With Batman: Damned #3, the controversial mini-series from Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo has finally come to a close. And while the issue successfully tied up many of the threads that the previous two issues have left dangling, it really didn't feel like a satisfying conclusion. Though, to be fair, that might have been the point.
Before we get to the review though, a disclosure. There is no way to discuss this issue with any depth or seriousness without discussing the issue's more shocking twists. For that reason, this review will contain spoilers. If you haven't yet read the issue, we strongly suggest you return once you have!
The issue begins with the introduction of another mystical character from the DC Universe canon, Swamp Thing. As has been the case with much of the Damned series, Azzarello competently handles the character, and he seems very much like the Swamp Thing that DC fans have grown to love. This has been, as it has for much of the series, the comic's brightest spot; Azzarello understands these characters and they feel genuinely written. The darker, magical side of the DC Universe can often come across as campy and non-threatening, but Azzarello expertly incorporates these characters for maximum impact.
That said, the inclusion of the Enchantress might end up being the most controversial element of the entire story... the "batwang" and Harley/Batman coupling included. As the story begins to wrap up, we learn that the young Bruce Wayne (whose parents had been going through a difficult time since Martha learned that her husband, Thomas, was having an affair with a woman who is implied to be Marla Elliot) struck up a deal with her to trade his "tears for fears", ultimately suggesting that he was the cause of his parents' death, who were gunned down in order for Enchantress to excavate his sadness.
What Azzarello and Bermejo have done here is completely alter the character of Batman. He's no longer a man who, spurred on by the random violence he saw perpetrated against his family, takes up arms against the villains and scum of Gotham City as "The Batman". Instead, he is a sad child who makes a deal with evil in an attempt to scour himself clean of the pain that his parents were causing him, and manipulates the product of that selfishness to become "The Batman". Sure, it can be said that his time as the vigilante was paying the debt he owed for the death of his parents, but that doesn't change the fact that this singular alteration in origin most certainly does "damn" the character.
While it makes for an interesting twist on the canonical origin, it leaves a bad taste in this reader's mouth. The war against crime because of his parents' death is a part of Batman's DNA. In fact, there is an undeniable causality to it; his parents are killed, and so Batman is born. This twist upends that causality; Bruce causes his parents death and uses that as an excuse to become Batman. While I recognize that part of the DC Black Label premise is to tell different and compelling stories (and it certainly does fall into compelling), it just doesn't feel satisfying. Thankfully, this non-canon origin will have little impact on the DC Universe proper.
Yet, this isn't even the comic's biggest twist. That comes in the final pages when it is revealed that all we have seen up to this point in the three issues of story has been Batman's travels through hell before his judgment.
In Batman's journey through hell, the Joker is dead and he is on a mission to better understand his life. It would seem as though that is the only motivation that can be assigned to Constantine's portering him throughout the story. It reveals that Constantine's sole purpose has been to guide Batman to where he needs to be, when he needs to be there. Ultimately, once he has learned the truth about his parents' death after living a lie (unconsciously, one can assume) for his whole life, it is time for him to be judged.
It is here that the Spectre's involvement in the story becomes clear. In issue #1, you might recall that it was the host of the Spectre whom Batman chased after he revealed to Gordon that he had seen the whole fight between Batman and the Joker on the bridge. It is revealed that Batman knowingly let the Joker fall to his "death" because he knew that he had been mortally wounded, and would not survive. He let the Joker "die" because he was afraid of what he would do to Gotham when he was gone. As a result of his decision, the Spectre damns his soul.
Azzarello does redeem himself somewhat for this poignant moment.
The true Batman does not kill and does not allow others to die when he can intervene. Having the Spectre spare his soul at this moment would seem hollow and genuine. Batman himself asks the Spectre, "Aren't you being a little harsh?", and while we might want Batman's soul to be freed, the breaking of his code is something that cannot be forgiven. This seems incredibly justified and is the most powerful moment of the entire comic. While a "dream sequence" narrative is often looked at as cheating or somehow unfulfilling, this moment plays off very well (unlike the Crime Alley moments that preceded it).
Yet the true power of the comic comes from its conclusion, which was sheer brilliance. In a simple stroke, Azzarello and Bermejo shatter any sense of closure or significance to Batman's story. As we see Joker climb out of the water after a drop that should have killed him, it becomes clear that he is in fact alive, left in a world without Batman to rein in his own personal hell upon Gotham.
The issue's final page depicts the heart monitor that has previously represented Batman (recall issue #1 begins with the Paramedics desperately trying to revive him) flatlining, and it changes into the ominous "HA HA's" of the Joker. Another story has begun and it doesn't include Batman. The Brian Bolland/The Killing Joke homage is a masterful moment by Bermejo. That comic represented a moment for the Joker that was the beginning of his life of crime; it has become the most widely accepted origin comic for the Clown Prince of Crime and signals the beginning of his fight with Batman. This moment, represents another new beginning for him, this time without Batman, and so the callback to The Killing Joke is incredibly well placed.
Ultimately, the comic is a compelling alternative tale that will likely hold a meaningful place within the canon of Batman titles. Whether or not the many twists and turns that Azzarello and Bermejo have included within the comic resonate with fans of the character or not is another question. Like most comics, there are highs and lows. Whether it stands the test of time is Batman: Damned's next challenge.