Review: Batman: Damned hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

July 31, 2022

 ·  3 comments

If I’m not mistaken, DC Comics' kick-off of their mature readers DC Black Label line in late 2018 was twofold — Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s new Batman: Damned miniseries in single issues, and Sean Murphy’s previously released Batman: White Knight series in trade. At the time of my review, I referred to White Knight as my “first” Black Label title — not the first necessarily, but the first for my particular trade-focused interest.

The hardcover collection of Damned didn’t arrive until about a year later, in 2019, and at that point it was somewhat off my radar. For one, despite that there’s been any number of Bat-focused Black Label titles I’ve read and enjoyed, a “Joker is dead and did Batman kill him” story sounded like something we’ve seen in a variety of Elseworlds previous.

For two, while I was far from offended by the Bat-nudity that appeared in Damned’s first printed issue, I think the hubbub that followed made me slow to pick up the collection — counterintuitively, the outraged pearl-clutching that greeted Damned put me off the book, though I realize in retrospect that’s punishing the book for others' reactions to it.

And so having declared a while ago that I’m eager to pick up whatever Black Label releases — finding it the site of not just your average DC superhero comics — it occurred to me I ought read the other book where DC Black Label started. Thus: Batman: Damned.

[Review contains spoilers]

Two things I’ll say about Damned: It is gorgeous, and I did not at all understand the end because I haven’t read Azzarello and Bermejo’s Joker. Others' results from Damned may therefore vary; for me, Damned a beautiful, frightening tour of DC’s magic characters, which I very much enjoyed, which comes to a sudden crashing stop in the last three pages when Batman suddenly disappears and the seemingly dead Joker crawls out of the Gotham river. I have glanced around enough to know that this has some great resonance if you’ve read Joker (I wanted to write this review before I fully acquainted myself with what I was missing), but since I haven’t, my subjective experience is Damned rolls along well for about 140 pages and then totally fails in the ending.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

I won’t judge Damned too harshly for that — my lack of foreknowledge is the problem, having now essentially read a sequel before I read the original. Though, nowhere on the book does DC advertise any connection to Joker, which is poor both from the reader’s standpoint and also a missed opportunity to sell copies of Joker — “From the world of the bestselling Joker graphic novel” would have done nicely. Had I known, I might very well have read Joker first; now my attention is elsewhere (though, eh, I’m thinking about it enough maybe I’ll probably go ahead and do it).

For the unitiated, again what Damned has to offer is Batman teaming up with — or being lead around Christmas Carol-eqsue by — DC’s popular magic characters, collectively in recent years found in Justice League Dark — John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Swamp Thing, the Spectre, and Enchantress. They are spectacularly rendered and sometimes reimagined by Azzarello and Bermejo, ranging from their traditional, recognizable Constantine, to their masterpiece, an Etrigan who raps instead of rhymes and whose horns manifest in forehead piercings. In Damned’s vision, Deadman’s circus costume is instead the exposed musculature of a skinned corpse, and people become violently ill and begin to decompose as soon as he possesses them.

Among mysteries in Damned — besides whether the Joker is dead, whether Batman killed him, and why Batman can’t remember doing so — are Enchantress' appearances, of late and apparently throughout Bruce Wayne’s life. Azzarello presents a dark spin on the Wayne family, including a philandering Thomas. Possibly, the Waynes' murder comes as part of an unwitting deal between Bruce and Enchantress; she’ll take his “fear” caused by the tumult in his life in exchange for Bruce’s “tears,” the death of his parents. The implication is, in robbing Bruce Wayne of fear, Enchantress essentially created the Batman.

But a lot in the end seemed obtuse, whether due to my lack of contextual understanding or just in general. My best guess in the end is that Batman makes a deal with the Spectre to trade his own life to resurrect the Joker, whom Batman let die — but if so, that deal happens in the space of one small panel.

We’re told often that there were two victims from the bridge, and that the wounds that Batman sustained were fatal, such that one might reasonably suspect Batman is dead throughout the whole story (a la you-know-what), but that theory doesn’t hold together through the whole of the book. Does it all take place in Hell? What’s the significanceof Enchantress' transformation to a crone only at the book’s end? It seems for the most part that Damned is heading for triumph, but the final pages leave too much unexplained.

On the topic of “unexplained,” as far as I can find Azzarello and Bermejo have been mum on what happened with that first issue of Damned. I know enough to know that for a comic to be drawn, colored, lettered, and printed, there are plenty of people who’ve looked at it, including editors. Which is to say, I’m skeptical that Azzarello and Bermejo arbitrarily slipped Batman’s birthday suit into a comic without anyone knowing.

Notably, the controversy over Damned as far as I know was with the comics being pulled and reprinted, not that anyone was fired, and Azzarello at least has done subsequent work for DC, not to mention that Damned was collected in trade. My pet theory then is that the uproar over Damned’s nudity was more regret than bad behavior; that the need to pull the comic after publication came from second thoughts, not the creative team doing something they weren’t given permission to.

2.25

Rating

In all, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned sure is pretty to look at, and if I were more familiar with their earlier works, maybe I’d greet this with more enthusiasm. I like the idea of horror comics with DC’s horror-adjacent characters (eager for Jeff Lemire’s DC Black Label Swamp Thing book, for instance), though anchoring it with Batman seems to easy. Wonder Woman leading the Justice League Dark was a surprisingly good fit; maybe Wonder Woman or Superman in the “Damned” universe might offer something more we haven’t seen before.

[Includes original, variant, and unused covers, plot excerpts and inked pages, sketches, afterword]

Comments ( 3 )

  1. I read Joker shortly before reading Damned, and I still have absolutely no idea what happened at the end, so I don't know how much context it really provides.

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    Replies
    1. Totally agree.....even having read Joker.....still no idea what the ending of Batman Damned really meant.

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    2. Glad it's not just me! Review of Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker coming soon.

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