It would be fair to say that I’m not a fan of Brian Azzarello’s work. I’m sure he’s a lovely person who is kind to animals and I’ve heard good things about him personally. Yet I look at Azzarello’s oeuvre to date and find that while he has been critically acclaimed, it is usually for how he revolutionized a character for new audiences while completely missing the point behind the character.
His 2011 Wonder Woman run changed Diana of Themyscira into a bastard daughter of Zeus whose skill in battle came from private tutelage from Ares, angering fans who felt that a heroine meant to be the avatar of feminine virtue should not gain her power and skills from two male gods rather than being blessed by the Olympian goddesses. His run on Hellblazer transmuted John Constantine into a total scoundrel who openly flaunted his magic powers rather than the good-intentioned con-man who made his own magic codified by Moore, Delano and Ennis. And I’ve already written at length on how he somehow made The Killing Joke animated movie even more mean-spirited and misogynistic towards Batgirl than the original book.
That brings us to Batman: Damned, which I’ve heard is meant to be a spiritual sequel to Azzarello’s 2008 graphic novel Joker – i.e. the one where Azzarello turned the Joker into a rapist to drive home the point that he is a Very Bad Man. This is typical of Azzarello’s work, where shock value and splatter are used to mask the fact that very little happens in terms of plotting in his decompressed scripts until the final act. Such is the case here.
The story is that The Joker’s body has been found and a witness claims Batman did the deed. Batman himself is uncertain, having come to in an ambulance as an EMT was about to pull off his mask, with no memory of the evening’s events. It is here, as he’s about to pass out from blood loss in an alley, that he is discovered by John Constantine, who narrates a series of random events, including flashbacks to Bruce Wayne’s childhood which suggest that Thomas Wayne was cheating on his wife. There’s also a number of cameos by the Suicide Squad movie version of Enchantress, a street hustler I think is meant to be this world’s version of Zatanna and Deadman, who can only possess a person for a few seconds in this reality.
If it weren’t for the plot synopsis on the back of the book, it would be all but impossible to tie Azzarello’s prose to Lee Bermejo’s artwork. The grim irony of Batman: Damned is that it is far easier to follow the story by ignoring the text and focusing on the action of the art. Bermejo is a fantastic visual storyteller and I wish he’d attempted more solo ventures like his excellent graphic novel Noel than continually partnering with Azzarello. The artwork here is gorgeous, in a word, and it’s a damn shame it has to be obscured by the writing. Jared K. Fletcher does an admirable job in working the text into artwork but it seems like graffiti given the actual verbiage.
Batman: Damned is representative of its creator’s core talents. Unfortunately, this means that Bermejo’s beautiful artwork is pretty wrapping paper disguising the revolting cow-pie of Azzarello’s bleak, lifeless writing. In the end, this book is damned awful.