DC Comics is trying something new. In the wake of their Rebirth initiative, the publisher has rapidly expanded its content to include diverse new imprints such as
Young Animal, Wildstorm, Black Label, Ink, and Zoom. As their lineup expands, it can be hard to figure out what to pick up each week. That’s what our team is here to help with, every Wednesday, with the DC Round-Up!
THIS WEEK: Batman: Damned #1 launches the Black Label imprint, Harley Quinn #50 says something heartfelt about continuity, and Mister Miracle #11 unveils secrets.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Batman: Damned #1
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Let’s start with it—Batman: Damned #1 shows Batman’s penis. Now, nudity isn’t inherently noteworthy, and this is a comic, after all, marketed to adult fans of superhero fiction, most of whom have read Watchmen and seen Doctor Manhattan more clearly than this book shows Batman. Still, seeing the Bat-penis matters, given its owner’s fame and history. Batman: Damned is the latest gritty exploration of a franchise that’s constantly getting new gritty explorations. Newness is at a premium, and full frontal nudity for Batman is certainly new (as shadowy here as Batman himself). Time will obviously tell if it behooves the book to be the one with Batman’s other dick. Regardless, I reckon the Internet is now paying attention to this comic.
Anyway, Batman: Damned #1 is the debut title for DC’s Black Label imprint, a line of new prestige books about iconic characters from top creators. For context, the label will also reprint classics in the same mold, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, etc. What writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo have done with Damned is basically Batman by way of HBO, tinged with religious iconography, nudity, the supernatural, and mysterious childhood sequences in which little Bruce’s parents are still alive yet his future is foreshadowed by a demon girl only he can see. Damned envisions itself as a new Batman classic, complete with accomplished creators to merit the swagger.
This is also a comic that goes out of its way to be friendly to a certain type of lapsed reader, someone who for sure owns copies of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, maybe some heyday Vertigo, and a few Mark Millar trades plucked randomly from a Barnes & Noble (I’m thinking of a specific guy I knew in college, though I suspect that guy is universal). Damned often evokes the most ubiquitous and foundational parts of Batman’s mythos before pushing them darker, much as Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke have done in the past. If that sounds like something you’re into, you’ll love this book. Truly. If you’re skeptical in the slightest, maybe proceed with caution—this is Batman at his most self-serious. As a reader of superhero comics, you likely know whether that take is one you find compelling. For me, the frequency of deep dives into Batman’s tormented badassery have made these stories less interesting than the slow humanizing Tom King is doing in the regular Batman title, but I certainly won’t fault anyone who embraces this book. The level of craft here is awfully high.
Indeed, Damned’s greatest strength is Bermejo’s artwork. Gotham is a sight unto itself, a dense and claustrophobic cityscape owing more to David Lynch’s Eraserhead than Tim Burton’s Batman ‘89 or Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. The city dwarfs its characters, feeling almost infinite, and Bermejo’s rendering is remarkable, on par with scenery in today’s most elaborate video games. It’s yet another reminder that superhero comic art continues to evolve, perhaps to the point of being unrecognizable to the random folks who will pick up Damned in bookstores. It’s Bermejo’s towering and detailed art—more than the profanity, religion, ghosts, Bat-penis, or ideas—that will set Damned apart from competing Batman stories.
Ultimately, I have no doubt Damned will be a success, probably praised by many as a classic. High-production Batman stories tend to automatically enjoy that luxury. Batman: White Knight (which is being repackaged for Black Label with Harley Quinn nudity…a discussion for another day) found a sizable audience, and Azzarello’s ideas are far more coherent than those of White Knight writer/artist Sean Gordon Murphy. Still, I’m not certain Damned merits individual issue purchase, not with the book so obviously destined for hardcover format, sooner rather than later.
Harley Quinn #50
Writer: Sam Humphries
Artists (In Order of Appearance): John Timms, Whilce Portacio, Agnes Garbowska, John McCrea, Kelley Jones, Jon Davis-Hunt, Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund, Scott Kolins, Dan Jurgens, Guillem March, Mirka Andolfo, Babs Tarr, Tom Grummett, Cam Smith
Colorists (In Order of Appearance):Alex Sinclair, Gabe Eltaeb, John Kalisz, Michelle Madsen, Andrew Dalhouse, Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Harley Quinn #50 is the week’s best stand-alone comic, a must-read for those like myself who love DC and its long history. In it, reality crumbles when Harley finds her own copy of Harley Quinn #50, destabilizing continuity and sending her on a quest to restore normality with the help of a personified DC logo. It’s zany stuff, obviously, but it also aspires to be poignant, doing so through a grounding mother-daughter narrative (in the intro, Harley losses her mom to altered continuity) and thoughtful commentary about how superheroes have and will continue to be shaped by creators who started as fans.
Tackling this wacky and complex story is an eclectic group of artists. One sequence has Kelley Jones drawing Harley as Cain from Sandman, the next Jon Davis-Hunt dr
awing Adam Strange in a TV sitcom during which he also does light galactic adventuring. Other highlights include Dan Jurgens drawing Reign of the Harleys (an homage to Reign of the Supermen), Guillem March drawing Lobo, and Mirka Andolfo drawing Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and Guy Gardner as the Three Musketeers, battling a monstrous version of what’s probably a Catholic cardinal.
Aside from being a wonderfully madcap comic, brimming with deepcut DC references, what makes this book really special is its thoughtful commentary about passing the torch to young (and diverse) creators. Harley eventually finds the comic’s author, a young girl with big glasses who is drawing fanciful tales about her favorite heroes. When Harley accuses her of destroying continuity, the girl is embarrassed and apologetic, saying she’s her biggest fan and meant the work as a love letter. The whole affair then becomes a meditation on perspective, in which the DC logo notes that what some see as destruction is actually another way of expressing love…then the Anti-Monitor shows up, which, perfect.
Mister Miracle #11
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Mister Miracle #11 pits Scott Free against Darkseid, battling for possession of Scott’s young son, Jacob. In this battle, our hero double crosses Darkseid to prevent Jacob from coming under his care as part of a bargain to cease wartime hostilities. Such a trade was the great tragedy of Scott’s childhood, and he, quite literally, is fighting now to give his own kid a better life. It’s the exact sort of powerful universality via outlandish superheroics that this book has strived for and achieved from its beginning.
Speaking of this series’ beginning, it’s also been steeped in mystery, split between two stories and settings—war between the New Gods on Apokolips, and Mister Miracle’s domestic life in L.A. Which one, the book has asked, is real? Add to that a suicide attempt in Mister Miracle #1 plus a staticy TV effect disrupting panels throughout, and the net result has been a pervasive sense of skewed reality. It’s a fitting motif for a book about an escape artist who trades in misdirection.
In this penultimate issue, we get confirmation that all is not as it seems (obviously). What we don’t get are exact answers about what’s happening, although we’re promised that they’re coming next issue. That’s fine, it’d be odd to let the tension out now, and, really, this one is great as is. Mitch Gerads is maybe best-known for photorealistic expressions of emotion. Here, he also shows how capable he is of illustrating straight-up costumed slugfests. There’s a nine panel grid of Darkseid eating a carrot from a veggie tray (he’s a double dipper, because of course), and there’s also a nine panel grid in which he mercilessly beats Scott and Barda, leaving them on the ground and bleeding. Gerads renders it all with clarity and tension, focusing his ample talents on every panel. It’s ultimately a suspenseful issue that sets up a mysterious finale for one of the Big Two’s most thoughtful comics in many, many years.
- Tom King’s Batman has been stellar since the controversial non-wedding, and Batman #55 maintains the momentum. As a plot, I’m ambivalent to Nightwing being shot in the head (which is what we get here), but the execution (not a pun!) was nearly perfect. King’s voice just fits Dick Grayson, perhaps better than any other DC character.
- Justice League #8 continues building this book into DC’s flagship. We’ve collectively heaped much praise on this comic here at the DC Round-Up, frequently citing the way its scope spans the vast entirety of DC’s shared universe. That grandiosity is on display again in Justice League #8, which starts with 1980s Starman Will Payton, moves on to the recently-created Batman Who Laughs, and eventually ends with Greek god Poseidon. This story really feels boundless. It’s thrilling and unpredictable in a way superhero team-up comics haven’t felt since Jonathan Hickman was at Marvel.
- The Wild Storm #17 was fantastic. I love this comic, the success of which shouldn’t be surprising. I mean, how often do writers get to retell stories with a decade-plus of new wisdom? That’s essentially what Warren Ellis is doing, circumventing past missteps to update this work for our times. Whereas books like StormWatch or The Authority felt fresh and sensational, very much of their moments, this one feels meticulous, like it knows where it’s headed and why, and it’s teasing out the core strengths of its ideas and characters as it heads there. The result is a sharply-realized vision, a slow-burn of a comic that’s as confident as it is compelling. I highly recommend it.
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