The final chapter has arrived for Batman: Damned, closure or more questions?
Before diving into the supernatural acid trip that is Batman: Damned, it’s important to know a couple of key points:
One, this series is NOT for everyone. Two, this is a follow up to Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s graphic novel The Joker. Three, this series has not received the recognition it deserves or the support from DC that it should, due to the now infamous scene in issue #1 I like to refer to as “Bruce Wang.” That is no typo, in issue #1 there was a shadowy glimpse of the Dark Knight’s male appendage and in true Joker fashion, people lost their minds. While the title is under DC’s Black Label, DC reacted by censoring the scene in 2nd printings and the books did suffer from delays between issues. Issue #1 released in September of 2018, issue #2 released in December of 2018, and the final book made it onto shelves the last week of June 2019.
Both The Joker and Batman: Damned are departures from the traditional tone of the classic battle of the Dark Knight versus the Clown Prince of Crime.
Azzarello dives deep into the character’s minds, changes components of the character’s backstories, and masterfully ties the characters together in a way that compliments Batman: The Killing Joke. In Batman: Damned, Azzarello uses noir to help the narrator John Constantine direct Batman on his journey. That journey is one that questions mortality and explores self-induced guilt created by one’s past or actions.
The fall, it’s about a fall as Azzarello writes that can make one fall deeper into self-induced darkness.
The story picks up with Batman gaining consciousness in an ambulance surround by Gotham City detectives, bloody and battered from an encounter with the Joker. The Joker is dead. Batman escapes from the ambulance before the detectives have the chance to unmask him and collapses in an ally. Enter our original UNRELIABLE narrator John Constantine. From this point on Constantine appears throughout the series to guide Batman. The narration is at times helpful, other times feels more like misdirection.
The banter between Batman and Constantine is fun. By the final chapter the narrator becomes an irritant poking and prodding at Batman, it feels intentional to drive our protagonist to the end of his journey.
There are several other characters that appear along the way from the likes of Enchantress, Harley Quinn, Swamp Thing, and Zatanna to name a few. Enchantress appears throughout the story and flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood as a source of evil that reminds him that some of his own actions are the cause of his turmoil. The new interpretations of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s relationship, in particular, mold and drive a young Bruce into the conflicted adult we find in this story. The change in the appearance of Enchantress over the course of the story is one of the artistic additions to the story. Youthful and seductive in the beginning, that look later evolves into a menacing and decaying Enchantress.
Bermejo’s artwork pairs with the writing in a way that the two complement each other. This is evident in the character art, as well as the tone he creates for this bleak version of Gotham City.
While the story ties together, each book does not pick up where the last left off. Themes are introduced at the start of each book, these themes in order are the fall, pain, and control. After the theme, we suddenly find Batman in a new place on his journey and are launched there with no details as to how he got there. Some of the characters that come and go in the story are also not given clear resolution as to their outcomes. Even Batman’s journey itself is not defined with a clear beginning and end. This often vague and ambiguous approach to storytelling is where I believe readers will be divided. There are those that will thrive in the self-interpretation becoming a part of the journey, and there are those that may become frustrated with the lack of clarity.
The open-ended conclusion, depending on your interpretation, could lead you down several different paths: has Batman been dead the entire time and this is his journey from purgatory to afterlife, is the Joker alive?
The artwork in this book tricks the eye at times, it appears muted on some pages and then a page later it’s vibrant. There are some panels that the realism is jaw-dropping. The thought-provoking and question-inducing approach to storytelling is what makes me a huge fan. After reading issue #3, I had to go back and re-read The Joker and Batman: Damned straight through in one sitting. It reminds me of a great television show, movie, or video game that after finishing you could discuss for hours. This also brings me back to my first point this book is not for everyone. This book is for adults. This book is violent. This book is not an easy read, it will require reader participation. This book is ambiguous. For all these reasons, I find this book is fascinating. I strongly recommend it for fans of The Joker by Azzarello and Bermejo, and anyone into horror or supernatural Batman stories that blur the line of illusion and reality.