Earlier this year it was announced that artist Lee Bermejo would be writing and drawing a special Christmas-themed “Batman” original graphic novel. Though I’ve known the man to be very good a drawing characters and settings that have a dark, “realistic” look to them but never come off as distractingly photo-referenced (in the way that Greg Land’s work often does) , I was a bit wary of this. After all, it was going to be his first work without regular collaborator Brian Azzarello, with whom he did “Batman/Deathblow,” “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel,” and “Joker,” and whose involvement was the main reason I picked up those other series. Then I learned that not only was this going to be Christmas-themed, but a new take on Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” Long story short, I went and ordered it anyway because I figured at least it’d give me something interesting to write about even if it was terrible.
The end result is an artistic tour-de-force (no, really) and one of the best-looking comics I’ve seen all year, with a story that at least has the decency to be interesting in the ways it fails.
Now I usually start talking about the story and writing here, but I’m going to break with tradition and tell you about the art. I imagine that’s going to be the main draw here, and it’s deservedly so. As I stated above, Bermejo has a “dark” style that seems to default at “noirish.” It’s a style that’s perfectly suited for a “Batman”story, but he doesn’t take the easy way out here by just draping everything in shadow. In fact, the man deserves credit for having the first major scene of the book involve Batman taking down one of the Joker’s bagmen in broad daylight in a snowy alley. Can anyone remember the last time they saw him do that? The scene defies a lot of expectations right at the start, and that’s only the start.
Bermejo also experiments a lot with panel layouts and montages. You see this a lot in the Catwoman scenes as she causes him to remember the past and we see the character from his earlier days, fighting with the “Dick Grayson” Robin, older images of his rogues’ gallery, and even smiling. It’s impressive the way that these scenes bleed into the present, without distracting from the storytelling too much. He also manages to effortlessly capture the iconic nature of the many characters present in this story. It can probably go without saying that he does a great job with Batman, nailing his rage and determination almost a little too well, but also dialing it back at the end, but also with Catwoman’s easy charm and sex appeal as she shows off her latest score to the Dark Knight. Superman also puts in a key appearance and while it effectively plays up his otherworldliness, it never trumps the compassion he has for his friend and the less fortunate in Gotham. Then there’s the scenes with the Joker towards the end, where his violent insanity and mood swings are etched perfectly onto his face, but never more so than when we see him looking through the door...
There are plenty of other great moments like that throughout this book, and Bermejo nails them all while maintaining a high level of detail throughout. Yeah, some parts could’ve been clearer, but it all makes sense in the end. The only nit I have to pick is that while I enjoy seeing the Dark Knight burst out of a grave as much as the next man, the version here just doesn’t have the same drama or dynamism of Tony Daniel’s rendering of a similar scene from “Batman R.I.P.” Heresy to some, I’m sure, but that’s how I feel.
So while the book is an artistic triumph, it’s perhaps not too surprising that the story doesn’t quite measure up. It is Bermejo’s first time out and while it’s not terrible, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before or better. Everyone here has probably seen more takes on “A Christmas Carol” than they’d like to in their lifetime, so it’ll take a very special twist on the formula in order to make this version stand out from the others. The best thing I can say about Bermejo’s take is that he doesn’t go for a literal interpretation of the tale. Batman’s past, present, and future are seen through his interactions with characters in the present which all serve to advance the overall story. That said, the casting model is broken when you have a character who is alive, Jason Todd, play the role of Marley’s Ghost.
However, the story’s biggest failing is in its portrayal of Batman. Even accounting for all of his different portrayals over the years, the initial callousness he displays towards the fate of Joker’s bagman is off-putting to the point of breaking character. While I can believe that Batman would use such a character as bait to lure out the Joker, I can’t believe that he’d do so in a way as to recklessly endanger the man’s son or be so dismissive of the son’s fate after being raised by a criminal. Then you have the fact that “A Christmas Carol” is built around the fact that a man can change his ways, so you know that the Dark Knight will reverse his position in spectacular fashion at the end of the story. That’s even less believable than his treatment of the bagman and his son. Such a change in thinking could only work in a crazy Bob Haney-esque way, but it’s clear that we’re meant to take this whole story VERY seriously.
Or are we? At the end of the book we find out who has been narrating it and the possibility exists that a lot of it may have been the result of the narrator injecting his own wishful thinking and supposition onto his close encounter with Batman and the Joker. The “untrustworthy narrator” approach actually does appeal to me and the Dark Knight’s characterization makes a lot more sense if you think about it in that way. It would also explain, but not completely excuse, why Superman didn’t come back after hearing a certain car explode. I can’t quite bring myself to believe this as the simplicity of the narration runs counter to the dialogue and character interactions on the page. Was the narrator ad-libbing all this stuff too? Speaking of the dialogue, Bermejo comes off as a competent scripter. Though the dialogue between Batman and his peers comes off as rote supherhero talk, I will admit that he does write a good Joker. The narration itself feels like he’s trying to channel Azzarello, but it doesn’t have the same grace or flow.
So if you’re feeling especially forgiving, then yeah, the story kinda works. It’s not something I’d recommend buying this book to read, so it’s a good thing that the art is superlative. Make no mistake, Bermejo’s art is the main reason to pick up this book and any who do so for this reason will not be disappointed. Those of you looking for better-written ones will do best to check out his previous work with Azzarello.