If you’re familiar with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s previous collaborations on the Joker graphic novel and the miniseries Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting yourself into with Batman: Damned #1, the first of three oversized deluxe issues that fall under the new DC Black Label imprint. “Proudly put[ting] the “black” in Black Label” announces the solicit, and really, for better or worse, that tells you everything you need to know about this new limited series.
Azzarello and Bermejo are very good at what they do... but what they do might not be to your particular taste. Batman: Damned follows in the footsteps of works like the aforementioned Joker, but also continues the tradition of other Batman books, like The Killing Joke, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum and even Hush. That’s not a commentary on the quality of this issue in comparison to those works, but rather that Batman: Damned makes a very definitive tonal decision, one shared by those other books, that will mean you either love it or hate it.
That tonal decision is, as the solicit suggests, extremely dark. “Black,” in fact -- so black, it will likely divide the fanbase down the middle. Perhaps you like a certain degree of realism in your Bat-books, a realism drenched in seriousness, overlayed with grim rhetoric and tinged with a dash of embarrassment for being “just” a superhero book. In which case, this issue is definitely for you. Like the idea of the Black Label imprint as a whole, Batman: Damned is a book that’s angling for the serious graphic novel reader, and as does away with the four-color tropes of its origins in favor of an aesthetic that aims to appeal to those types of fans that want to read a comic book about twisted madness and the vigilante that stares it in the face, but who would perhaps not like to be reminded of the innate and colorful campiness of a man dressed as a bat trading blows with a clown.
It can't be denied that Batman: Damned #1 is a very well crafted issue. The narration of John Constantine walks the reader down the alleyways of Gotham like a midnight guide through the darkness, delighting in getting us thoroughly lost in the madness that threatens to overwhelm Batman and, by extension, ourselves. The Joker is dead, his body dredged up from the Gotham river having last been seen on the Gotham Gate Bridge. Batman is reeling from injuries he has no memory of getting, having been saved by Constantine with only a vague idea of where he was last. Unfortunately, what memory he does have is of being on Gotham Gate Bridge, which sets Bruce and John off on a path to recover Batman’s memories and to discover if he really did snap and finally kill his greatest enemy.
Batman: Damned is a supernatural, out-of-continuity murder mystery that’s pitch-black in tone and filled with moments of genuine horror, thanks to Bermejo’s art. There are times when Constantine looks like Sting, which is par for the course with the Hellblazer, but more interestingly there are times when Batman looks like Michael Keaton, which only serves to add an element of Tim Burton-esque camp that is no doubt unintentional, but nevertheless breaks up the darkness with small flashes of nostalgic light. There’s also an appearance by Deadman, who has traded his signature red costume for one made entirely of exposed human muscle. This look not only suits the tone of the issue, but rather cleverly accentuates the concept of the character: an individual who inhabits the bodies of living humans, where he lurks beneath the surface of their skin.
Bermejo’s skill is most keenly felt in those moments designed to frighten. Whether it’s in the nightmares of Bruce Wayne, as he wanders naked through the Batcave whilst being attacked by his empty suits (all superbly “lit” by horrific reds and blacks), or merely in the exceptionally detailed backdrops that turn Gotham into a lurching, claustrophobia-inducing sentience that inhabits every page, Bermejo crafts a true Batman horror story that remains in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page.
Likewise, Azzarello -- no stranger to the Dark Knight -- scripts a madness-inducing mystery filled with non-sequiturs and an unreliable narration that flits between grandiose verbiage and the telltale accented ticks that follow Constantine from book to book. Batman: Damned starts with a close-up of the line on an echocardiogram (or, at least the commonly used pop-culture facsimile), and the following page slowly transforms the telltale spikes of life into the familiar arched brows on Batman’s cowl, before pulling back further on the next page to show us the hyper-detailed, padded and armored Batsuit, along with the bleeding vigilante within. All of which sets the scene for this series nicely.
Batman: Damned #1 is a supernatural, horror-tinged murder mystery filled with madness and monsters and a tone so dark as to potentially be off-putting for those who want a more traditional superhero tale. What it does, it does very well, and if that feels like a backhanded compliment, then maybe it is. If dark, ultra-serious Bat-books filled with a certain level of realism are your jam, then this is the book for you, and it’s a testament to the character that Batman can inhabit these types of stories just as equally as he can more colorful superheroic fare. But when a book goes so far as to expose Bruce’s… Bat-Junk, in order to prove to you that comics aren’t for kids anymore, you can’t help but yearn for something a little lighter.