Batman: Damned #1
Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (art and cover), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer)
September 19, 2018
In an industry as saturated in great content as the comic book scene, most creators are on the hunt for their magnum opus. That one iconic story that will propel them into the public eye, carve out a comfortable niche of notoriety, and perhaps even secure their spot in the pantheon of comics’ legendary creators.
Well, it seems pretty safe to say that the creative team of Batman: Damned have done just that. And all they had to do was splash Bruce Wayne’s dick across several panels in their near fifty-page introduction to DC’s first “Black Label” imprint miniseries.
It’s all anyone’s talked about for days—including here at WWAC, of course, as the serious and analytical comics journalists that we are. But rest assured, there is a story behind Batman’s Lil Wayne! Unfortunately, it may not be worth spending your precious time searching for a copy of this series… even if the Bat-a-wang is now a collector’s item.
As first issues go, Batman: Damned #1 feels unusually sparse in its introductions to the plot and its characters. After being grievously injured on patrol, Bruce Wayne finds himself stumbling through the mystic world intimate to John Constantine, DC’s resident occultist and bad luck magnet. Rather than a random encounter, it seems Constantine and his crew have been drawn to Gotham due to a rise in supernatural disturbances. Of course, these disturbances have something to do with Bruce, specifically with a strange and scary creature from his childhood. Batman: Damned #1 suggests that this creature has been haunting him throughout his entire life, slowly pushing him into the violent, isolating, increasingly self-destructive world of his obsessive vigilantism. And now, the culmination of this influence seems to be the breakage of Bruce’s most sacred vow to not kill… maybe. Bruce is no longer sure of himself, so he and Constantine are joining forces to solve this possible murder mystery.
Given the penchant for science-driven stories in your typical Gotham-based comic, it’s always nice to see a Batman/Constantine team-up that delves into the more magical underbelly of this universe. Lee Bermejo is masterfully employed in setting up this dark aesthetic as the series’ main artist. His line art offers the expected grittiness of a heavily noir Batman story, while his warm color palette bathes Gotham and its citizens in a sickly, feverish glow that feels surprisingly appropriate for this supernaturally corrupt environment.
While the window dressing of this comic is undeniably effective, however, success for a story of this nature rests in understanding the unique characterizations of all the involved parties, showing how their complex histories inform their current personalities and their narrative voices. In this regard, Brian Azzarello’s poor rendering of the characters in Batman: Damned #1 severely undermines his otherwise intriguing premise and Bermejo’s beautifully supportive artwork.
While Batman is our protagonist, Constantine is our admittedly unreliable narrator, and as such he is the character with whom readers spend the most time. It would be a thrilling prospect if delivered by other writers, who are attuned to the nuance of Constantine’s Knight in Sour Armour persona and thus elevate their presentation of this sarcastic, religiously tormented anti-hero. Yet in Azzarello’s hands, Constantine feels reduced to a hodgepodge of one-dimensional bad boy tropes and cliched British slang, presented to readers in a string of disjointed narration that tries too hard to subvert our religious conventions about the nature of good and evil.
“God is insane” and the Devil believes in you even if you don’t believe in him, this comic’s Constantine gleefully reveals to us over and over again. But the only thing I believe is that I’ve heard more controversial subversions of Christianity in my freshman philosophy class. It’s rudimentary navel-gazing, and this character has far evolved from that over the course of his extensive comic history.
Batman has similarly been flattened out to his most basic, well-known elements: brooding, loneliness, pain, and paranoia. Batman: Damned #1 tries to justify these longstanding hurts with new instances of trauma from his childhood, specifically that aforementioned ghoul as well as the dramatic deterioration of his parents’ marriage. As these unresolved memories seep into his adulthood, the aim is to show the troubled man he has become, vulnerable to demons that mostly exist in his mind—until now, that is.
But does this aim not describe the last forty or so years of Batman’s mythology, which includes several live-action and animated movies, television shows, video games, comic book series and one-shots, the main Batman title, and even the upcoming Heroes in Crisis miniseries? Batman’s mental anguish has literally been explored for decades now, making it near impossible for modern writers to inject any original, nuanced considerations into the topic. Azzarello certainly doesn’t do that here. His changes to Bruce’s early family life particularly feel like a poorly crafted attempt at establishing Bruce’s emotional anxieties, and they certainly don’t support the sad naked wandering that Bruce does in the latter half of this issue.
In between Constantine’s edgelord ruminations and the antics of Sad Batman Version #375, there is a third character in Batman: Damned #1 whose presence was outright butchered—and it’s not the Joker, unfortunately. A comic book’s lettering is something you only really notice if it’s unique or bad, and it is very much both in this comic. As our mostly off-screen narrator, Constantine’s thoughts carry readers from page-to-page through aimlessly floating white text rather than, say, your typical narration box at the bottom corner of the panel. Jared K. Fletcher probably employed this uncommon technique to further augment the comic’s dark and dreamy atmosphere, and he is quite successful at that on the first page. Following that, his lettering is just too difficult to read against Bermejo’s busy backgrounds and bright colors. It’s almost surprising that it made the cut.
And I suppose that describes my overall feelings towards Batman: Damned #1. For all the great elements that went into its creation, I’m surprised that so much bad execution exists in this final product. This should have been a strong, bold introduction to DC’s new mature imprint, but the attempt—and DC’s response to the mild subsequent controversy—feels incredibly juvenile and ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It’s just another Sad Batman Story. It’s just another dark superhero comic lacking substance. And now that the Batdick hype is over, I sincerely doubt that the Batman: Damned saga will be anything other than another superficial foray into the DC universe’s potential darkness.