Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
by Lee Bermejo
DC Comics, 112 pages, $22.99
Let’s get this out of the way first: The very idea of grafting Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol story template onto the Batman universe is an inherently terrible one. Batman and Scrooge are two completely different archetypes. They have very little in common, and their character arcs go in wildly opposite directions. To do this sort of thing right, you’d have to first turn Batman into a real jackass — which I imagine DC would be reluctant to do — so that his eventual redemption at the end is all the more striking and heartwarming. That in turn raises the question of whether contemporary readers want a Batman who sees the good in everyone and spends more time helping widows and orphans than fighting crime.
Still, you can’t say this sort of juxtaposition is surprising. A Christmas Carol has been adapted in just about every medium hundreds of times, and just about every popular TV show or multimedia character has attempted a variation on it (I fondly remember the Family Ties rendition, for instance). Honestly, the only shocking thing is that it took DC this long to try something like this (and with that I await the reply of some knowledgeable fellow in the comments section to tell me that, yes indeed, DC’s done this sort of thing several times before).
Anyway, Batman: Noel is Lee Bermejo’s big follow-up to Joker, the successful stand-alone graphic novel he did with Brian Azzarello. Bermejo, all on his lonesome here, adheres to the same lush, photorealistic style he used in that book, again drawing upon The Dark Knight movie, as the lengthy scars on the Joker’s face and armor-styled design of Batman’s uniform attest. It makes perfect sense that Bermejo’s next book would be another Batman story, drawn in the same vein, although I question the wisdom of stealing from a holiday classic .
The plot involves Batman attempting to catch the Joker (who doubles as the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Be) by putting a desperate, low-level crook (the book’s Bob Crachit) and his young son in jeopardy. Along the way, various characters obviously standing in for the characters from Dickens’ story stop by and ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing and why has he become such a sourpuss lately.
Honestly, the whole thing comes off as incredibly awkward and forced. Many of the Dickens allusions seem shoehorned in with little thought as to whether they correlate properly to the original text. So we have people like Catwoman filling in here for the Ghost of Christmas Past and complaining about how Batman used to be a lot more fun and happy-go-lucky, which is a bit different from the androgynous waif that shows Scrooge what a decent guy he used to be.
If my harrumphing hints haven’t already clued you in, Noel is yet another over-the-top commentary on how the modern grim-and-gritty style is completely ruining superhero comics. Honestly, it’s not a position I necessarily disagree with, but the way it’s presented here makes me want to read nothing but Faust for the next month.
As painfully awkward as the story’s basic premise is, Bermejo makes things 10 times worse by inserting an insufferable narration that runs throughout the entire tale, as “Bob” badly summarizes Carol’s basic plot in an odd, street/everyman lingo that corresponds to the visuals in the most obvious 1-to-1 manner possible. This sort of punning between the visual and verbal is barely tolerable when Alan Moore does it anymore, and Bermejo isn’t anywhere near the same league as a writer.
Bemejo is, of course, an artist of considerable talents, and if you’re buying the book just to appreciate the visuals there won’t be as much to complain about I suppose. Throughout the book, he adopts a style where the panel borders are eschewed in favor of having them overlap each other, often using a large, foreground figure to help separate the sequences. As visual styles go, it’s certainly striking, though it can can make for a confusing read at times, especially depending on how familiar you are with this particular storytelling device.
But while Noel offers some nice art, that doesn’t mitigate the numerous problems this book has or make it anything close to an entertaining read. Perhaps Berjemo hoped that drawing on a classic work would give Noel a bit of cultural cache. What he’s created though is a mess that will please neither Batman fans or those looking for a fun holiday-themed comic. Forgive me for making the obvious allusion, but Noel is the comics equivalent of a lump of coal in your stocking.