Batman Damned 1: Discussion

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:

The Least

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:

Corner

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?

10 comments on “Batman Damned 1: Discussion

  1. As much as I’d love for nudity to not be such a taboo thing that the entire world feels compelled to giggle at the merest hint of genitals, I kind of feel like the dick wasn’t a great narrative choice. Patrick is 100% right that Batman’s nudity is an essential part of his vulnerability in that scene (it’s the only time he’s unmasked in the whole issue, and he’s rendered as completely naked without the Batman identity), but I feel like the image of a literal swinging dick implies the opposite of vulnerability. Like, “swinging your dick around” is an expression of ego and swagger, which is entirely inappropriate for that scene. We can (and do) understand Bruce’s nudity (and its symbolic importance) without actually seeing his junk, and I think that’s probably the better approach.

    • Two things about this. #1, I think Azz and Bermejo are intentionally misdirecting the readers with a detail so salacious they can’t look away from it. I’m like 90% certain that Batman’s dead at the start of this issue, and the wonkiness of his computer seemingly confirms that there is something weird going on around his wounds, but the D is just so blinding that I haven’t seen too much analysis of the scene that extends beyond Excitement For Wang.

      But #2 – that’s sorta Bermejo-standard, right? I know there was a dick in his Rorschach mini-series, and I believe we see some dicks in Suiciders. The dude doesn’t shy away from nudity, and if that means we see a penis, well, that means we see a penis.

      • Funny thing. I’v read alot of Judge Dredd. I’ve never seen his face, but I’ve seen his dick in one of the progs. But I saw dick about it in media. But then, I’m from Europe.

        I think there’s probably a quite relaxed reason why Bermejo drew Bruce that way. 1, he’s living in Europe. 2, Black label has some sort of adult aura 3, it’s not drawn as a joke or anything 4, no sane person could’v predicted all the click bait it’d cause. Bleeding Colon (“Bleeding cool”) is doing 10 bat dick click bait a day.

        That said. I really liked this issue. Feels like both a sequel to Joker as well as it’s own thing. The floppie is quality. Big and beautiful. Fantastic art and brilliantly written. Has the quality of a LP record to it, or a fine single malt whisky. Reaching for it now. Flipping through it’s pages. The weight of Bruce on his knees in a supernatural who dunnit with “or did he” hints. I’m not 100% what’s going on, other than I love it. It’s a lovely thing. One I hope the other black label books aspire to live up to.

    • It honestly speaks to the incoherence of the idea of the Black Label line. It is equivalent to how the very first line of the very first issue of the very first book of Marvel’s MAX imprint was the word “FUCK”. A desperate attempt to prove that this is a mature imprint, and actually just prove it is edgy and immature. Though at least starting Alias with the word “Fuck” was a good way to introduce Jessica Jones and Alias did end up being a mature series (unlike a lot of MAX).

      As someone else said, “Does anything support @FilmCritHULK’s article about texture vs text than Batman: Damned kicking off Black Label with Batman’s penis?”. There is no text reason, but it certainly makes things ‘feel’ mature, no matter how superficial it actually is.

      As much as I’d love nudity not to be such a taboo thing, especially male nudity, this sort of stuff, designed for shock and headlines, is bad. It does the opposite. The fact that DC has edited the digital version to hide it just makes it even more clear. It jsut reminds me of the similar discussions of Cyberpunk 2077, which tried to make similar arguments about the importance of its nudity but whose demo just showed the lurid exploitiveness.

      Honestly, part of the problem is that Black Label is an incoherent mess. It is a shame that DC’s experiment with imprints is failing so badly, and it is the one truly good idea they’ve had. But Black Label is particularly bad example of an imprint. Unlike the classics of Vertigo, which were interested in comics from fresh new perspectives telling the new types of stories, Black Label is just the same old writers telling the same old stories. There is maybe one book announced that sounds like something that feels like it actually belongs in a special mature comics imprint instead of just published like everything else. Hell, the fact that Three Jokers, a high profile part of the Rebirth story, will be a Black Label comic just makes this clearer. Black Label isn’t even an escape from continuity where writers can have their own playground.
      Honestly, the only way for Black Label to have an identity is shock value

      • Not sure if you liked it or not. If you did. Enjoy it for what it is then, a good comic.

        Also. Continuety notwithstanding (in the case of joker tripple). How would you feel if you are wrong about what the future holds for the print? If it actually delivers on the premise.

        My theory is that things will probably move a bit slower than I’d want. In order to let things sink in for readers. That it’s not meant to be adult in terms of gore, but rather sophistication. Which I think this Batman book did damned good. It gives me a similar feel as the upcoming king of comedy-joker movie.

        But then. I didn’t care much for the click bait surrounding it. Which I think is the reason why they’re removing it from further releases. It’s not attention they want. I’ve also heard some comic retailers being against it. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The scene is as good without as with a bit of shadow.

      • I think we have to leave a little room for this imprint to establish itself before we condemn it for just being tired repeats of the same old stuff. While Vertigo eventually became a proving ground for fresh new perspectives (and then wasn’t again), it started from a much safer place, basically cordoning off the ongoing books Karen Berger was already editing into a new imprint. Saga of the Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Animal Man, The Sandman, and Shade: The Changing Man all predated the formation of Vertigo, so were part of DC’s main continuity before they weren’t. That is, they were all proven commodities, literally things DC was already publishing, not risky bets on bold new series. And that safety gave Berger the freedom to experiment with the weirder Vertigo stuff we all love. I’m not sure that would have happened if Vertigo didn’t have those reliable sellers in its back pocket from the start.

        • Except you are ignoring the context of those five books. Which is that they were all part of the British Invasion. Vertigo had a clear identity, because it formalised a distinction that already existed. Every book in the initial Vertigo line up was united by the common identity of continuing the success of the British Invasion.
          In all honesty, it was only the later years of Vertigo where Vertigo’s identity got confusing when you had books like Hellblazer and Madame Xanadu at the same time as DMZ and Scalped

          Black Label, meanwhile, is incoherent. There is no clear identity to anything. No clear distinction of what is supposed to be a Black Label book and what isn’t. Is it in continuity, or is it out of continuity? Is it actually supposed to be a mature readers imprint in the vein of early Vertigo, or just an R-rated one? Is it supposed to be things that can’t be told in a mainline book? Why is White Knight grandfathered in, but not Mister Miracle (or an actually good comic, like Omega Men)?
          Even if you ignore Three Jokers, which blows any attempt of an identity up, Black Label is incoherent as an imprint. Young Animal may have been a disaster, but it had a clear identity as an imprint. Wildstorm looks like it has crashed and burned and won’t release half of its content, but it had a clear identity. What the hell is Black Label supposed to actually be?

        • Actually, I think you’re the one mischaracterizing the “context” here. By the time Vertigo launched in 1993, Moore had been off of Swamp Thing for years, and it now had an entirely American creative team. So did Doom Patrol. It’s easy for us to think that of Vertigo as not having any of the inconsistencies you’re talking about, but exceptions abound to simplistic characterizations like “it was the British invasion imprint” or “it was the non-continuity imprint” (remember, most of those series we listed had notable crossovers with mainline DC continuity before Vertigo was formed.

          And again, with that perspective, I think the launch of this imprint is just as messy and scattershot. Just like Vertigo, its exact purpose isn’t entirely explicit. Just like Vertigo, its relation to continuity is complicated. And just like Vertigo, “mature” means both meaningful thematic depth AND puerile shock.

          But I also think the answers to your questions are more obvious than you’re making them out to be. While the Three Jokers might complicate the narrative (and I emphasize might, because I kind of think it just straight up won’t be in continuity), everything else about this imprint has been quite clearly not in continuity. Which is why non-continuity stories like White Knight would be retroactively made part of the imprint while in-continuity stories like Miracle Men and Omega Men aren’t. I get the strong impression that this is just an imprint for darker elseworlds stories, so it won’t ever grow into anything like Vertigo. And I suspect that exactly how the “maturity” manifests will depend on the creators involved. Some will almost certainly be dumb, but I tend to trust Azzarello and Bermejo enough to be on board for this one.

        • I tried to be careful of my phrasing, but I should have been more clear. By continuing the success of the British Invasion, I wasn’t talking specifically about British writers. But on tapping into that underlying philosophy of success by taking obscure DC characters and using them as a way to tell different types of stories. I mean, we can discuss how Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol were no longer written by Moore and Morrison, but we can’t pretend that they hadn’t already put such indelible stamps on the characters that the moment they disappeared it was like the runs never happened. Instead, the whole point of having those books still around was to continue telling stories in the way that built on what Moore and Morrison did. The important thing about the British Invasion wasn’t that it was British, it was that Moore introduced a new way of telling stories to American comics and DC’s attempts to build on that (and I’m not sure where you think I said Vertigo was the non continuity imprint, but I would never say that. It was obviously in continuity, all of it)

          Vertigo had a very clear sensibility from the beginning. Attempt to foster and grow the innovations from the British Invasion with a series of in-continuity books that attempted to approach comics from a perspective that the more traditional comics didn’t. That’s what Vertigo was*. In fact, that’s a big reason why it doesn’t matter that some Vertigo was puerile shock. Back then, that was a legitimate attempt at a new perspective. If you compare it to, say, Batman: Knightfall, which was published around the same time, the difference is clear. Despite Knightfall being the peak example of 90’s DC, it is very clearly a compromised book that is holding back. Very clearly a book that despite its superficial appearances, is specifically designed not to fit any definition of mature readers. This isn’t the case today. While King’s current work may be utter crap, they are also so firmly in the ‘for mature readers’ camp that the only difference between it and Batman: Damned is a penis. DC today is not DC in the 90s, and Black Label has done a very poor job differentiating itself from what comics these days actually are.

          Black Label doesn’t have a clear identity at all. There is no way in hell that Three Jokers will be out of continuity, because it is a central piece of Rebirth. But even if we ignore Three Jokers, we have the Other History of the DC Universe. Whose entire point is to retell iconic moments of DC Comics history from the perspective of marginalised characters, to the chart the sociopolitical gains of those characters through DC’s history. That is in-continuity. So why can that be in Black Label and not Omega Men?
          Some of Black Label is in-continuity, some of it isn’t. Some of Black Label appears to be trying to do something that you couldn’t in a mainline book, some of it just has a penis. Some of it is darker Elseworlds, some of it is literally All-Star Superman, the brightest comic ever, being grandfathered in.

          I understand an imprint losing its identity as it grows old and gets retooled. But at the start, that’s when it is easy. Vertigo knew what it was trying to be. Black Label doesn’t

          ____________________________________________________________

          *Vertigo eventually retooled, leading to the awkward situation of having books that belonged in the DC Universe in the same imprint as original material, but at the start it had a clear identity. The closest thing to an exception to this at the start was Vertigo publishing a series of comics originally published for Touchstone Comics before they collapsed. But there is nothing similar to Touchstone Comics situation today (and some of those Touchstone Comics did end up connecting to the rest of the DC Universe, in the end).

  2. I did n’t know about the Bat-Dong before reading the issue, and I honestly missed it my first readthrough. I guess I wasn’t looking for it (because I’ve never opened a comic hoping the titular character was going to be naked), so I wonder how many out there are like me that didn’t even know Batman’s Peter Parker was showing.

    Once I knew about it, I thought, “Really?” and went to look for Bruce Wayne’s dingaling. And there it was.

    And I am confronted with the question: Who wants this? Do hardcore Bat-Fans really think that Batman’s pecker was what was keeping Batman from making it big? “God, this story about the Joker was awesome! Why wasn’t there a nude scene with Batman’s cock? Fuck this story, I’m reading something else.”

    Batman’s not my favorite superhero. Spider-Man is. And I’m not sure I need to see Spider-Man crawl in through his window, broken and beaten from a fight, shed his uniform and walk to the shower in a full frontal show revealing Pete’s Batarang. I’d be pretty confused about what they were trying to convey.

    Otherwise, I kind of liked the comic, although I’m not a fan of the confused dialogue. I prefer stories where I know what’s going on, but Bermejo does such other good things that it makes the story worth reading.

    I just don’t get why. But I don’t get why a lot of the time it seems I’m reading comics with nudity. I get some of it in Saga (other times I just find it gratuitous), I get it in Watchmen, I don’t get it here.

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