Just read: Lee Bermejo's 'Batman: Noël'

"Just read" is a blog where I blog about something I just read. I'm trying to read more this year and I'd like to keep a record of that; blogging will theoretically help that cause. 

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This is a holiday-themed edition of "Just read," where I dove into an unplanned Batman tale that doesn't appear on my original Batman reading order. Batman: Noël is a one-off story featuring an older-aged Caped Crusader; while its place in the overall Batman continuity probably can't be fully hammered down, it's certainly toward the later years and definitely, at the very least, takes place after Death in the Family as it features a reference to a past Robin.

Noël is written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo, who is best known for his celebrated illustration of the graphic novel The Joker. Bermejo's style is gritty and ultra-realistic, to the point where shadows are super accentuated and play a large role in the overall aesthetic, and to the point where you can count the facial wrinkles on characters' faces. This story is based fully on Charles Dickons' A Christmas Carol, as we see a fever-ridden Batman receive visits from three "spirits" as he's out in Gotham on Christmas Eve.

I'll warn here that this blog is going to be absolutely ridden with "spoilers," because I loved this book and I want to write about it in depth. If you have an interest in checking this out at some point -- whether it's right now, or next Christmas, or somewhere in between (it's worth reading whenever) --  and you don't want to know too much about the plot, I would stop reading soon.

First things first: Bermejo's art is absolutely stunning. It's an amazing work, and I get the feeling that his artistic liberation as both the writer and the illustrator gave him the room to roam to make the book exactly how he wanted. His inspiration from A Christmas Carol might seem difficult to shoehorn into a Batman comic book on its face, but he does it well enough through character dialogue and a third-party narrator, whose identity isn't revealed until the conclusion of the story.  His gritty style is perfect for the character at hand, and I constantly stopped to gawk at different aspects of certain frames. There's Batman's perfectly-drawn suit, which is a heavier and more armored version than most of what we see in the comics, but which brings to mind Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film trilogy, an aesthetic that I consider best illustration of the hero; there are his snow-ready combat boots, which for some reason I couldn't keep my eyes off; an excellent though short-lived cameo of the Batmobile; and a humid, damp presentation of the Batcave. Bermejo's illustrations of Catwoman and Superman are also expert, with Superman's chiseled jaw pencilled to perfection, and throughout the book, Gotham is awesomely presented as well.

A lot of credit here is also due to Bermejo's colorist, Barbara Ciardo. She never overtakes the art in any specific frame, but complements the pencilling with colors that bring forth the personalities of the on-page subjects, human or inanimate. The whites and greys of Gotham portray the freezing weather that gives Bruce Wayne a nasty cough, while the indoor scenes look warm and cozy thanks to her terrific lighting. The arrival of Superman is highlighted as much by Ciardo's coloring as it is Bermejo's pencilling; the Man of Steel is literally a glowing presence amid the freezing Gotham night. It's an amazing contrast to Batman's harsh and mean portrayal, as Superman's warm and colorful presentation is representative of the hope he instills in Metropolis, and the hope Batman once instilled in Gotham.

We're getting a bit toward the bulk of the plot here, so I can dive into that. Bermejo tells the carol from the perspective of a third-party narrator; Batman is Scrooge, and the three "spirits" that visit him on Christmas Eve are Catwoman, Superman and the Joker. The spirit that comes to warn Bruce Wayne about the events that are going to transpire on that evening is a deceased Robin. We discover at the end that the narrator is a character named Bob, a struggling employee of Wayne Industries who has a son named Tim, and who is doing a random job for The Joker to make a bit of money on the side. Bob's task is to drop off a bag in a Gotham alleyway and retrieve a box full of cash for the Joker. He's directed to bring the box home and await further instructions.

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After securing the box, Bob is met by a relentlessly harsh Batman, who seems much meaner than a typical take on the character. He either wants to knock Bob out or take him straight to the authorities, regardless of his knowledge that Bob has a son, but he decides to let the struggling scramble home in hopes that the Joker will come to collect the money he never received. He's basically using a man and his son as bait in their run-down apartment. Batman heads back to the Batcave, where he's clearly sick and gets berated by Alfred for using a semi-innocent man as bait for the Joker; this is where Robin's spirit warns him of his need to change, and gives him a heads up on the "spirits" that will visit him that night.

The rest of the story takes place as Batman is out in Gotham that evening. He sees Jim Gordon, who advises that Catwoman may have a lead on the Joker's whereabouts; he goes to see her, and of course she has no information at all, but she serves as the "Ghost of Christmas Past" in this case, reminding Batman of the more vigorous, hopeful and inspirational man he used to be. While chasing her, Batman falls off a tall building and is helped up by the "Present" ghost, Superman. He glides Batman around Gotham, where they overhear conversations that suggest Batman isn't as well-respected in his hometown as he'd like to believe, and they check in on Bob and his son. Superman tries to convince Batman that there must be another way to capture or defeat the Joker, but Batman is insistent on his plan, cruelly stating that "justice has a price" or something along those lines. This is a great indicator of how unflinching this version of Batman is in his quest to take down his nemesis; he's been hardened enough by his past that he's willing to put a young boy's life in danger in the process.

Superman drops Batman at his Batmobile, which is promptly blown up by the Joker. The villain drags Batman to a grave he had dug earlier and buries him while the narration continues; Batman eventually digs his way out when he comes to, tracks the Joker down at Bob's apartment, and ultimately turns him into the authorities. Bob's character has a nice ending as well. But Noël is less about the plot's resolution than it is about Batman's internal struggles throughout. It puts into context the mental toll that being Batman takes on Batman / Bruce Wayne, a psychological exploration that I enjoyed a small taste of in Dark Victory but that is much more centrally focused upon in this book. The separation of Bruce Wayne and Batman is a fascinating thing to read about, especially when we're dealing with a Batman who's acting as mean and harsh as he is in this book. His drive and passion for justice has completely obsessed him and caused him to lose sight of the larger picture.

The events of Christmas Eve in Gotham serve as a wake-up call for Batman, stirring a change within him and leading him to re-think his mindset. We get the impression that he'll ultimately change himself enough that his legacy will be one he'll be proud to leave behind. The question of whether people can change is explored plenty by Bermejo as well, hitting home on the perception of Batman as a superhero who any average person could aspire to becoming. Overall, Noël is a terrific in its story and even better in its art; while the story is niche and seasonal, the masterful work can and should be enjoyed anytime.

Batman: Noël is available in hardcover format on Amazon and digitally via Comixology at that link. Clicking on the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small percentage kickback to the author of the blog you just read.