Retro Review: Batman: Noël (2011)

Retro Review takes a look at influential issues of DC Comics and measures their artistic integrity against their cultural and symbolic importance to the DC Universe and comic books in general.

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Batman: Noël (2011)

Written by Lee Bermejo

Pencils and Inks by Lee Bermejo

Colours by Barbara Ciardo

Letters by Todd Klein

Published: November 2, 2011 (DC Comics)

Grade: A-

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is perhaps one of the best known classic Christmas stories of all time. It is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is completely devoid of holiday spirit, focussing instead making and hoarding his own money. On Christmas Eve, the ghost of his former partner arrives to tell him he must change his ways and that three ghosts will visit him to help show him why and how that is to happen. These ghosts (Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future) give Scrooge a new perspective on his life, his regrets, and his fears, and as the sun rises on Christmas morning he springs out of bed a new man, righting wrongs with family, strangers, and most importantly his employee Bob Cratchit and his family.

To be fair, I probably didn’t have to remind you of all that. A Christmas Carol is sewn deeply into the cultural tradition of the holiday, something which is both achieved and proven by the innumerable adaptations and interpretations that have been made over the years. Many of the most popular adaptations are in film, including A Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged, not to mention the plethora of direct interpretations of the original itself. But adaptation of this great work extends to print media and even to the world of comics. The greatest example of which is the 2011 graphic novel Batman: Noël by Lee Bermejo (one of the men behind the critically acclaimed Joker). Bermejo’s adaptation does not directly place characters from the DC Universe into the roles of A Christmas Carol, though it comes very close. Instead, the narrator is telling his own colloquial version of the tale while a separate Batman story plays out on the pages. What is beautiful is the way Bermejo very naturally lines these two stories up. Allow me to demonstrate:

Jason Todd appears to Batman - Batman: Noël, DC Comics

Jason Todd appears to Batman – Batman: Noël, DC Comics

Batman [SCROOGE], sick on Christmas Eve, refuses to take a break from his work as he feels that his best shot at catching the Joker is that night – using a low-level thug named Bob [BOB CRATCHIT] as bait. Batman is haunted by the memory of his former partner Jason Todd [JACOB MARLEY] the second Robin, whom the Joker killed, and this memory is part of what drives Batman’s relentless pursuit of Joker.  While out on patrol, he encounters Catwoman [CHRISTMAS PAST] and chases her across the rooftops, reminiscing about the romance and the fun of his early days of pursuing her. He loses her when he falls from a rooftop, after which Superman [CHRISTMAS PRESENT] arrives, trying to prove to Batman that people are inherently good (referring to Bob). During their flight around Gotham, Batman overhears Commissioner Gordon [FRED] speak of how he fears the Batman (possibly more than he respects him). When Superman leaves, the Joker [CHRISTMAS YET TO COME] incapacitates Batman and buries him alive.

That is, of course, only the most cursory of synopses, but it should be clear already how intricately Bermejo has woven the events and characters of Gotham City into the tale of A Christmas Carol. Perhaps what is most masterful, however, is how none of this intertextual activity compromises the characters we know from the comics. Set between Jason Todd’s death and the arrival of Tim Drake as the third Robin, Bermejo takes us back to a broken Batman – disillusioned by his own quest to restore justice almost to the point of him becoming more menace than help. This is something keenly picked up on by Commissioner Gordon, whose long respect and relationship with Batman has been eroded away by the Dark Knight’s embittered attitude towards crimefighting.

The casting of the ghosts is equally incredible. Catwoman manages to capture both the youth and innocence of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the romance of Ebenezer’s long lost love, Belle. Superman is colourful, larger than life, and an unending font of hope, much like his Dickensian counterpart. Perhaps the greatest allegorical triumph, however, is the Joker as Christmas Yet to Come – or rather, the Ghost of Death. As in A Christmas Carol, there is a tremendous menace to this final ghost, and Bermejo’s choice of chronological setting plays an important role here. The Joker claimed the life of Jason Todd, which reinforces and heightens his allegorical role as the force of death – we know he has taken a life before, we have no reason to believe he won’t again. Added, of course, to the Joker’s long history in the comics and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come remains one of the most frightening literary characters of all time.

Joker dragging Batman through the graveyard- Batman: Noël, DC Comics

Joker dragging Batman through the graveyard – Batman: Noël, DC Comics

Beyond the incredible nuance of the allegory, Bermejo’s art is what really sells this book. His designs for the characters both honour their past while being unique to the world he has created. Of particular note are the beautiful nods to past incarnations of various costumes. Through flashbacks, Bermejo is able to examine the evolution of the Batsuit, Catwoman’s costume, and of course the albeit brief run of the Jason Todd Robin costume. It is a testament to Bermejo’s art that he is able to capture the past of these iconic looks so well – there is a tremendous respect for the mythology of these characters woven through the pages of this book. And we see the evolution of character through the visual evolution of the costumes; as Batman grows more bitter and resentful his suit sheds almost all elements of style in favour of a strict utilitarianism. It is a striking piece of visual storytelling, but there is much more to the art than costuming.

Superman taking Batman through Gotham - Batman: Noël, DC Comics

Superman taking Batman through Gotham – Batman: Noël, DC Comics

In fact, the strongest element of the art in this book has to be how well the dark, sombre tone of Gotham City is complemented by the warmth and colour of the Christmas time setting. Barbara Ciardo brings so much holiday warmth in her colours that, at times, it is easy to forget that you are even reading a Batman story. There is a softness and depth to the colours that truly make this feel like an illustrated edition of Dickens’ original story. Skin tones are of particular note – there is a very Victorian sort of feel to the tones in this book that manage to look very much like a painting without alienating the comic book elements of the story.

The result is a Batman story that feels as classic as A Christmas Carol. The writing and the art are so wonderfully complementary in this regard and it triumphs in putting both Batman and Dickens in an entirely new perspective. Todd Klein’s letters are a minor exception, a particularly cartoony distraction from an otherwise comprehensive blend of two very distinct and much beloved mythologies. Likewise, the final reveal of the story’s narrator is a little too hokey to properly serve either of the story’s source texts. These are both forgivable faults, though, and I would suggest that anyone who loves Batman will find Batman: Noël an engaging and enjoyable holiday story – it’s sprawling splash pages and incredible respect for the source materials makes this one of the strongest holiday comic books to date. For fans of Batman, it may even become a new addition to traditional holiday reading.

Batman: Noël is available in most book stores as well as in digital copy on the DC Comics website.

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Bonus thoughts:

– For those who haven’t been paying attention (or rather, deliberately avoiding the onslught of movie-rumour “news”), the Batsuit featured in Batman: Noël is likely to be the inspiration for the Batsuit Ben Affleck will be wearing in 2015’s Man of Steel sequel. For those who are truly astute, this should foreshadow the portrayal of the character as well.

– I don’t often read something that affects me enough to show whatever emotion I’m feeling, but the flashback sequence of Batman and Catwoman actually made me smile. The book captures an incredible joy in that lost adulthood youth of Batman – something that is often forgotten in the fog of Bruce Wayne’s tragic early childhood.

A flashback featuring Batman, Robin (Jason Todd), and Catwoman - Batman: Noël, DC Comics

A flashback featuring Batman, Robin (Jason Todd), and Catwoman – Batman: Noël, DC Comics