T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, well, except for a six foot bat.
The long awaited Batman Noël by comic artist/scribe Lee Bermejo is gorgeous to look at and fun to read. To get the full appreciation out of it, you have to accept that Batman Noël is its own story. It has nothing to do with continuity in the old or current DC Universe. At one point, Commissioner Gordon discusses Batman as if he has only been waging his one-man war for a short time. Another scene has Batman agonizing over the loss of Robin, which happened much later. Batman is also different in this story, he’s meaner, his attitude harsh and unforgiving, in short, he’s Scrooge.
Translating a beloved story like Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol into a comic book isn’t easy, especially when you’re resetting the supernatural in 1800s England for a gritty street tale in modern day Gotham City. To do this, Bermejo casts his die early on. The story is told through the eyes of a petty thief named Bob who has a son he loves suffering from a bad leg. Bob works for the recently escaped Joker, a fact that makes him a target for Batman. The Dark Knight represents Scrooge here, which is a concept stretch by Bermejo. In order to make the two characters compatible, Bermejo ramps up the more negative aspects of Batman.
Our hero is not just driven, but angry – not just direct, but mean-spirited and cruel. None of Batman’s usual compassion is obvious; it’s all anger, hatred and an obsessive drive to stop crime no matter what. That attitude makes him impossible to be around, turning him from an instrument of justice into a weapon of revenge. A war rages in Batman, one between his humanity and his quest. Bermejo is digging into some pretty deep stuff here and doing it with great style. By the time the groundwork is laid down, the Scrooge/Batman comparison makes sense.
Story wise, Batman Noël is pretty simple. Batman is trying to stop the Joker and using Bob and his son as bait. Throughout the story, Batman runs afoul of everyone from Catwoman to Commissioner Gordon to Superman. Bermejo gives Batman Noël a claustrophobic feeling, cramming as much detail into both the story and artwork as he can. Gotham is set as a restrictive place where little joy can enter. The night of the story feels like it might strangle the characters before the sun comes to save the day.
Ghosts, that’s where this otherwise impressive Batman tale falls just short of the mark. Bermejo’s idea for the three ghosts is interesting, but just not effective. He replaces the ghosts with three separate characters who bring about feelings of regret and longing in Batman. The first is a random “vision” of Robin, who steps into the Jacob Marley role and warns the Dark Knight that he will receive three visitors. The concept is cool but doesn’t work, mainly because there’s no definite exchange between the vision of Robin and the Dark Knight, the whole thing is just inferred by the narrator.
Batman’s first “ghost” is Catwoman, whom he is convinced has information on the Joker. The scene is intense, with Batman’s anger boiling over and driving Catwoman into her own frenzy. The battle between them gets Batman thinking about his own life and the difference in how he approaches things now from before. It’s supposed to begin the journey of reawakening that will give Batman Noël its happy ending. It just doesn’t work. The idea is there but the execution is off. The same can be said for the next two “ghosts.” Superman’s appearance, attempting to show Batman how blind he has become to the realities of life in Gotham, fails as something to propel Batman further into self-discovery.
Joker, the final ghost representing death, has the most lackluster scene of all. He knocks Batman out, buries him alive and then goes off to kill Bob. Batman has a bizarre dream that, upon reawakening, makes him see the error of his ways. Digging out from his grave, Batman saves Bob and changes his life for the better. The ideas here are wonderful and the bits and pieces are great, but they just never coalesce into a theme that fires on all pistons.
Where Batman Noël is absolutely flawless is the art. Bermejo’s vision of Gotham is a dark and layered one, a gorgeous convergence of detail and noir shadows. I love the way Bermejo presents the characters, and his Batman has become one of my favorites in a long time. There is nice symmetry between the art for the original A Christmas Carol and Batman Noël. The art gives the book an older feel, but not retro. It’s completely modern, but still almost dreamlike. Every single page is a perfect work of art. This is easily one of the best books this year, visually. Though Batman Noël doesn’t hit every mark, it is still a nice holiday treat for all of us who love the Dark Knight.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 8/10