Blood pours profusely from the fatal wounds in his abdomen. Crying out for the help of his faithful butler, Batman collapses in an alleyway. The Joker has been murdered and, without his memory, there is no way for Batman to rule himself out as the prime suspect. Enter John Constantine: the one man who can suss out the details of this supernatural case as well as save the Dark Knight. DC’s Black Label is finally here. Wonderfully written by Brian Azzarello and stunningly illustrated by Lee Bermejo, Batman: Damned #1 is a terrific introduction to the horror series and DC’s new imprint.
One of the best things about Batman is his versatility as a character. Ranging from comedy and action-adventure to science fiction and horror, the character has been tackled in nearly every genre. As a result, everyone has their favorite version of Batman. Batman: Damned #1 is unequivocally a supernatural horror story that is more of a visceral examination of the character from Constantine’s perspective and less a superhero slugfest. So, set your expectations accordingly.
A huge part of what makes this issue work so well is that it is grounded within the mystery of Joker’s death. Brian Azzarello does an excellent job of infusing Batman’s traditional detective elements with the supernatural. This allows the character to simultaneously retain his comic book roots while trudging into unfamiliar territory. As a result, we are given the opportunity to see the man even Constantine refers to as “the best” reduced to a cowering mess. This is definitely a different side to the Dark Knight.
Whether it is through the narration alluding to the Clown Prince of Crime’s joke about insanity and a beam of light, or through Bruce physically falling out of an ambulance, into a pile of trash, off of a merry-go-round, or off a bridge, falling is a central theme to much of Batman: Damned #1. With all of the dialogue and visuals, it is clear that Azzarello wants us to believe Batman has fallen from grace and murdered his arch-nemesis.
Although the first issue does little more than allude to his fall, Brian Azzarello expertly plants this notion in our mind with Constantine’s statement, “You need my help, you either are or will soon be… BEYOND redemption.” Additionally, the murder witness’s dialogue seems to confirm this when saying, “The Devil fell from Heaven!” It is a testament to Brian Azzarello’s writing that I didn’t notice the number of times falling is referenced throughout the issue. It wasn’t until I went back to revisit the opening pages that each of these references stood out. The connection between Batman living his worst nightmare and the fact that many of our nightmares involve falling seems especially poignant.
One of the methods that Azzarello and Bermejo expertly utilize horror and the supernatural is through the use of flashbacks. Without the encumbrance of eight decades worth of continuity, Azzarello is able to use flashbacks to turn our understanding of Thomas and Martha Wayne on its head. He allows Thomas to fall within our minds by illustrating his infidelity to Martha. Each of these moments is disrupted by the appearance of a demonic little girl speaking to a young Bruce Wayne. It is difficult to discern the truth behind each of these sequences. Is this the result of the demonic little girl playing with Bruce’s memories or is this due to Constantine’s self-proclaimed unreliable narration? My bet is on the demonic looking girl. The demonic little girl is always the culprit in these kinds of movies. Only future issues will be able to reveal the truth.
This issue would not work without Lee Bermejo’s artwork. Bermejo’s realistic artwork grabs you by the throat and never releases you. From the heart-beat monitor shape of the panels to the gritty visuals, Bermejo’s art is suited for horror. To his credit, the artwork never relies on grotesque horror visuals to convey tension, but rather uses coloring to establish the atmosphere found in horror movies of the 1970s. Also, Bermejo’s reinvention of Deadman’s costume is genius.
Unfortunately, there is a visual element that I think will have many people forgetting about bat-nipples for a long time. Although nudity does help to demonstrate Bruce’s vulnerability within the situation, Bruce’s (tastefully?) shadowed privates almost derailed the book for me. This isn’t because I found it unnecessary, but only because I was caught off guard.
Batman: Damned #1 is like reading a wonderfully written nightmare. (Especially if you’re into the supernatural or horror movies.) Like our dreams, the characters move between story beats so fluidly you may miss the transition. You can never quite discern the truth, and you’re often visited by a demonic little girl you don’t quite understand. When you finally wake up screaming, it is impossible to satiate the desire to discover the elusive ending.