The concept for DC Comics' new Black Label Imprint has been years in the making, but it's simple: DCU characters starring in comics catering to mature audiences. Packaged in prestige, oversized, square-bound books, these comics are the craft beer of DC Comics; full-bodied and nuanced, and aimed at fans with experienced palates. So who better to kick off the line than writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo, a creative team known for guttural, visceral tales that land outside even the most fringe of superhero comics.
Azzarello and Bermejo started out in 2005 with Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. This unexpected take gave fans a whole new perspective on Lex Luthor, one that allowed readers to suddenly identify with Superman's archnemesis. Azzarello and Bermejo's Joker in 2008 did a similar spin on the Batman's greatest rogue, told from the perspective of one of Joker's henchmen. The pair has also worked on Before Watchmen: Rorschach (2012) and the Batman / Deathblow (2002) crossover.
Their fifth collaboration, Batman: Damned #1, hits shelves this Wednesday and picks up right after the end of Joker. At the beginning of Damned, Batman is coming to grips with Joker's death, but it's unclear if said death was Batman's own doing or if there's a greater force he's at odds with. As he tries to solve who committed this murder, he gets assistance from an unreliable source — John Constantine — which sets the entire mystery in motion.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Azzarello and Bermejo ahead of Damned about their version of the supernatural DCU and who shows up in Batman: Damned.
In this story, Batman deals with DC's magic-based characters, which he has the least control over. What was it like playing with that dynamic?
Azzarello: The world that we're making belongs to them. Batman is the fish out of water in this story. It is in Gotham, it's his story, but he has no control over it.
Bermejo: What I love about it is that they're some of my favorite DC characters outside of Batman-related. I like the fact that we can do our version of the Deadman. Our Spectre. Just like we did with The Joker and (the Batman) villains, we're doing the same thing with the supernatural characters. That was appealing to me, taking these characters that I love and being able to filter them through the way we do things.
Lee, do these supernatural characters have their own visual language?
Bermejo: I don't think anyone's drawn Deadman in this way, so yeah, he's got his own visual language. The same thing goes for the Spectre. When they have a presence in the book, you know it. There's a scene with Etrigan in the second issue, where even the color palette changes to adapt to that character.
Brian, what is it with these characters that make it unique to work with them?
Azzarello: If we take Deadman, for example, once we figured out what this character was going to be — what the limitations were, the ways that he's going to move, etc. — writing him then becomes "I know that guy. I don't like that guy."
John Constantine has always been a tone-setter; the rules can be broken. How did you both view John?
Azzarello: John's telling the story. We're seeing it through his point of view.
Bermejo: John is the perfect foil for Batman, he's the perfect sidekick/partner for this story. He's the bridge between what Batman knows and what he doesn't.
Azzarello: He's also not afraid to point out the absurdities of Batman, his life and how he's living [laughs]. Or how he's dressing up, like "You want to put that on? Whatever."
John Constantine is a bit out of place in the DCU, but Black Label allows you to keep him in his classic, non-family friendly tone. You can focus on all the things Hellblazer fans love about him.
Bermejo: He needs to be able to say "f***" and "c***." Words that are his words, that he would use. In a superficial way, I feel like that's the Constantine that I know.
Azzarello: Yeah, we're bringing him back to Vertigo. He's a con man at his core. He's not doing any magic. Or is he? Maybe. John's all about what you believe. Not what he believes.
Azzarello: When we first started talking about Damned, well, John's gotta be in it if we're doing something like this. He's organically part of this story.
Demon is another interesting character to bring into this book. Are you planning on him rhyming his lines?
Azzarello: He won't be rhyming in iambic pentameter. Our Demon is more... hip-hop.
Bermejo: It makes sense when you see it. He's still Demon, and that's the cool thing [about what we're doing]. It's still the Spectre. It's still Deadman... It's still Swamp Thing. But it's our versions of these characters. I love our Etrigan. Demon is… his rap name.
Lee, how long does each page take you?
Bermejo: Too long. Too long. Probably three to four days. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Depends on the page. I'm coloring the book, too, which takes longer than the average book.
Brian, do you wait to see that final colored page so you can write your script based on the finished product?
Azzarello: Yes... Yes.
Bermejo: Brian's not a real codified writer, he's always worked that way. He's more responsive to the artists he works with.
It's fascinating to see Lee's work without words; you can still see the story coming through.
Azzarello: It's going to look different when it's lettered, too. The captions are going to be free-floating and the sizes are going to change. [Letterer] Jared [K. Fletcher] came up with a really, really interesting font. The way the lettering is placed on the page is really moving the eye. (See below.)
Damned [isn't] going to look like anything anyone has seen before.
Bermejo: It's part of the art. But, at the same time, the reading experience is different.
This is adult comics, we can do adult content. That doesn't just pertain to nudity or violence or that we can curse. It also means you can give people something in a normal comic book people might say is "too complex, or too sophisticated." We can play around with themes and ideas. We can leave a lot more to the reader, and also trust the reader even more than you can in a normal comic book.
People will have a lot of questions after they read it, I think, because — it's going to sound tutti fruiti — but it's a more sophisticated reading experience. I don't know how else to put it. It's very seamless. The connective tissue, it becomes more of a single organism.
Batman: Damned #1 arrives on Wednesday.