Two of the Batman books on shelves right now are authored by artists who really shouldn’t be writing. In fact, it’s pretty common for an artist to take up writing duties and completely fall flat at it, but that is definitely not the case with Lee Bermejo. It’s especially astounding when you consider the bold concept he decided to make his debut with: an exploration of Batman’s history coupled with the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol”. With an idea like that and the comic community still buzzing after the work Bermejo did on Brian Azzarello’s “Joker” graphic novel, it’s no surprise that there was a lot of hype around this book. Some might even say too much hype. You couldn’t open a comic book last month without a 4 page preview for “Batman: Noel” and that sort of saturation has even deterred people from wanting to pick this book up. That’s a real shame, too, because “Batman: Noel” lives up to the hype and is sure to become a classic seasonal Batman tale like “Haunted Knight”, “The Long Halloween”, and of course, “Batman #27″.
The narrative of Noel is interesting because the narrator never addresses the events as a Batman story. Instead it is Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” through and through, but told by a common man to his son entirely from memory. After all, “A Christmas Carol” like “Dracula” and the story of Jesus is one of the most over-told yarns EVER and pretty much everybody knows all the beats. And it’s seeing how well Bermejo gets those beats to match the gritty Batman episode at hand is what makes the book interesting!
Oh it’s pretty, alright
What’s really cool about Noel is that it has a storybook feel. That’s because of the numerous two page spreads and splash pages coupled with Todd Klein’s captionless lettering. It’s fascinating how by simply removing those boxes and putting the narration right over the page the book takes on an entirely new feel. It’s just so perfect for “A Christmas Carol”, it really is. And as for the actual art of the book? Come on. You know the answer to that already. No book is going to have better art this month. It’s probably the best drawn and colored book out this year. So instead of me wasting everyone’s time going on and on about it, let me just say that the book’s epilogue features some cool preliminary sketches by Bermejo complete with captions as he takes you through his process. It’s really fascinating how much attention to detail this guy has and the time he takes making sure that all the shadows fall just right. Amazing. Bermejo, Ciardo, and Klein have crafted a book so beautiful that many would have bought it had there been no words at all…though that would’ve made things harder for Klein, but I’m sure he could’ve found a way to wow us anyway!
So when it comes to thinking of ways to parallel Batman’s world and “A Christmas Carol” you get to play a fun casting game in your head, right? Who makes the best Scrooge? Who is the ghost of Christmas present? Is Bat-Mite in this? I’m not going to spoil any of that. I didn’t know when I went in and was all the better for it. But I will say that Scrooge is Batman. Now you may be thinking, well, Batman is a good guy! He can’t be Scrooge! Well, yeah he can. You have to look at Noel through an all encompassing lens. Think of Batman’s entire 70 years plus history. He’s had fun, campy adventures and he’s had dark tragedies. He’s a character who has gone from being a light-hearted do-gooder with an Aunt Agatha to a brooding bastard with a dead Robin on his hands. And that’s what has made the character last so long. He’s versatile like that. Just look at that “Batman: Brave & the Bold” cartoon! It’s out in the Christopher Nolan age and people still love it because Batman can work in almost any tone. It’s a testament to the character. What you get in Batman: Noel is Batman at his worst. He’s this hyper-agitated Frank Miller knock-off Batman. The one that many of us have grown to hate because he no longer feels like a hero. He’s just a nut on a mission who has gazed into the abyss so long he has lost his humanity. What the Christmas Carol narrative does is reconcile that representation with the lighthearted hero of the past to bring Batman to a realization in the end that he can bring justice, be a force to be reckoned with and still be a good guy that kids can look to as a role model and we can cheer for and who actually smiles once in a while.
Sound good? Great. Go buy this book. Now, let me address a couple things that didn’t quite work. No biggies though. Come read the rest of this review when you’re done and see if you agree/disagree with these points. Book’s a 10/10, by the way.
Alright, so what DIDN’T work in “Batman Noel” you ask? Well getting 1800s ghosts to match up with figures in Batman lore is no easy task. But I feel that the “ghosts” in Batman’s Christmas Carol only batted .500 when it came to aiding the Dark Knight on his road to self discovery. Superman’s scene was the best, I felt. You actually got to see Batman visit a few people and see how folks viewed him in the present and see him understand how nobody really likes or trusts him these days. That’s good. That’s important. And Joker knocking him out right after that, thus leaving Batman to imagine a horrible future in which he continues on this path all made sense. But it’s the Marley and Christmas Past ghosts that fell flat for me. Obviously the art was still phenomenal and seeing Bermejo draw Two-Face and Penguin was a real treat, but it didn’t really fit. Batman chasing Catwoman while she goes on about how he used to be more fun just doesn’t seem like it would hit home at all. And when it comes to the original “A Christmas Carol” it’s usually the past that’s the biggest punch in the gut. Seeing how far Scrooge has fallen from the boy he used to be and Batman doesn’t have that here. I doubt Batman would’ve even been listening to what Catwoman had to say in this scene. Honestly, Alfred would have been the right choice for this. It’s Alfred who knows the younger, vulnerable Bruce best and could have actually shook him to his core. And as for the Marley character, the catalyst for all these events, well, we all know that the ghost is supposed to scare him and tell Scrooge that he’s going to be visited, blah blah blah. And with the narrative of a Christmas Carol right there on the page and our own memory of how the story goes in the back of our mind it’s easy to overlook how Batman’ encounter with his own Marley, Jason Todd, is a bit hollow. All that happens is Batman thinks he sees Jason standing there for a second. No threat of future paranormal visitation or intervention from superfriends. Just a “Wha wuz that? Nuthin.” Moment. And…those two things are my only problem with the book and those are very, very easily overlooked. Nit-picky, some might say. Doesn’t take away from the joy I had reading this book at all.
And that joy I had reading the book came from the happy ending. When do we ever get those anymore in a Batman comic? Seriously? When? Batman has lost all compassion and it seems like the only outlets we have for a human Batman who goes on an adventure that ends in a way that actually makes us feel good is the Nolan films or “Batman: The Animated Series”. This is kind of dorky, but if you’re reading a comic book review you’ve really got no room to judge so I’ll just say that when I could tell that things were going to get inspiring toward the end I queued up Hanz Zimmer’s “A Dark Knight” and I suggest you do the same. So when you’re reading “Batman: Noel” wait until the ghost of Christmas future comes for the Cratchit family and start playing this:
If you read at the same pace I did, the dark, brooding tones end after the brawl and the sweeping triumphant stuff kicked in at the appropriate moment. It was lovely.
So what did you think of “Batman: Noel”?