Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bedlam Vol. 1 (2013)

Nick Spencer is one of the better new writers in comics, and I've been waiting for him to do a book I could get behind. Iron Man 2.0 and Ultimate X-Men were major label bullshit, and even Thief of Thieves seemed like dues-paying within Robert Kirkman's Image fiefdom. Despite my affection for the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the "Next Generation" approach and simply being co-opted by Dan Didio's DC kept me from even sampling Spencer's series. Morning Glories has probably been his biggest hit to date, and Existence 2.0/3.0 had been the thing I'd liked the best, but neither truly hooked me, and both were marred by art from Joe Eisma, who I find deeply off-putting.

Bedlam illustrator Riley Rossmo isn't going to be nominated for a 2012 Artist I Want To See Draw Things award either, and the whole premise is clearly Gotham Central fan fiction. No one would ever build a major U.S. metropolis under the name of "Bedlam," but as a way to have Arkham Asylum writ large over the whole of Gotham City, it's an appropriate conceit. The book is Spencer doing an unauthorized continuation of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, with the Heath Ledger Joker starring and the Christian Bale Batman reduced to a supporting role. There's even a Harvey Bullock in here. The main change-up is Detective Renee Montoya stepping into the Dana Scully/Dr. Joan Watson role as the distrustful skeptic who nonetheless ends up backing the plays of her more eccentric partner to investigate twisted homicides. As formulas go, you could do worse.

As diminishing as that summary sounds, Spencer's script is effective, with a mild twist in the first 48 page chapter that made me want to start the book over immediately to read it from a new perspective. From there, a Silence of the Lambs/Seven sensibility sets in-- gritty serial killers at play in a heightened reality that's grounded just enough to remain believable. Essentially, it's the Vertigo Batman comic, which would be one franchise spin-off I could get behind. In fact, I'm loving how Image Comics has essentially said "fuck it" and become Epic Comics (Verotika with less misogyny and more brains? A genre-skewing Fantagraphics with a better budget? Peak Wildstorm with penises?) Rossmo's art serves the material well, with a view of the world that's perpetually askew and a coarse, vulgar approach to the violence inflicted upon the human body. There's an ongoing dual narrative that helps explain the hows and whys of the situation, with one or the other always in the thick of some carnage you can't help but rubberneck. The first story comes to a satisfying, character-specific solution, and all the pieces are in place to make this work over the long haul. As an aging super-hero fan, I've been looking for more daring and fulfilling book to follow in the genre, and this looks to be exactly the sort of thing to scratch that itch. It's my hope that Spencer will continue do for the not-Dark Knight what Kirkman once did for not-George Romero zombies: geek out on the material thoroughly for an extended time as their enthusiasm infects the audience.

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