Early in Batman: Damned #1, John Constantine, the story’s seemingly omniscient narrator, says, “Now we have a story. One I’m gonna try to avoid having to tell, while I’m telling it.” You cannot fault Constantine or the creators crafting his role in this moment, as he does his best throughout the remaining 40 pages of story to offer as little narrative coherency or context as possible. Things happen, but the connections between these individual items are contentious and provide little momentum to turn the next page. It’s an especially disappointing shortfalling considering the incredible imagery and skillful wordplay displayed throughout Batman: Damned #1.
Reading a solicitation for this issue only provides an interpretation of what the story is actually about. The death of the Joker is an element, but it is almost glanced over in the story’s pacing, hardly given an impact before other things assume its place of interest. It is a seemingly small piece of the overall story as well. If anything, Batman: Damned appears at first to be a meandering tour of Gotham City’s supernatural underbelly. A number of favorite DC Comics magical heroes and anti-heroes all make cameos with appearances that could only be found in an Azzarello and Bermejo joint. Most lack a clear purpose though, appearing to show off a design and twisted take on their place in superhero comics before fading into the background. Much of what is shown in the story’s introduction fades from view to make way for this tour and is not sufficiently acknowledged throughout the remaining, oversized issue. The end result of this is a comic book that resembles an idea web more than an actual narrative.
Artist Lee Bermejo still makes a case for reading this issue as a pure artistic endeavor. He has established a reputation as the great gothic painter of superhero comics. He takes famous capes and settings, then twists them into nightmares. Heroes consistently bare a grimace and the weight of the world can be seen in the weight on their shoulder and wear of their costumes. Villains become something far worse. Bermejo’s version of Joker, only witnessed briefly here, might leave John Wayne Gacy with a shiver. There is something profoundly disturbing about how he realizes distortions of the human form and face, so that they fall just inside the realm of reality while still evoking the discomfort of peering down into the uncanny valley.
It is his version of Gotham City that is most impressive in this issue. Every view, from the sprawling city at the top of a skyscraper to looming, uncaring passersby, evokes the sort of nightmare urban environment that is imagined by those who avoid cities at any cost out of fear. There is something soul-sucking about the net effect and each new element reminds readers this is a place where hope might survive in some dark corner, but it will never spread. That consistently dark color palette makes for a perfect background relief to the stylish white letters of narration, allowing it to guide readers deeper into the darkness.
Batman: Damned is best defined as an indulgence. There is little to no insight into the characters of Batman or John Constantine as they fall into inscrutably iconic modes of performance. The story itself hangs loosely as an excuse to travel Gotham City and encounter various characters. Yet in that excuse there are some tremendous individual panels and extended sequences to be found. Azzarello clearly understands the strengths of his collaborator and has provided Bermejo with every opportunity to do what he does best. Batman: Damned is not so much read as relished, enjoyed for individual elements that do not add up to a stronger whole. That level of craftsmanship affords it the label of interesting, even if it would not ordinarily be categorized as good.
Published by DC Comics
On September 19, 2018
Written by Brian Azzarello2comments
Art by Lee Bermejo
Letters by Jared K. Fletcher