“This night, gonna fall darker ‘fore we through.”
In 2008, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo released Joker – which went on to be a massive hit. Now, and as part of the newly created ‘DC Black Label’ (an imprint for more mature readers), they’ve released Batman: Damned. This is a pseudo-sequel to Joker and continues the tone and world-building the pair had established – through Bermejo’s luscious art and Azzarello’s (potentially Marmite) edgy writing. I adored every page.
From the second you see the book you know it’s going to be different. It’s published in a prestige format which means better quality, thicker paper (which you probably don’t care about) and it’s laid out on huge square pages. It looks fancy. It’s complemented by Bermejo’s art. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is some of the best art I’ve ever seen in comic books. Every panel is like a painting. I thought Joker was gorgeous and this just doubles down on everything. But with that being said, for all the lush and detailed images, there is an equal amount of gross and terrifying images – which are just as enjoyable (just in a different way). This is a horror story after all.
The story begins with a mortally wounded Batman in the back of an ambulance. He’s suffered serious stab wounds from his battle with Joker on the Gotham Gate Bridge at the end of Joker. After roughing up a few EMTs he is found at death’s door by John Constantine (who also has the job of “unreliable narrator” too) who fixes him up. We soon learn that the Joker is dead, and Batman probably killed him. What follows is a deep dive into the magical and supernatural world DC comics, all through the grimy lens of Azzarello, Bermejo, and DC’s Black Label. This includes cameos from some of the more wacky DC characters, like Zatanna, Swamp Thing, and Deadman. But they’ve all been frightfully realised in this more realistic style and Azzarello’s down-to-earth plot.
It’s gruelling stuff. And it makes for a very dark night in Gotham. A lot of the imagery is genuinely scary. Some of it is terrifying, like Enchantress’ Momo-like face towards the climax of the story; some of it is horrifying; and some of it is just icky. If you consider Stephen King’s three levels of horror (The Gross-Out, Horror, and Terror) this one checks all three boxes. It feels like a horror version of the Batman we’ve seen countless times before.
The story is intentionally elliptical, with the plot being told a little out of order and by a self-confessed unreliable narrator who spouts prophetic religious nonsense at every turn. Azzarello is pushing as many buttons as he can too. Everyone’s already aware of the whole Bat-Penis controversy but that’s just the start. There are some things in this comic that would make Garth Ennis and Frank Miller blush. Ok, so maybe not that bad, but there are a few pretty surprising story beats and the pair get the very most out of the mature rating with as many f-bombs as they can. It’s a heavy, nihilistic, story if you just accept it, and go along with it, it’s a hell of a ride.
There are a lot of really great flashbacks that set up this version of Batman in this specific version of Gotham. In it, Thomas Wayne is less than stellar. Which is a brave choice, because in the past Wayne Sr has usually been an almost perfect figure, the best father anyone could ask for – which directly influences the man Bruce becomes. Here, he’s a womaniser who doesn’t seem to care for his family. Plus, the details of Martha and his iconic deaths are shifted a little, giving this version of Batman very different motivations.
My biggest complaint is the very end. They throw a hell of a lot of plot at you and you really need to stop and think about it – Is this real? Is any of this happening – but then there’s another twist, another confusing moment, and then it…ends. I guess I need to give another read, but something tells me a thousand reads won’t explain it. I love my stories to be open to interpretation, and this isn’t confusing enough to be a real detriment – I just worry it’ll be another decade before we get any answers.
Overall, this is a must-read. I see people are split on it, and I wonder how much of that is about the Bat-Dong. The majority of negative reviews seem to mention it. My two cents on the Bat-Wang are that, though it added very little to the story, DC shouldn’t have caved and got rid of it. It’s a mature comic for mature readers, let them decide. If they don’t want it, they won’t buy it (the irony being that the issue with a glimpse of the Bat’s pork sword flew off the shelves). That controversy plagued this book, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a really confidently told, sometimes scary, and often beautiful interpretation of a timeless character.
It’s clearly not for everyone. The content is extreme, and I wonder how much of it is there to simply push buttons. But that’s what DC Black Label should be all about – potentially different takes on these icons. Between this and Sean Murphy’s White Knight, consider me hooked.
Reviewed by Jack