One of the most anticipated Batman releases this past year was Lee Bermejo's original graphic novel, Batman: Noel. Batman fans know Bermejo as the artist who collaborated with writer Brian Azzarello in the original hardcover Joker a few years back. This time around, it's a solo effort, as Bermejo's taken over the writing duties as well.
Noel is an adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic story, A Christmas Carol, set in Gotham City, with the Dark Knight fulfilling the role of Scrooge. Most audiences will probably be familiar with the oft-adapted Christmas Carol's basic story -- Scrooge, a miserly old man is confronted by the ghost of his longtime friend and business partner, who tells him that he must repent his miserable ways or else face eternal damnation. Scrooge is then visited by three spirits (representing the past, present, and future, respectively), and ultimately learns his lesson and becomes a new man -- friendlier, kind-hearted, and generous in spirit.
Noel follows the same general arc, with familiar characters acting as stand-ins for Dickens's characters, though some deviations keep this from being a strict, by-the-numbers adaptation. This was a smart choice on Bermejo's part, making the story feel a bit more natural. It also keeps the story from being too hokey or unbelievable, as the "ghosts" are only metaphorically spirits, rather than being the fanciful apparitions of Dickens's tale.
Batman's transformation is also slightly different than that of the original Scrooge's. Here, the tension is between the dark, gritty, avenging Batman born of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and the earlier, friendlier Batman, found in Adam West's television series and the more light-hearted comics of the '60s and '70s. Batman starts out in Noel almost self-consciously over-the-top, as he decries all criminals as being lowlife scum. It's up to his friends, colleagues, and even his enemies, to remind him of his past, lest his future end in gloom and despair. Of course, one can also read a meta-textual commentary here -- like other creators have done, Bermejo seems to be reminding us that the Batman mythology is always in danger of becoming mired in its own darkness, especially since Miller's redefinition of the genre 25 years ago.
Noel might also be read on an even deeper level as being a commentary on the nature of storytelling, interpretation, and re-interpretation. Interestingly, "Scrooge" is the only name the Narrator uses when referring to our protagonist, as part of the framing narrative device. Throughout the book, small, seemingly deliberate inconsistencies lend the feeling that the Narrator is telling one story, and the pictures and dialog are how we, the readers, are meant to re-interpret it as a slightly different story. That is, they don't necessarily line up perfectly. The narrative trend continues, as the Narrator is actually re-telling a story originally told to him by yet another character (who, in turn, was presumably told the original Dickens story at some point). So the narrative text is the third interpretation, and the illustrations and dialogue are the fourth layer down. I don't know how deliberate this interpretation-within-an-interpretation was, but it's worth thinking about.
If I had one major complaint about Noel's story, it's the way in which the relationship between Batman and Gordon is wrapped up -- or rather, not wrapped up. Interestingly, we see that the grim and gritty Batman at the start is not entirely trusted by Gordon. Gordon places his faith in Batman, but it's potentially a dangerously misplaced trust, and Gordon is at least smart enough to be wary of it. We also learn that if things don't change, Gordon will lose everything for it. Presumably, after Batman's transformation, things will be different for Gordon and Batman. But we never quite see this. What makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that an entire page is devoted to Gordon and the police department after Batman learns his lesson. Everybody's happy, but it's never made specifically clear why. How do Gordon and the cops know that Batman's a new man now? I feel like a page -- or at the very least a few important captions -- were left out.
Of course, as good as the story might be, Bermejo is an artist first, and so the real treat in Noel is in seeing his gorgeous illustrations, which is the best I've seen from him so far -- and that's saying something. It's detailed, luscious, atmospheric, and rich, and doesn't suffer from the over-use of hard angles which affected his earlier work. In a word, it's simply fantastic. In the weeks since my first reading, several full-page spreads were memorable enough that I simply could not let them go in my mind, including a chilling portrait of the Joker. It's an unforgettable rendering, and you'll know it when you see it.
The universe of Bermejo/Azarello's Batman is one that sits between Chris Nolan's gritty realism and mainstream DC's superhero fantasy, with a leaning more towards the former than the latter. It's always a pleasure to revisit the unique visuals of this universe. Previous entries gave us interpretations of Batman, Superman, Joker, Two-Face, and Killer Croc. A few of these faces have naturally returned in Noel, but this time we're also treated to the addition of Catwoman. Bermejo's Catwoman is playful and sexy, without stooping to the adolescent fantasy that so many interpretations have often resorted to.
One of the few disappointments in Joker was the use of two different illustrative techniques -- most of the pages relied on standard pencils and inks (by Mick Gray), while a few pages were given a more deluxe, painted treatment by Bermejo. Bermejo's work would have been beautiful in its own right if limited to just the standard pencil-and-inking technique, but those pages inevitably fall flat when sitting side-by-side with the deeper, luxuriously painted pages. There simply is no comparison, which lead to disappointment whenever a turn of the page took the reader from painted panels back to the flatter, standard inked panels.
There's no such problem here, however, as every single one of Noel's pages have been given the full painted treatment. The artwork is eye-popping, with depth and texture that is simply unmatched, and the lack of transition from one technique to another means we're never jarringly taken out of the story as readers.
It should be noted that Bermejo adds a bit of exaggeration and cartooning to some of the faces in Noel, which we hadn't seen much of before in his previous Batman works. But rather than being distracting from the realistic take of the Bermejo/Azzarello universe, it seems appropriate, given the specific subject matter at hand.
Finally, I should also mention that the last few pages are devoted to behind-the-scenes sketch work and commentary by Bermejo. Such special features are always a welcome addition, so I was glad to see them here.
In short, Batman: Noel is well worth picking up, if you haven't already. Fans of the book would do well to seek out Bermejo's collaborations with Azzarello, for other entries in their Batman universe. And here's hoping that we'll continue to see more of this universe from Bermejo in the years to come.
Thanks, Zaid! Coming, it's Legion week as we blast off to the future with the Collected Editions review of the deluxe Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga and more!