Is Black Label a Black Eye or a Game Changer for DC Comics?

Announced in March 2018, DC Black Label was supposed to be a groundbreaking mature imprint for DC Comics that would free itself from continuity and allow writers and artists creative freedom. It would have comic legends such as Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. working on Superman: Year One and Geoff Johns writing Batman: Three Jokers.

But the imprint, which has only two books out as of this writing, hit a snag in September with the controversy surrounding Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned #1, which featured a full-frontal Batman and an ending that left some shocked. DC decided to delay production on future Black Label projects, with issue #2 being released a month later than originally planned, and would end up censoring the first issue. The publisher released Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight as its first Black Label collection in trade, retroactively making it the first comic to garner the imprint label.

Looking back on White Knight and the first two issues of Batman: Damned, was the imprint heading in the right direction? Or was it too overboard for the medium?

Batman: White Knight cover

DC Comics

Batman: White Knight

The premise of Batman: White Knight is a simple one: what if the Joker went sane and reverted back to being Jack Napier? But writer and artist Sean Murphy takes the story in unexpected places, as Batman refuses to believe the Joker has gone sane, the positions of protagonist and antagonist change, and Gotham starts to see Napier as the hero. Joker becomes Jack Napier after Batman brutally beats him and forces pills down his throat, which ends up curing him of his disorder and turns him into a well-mannered, intelligent man who wants to do what is right for Gotham. As the city and his family question his recent brutality, Batman enlists the help of an old foe in Victor Fries, better known as Mr. Freeze, to save Alfred, who is gravely ill. The fear of losing another family member drives him to be a bit more aggressive than usual.

Murphy is able to create a world that seems familiar yet different at the same time, as the characters are all established and the setting of Gotham has not changed, but the shift in viewpoint makes it all feel different and new. His version of Gotham remains similar to other interpretations, but the way he is able to transform the characters, such as the Joker and Harley Quinn, creates something that I have not seen in a Batman story in some time. Harley’s role in the story is a stroke of creative brilliance, and giving her such a fleshed-out story line allows the reader to garner dislike for the character. This is something that Murphy does well with all the characters in Batman: White Knight, none of which feel underused and all of which have a purpose. His use of certain subplots as homage to Batman films of the past (yes, that includes Batman and Robin) also creates a sense of fun in such a mature story.

Despite all the great work that Murphy does with his writing and artwork, the ending does seem a little rushed compared to the rest of the story, yet the rushed feeling could come from the amount of action that happens in the final act. A story like this will inevitably attract some disapproval because the main characters act out of character, but I felt that Murphy was able to craft established characters to make them his own. It is not meant for everybody, but that is what DC Black Label is about: creating stories for a mature audience. Personally I found this to be a page turner and one of the best Harley Quinns in comics. I cannot wait for the sequel, Batman: The Curse of the White Knight.

Batman: Damned #1 cover

DC Comics

Batman: Damned

I have been a fan of Brian Azzarello since he wrote Luthor and The Joker, and the announcement that he would be teaming up with Lee Bermejo to write a limited-series supernatural Batman story to kickstart DC Black Label had me excited. The Wednesday that Batman: Damned was released I rushed to the closest comic shop, and there was this oversized gritty comic staring at me. (Two weeks later I would find this $7 comic for $100 at a convention.) Damned #1 caused quite a stir with a questionable art design that focused on a certain body part of Batman’s physique, but honestly this story is more than that; it is a dark, twisted, supernatural story that allows an artist to shine.

Batman: Damned has the caped crusader becoming the prime suspect in the death of the Joker and having to enlist the help of supernatural DC characters to find the real killer. In issue #1, Batman finds himself questioning whether or not he did kill the Joker because he cannot remember after being injured, and the more he discovers, the more questions and doubt arise. The story begins with the image of a flat line on a heart monitor followed by heartbeats running through eight panels until it is revealed to be Batman, being revived in an ambulance after being stabbed. This sets up one of the more chilling beginnings in recent comics with the realistic approach used by Bermejo. Batman needs to partner with John Constantine, who can recover the hero’s memories to solve the case. Finding out how the Joker died is the main plot of the story, but Batman: Damned is above all a visually stunning and haunting tour of Gotham City. With that being said, the final pages of #1 feature a haunting image that I do not want to spoil.

Issue #2 asks the question of whether the Joker is really alive, and to find the answer, Batman and Constantine must visit the underbelly of Gotham City. Constantine suggests that they visit someone at the Cavern Nightclub who may be able to help. Etrigan the Demon shows up at the Cavern as a rapper/DJ in one of the more bizarre parts of the story. After meeting with Etrigan, Batman and Constantine run out to the streets of Gotham City to find buildings on fire and the Joker’s smile replacing the Bat signal, which leads to a battle with a menacing Harley Quinn. Throughout the issue, there are flashbacks to Bruce Wayne’s childhood, where his parents are fighting and Bruce pulls a toy gun on his mom, setting up a very emotional scene that stuck with me for a few days.

While reading Batman: Damned I found myself getting lost in the world of Gotham City that Bermejo created. It’s dark and nasty, yet at the same time it’s beautiful—it is some of the finest artwork I saw in comics during all of 2018. As a whole, the story presents the reader with a unique vision of certain characters. The uses of Boston Brand/Deadman, Zatanna, Enchantress, and Etrigan are all creative and add a different dimension to the story. The character designs that Bermejo and Azzarello create are outstanding; at times Batman looks like Michael Keaton from the Tim Burton films and John Constantine looks identical to Sting. Although I’m not a fan of Harley Quinn in issue #2, Bermejo is able to capture insanity perfectly with his twisted version of the character.

The amazing artwork really carries the story, especially in issue #2—at times during the second issue it felt that taking away the narrative on some panels would have worked even better. Azzarello is a fine writer, and his other works have proven that, but with Batman: Damned the star is the artist. Once Damned is in trade, Azzarello may shine through, but with this being a bimonthly release and suffering a setback with the delay of issue #2, I found myself getting confused and not knowing what was happening at certain moments. So far half of Batman: Damned has been stunning and the other half acted more as a showcase for Bermejo. The next installment is set to be released on March 27, 2019, and I’d be lying if I said I was not interested in seeing how it ends. I hope it improves on issue #2, as it left me not knowing what to think.

The Future of Black Label

Releasing Batman: White Knight under the DC Black Label imprint was a smart move on DC’s part. It was launching the imprint with a recent Batman gem and Batman: Damned—what could go wrong? Well, DC did not expect the backlash over a nude Batman and quickly censored the comic in further printings. After the response from fans and media, the publisher has stepped back and started to rethink the imprint, adding well-received graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One for re-release under Black Label.

It will be interesting to see what DC does with the imprint. With the existence of DC Vertigo already representing a mature audience and releasing quality comics, do readers need another line of mature comics from the same publisher? Time will tell. Recently DC cancelled orders for Other History of the DC Universe by John Ridley, which was supposed to be the next comic for the imprint, causing a slight concern for readers who want more from Black Label.

Personally, I hope DC continues to release new comics under this umbrella. With Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. working on Superman: Year One and Kelly Sue DeConnick and Phil Jimenez working on Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons set for the future, the potential for DC Black Label looks bright. Based on the two examples released already, if more stories are on the way it’s best to be prepared, because they prove that being creative can create controversy and great stories.

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  1. By Michael C.

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