Does Batman dream? It’s an honest question because I’m not even sure whether he sleeps. But let’s consider it for a moment. Does Bruce Wayne, arguably the most driven, singularly focused superhero out there, dream? It just doesn’t feel like him.
But if he did, you can’t imagine they’d be happy dreams. They’d likely be tortured monstrosities from which there was no escape. I mean, the guy’s waking hours are full of nightmares. Why should his sleeping ones be any different?
I ask these questions because my first reaction to reading Book One of BATMAN: DAMNED, the Dark Knight tale that launches the new DC Black Label imprint, was that it was extremely dream-like. This isn’t a straightforward, linear story. It floats from moment to moment, tied together with a strange, untrustworthy voiceover that makes it feel equal parts noir and fevered hallucination. And honestly? If I had to give my best guess as to what one of Batman’s dreams might feel like, that sounds like it might be pretty darn close.
But the thing about dreams is that not all of them are equal. There are dreams that are forgotten almost as soon as your head leaves the pillow. There are those you might recall a bit longer before the entire thing fades away like smoke in the wind. Then there are those dreams that stay with you. They’re ones that you might wish to shake, but can’t. They remain lodged in your mind, creeping into your thoughts until you finally figure out what it is that it’s trying to tell you.
If Batman: Damned is a dream, it’s firmly in this third category. It has something to say, but figuring out exactly what that is may take a while. In the meantime, it leaves you questioning a lot of what you’ve long held to be true.
For starters, it has you questioning everything you know about Batman.
As part of DC Black Label, Batman: Damned is set firmly outside of continuity, so one expects a different take on Batman. But what you get held up on in Damned is how much of the familiar Dark Knight is still there. He looks pretty much the way you expect him to look—he works out of a Batcave, is friends with Commissioner Gordon, gets regular assistance from Alfred. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Batman, but they’re pushing him in a darker direction, and the results are enough to keep you perfectly off-balance.
Did young Bruce Wayne decide to become Batman after a fateful late-night encounter with an errant bat, as we’ve heard before? Or was it a late-night encounter with something supernatural and sinister? Was Thomas Wayne the loving family man and benefactor that we’ve been accustomed to? Or was he a philanderer, whose distance and constant fights with his wife made young Bruce isolated and vulnerable to influence? Is Gotham’s Dark Knight the rational, level-headed detective we’ve seen mentoring Robins and leading the Justice League? Or is he haunted, disconnected from reality and seemingly hanging by a thread?
Azzarello and Bermejo cast enough doubt on who Batman is, that it allows us to really entertain the book’s central mystery: Did Batman kill the Joker? While the Batman we know wouldn’t, it’s entirely possible that this Batman might.
Batman himself doesn’t know, and as the story unfolds from his point of view, we don’t know either. In fact, after reading the first chapter, I’m not sure what I do know, as the book also leaves you questioning what’s real.
Batman: Damned begins with a badly injured Bruce in the back of an ambulance, seemingly bleeding out from a series of bad stab wounds. He awakes, violently attacks the EMTs who are trying to save him, escapes and ultimately winds up falling hundreds of feet off a bridge. It’s a fall that should have killed him, yet the next time we see him, he’s completely uninjured. The tears in the Batsuit are there, suggesting that the attacks happened, but the wounds are gone.
The fact that he’s with John Constantine only muddies things up even further. It’s possible that John used some magic to heal him or even made some demonic agreement to spare him from death. However, it’s equally possible that he didn’t. If Batman didn’t survive the attack and fall and is now dead…well, John Constantine and his companion Deadman are probably the two members of the DC pantheon you’d most expect to find alongside him.
Let’s not forget, right on the very first page we see John Constantine talking about how thin the line is between black and white, love and hate and life and death. This also seems to be a reference to the end of the first book, which I won’t spoil here. But suffice it to say that if there’s any truth to the final revelation and it’s not some post-death hell that Batman finds himself trapped in, then one has to wonder if the book’s central mystery is even what we’ve been led to believe.
But perhaps most importantly, Batman: Damned had me questioning our expectations when it comes to superhero comics.
We’d been told DC Black Label would offer mature reader, standalone stories free of continuity. But when Batman: Damned first showed up on my desk, it took me a while to even process what I was looking at. Damned is published at 8.5” by 10.875”. That’s about a half an inch taller than a traditional American comic and considerably wider. The cover stock is thicker and embossed. Constantine’s narration is free of caption boxes, uses traditional upper and lowercase and is lettered in an eerie-looking font. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but it makes you wonder why the wheel always has to be the same damn size and color.
Granted, you’re not going to be able to bag-and-board Batman: Damned or fit it in a longbox, but you’re also not going to want to. This belongs on a bookshelf, alongside art books, which if you think about it, is probably where comics should have been placed in the first place.
To say that Batman: Damned left me questioning so many things almost sounds like I’m being critical. I’m not. I’m merely trying to pin down a book that’s absolutely not interested in being pinned down. Did Batman kill the Joker? Did the Joker kill him? Is Batman alive? Dead? Insane? In the end, it’s entirely possible that we’ll discover none of it even matters. There is no happy resolution here. That becomes clear from the first few pages. Despite how it may feel, this isn’t a dream you can wake from. In Azzarello and Bermejo’s book, Batman really seems to have been damned from the start.
Tim Beedle writes about comics, movies and TV for DCComics.com. Look for him on Twitter at @Tim_Beedle.