Review by Ian Keogh
Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire is the project that first brought Lee Bermejo to wider notice, his depiction of Gotham’s grime and seediness contrasted with the fading aspirations of the intended architectural glory quite remarkable. And Bermejo’s escalating reputation is why this neglected project was collected for the first time thirteen years after the comics were serialised.
Despite two characters being title billed, there’s no actual team-up as Brian Azzarello sticks with Deathblow being dead in the present day. A big hitter in the 1990s, the bulky government sanctioned killer has faded into obscurity despite his ‘New 52’ revival, but fits in well to a world of secret operations occurring ten years before Batman’s involvement. Both of them are hunting a pyrotechnic, able to generate fire from thin air, and involved in a complex web of plot and counter plot stretching over several organisations.
Bermejo’s scenery looks fantastic. He’s unable to let a background go to waste, and if there’s nothing of consequence needed for the story he’ll throw in a completely detailed motor bike, or a sailing boat complete with masts and the deck area mapped out. It’s beautiful distraction. If his scenery is fantastic, however, his Batman is decidedly strange when seen in close up. Much of his costume being so tight it’s almost sprayed on is a style Bermejo would stick to on future Batman projects, but he’d soften the design otherwise. Here Batman’s cape looks to be made from card rather than cloth, bending into points at odd angles, which would hamper rather than enable movement. This stylised design would work well enough were it not a story deliberately grounded in an otherwise real world.
While the idea of Batman and Deathblow hunting the same person a decade apart is neat, too much of the wonder is carried by Bermejo as Azzarello over-complicates his plot, and parts of it don’t convince. Would Bruce Wayne count high-ranking officials from two covert agencies among his friends, for instance? As for the complications, Azzarello’s version of covert agencies is so twisted that they’re setting up plot and counter-plot, with no-one fully aware of all circumstances. Written in the wake of 9/11, it uses the conspiracy theories that rapidly followed about terrorist groups sponsored by US organisations for their own purposes. They may exist, but for the sake of his payoff, Azzarello has produced a third act requiring a pause to contemplate after so many pages, to try to work through to the truth. It eventually makes for dull reading, especially when the basis of the story would have worked equally well with most of it excised completely.
If you’re one of Bermejo’s many fans you’ll want this anyway, but Azzarello is better on other projects.