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The Joker is dead. So says the back cover of Batman: Damned #1. Beyond that, we have few clues to go on in this new monthly title from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. But if a dark, macabre mystery tale is what readers are hoping for, then there’s plenty here to like.

Batman: Damned kicks off the new DC Black Label imprint of titles for mature readers. We’re getting Batman at his most uncontrolled and vulnerable, and therefore, his most dangerous. As Azzarello commented, “One of the problems with Batman right now is that he’s always up on somebody else…But if you write a story where someone else has the upper hand on him, it completely changes the dynamic of the story. Anytime you take control away from Batman, he’s suddenly a way more interesting character.”

The Story

Azzarello’s thesis about a Bruce Wayne who doesn’t have all the answers closely parallels a lot of ground covered in last year’s Batman: White Knight (a title retroactively added to the Black Label imprint). Fans of that series will find this new entry similarly compelling.

The Bruce Wayne we find in Batman: Damned is unhinged, to put it lightly. He seems to be slipping through a dissociative fugue throughout the entire book. The Bat doesn’t know what is real anymore, and therefore, neither does the reader. The present is intercut with flashes of the young Bruce, enduring a less-than-idyllic childhood at Wayne Manor and haunted by a spectral entity reminiscent of Sandman-universe Death, sans the comforting compassion. It’s a disorienting experience…then we throw into the mix an incorrigible, knowing John Constantine, furthering the sense that we’re out of our element.

Batman is looking for a simple answer to a mystery. Those simple answers are nonexistent here, though, and Constantine seems to delight in watching it play out, right up to a teaser of a last page.

The Art

Of course, I have to touch on Lee Bermejo’s brilliant artwork in this first issue of Batman: Damned. Each panel is brilliantly detailed with a painterly quality. We see every crease in Batman’s suit, the expression of desperation on Bruce’s face, and the show of hardened resignation on Jim Gordon.

I would say the artwork was strong enough to carry the book, even without the intriguing (though deliberately clouded) story. Both elements work well to convey a heavy, dread-soaked atmosphere.

Final Verdict

Batman: Damned #1 sets us up for an expansive story, but offers no clear answers yet. I don’t know where we’re headed. But, based on what I see here, I trust Azzarello and Bermejo will deliver the goods.