stance can be. Font choices, word balloon placement, and even sound effects all work together in this comic and blend with the art in a way that makes it distinctive. It’s hard to say if this would happen in a less experimental book, like in Detective Comics, but Fletcher’s work stands out far and above most things put out by DC right now. The lack of narration boxes for Constantine’s monologues over the action makes the reader feel like a story is being told to you, rather than reading a third person perspective. Choices of bold fronted words also help imply inflection where there is none otherwise, giving Constantine more character than on page. Fletcher honesty belongs on the cover alongside Azzarello and Bermejo, because he’s done a wonderful job with his share.
This article would be derelict in its duties as a review if it did not mention the controversy surrounding the physical edition of the book. Original releases, which are all sold out, feature a sequence of Bruce Wayne disrobing. While the digital edition is imperfectly edited, the original print copy shows off Batman’s genitals. DC has gone on record that there will be no reprints of this comic physically, and the collected edition of Batman: Damned will also be similarly censored.
Those not wanting an incomplete physical collection should wait for the trade, or be prepared to pay ludicrous amounts of money on the secondary market.
Controversy and subsequent censorship aside, the team of Azzarello, Bermejo, and Fletcher have come up with what can honesty be called a work of art featuring Batman. If future new works under the DC Black Label are even half this good, this line has a good future.