Saturday, January 18, 2014

A grimdark Christmas -- Batman: Noël

Yesterday, I took a break from more serious reading material during my work breaks to enjoy a comic book. The lady got me Batman: Noël, a one-off short story of my favorite superhero in a handsome hardcover edition. What's it about, you ask? The unseen narrator has a working-class voice, telling the tale of a Scrooge who has everything but appreciates none of it; who begrudges one of his workers for taking Christmas Day off to spend time with his son "as though he were getting away with a crime". 

The stand-in for Dickens' classic character needs no introduction: he is, of course, billionaire Bruce Wayne, who moonlights as self-appointed lord and protector of Gotham dressed as a flying rodent. Batman is on patrol for the night of Christmas Eve as though it were any other. His prey for the evening is a certain Bob, a low-level Wayne Enterprises employee down on his luck, a single father struggling to support a disabled child. The sunken economy has pushed Bob to desperation; namely, he's agreed to play the bagman and deliver a package for his new employer, the clown prince of crime. Bob, of course, is really just an ordinary working stiff, and is no match for the Bat. The caped crusader allows our part-time crook to escape solely to use him as bait later on: for Batman can rely on the Joker's retribution to swiftly bring him out into the open when he comes to collect. The pieces are in place to put two criminals behind bars, though at great risk to Bob's son at home, to which the embittered, heartless Batman nary gives a second thought... that is, until three "ghosts" come to him through the course of the night to bring him out of the shadows he's too long dwelt.

Observe, in the display case, Batman's "first appearance" costume from DC Comics #27, existing alongside an Adam West-style suit, and finally, a modern armored suit.

Lee Bermejo superbly illustrates the Dark Knight as we know and love him today: bulky, weathered, with a permanent grimace at all the injustice he wades through from night to night. The years of scrapes, bruises, near-death encounters, and seeming futility of all his efforts have taken their toll on Bruce; most of all, the death of Jason Todd. The artist plays with the motif of newer vs. older interpretations of Batman in memory panels, especially the rendering of vintage costumes in the same realist style as the rest of the comic. "We used to play, remember?", says Catwoman in the midst of their latest altercation. It was a risky move, given A Christmas Carol's descent into the realm of cliché in recent decades, but Bermejo, as both writer and illustrator for this piece, puts it all together in such a way that, at the end, old and new visions of the Dark Knight are reconciled, and even the most ardent fan of broody, Frank-Millerized Batman can appreciate why he's been cast as Scrooge for this story.

I have to admit that my own exposure to retellings of A Christmas Carol have been minimal, so I treated the book as mostly an original story; in fact, I think I nearly shed a tear toward the flip of the final page. Altogether, for masterful artwork, decent writing, and clever application of themes all in one hardcover edition that feels "just right" without breaking the bank, I give Noël 9 out of 10 batarangs.

As an aside, I liked Jim Lee's description in the forward of the book as a "neo-Gothic work". That is all.

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