Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is Batman: Damned #1. Written by Brian Azzarello (Moonshine, 100 Bullets) with art by Lee Bermejo (Joker, We Are Robin), the debut of DC’s Black Label immediately establishes the imprint’s boundary-pushing mission with a surreal supernatural thriller revealing a private part of Bruce Wayne readers have never seen before. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
How do you make the launch of a new superhero comic imprint a pop culture event? For DC’s Black Label, the answer is Batman’s exposed penis, swinging out of the shadows to highlight the freedom allowed to the creative team of Batman: Damned. Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo give readers full-frontal Dark Knight nudity, showing Bruce Wayne’s Bat-wang at multiple times in the story. It’s the first time a superhero of Batman’s caliber has had their genitalia displayed so prominently and explicitly, and Batman: Damned debuts in the midst of a week of pop culture penis conversations that has brought even more attention to the start of Black Label.
Announced earlier this year, Black Label features high-profile creators telling “edgy and provocative” stories without any continuity restraints. Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight was brought under the Black Label umbrella after it debuted, but Batman: Damned is the first new title to come out of the imprint, reuniting two creators who already created their own distinct interpretation of Batman’s world in the pages of 2008’s Joker original graphic novel. It’s not clear if Batman: Damned is an extension of that story, but it continues to explore the relationship between Batman and his arch-nemesis in a new context that blends supernatural horror elements into the crime noir storytelling.
It doesn’t take a penis for Batman: Damned to demand attention. One of the most intriguing things about Black Label is that each series will be published in a format that best benefits the story the creators want to tell, and in the case of this miniseries, that means oversized issues—both in terms of dimensions and page count. The height and width are closer to a boutique magazine than a traditional comic book issue, and at 44 pages, it’s more than twice the length of standard DC floppies. The $6.99 cover price is cheaper than buying two 20-page books, and the production design and printing quality is dramatically improved. The dimensions make Batman: Damned stand out on a store rack, and the thicker paper stock for the cover gives the book a sturdiness and heft that makes it feel special.
On a narrative level, Batman: Damned isn’t reinventing the wheel with its depiction of a tortured Bruce Wayne, but it does add some interesting new wrinkles to this familiar situation. The presence of mystical DC characters like John Constantine, Zatanna, the Enchantress, and Deadman takes Azzarello and Bermejo in a more fantastic genre direction, allowing them to create a nightmarish, nonlinear narrative that is separated from reality. The story opens in media res with an unconscious Batman bleeding out in an ambulance; this first chapter shows snippets of how Batman landed there as he deals with the immediate fallout of his near death experience. The Joker’s dead body is found in the water under the bridge where Batman was injured, and this murder mystery is paired with Bruce Wayne taking a surreal journey through his memories.
Azzarello has a fascination with Thomas and Martha Wayne and the human flaws that have been washed away by Bruce’s idealistic memory of his parents. This is at the root of his Flashpoint: Batman—Knight Of Vengeance miniseries with frequent collaborator Eduardo Risso, delving into how the death of young Bruce tears Thomas and Martha apart in an alternate timeline. That story is a devastating look at trauma, grief, and festering resentment, pitting the former spouses against each other as Thomas takes on the role of Batman while Martha goes insane and becomes The Joker.
The flashbacks in Batman: Damned show that the Waynes didn’t have the perfect marriage their son remembers, with Thomas’ infidelity serving as the major source of conflict. Azzarello suggests that the Batman persona began to take shape during the moments when Bruce would overhear his parents fighting. A particularly chilling scene has a young Bruce encountering the Enchantress in his bedroom while his mother confronts his father about the affair. The witch offers to take away Bruce’s fear while she puts a live bat up against his bare chest. The surreal nature of the story makes it hard to determine if this moment really happened or if Bruce’s memories have been corrupted by an external force, which makes for a more compelling tale.
The book establishes early on that this is the beginning of the end for Batman by opening with a full-page spread of a thick, flat orange line against a black background, an abstract image on its own that gains clear meaning on the next page when it’s revealed that it’s the ambulance’s heart monitor. The book begins with the hero flatlining, and the dread that permeates the plot suggests that Bruce is gradually making his way back to that point, only this time the flatlining will be permanent. Bermejo makes exceptional use of the heart beat visual in this opening sequence. That spiking line repeats on the second page, merging with the outline of the brow on Batman’s mask when the hero regains consciousness and open his eyes. As Batman realizes what’s going on, Bermejo integrates the heartbeat into the panel border, increasing the size of the spike for the build-up to the action.
The summary on the back cover states that Damned “puts the ‘black’ in Black Label,” but there’s a steady undercurrent of humor to balance out the darkness thanks to John Constantine’s narration. Constantine’s snarky attitude and open unreliability make him a fun guide to this bleak, grimy interpretation of Gotham City, playing with reader’s expectations and withholding information to heighten the mystery and suspense of the narrative. Jared K. Fletcher’s lettering makes that narration a powerful visual element, eliminating caption boxes and using a loose typeface that gives the impression that Constantine is writing his thoughts directly onto the artwork.
There’s a lot of craft on display in Batman: Damned, and that carries through to the full-frontal shot. According to an article at CBR, DC Comics has decided that the “nudity was not additive to the story,” which is why the penis is blacked out in digital editions and will be blacked out in future printings of the issue. The marketing savvy of this is impressive. Batman’s penis turns the launch of DC’s Black Label into national news, and now DC has made the first printing a collectible item, guaranteeing that it will sell out. But DC is very wrong about the nudity not playing an active part in the story.
If it’s fine to have a close-up splash page of a character getting shot in the head (see: this week’s Batman #55), it shouldn’t be considered inappropriate to show a character’s genitalia. Like violence, nudity and sexual content are more effective when it isn’t gratuitous, and in the past couple years, Batman has been leading the charge when it comes to meaningful eroticism in superhero stories. Last year, I wrote about the value of showing Batman and Catwoman’s sexual relationship in the main Batman ongoing, and publishers shouldn’t be afraid of leaning into the eroticism of these characters when it enriches their stories. Bruce’s penis doesn’t appear in a sexual context in Batman: Damned, instead being used to intensify moments of vulnerability by fully exposing the character during his most harrowing moments.
Azzarello and Bermejo draw a connection between nakedness and vulnerability to supernatural influences in Batman: Damned. Bruce’s haunting intensifies when he is nude, starting with the scene of him being attacked by one of his costumes, forcing him to cower on his knees in terror. This image gains more importance after the cliffhanger reveal of a church’s crucifix vandalized with Joker graffiti, and the religious iconography in the final pages invites the reader to look at that earlier moment in a new light. Batman stands defiantly before the desecrated crucifix, but the stripped-down Bruce falls to his knees when confronted with the dark god that he both fears and worships.
A brooding Bruce sitting sullenly in this family home is nothing new, but we’ve never seen him do it naked with his penis in full view. There are no conveniently placed shadows for him to hide behind. The nudity intensifies the emotional content of an image that has him sitting in the house he inherited from his parents, a dead place with white sheets over the furniture because it’s not used like a proper home. It’s an image that conveys acute loss, and Bruce has nothing to shield him from the pain.
The connection between nudity and the supernatural is strongest in the character of Deadman, the spectral superhero that possesses living bodies for short periods of time. Usually presented in a red trapeze artist’s unitard, Deadman gains a creepy new redesign in this series that has Bermejo covering the character in red by removing his skin and exposing his raw musculature. Deadman’s tall collar is created by sinews of muscle that frame his ghostly face, finding a creepy new angle for a dated design element. Thankfully, we don’t see Deadman’s skinned penis, but Bermejo takes the idea of nakedness to the extreme for a character that has been stripped of his humanity to become an agent of supernatural forces.
Batman: Damned is getting a lot of attention thanks to Bruce Wayne’s dick, which represents the most exciting thing about Black Label: creators getting to do whatever the hell they want with DC Comics intellectual property. This can be a double-edged sword if creators use that freedom in distasteful, offensive ways—which is why editorial supervision and guidance is always essential—but in the case of this series, Azzarello and Bermejo push boundaries in a way that is meaningful to their story and groundbreaking for mainstream superhero comics.