I know it’s been a whole quarter year since we last saw Batman: Damned on the shelf, but Book Two is worth the wait. If for Lee Bermejo’s art alone, I’d be shelling out the money, but Brian Azzarello does some great things here with the story as well.

Let’s get the not-so-great stuff out of the way, though, so that we can enjoy our icing.

  1. Batman: Damned has a somewhat convoluted plot that’s being doled out half a peanut at a time. In trade, this won’t be an issue, but two issues in Batman has made precious little progress in determining what’s going on–and the fact that we’re dealing with the vagaries of the supernatural here doesn’t help. If the first issue had you feeling ungrounded, this one will not be much more of a tether.
  1. The narrative isn’t helping. In fact, most of the time it’s just telling you what’s on the page, which makes the voice superfluous. There are a few moments (particularly toward the end) where it makes a bit more sense and flows nicely as a counterpoint or commentary on the visual, but too much of the rest of the time it’s just stating the obvious or telling us what we’re already looking at.

That’s pretty much it. Those are my big complaints. The rest of the book is mostly a win, particularly if you like Elseworlds and if you like the spooky stuff. I’m a fan of both, especially when done well, and Bermejo’s work especially is the dictionary definition of “done well”.

Dark as it is, I especially like the reframing of the the relationship between Thomas and Martha Wayne. It’s downright upsetting on so many levels, and may be a big turn off for some, but I rather like how it’s rather realistically played through (as opposed to the fairy tale we’re so much more accustomed to). It also leads to one of the best moments so far in the book:

Batman and guns: a history

No spoilers: you’ll want to see what happens here for yourself, but I thought it was a wonderful way of capturing the confusion and anger of a young child, and also a fresh take on Bruce’s relationship with guns for which you can see the long-run implications.

I am also liking most of Azzarello’s re-imagining of many of the dark characters of the DC universe. Constantine and Batman himself are pretty standard (and their banter together is always fun), but other shades we meet on this journey have taken some interesting forms.

Most especially fun is his clubbing rap-singer version of Etrigan. For once we get a milieu in which Etrigan’s incessant rhyming not only makes sense, but fits into the gritty world of Gotham in a totally organic way. I loved Azzarello’s take on the character and Bermejo’s design as well: a perfect marriage that wouldn’t have looked remotely out of place in, say, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The stud horns and other adornments also work amazingly well.

The demons and spectres are not where you’d expect them

There’s a little bit of an attempt to create some suspense around the “reveal” of the Joker in this book, but 1.) we know he’s dead from the first book in this series, and 2.) Harley Quinn is on the cover of this book, so it feels a little bit like a wasted tease. I suppose with the supernatural elements in play we really shouldn’t make too many assumptions about what’s going on, but this particular reveal lacked a bit of verve for me regardless. You could also argue that it’s not as if Batman saw the cover of this book, so even though we’ve been twigged to the fact that Harley is in the wings, he doesn’t necessarily know that’s who he’ll find at the end of this particularly rotten yellow brick road. Batman seems genuinely surprised to find Harley too, so I guess his mind is tripping the light fantastic as well–but then he’s seen some very peculiar things along this journey, and let’s not forget: there’s always the possibility that he himself is dead.

At any rate, Harley’s unhinged state following the death of her Puddin’ is about what you would expect. Other than the more closely cropped hair (which again, seemed solely for the intent of attempting to deceive us as to her identity), there’s nothing non-standard about this version of the character, which is maybe a little disappointing? With such exciting fresh takes on both Etrigan and Dead Man, I guess I was hoping for something more.

Do look for throwbacks to “The Killing Joke” toward the end there. And give the ending a good long study: Azzarello and Bermejo do a wonderful job with not fully depicting what’s happening there that’s both disturbing and commendable. In a “Black Label” book this could have gone off the deep end pretty quick, but the book manages to maintain some creative ambiguity.

For those of you on Black Label scandal watch, there’s nothing in here that will stir the controversy like last issue’s already redacted full frontal male nudity. The closing scene pushes a lot of edges, but never tips over.  I think it’s enough (we didn’t really need to see more), but I’ll confess I’m sorry to see this book take a safer route than it should with this rating. I’m certainly not asking for porn or anything like that, but I actually thought naked Batman in Book One was a bold move–and DC’s subsequent decision to censor it to be quite lame.

But beyond that, this series is a gorgeous look at DC’s most rotten city.

Recommended If…

  • You love Etrigan and are ready for an awesome fresh take on his character!
  • You love some ambiguity (both physical and moral).
  • Bermejo. I mean, honest-to-God why wouldn’t you buy this just for the pictures alone?

Overall

Brian Azzarello’s second chapter in this first Black Label series provides ample opportunity for Lee Bermejo’s glorious artwork to shine. While the story continues to be well-mired in the mystical, fresh glimpses into Bruce Wayne’s past highlight this carnival of madness, along with more cameos from the dark underworld in freshly actualized forms. This book is being issued on a quarterly schedule, but at more than double the pages of a regular comic so far it’s been well worth the wait.

SCORE: 9/10

Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.