Review by Megan Sinclair
“Is evil just something you are or something you do?”
Bedlam offers a unique and unconventional look into the beautifully brutal and horrifically gory journey to redemption of super villain Madder Red. The graphic novel begins ten years in the past during Red’s final and most deadly master plan. With a vigilante in tow the scene is almost an Image equivalent of the twisted relationship between Batman and the Joker, something writer Nick Spencer admits hugely influenced him. Terrifying but equally amusing, Madder Red is a charismatically callous individual who perfectly mirrors the stoic and silent vigilante, the First. However, it is not Madder Red who controls the narrative but Fillmore Press, the reformed patient under the mask who resurfaces after Red’s supposed death to try and recant for his sins.
In an unusual turn of events this leads him into working alongside Detective Acevedo, somewhat against her will, to decipher a recent unsolved serial killer case. Stacking up a death count of over 2000 people as Madder Red, Bedlam asks whether good and evil can be balanced, questioning if you kill thousands but then save thousands more does the good outweigh the bad?
Bedlam is akin to the superhero and detective genres, but offers a fresh perspective that feels in a category of its own. It delves into gritty grey areas and gives us a dark and cynical perspective of humanity. In the beginning, Madder Red, hidden behind his mask, is a myth, an ideology for the citizens of Bedlam to fear, but stripped of that identity, he becomes a sympathetic protagonist that readers can follow and support. However, every time we begin to side with Press, a flashback nightmarish scene of his past life is brought to the surface, confusing the character once more. In fact, one of the greatest achievements is the complexity of the cast and the question, as Spencer notes, of “if a person has gone past the point of redemption, where are they?”
Spencer is a fantastic writer, telling his story completely through dialogue instead of the traditional blend of captions with speech. This keeps the narrative flowing smoothly and makes it read more like a TV show, to which it would transfer excellently. Riley Rossmo’s artwork compliments the narrative perfectly. Every page is designed differently adding a fresh and exciting edge to the storytelling. This is particularly evident in the Madder Red scenes that are far more abstract and fantastical than the grittier, realistic artwork. These are set off by the wonderful and intense colouring of Jean-Paul Csuka in grey, black and white with bold splashes of red, which are the colours of Madder Red’s costume, contributing to the idea that he controls that section of the narrative.
Overall, the first volume of Bedlam is a worthy addition to any collection, a fantastic and unique read that introduces an array of interesting characters and leaves the current story arc with the opportunity to be further explored in Volume 2. Spencer cuts into the heart of humanity, much like the Good Doctor who heals Madder Red, yet the readers too are put under the knife, cut apart, opened up and forced to confront difficult psychological and moral questions about our perceptions of ourselves and of modern society.