Review: Bedlam Vol. 1 trade paperback (Image Comics)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

One of the best Batman story concepts of the past few years was the Riddler going straight and becoming a private detective. While it was inevitable that Edward Nigma would eventually return to villainy, he was finally useful as Batman’s foil rather than his outright enemy. But the redemption coming from a brain injury always seemed a little forced. Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo’s Bedlam is a deconstruction of some of the same ideas as the Riddler’s redemption, but with added twists: What if it was the Joker who became a hero, and what would he have to go through for that to happen? The answer to these questions is a creepy and clever riff on some old tropes.

I don’t think I’m stretching too much by invoking Batman and his supporting cast as the inspirations for Bedlam. You can do a name-swap on just about all of these characters and end up with a fantastic Batman fan-fic; “Bedlam” is also the name of the city in which the story takes place, sounding just a bit like “Gotham." However, I won’t penalize the comic for this. As I mentioned when I reviewed Invincible, one of Image’s original purposes was to tell the stories that the Big 2 couldn’t. There’s no way that DC could ever realistically redeem the Joker even in an Elseworld, especially after the crippling of Barbra Gordon. But nocturnal vigilante “The First” capturing his nemesis Madder Red in order to reform him evokes the basic idea of a Batman/Joker story while going in different directions.

The primary arc of the first Bedlam trade concerns a spree of mysterious killings targeting the elderly. Detective Ramira Acevedo is in charge of the investigation ... and is also the cop who was present at the bomb blast that seemingly killed Madder Red. Fillmore Press, the new identity of the former villain, is drawn to Acevedo after being released from the process which “cured” him. He essentially takes on a role similar to that of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, an insider on the criminal mind. One major positive departure from many Batman comics is that the Bedlam Police Department is comprised mainly of honest and competent cops. Acevedo and all those around her keep Press at a distance until circumstances force them to believe him.

It eventually develops that the killings are connected to an older scandalous case in Bedlam regarding a bishop and his altar boy followers. I’m not going to reveal much more about this part of the plot because it’s developed very well over the course of the book; it’s paired with some of Rossmo’s most frightening imagery. But the second plot, interacting with the first, deals with how Madder Red was redeemed at the hands of the “Good Doctor.” Brainwashing villains into being heroes is nothing new, of course; it dates back to Doc Savage and was a key plot point in Marvel’s Squadron Supreme maxi-series in the 1980s. The novel A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation take a similar path when making Alex DeLarge nonviolent. But Nick Spencer takes these previous concepts and twists them into his own with how the Good Doctor operates.

Brain surgery is a given, and it’s represented in an oblique and metaphorical full-page spread. It’s paired with extensive therapy to ensure that Madder Red/Fillmore won’t relapse into his old ways. This part is demonstrated with a montage of the various times the Good Doctor tried to have him interact with a cat. It’s a gruesome sight, although it becomes a little silly before it loops back around to horrific. That moment when it loops around is when the story really feels like it’s about the Joker thanks to the combination of comedy and terror; it also helps that Rossmo seemingly designed the Good Doctor to look like Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker. There’s definitely something sinister about the Doctor and his gruesomely-modified nurses, and it gets scarier with the notion that he truly thinks he’s doing good deeds. I really want someone to write a comic set at Arkham Asylum showing the lengthy process of treating someone as twisted as one of Batman’s rogues.

Riley Rossmo has a very loose and sketchy style which is perfect for Bedlam; while the faces occasionally lack detail, it’s a fitting stylistic choice. He works closely with colorist Jean-Paul Csuka to set up two distinct palettes for the artwork. While the main story has full color, flashbacks are done in red, white and black a la Matt Wagner’s later Grendel stories. Additionally, the First is always drawn as more solid than any of the other characters in his few appearances. It’s a bit of a letdown that we don’t really learn anything about him -- like what he’s "the first" of -- but it makes sense if you look at Bedlam as coming from a villain’s perspective.

Future issues may resolve this drawback; the book is currently on a hiatus while Nick Spencer handles extensive writing duties for Marvel. I’m not sure how long Bedlam can go on organically anyway, so spacing it out might be to its benefit. Considering the massive wave of comic book movies coming in the next few years, an adaptation of Bedlam could shake up that landscape nicely. This first trade is only ten dollars for six full-length and extremely creepy issues and is a unique experience for any Bat-fan who wants to see how dark their favorite characters could be.

Next week, instead of horror, let’s take a look at some magic in the week of Halloween with Warren Ellis’ Gravel.
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