Batman is always a dark character (excluding the campy 60s version). Yet Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo take Bruce Wayne and his alter ego even darker in Batman: Damned, one of DC’s first mature Black Label books designed for an adult audience. When the story came out as monthly issues, there was a lot of controversy around a nude Batman scene. While that scene has been blacked out for the collected volume, this story is still dark and still for adults.
The story begins with an unconscious Batman riding in an ambulance. He’s clearly injured and might be near death. Yet, as a cop tries to take Batman’s mask off, he is suddenly awake, angry and violent. He escapes and tries to piece together what happened to him. Before long, we understand that the Joker is dead. But did Batman do it? Even he doesn’t know. Nearly every magic user in the DC universe (Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, etc.) shows up to tell Bruce that he’s in trouble or damned in some way. There are repeated scenes of Bruce falling—as a child, as Batman, over and over. In the end, Batman remembers what he did and didn’t do, yet the final scene indicates that what he understands isn’t necessarily true.
Traditional speech bubbles tell the reader who is talking, yet there is an ongoing white lettered text that runs throughout the story that narrates. Sometimes it seems like Batman is talking, while at others, it’s a third person narration. The reader doesn’t get many clues. It lends to the ominous, semi-conscious, fevered state that runs throughout the book. It can also be confusing.
The artwork is gritty, realistic, beautiful, and yet often disturbing. It’s not surprising that there is a lot of black in this book. Lots of shadows, pencils and dark colors are used to set the tone. Yet, I never had trouble following the action. Bermejo’s art is detailed and the coloring is distinctive enough that the action comes through, even on the darkest of pages.
The story and characters, on the other hand, are not clear or well defined. This is a story for people who know Batman’s backstory and DC’s cast of characters well, not for a newcomer. You need knowledge of who Etrigan, Enchantress, and Swamp Thing are to get why the changes to their characters are interesting or relevant. The story is so compressed that these characters just show up briefly, do their thing and then are never referenced again. It seems like there was a longer story meant to be told here (Azzarello even suggests this in the afterward).
Libraries with an extensive adult collection will want to add this title. Use caution putting this in a teen collection, however as it’s clearly aimed at the adult market. It’s not an easy title for new comics readers either.
By Brian Azzarello
Art by Lee Bermejo
Publisher Age Rating: 18+