After the Fire is yet another DC/Wildstorm crossover getting the Deluxe treatment. Originally published in 2002, several years before their magnificent Joker graphic novel was published, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s three-part team-up tale possesses the pitch-perfect atmosphere and attitude that a great Batman comic needs, but sadly it also has a story that’s a bit boring and sometimes confusing.
It’s superhero team-up time! That means we’ll see a couple of capes brawl for a few pages until they finally realize they’re on the same side and join forces to defeat the bad guy in the third act, right? Wrong. Although I didn’t care much for the story of Batman/Deathblow, I can’t praise the brilliant storytelling device that author Brian Azzarello employed enough! Rather than go the cliched route we’ve seen time and time again, this team-up took a different route by showing two different stories at two different points in time. These narratives (a present day detective story with Batman and an action/espionage thriller featuring Deathblow from 10 years ago) run parallel as a greater mystery unfolds with the different events adding one piece to the puzzle at a time. Our heroes never share the same page together.
Do you not know who Deathblow is? Don’t worry about it. You’re at this website so I’ll assume you’re a Batman fan and in this story Batman’s quest for the first half of the book is to uncover who Deathblow is himself so it’ll be pretty easy to get invested in Batman’s investigation. I’ll admit that I was hooked for the first half of the book. Learning about Deathblow’s past through Batman’s digging was compelling stuff. But once that was over and we learned more about our rather weak villain, a pyrokinetic hitman with wavering allegiances, and the story started to get knotted up in the politics of various clandestine government agencies…my interest began to wane. The double and triple crosses of these spies-turned-assassins and assassins-turned-spies never meant much to me and I can’t help but wonder if the story should have been a chapter longer to flesh the supporting cast out some more. The motivations of these secondary characters simply were not compelling to me. What had hooked me was the detective work of Batman and once Deathblow’s role was revealed I lost all interest.
And why did the villain have to have a mutant super power? It feels incredibly out of place when everything else in this book is so deeply rooted in reality. I mean it. The artwork is as realistic looking as possible, there are frequent references to real-life government organizations and they are treated like formidable institutions, Deathblows black-ops missions are not overly stylized, Gordon’s murder cases feel authentic, Bruce’s detective work is slow, thoughtful, and… EVERYTHING. None of the rest of this story is done in an over the top manner except for the zeppelins that still float above the Gotham skyline. I did some research of my own (I skimmed Wikipedia) and found that Deathblow’s comics do indeed deal with mutant characters like this from time to time but by simply judging this story alone (which I feel I should do since it’s a stand-alone graphic novel outside of continuity) it didn’t quite fit. Batman is presented at his most grounded and Deathblow’s own presentation is as very gritty black ops. Adding a baddie who creates fire with his mind has no business in a setting like this.
Once we dive into the politics of these black ops groups it stops feeling like a Batman story and starts feeling like an espionage thriller that just so happens to star a guy in a Batman costume who doesn’t quite understand what’s going on so everyone has to take turns filling him in. It doesn’t make for a very fun experience. Had the story been 4 chapters long maybe, just maybe we would’ve gotten to know these characters better and the answers would came more gradually than they did and the ending would’ve had a greater impact on me. As it stands, I was eager for the book to end 2/3 of the way through.
Something else I would like to mention about this before I get into the artwork is that it’s a story that was written in 2002, three years before the release of Batman Begins yet in it we see this scene…
Yep. Sorry, Batfans, but Batman didn’t say it first. I wonder if Nolan or Goyer read this book before writing the script for Batman Begins?
Now as you can see just by that shot of the cover and those couple of panels above that the real highlight of Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire is the artwork. I can’t get enough Lee Bermejo. Batman: Noel is a glory to behold and Joker (also written by Brian Azzarello) is equally brilliant. The man has a very realistic take on the world of comics and it doesn’t stop at Batman. Here is one of my absolute favorite images of Spider-Man and Daredevil that he did as a special variant cover a year or so ago:
The thing I love about that the most is that Spider-Man is a guy who made his costume himself and that image really does make it look like he’s wearing something that a guy could throw together on their own. That same level of detail is present in his Batman. You can see these little rivets in the cowl where the leather is pieced together, every flap on the belt (which actually looks like a functional belt that can hold things), etc. etc. It’s awesome. And if you haven’t read Joker then you’re missing out on a very creep and realistic take on the Clown Prince of Crime and several other notable characters as well. In fact, while I love the way this book looks it’s really evident in both Joker and Batman: Noel that Bermejo has only gotten better at drawing Gotham. You’ll be very hard pressed to find another Bat-book that’s as gritty and realistic looking as what Bermejo illustrates. The colors in this book are really great as well at setting the tone. I was often reminded of the movie Se7en. It’s that same sort of sickly green palette throughout the story. However, do think that the colors could have been mixed up some more between the flashbacks and present day to make those scenes more distinguishable. But overall it looked great and complemented Bermejo’s pencils and Tim Bradstreet’s inks well.
In short: this is a book that you pick up for the artwork first and foremost. I firmly believe that it’s worth owning for the illustrations alone. If you happen to like the story more than I did, well then that’s just a nice added bonus. And speaking of bonuses…
The bonus material here is terrific because it really is BONUS MATERIAL. What you get are several pages of original sketches, cover designs, and never-before seen unused pages from the original printing of this three part series. Each image is accompanied by commentary from artist Lee Bermejo who goes in detail about why this panel didn’t work or how he wishes another would have been included in the final product.
$22.99 isn’t that bad of a price for this. Sure the story isn’t something I would personally ever re-read, but it’s at least a story that takes some time unlike Batman/Planetary, which you can finish in 10-15 minutes. The artwork is great and presented better than ever before thanks to the deluxe format and it all comes with some neat bonus material to boot. Even better, you can pick this up at Amazon for $15. 61. It’s not a must-read, but if you’re interested the price is fair.
It’s a really refreshing way to do the superhero team-up but with such a weak villain and unrewarding mystery the tale fell flat for me. However, as convoluted as the story may be, the artwork is Gotham at its best and the deluxe format presentation makes it all the more mesmerizing. If you read comics more for art than story then After the Fire is definitely something you should pick up. If you’re looking for something with a greater re-read value, however you might want to pick up the other Wildstorm/DC crossover, Batman/Planetary instead (the story itself is a 9.5 or 10/10 but it’s over $20 bucks for a 48 page story, that’s why I gave it a lower score in the review). It’s a shorter read and rather expensive for how many pages you get but it’ll stick in your mind longer than Batman/Deathblow will.