by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Patrick: What is the first thing you do when you pick up your copy of Batman Damned #1? You’ve got fifty pages of stunning Lee Bermejo art on oversized, oddly-shapped pages, and a script from the legendary Brian Azzarello. It’s a mature, confident riff on Batman and crime and dark magic, but you eagerly thumb through that intrigue and drama and blah blah blah until you find the panel where you can sorta see Batman’s dick. Can you spot it without someone else increasing the contrast and circling it? It’s a rush — a taboo look at Bruce Wayne’s dong flopping lazily to right. And now, because you have this comic in your hands, you’re one of the people that saw it first hand.
It is a quintessential “made you look” moment. Bermejo and Azzarello have such command over the readers’ eye that they are able to direct us to one specific panel before we’ve even considered buying the book. Once this masterpiece is in your hands, you discover that it’s all about misdirection, slight of hand, and controlling what the reader sees and when they see it.
Batman Damned 1 is immediately distinctive for two reasons. The first is its unusual size and shape. Even digitally, there’s no escaping the fact that this issue has its own dimensions, separate from every other comic you picked up that week. The second distinguishing feature is Bermejo’s art, which is a highly stylized form of realism that priorities the way light dances off of craggy textures. Everything in Bermejo’s world looks like it’s about a thousand years old and spent centuries baking in the sun. It is a decidedly weathered look, and no one else draws like this guy.
So the book is visually very specific. All comic creators are, in a sense, controlling everything the reader sees, but Bermejo and Azzarello have no qualms about making those things as non-usual as possible. And I don’t mean “unusual” — comics are always full of unusual images, that’s part of why we like ’em. No, this takes conventions of comic stories and Batman stories and twists them ever so slightly. We’ve got a running narrator, but it’s not that of Bruce slowly solving a crime. Instead, we’ve got Constantine’s smart-ass poetry. Instead of Batman the infallible, we start with a mortally wounded Batman beating the shit out of the EMTs that are trying to save him.
Even within individual pages, Bermejo controls the readers’ eyes. Take a look at this page, which wrestles against your natural inclination to read from left to right in separate rows.
That huge white void where the second panel should be forces the reader’s eye to the next most logical space for content: below the first panel. Luckily, there’s more of that narration there to catch the eye and draw the reader’s attention down the left side of the page. But where to next? We can see the direction Batman’s body is facing in the lower left corner and trace it out of the panel. Bermejo pulls off an incredible trick here, lining up Batman’s arm with the ledge of the building, all of which traces back up to the dead center of the page. It’s only then that your eye catches the grappling hook propelling us back to the top right corner of the page.
It’s miraculous stuff, and it feels like Bermejo is wielding some sort of arcane magic against us to ignore our instincts. That is exactly what Batman is going through. He’s trying to solve the mystery of who murdered Joker, and Bruce can’t even remember if he’s the one who did it. Even Batman’s support team seems to be lacking: there’s a moment where Bruce thinks Alfred is approaching, but it turns out to be Constantine. Which, fine, that’s answers that question. But here’s another: where is Alfred?
Or how about that Batcomputer? It can’t even find evidence that Bruce was shot, even though he’s strutting around cave in the buff. It also doesn’t have basic information, like the location of the second body pulled out of the river that evening. Further, when Bruce thinks about putting on a fresh Batsuit, he hallucinates (?) it coming to life and reaching for him.
No Alfred, no computer, no suit, no memory of whether or not he’s the killer. He’s basically flying blind.
That dovetails neatly with this Three Card Monty scene toward the end of the issue. The dealer, like the dealer in every Three Card Monty scene, is a cheat. She does something to make it look like the card is in the middle, which everyone agrees on — including a disguised-Bruce Wayne. But they’re wrong, and the dealer even points out “perhaps yonder hobo steered you right, or did he want you to lose you money?” That’s it, right there. Here we have the World’s Greatest Detective, the infallible authority on everything, the man with a foolproof plan for every eventuality, and he doesn’t know what’s going on.
It’s unmooring in the best possible way. The series is asking the question “is the Joker even dead?” but I’m not sure we even have an answer to the question “is Batman dead?” Drew, by the end of the issue, Azzarello is moving into christian imagery, a topic you and I have written about extensively in discussions on two of his other series: 100 Bullets: Brother Lono and Moonshine. “Do you believe in the afterlife?” We were all watching the dick, but the creative team snuck in so much more while we were distracted.
Drew: It hadn’t occurred to me before you mentioned them, Patrick, but Azzarello’s collaborations with Eduardo Risso make for a really interesting jumping-off point for this issue. Both Risso and Bermejo match the ugly grit of Azzarello’s storytelling, but they achieve that precision you’re talking about in basically opposite ways. Risso’s precision stems from a kind of minimalism — he’s only including the details that matter — where Bermejo’s precision is almost maximalist — overloading us with details to make his entire world as specific as possible.
But you’ve already covered the beauty and precision of Bermejo’s style and the larger themes of the issue, which gives me the luxury of drilling down to a subject we rarely have room for when discussing Azzarello’s work: his wordplay. And Azzarello is in rare form here — the fact that the issue is narrated by a cheeky smart-ass gives him permission to really let loose with the cleverness, and the results are transcendent. Here’s a typical example:
As is typical for Azzarello’s wordplay, the double-meaning hinges on an idiom — in this case, “at the very least.” Also typical is that actual pivot doesn’t hinge on some second definition of a word or soundalike (as would be typical for a pun), but on the function of the word in the sentence. The clause “the [very] least” in the first sentence is referring to the damage the fall should have caused Batman’s body. But in the second sentence, it’s referring to Batman himself. It’s a much slipperier way of twisting these words, making them virtually impossible to anticipate. It’s a kind of word-association game we’re just kind of sitting in on. I realize that doesn’t sound like the most thrilling thing, but when the results are this clever, it’s hard not to be in awe of the connections themselves.
Take one of my favorite examples from this issue:
Technically, the word-association game started a lot earlier, as Azzarello and Bermejo riffed through a few contexts for “a fall,” but it eventually carries us to “landing” and “corner” which is where Azzarello pivots in a totally unexpected direction. In the first sentence, it’s referring to the corner a Gotham City block; in the second, it’s referring to the kind of corner a person (or wild animal) might feel backed into. But what’s truly dazzling about that pivot is that both meanings are justified by the story — both contexts are warranted. Batman has just landed on a familiar corner and feels backed into a corner. Azzarello finds the thread that connects those two ideas and guides us effortlessly through them with a single world.
I could go on citing examples in this issue, but this pattern holds true for most of them, and it really is something unique. I suppose they technically fall under the umbrella term of “pun,” but that term is so broad, I’d hate to lose sight of how specific Azzarello is in this wordplay. It’s not just about understanding the dictionary definitions of words or their functions in sentences — it’s about fluency in common idioms and how their vocabularies connect to one another. It’s poetry; every bit as precise as Bermejo’s art, making this issue noteworthy even without that fleeting glimpse of a dick.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?