There’s really only one question to ask regarding this miniseries. Is it any good once you take Batman’s penis out of it? The flagship title for DC’s Black Label imprint sparked immediate infamy when it launched and the Caped Crusader’s batawang was visible in one scene. In addition to spiking demand for this issue, it also sparked a widespread scrubbing of potentially objectionable content throughout DC Comics with rewrites and re-draws to this series being part of them. Now that all the furor has died down around “Damned” we can see what worth this comic actually has.
The short answer to that is, “It sure looks nice!”
The longer answer: What you may not know about “Damned” is that it’s actually a sequel to the bestselling “Joker” graphic novel from a decade back by its creators writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo. It was released around the time “The Dark Knight” hit theaters, sold like gangbusters, and I even managed to drag in some friends to talk about it. As Azzarello mentions in his afterword, there were talks about expanding on this version of the “Batman” mythos after it was published. Those talks didn’t pan out and the idea of following up “Joker” went on the backburner until the idea of the Black Label imprint for mature superhero comics came along.
It speaks a lot to that graphic novel that DC and its creators thought it was still worth following up on after all this time. Me? I think that Azzarello and Bermejo make a solid creative team, when they’re not trolling Alan Moore. So when it was announced that they’d be tackling “Batman” again in a mature readers’ format, and with John Constantine onboard for the lulz, I was certainly interested.
The thing is that Azzarello as a writer is all about trying to give the audience what he thinks they need rather than what they want. Sometimes that works out incredibly well: Like when he put John Constantine in jail and then had him trek through the seedy underbelly of America for revenge in “Hellblazer.” Or told us a story about America’s origins and its power structure through a series of wicked morality tales involving untraceable guns and ammo in “100 Bullets.” Or zeroed in on the darker aspects of “Wonder Woman’s” mythic family and how she relates to them.
Unfortunately Azzarello’s instincts don’t always deliver an experience worth reading. You need only look to his cold and ponderous take on “Superman,” the mangled vernacular of “Spaceman,” or the utterly misguided 80’s revival “The Dark Knight III” which was the terrible sequel everyone said its predecessor was. Is “Damned” something we can add to this pile? Only in the sense that it’s a well-crafted story about something I didn’t much care for.
It starts off with Batman bleeding out in an ambulance and escaping before the paramedics can cut off his mask in order to help him. He’s not able to get far with that wound, but he gets far enough to collapse in an alley and be rescued by John Constantine of all people. John fixes him up and after Batman comes to his senses, he sees a news report which states that the Joker has been found dead by the river. Shocked by this news, Batman heads into the seediest parts of Gotham’s underworld to find out who killed the Clown Prince of Crime.
I’ll say this for the series: Those seedy parts have never looked better. Bermejo has always been a meticulous craftsman, investing his art with a texture and detail that almost feels photorealistic at times. Yet it never possesses the kind of stiffness you see from other artists who strive for the same. There’s a vitality to his characters and their settings that’s evident on every page that enlivens the overall story. He also delivers numerous haunting images throughout the series: A naked Bruce curled into a fetal position beneath a towering batsuit, nearly demonic rapper J. Blood spitting rhymes at Batman in an underground club, the titanic team-up (not really) between Batman, Swamp Thing, and John Constantine in a graveyard by day. This is an astonishingly good-looking book and it’s worth buying if art trumps story in your head.
As for the story, there were things I definitely liked about it. Azzarello’s flow always has a nice rhythm to it and it feels right that most of it comes out of the mouth of master bastard John Constantine. It’s a version of the character that feels true to his Vertigo roots, and the writer’s own run on “Hellblazer.” The writer’s attempts to give us grittier versions of established DC characters actually come off quite well. I didn’t know that I needed a version of Etrigan that’s a demonic rapper, but I want to see more of him now that I know he exists. His takes on the Spectre and Deadman are also pretty memorable too.
Where Azzarello lets us down is in the main story. The mystery of the Joker’s death isn’t really a whodunit. It’s actually a coming-to-terms story as Batman has to deal with the memories that this event has stirred up within him. Memories of his parents whose marriage wasn’t as happy as we had been led to believe and the deal he struck in order to deal with that.
I get that the writer is creating his own version of the “Batman” mythos in much the same way that creator Sean Murphy is with his “White Knight” series. Yet the way he does it here just winds up adding darkness on top of darkness. “Damned” lives up to its title in that it’s a grim, depressing story about what happens to Batman when he can’t live up to his image and ultimately winds up betraying it.
Which is where the business of this being a sequel to “Joker” comes in. If you haven’t read it then the last eight pages are going to look like they came out of nowhere. As someone who has read it, they give me a Batman who forsakes his moral code out of fear and pays the price for it. Said price being everything he’s experienced up until now. Oh, and those final pages? It’s one thing to pay homage to Moore and Brian Bolland’s work in “The Killing Joke.” Coming from two creators who participated in the whole “Before Watchmen” series it feels more like a giant flipping of the bird.
While the overall level of craft present in “Damned” is undeniable, it’s all done in service of a story that’s too grim for its own good and ultimately winds up going nowhere. I’d be interested in finding out if Azzarello and Bermejo originally planned for this miniseries to be more open-ended in its original version. Then, once Batpenis-gate struck, it was revised to have this more final (but not quite) version. If Azzarello knows, he’s not talking: His afterword from June 2019, when the final issue was published, makes no mention of any changes or the furor which greeted the series. A no-holds-barred take from the writer on the challenges of creating this series and the revisions it underwent would’ve made for a great read in my opinion. It would’ve given a real story to enjoy in this book, rather than one I had to slog through to enjoy the art.