Batman is a hard case. He’s been dissected by hundreds of writers, illustrated and reinvented by just as many artists. On the big screen, he’s been worn by eight actors and voiced by numerous others in radio dramas, cartoons, and video games. Everyone on the planet has their favorite and their idea of how he should behave in any given medium. Folly to any creator that strays from that treacherous and subjective path.
For decades, Batman was kiddie stuff. Bright suits, even more colorful villains. Dick Sprang stretched a great grin across the caped crusader’s face, and baddies like The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, and The Penguin were readymade for the BIF BAM POW of the sixties Adam West show. Then came Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Returns. Serious business. Adult themes. Reagan era rage. Sprang’s smile would never be seen again. Batman became forever linked to the grim realities required for a man who would don tights to punch muggers under the cloak of darkness.
Since 1986, DC Comics has found very little reason to put a spring back in Bruce Wayne’s step. Zack Snyder may have pushed the character to his grimmest limits in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but despite critical backlash and a hunger for a lighter touch, the comics have kept him moody. Shazam! and Aquaman will need to make exorbitant amounts of cash from raucous comic book hijinks before anyone at Warner Bros. considers the bat of yesteryear.
That is just a long-winded way of saying that the Batman: Damned limited series from the new DC Black Label is very much in tune with Frank Miller’s creature of the night. Written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Lee Bermejo (the same team that gave us equally melancholic works like 100 Bullets and Batman: Noir), the first issue of this three-issue series promises new depths for our hero to plummet. Can the daily hell of Bruce Wayne’s existence possibly get any worse? Yes. Yes, it can.
The Black Label is meant to free its creators from the burden of continuity. This is an experiment that DC Comics has done in the past with their Elseworlds and All-Star lines. The compulsion to shed nearly a hundred years of backlogged story is understandable, and compelling for nabbing new readers. Who wants to worry about what atrocities The Scarecrow is up to in Detective Comics let alone where in the world/universe Batman is during the latest Justice League crossover? Not Azzarello and Risso.
We open on the bloody and beaten body of Batman. His pulse thrives despite the severe litany of lacerations that cover his body. Paramedics contemplate removing his cowl to aid the gaping wound on his noggin, but the Dark Knight awakens in the nick of time, slams the poor paramedic’s face against the ambulance wall, and escapes off into the night. He stumbles through the alleys of Gotham calling out for Alfred.
Elsewhere, the rictus smile of The Joker rests forever in rigor. The clown prince of crime is dead, battered and crushed beneath a bridge. Has Bruce Wayne finally fulfilled the prophecy of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke? Commissioner Gordan certainly has a few questions for his usually restrained and reliable vigilante.
While Batman drifts in and out of consciousness due to wounds caused by an unknown assailant, an offscreen narrator laments his tragic tale of obsession. The voice is soaked with sorrow for the Batman, but also a little bit of contempt. You don’t have to wait long before the Hellblazer, John Constantine reveals himself as the voice of judgment in Batman: Damned.
Deep in the dark recesses of Bruce’s brain, we see images of that fateful night in crime alley, where mom and dad got gunned down in a savage robbery. We also witness relapsed memories of Papa Wayne meeting and flirting with a mysterious blonde woman. The noble philanthropist is not the saint we were led to believe. And then we meet…well, other dark figures from the DC Universe.
Batman: Damned maintains contemporary concepts of Bat-dread alive, but Azzarello is determined to separate his adventure from others by plunging his Dark Knight into realms not often frequented by this particular hero. With John Constantine seemingly taking precedence over the crippled Batman, this event contains more than your average amount of disgust for the title character. Bruce Wayne is broken physically and mentally. Naturally, as the most troubled character of DC Comics, Constantine is the perfect nurse to mend these wounds.
Eduardo Risso’s Batman is not confined by the borders of his panels. His Batman tears lose from traditional sequential art, and each corner of the book mystifyingly acts as its own celebratory splash page. Risso spreads across each page, saturating the environment with misery and angst, but still keeping the proceedings necessarily badass. Pain hides behind each pencil line, whether constructing a hero, a villain, or a nihilist.
Batman: Damned does not reinvent the wheel, but it does take Bruce Wayne into uncharted territory. Positioning John Constantine as protector and narrator is a brilliant stroke, and I will be anticipating their brave and the bold exploits forever more. Even more intriguing is the potential for other dark, hoary supernatural forces to butt heads against. There are plenty of demons in DC Universe to torment Bruce Wayne. Unleash them all.