By John A. Butz
“Batman: Noel” Story and Art by Lee Bermejo, Colors by Barbara Ciardo, Lettering by Todd Klein
“‘Cuz for this story to make sense…for it to mean anything…you have to believe in something. Something very important. You have to believe people can change.”
With the Christmas season upon us, I thought that it might be a good time to take a little break from KnightFall and look at a seasonal Batman comic. As fate would have it, just a few months ago Batman: Noel, Lee Bermejo’s adaptation of Dicken’s perennial favorite A Christmas Carol arrived on store shelves. Now I know what you guys are thinking – what the heck is John doing reviewing a Batman work that has been published within the last ten years? Isn’t he some sort of comic-book reactionary who doesn’t think anything published after 2000 is worth reading? And you would be correct – with rare exception I haven’t been a fan of anything DC has done in the new millennium. I am pleasantly surprised to report, however, that Batman: Noel has forced me to reconsider my position.
Lee Bermejo got his start in comics as an art intern for Jim Lee’s WildStorm imprint. For me, the words “WildStorm Comics” are right up there with “New Coke” or “Non-Alchoholic beer”…I mean, what’s the point? I was not a huge fan of the art and storytelling that companies like WildStorm started to put out in the ’90s. While they did provide an alternative to DC and Marvel, WildStorm, like Image, were companies with their finger firmly on the pulse of the 90’s anti-hero/darker/edgier scene. My tastes tend to run more Silver and Golden age, so I was never particularly fond of what these independent companies represented. However, I really enjoyed the work Jim Lee did on Hush, so I figured that I should probably leave my old prejudices behind and give this story a fair shake.
It didn’t hurt that Todd Klein was doing the lettering. Winner of multiple Harvey and Eisner awards in addition to other honors, Klein has worked extensively with two of my favorite comic book franchises. He did all the lettering for Neil Gaiman’s landmark series The Sandman, as well as being the man behind the lettering in Fables, Bill Willingham’s modern fairy-tale themed stories. Both of these comics are absolutely wonderful, and I figured that if someone of Todd Klein’s sheer talent was working with Bermejo, there might be something to him after all.
Barbara Ciardo is not a name I am familiar with, but after cracking the cover of Noel I am going to have to correct that. Ciardo has worked in both the American and French comic book markets, and though she is currently an exclusive DC colorist, she had worked with Bermejo at WildStorm on cover art. There is something very similar to Alex Ross in her colors, a richness that is closer to oil paint than 4-color comics. Ciardo has a talent for brining both light and darkness to the page, creating excellent contrasts and softening the hard lines of Gotham City under a blanket of winter snow.
With such a stable of talent working on this graphic novel, there was just no way to pass it by.
Noel is not the first adaptation of Dicken’s classic tale to place Bruce Wayne in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale used the same metaphor in one of their Haunted Knights Halloween stories, and I am sure that they are not the first to draw a comparison between the wealthy, driven, reclusive and disagreeable Scrooge and the Batman. Both men have given up their past happiness and any chance at future joy to pursue a cause with the entirety of their being. Along the way they lose much of what made them real people. By now, the story is so much a part of the common culture that the similarities are readily obvious.
Most people’s immediate reaction to comparing Batman to Scrooge is to say that Batman is a hero. He helps people, he fights for justice, he is a good guy. Scrooge has to become good again through the intervention of the spirits, driven to his salvation by a sadness for what he had lost and the fear of what the future may hold if he doesn’t change. But Batman is the hero…right?
What sets Noel apart from other iterations of this story is the Bermejo dares to ask that question. Is Batman a hero, or is he a vengeful man unwilling to see that others might be good at heart? Is he a masked adventurer seeking truth and justice, or is he a dark avenger making others pay for a loss he couldn’t have prevented? Is he a crime fighter or is he a vigilante? Is he an inspiration or a menace?
These questions have been tackled before and will be tackled again as writers continue to wrestle with the nature of the Dark Knight. Asking them is not particularly unique. But how one asks them and how one answers them, now that is a different story. Bermejo writes a Batman that is separate from any continuity. He is a Batman isolated from a fixed interpretation, and yet one that subsumes the entirety of the continuity and history of the character – an Ur-Batman, a Batman that has existed since the 1930’s and shares all the experiences of all the various iterations of the character up through the modern age.
Through the use of the Three Spirits Bermejo highlights the transformation that has occurred to the character of Batman over the years, the transition from the Gold and Silver ages through the modern interpretations. He covers the gamut from ridiculous plots and high-action pulp adventure all the way through dystopia and ruin. By showing us the way we as artists and audience have changed the Batman over the years, Bermejo shows us something fundamental and important about how we live, how we change, how we view ourselves. This is a deep book full of wonderful art. The writing is top-notch, taking what could have been a cliched topic and making it timely, relevant, and worth revisiting.
Ciardo’s colors combine with Bermejo’s pencils to create something that is much more than the sum of the component parts. There are panels that echo with seventy years of Batman stories, moments of brief action that carry the weight of a lifetimes worth of struggles, bright shining heights and dark dizzying lows. This book is a set piece, a concept album, a work of art. It challenges us to consider the question that the narrator asks on the final page. “…What do you think? What’s the moral of the story?”. Bermejo avoids easy answers, asks hard questions, and leaves everything on the page.
I think that this book belongs in the collection of any serious Batman fan. Between the art and the writing, this is a classic in the making, one that cuts directly to the essence of Batman and explores it in a way that is fresh and new, while paying homage to the many great writers and artists who have worked on the franchise over the years.
“It wasn’t just the FEAR of dyin’, it was the HOPE he could have a BETTER death.”