Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo have famously teamed up before for the much-lauded Joker special in 2009, and more recently on the Rorschach issue of Before Watchman (2012). And I doubt anybody who knows and loves Bermejo’s work is waiting for my review to decide whether to buy this big black baby.

Azzarello on the other hand has been hit-and-miss for me over the years. A lot of high-concept, but lackluster execution stories that don’t always resolve in a satisfying way have made me cautious. It doesn’t help, either, that I’m not a fan of Frank Miller and his collaboration with Miller on a follow up to the The Dark Knight Returns (The Dark Knight III: Master Race) was not anything I’d ever keep on my shelf. All that said, different strokes for different folks.  Jay gave Master Race somewhat middling reviews, and I have enjoyed Azzarello’s work on Hellblazer in the long-ago past, so there’s always hope.

The fact that he’s specifically worked on Hellblazer, however, makes it all the more discouraging that something about his Constantine in Batman Damned just feels “off” throughout this book. Further disconcerting is the fact that it’s Constantine who’s our primary narrator, so there’s no way to get away from the voice. It’s hard for me to pin-point what’s wrong, but it feels like he’s trying to find a middle-ground between the thick cockney affectation dripping with British-isms that Constantine started out with in the original Hellblazer series, and the more toned-down, accessible variation that emerged after Hellblazer was finally put to bed and Constantine was reappropriated for a broader audience.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t really work. Constantine is supposed to be witty, smug, knowledgeable, jaded, and irreverent. There are occasionally flashes of that there, but the words and the style and the delivery all seem to be at odds. It feels clipped, disjointed, and occasionally inscrutable. It has flashes, though. Nice moments of reflection or insight. Like I said: hope.

Sound effects are on point, though

So what’s the story? We’ve got a great premise, rife for possibilities: Batman has suffered a setback in which it would appear he might have been killed? But death isn’t the end of things in the shadowy underground where someone like John Constantine dwells (let’s not forget he himself cheated death once by outsmarting the devil). Constantine isn’t exactly forthcoming with answers and Batman isn’t even sure what the questions are, but to make this an even stickier wicket, apparently the Joker has been “killed” as well.

Batman begins to investigate, teetering between the present and his murky memories–not only of what happened that landed him on Constantine’s radar (and possibly in his debt), but of things much longer past: about his father and his idyllic childhood that probably never existed.

Azzarello also borrows heavily from Alan Moore’s Killing Joke, with an opening reference to Joker’s final joke that has him and Batman laughing in the end, a casual mention of a plate of shrimp, and other bits of homage.  You’ll want to read this multiple times to suss out the inlays, which definitely give this book an extra richness. The concern, of course, is that this will turn out to be all frosting and no cake.

But then I’ve been known to just eat the frosting too now and then.

Dead Man writhing around in that skin suit may put you off dessert

Could there ever be any question of Lee Bermejo’s art not only fulfilling all righteousness, but exceeding it in every way?  You can thumb through these pages again and again to enjoy new details and nuances, marvel at the intricacies of Batman’s costume (which is a lot fussier with seams and sags than we’re typically used to, with a cowl actually reminiscent of Batman ‘66 of all influences).  The colors are dark (also expected), shot through will moments of illumination that make the pages glower and glow.

And let’s just appreciate the absolutely creepiest rendition of Dead Man ever committed to comic book pages. The choice makes perfect sense and yet gives the character a whole new aura of unsettling presence with each new body into which he leaps. Look for a few other intriguing character appearances: I’ll say nothing here for the moment, but the story is assembling a rather intriguing cast of characters.

My one serious aesthetic complaint about this book is the blood. It’s Spartacus-level silly not only in terms of the many gushing rivulets (that’s not how blood flows–especially not out and over a costume like the one Batman’s wearing). But if that wasn’t over the top, the choice of making it shocking ketchup-color with no texture or shadow in a book otherwise ultra-infused with shadow and texture just jolted me right out the story.  I’d be genuinely curious to know why this was made as a choice. During the Comics Code era, blood was always black to hide it from the censors or tone it down so it wasn’t “shocking”. There’s no Comic Code riding herd on this book and realism is absolutely one of Bermejo’s trademarks. To be honest, it looks almost like a last-minute inclusion to make the book more violent or gory (just like Spartacus). I get that we are also dealing with some magic elements in this story, but nothing really seems to justify or warrant this decision. In a book otherwise this beautiful, it’s a glaring and unfortunate distraction.

Batman is more haunted than damned, but there’s plenty of time

And speaking of the Comics Code, a parting word about the fact that this is the first Black Label DC title (yes, White Knight was retroactively labeled as such, but this one is official), and it’s chock full of all the elements you would expect from something with a “mature” rating: you’re going to see things in this book that are not only spooky, disturbing, and offensive, but they’re going on right alongside cursing, character assassination, and full frontal nudity (obscured, but still).

Recommended If…

  • You don’t care what the words say, you just want to see Bermejo’s incredible work!
  • Batman and Constantine is like coffee and cigarettes (or tea and cookies).
  • You can’t wait to read something with grit and heft that promises to take you into the darkest part of your soul.

Overall

Come for the exquisite art, stay for the mystery. This opening pitch from the Black Label line is atmospheric, broody, and sets up enough of a multi-layered mystery to reel you in. Even if you’re not into the spooky stuff, the detective work might help balance out the more supernatural elements, and having John Constantine likewise on the case gives the whole thing a Justice League Dark vibe without it being too schlocky. Book One earns its mature rating on strong language and some disturbing imagery, but feels like a powder keg of offensive content just waiting to erupt. We’ll have to wait to see how far they’re looking to push the boundaries, but for the moment, I’m comfortably in for the haul based on Bermejo’s work alone. It’s slick, it’s heavy, and it’s potent like that dark doorway you know you shouldn’t go through. Go through it anyway.

SCORE: 9/10