Great artwork can certainly enhance a mediocre storyline–just like well-done special effects can complement the story a movie is trying to tell. With that said, high-quality artwork cannot carry a narrative on its own. Exhibit A: Batman: Damned by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo.
What is this book about? Well, in some sense it’s an incoherent story without a resolution and, possibly, without a point or even much of a theme. In another sense, it’s a pretty straightforward supernatural/horror/superhero story. We begin with Batman waking up in an ambulance after falling off a bridge fighting Joker. He is is helped by John Constantine, who functions as a sort of Virgil to Batman’s Dante (along with Deadman). The two begin to investigate the death of Joker as a result of the fight with Batman, and try to find out whether or not the Joker is in fact actually dead. Along the way they encounter Etrigan, Harley Quinn, Swamp Thing, Zatanna, and Enchantress. We also get a series of flashbacks which reveals that Bruce Wayne’s father was having an affair, thus suggesting that perhaps they weren’t quite the innocent martyrs Bruce remembers, or that his feelings of guilt over their murder may in part have been based on some sense that his knowledge that there were problems in the marriage.
To make this even more difficult [spoiler alert–if something like this can be spoiled] while it’s unclear exactly what happens at the end, my read of it is that while Batman and Joker were fighting on the bridge the Joker fatally stabbed Batman. Batman, realizing he was going to die, beat the Joker, knocked him off the side of the bridge, and intentionally didn’t save him from falling to his death because as Batman himself was about to die no one would be around to protect Gotham from the Joker. What we have through the book is either the last few minutes of Batman’s life flashing before his eyes, or a post-death evaluation and judgment of Batman’s actions at the end of his life.
Or, given that in the last panels we see Batman vanishing into the morgue and the Joker climbing out of the river Batman had let him fall into, maybe all of this was in the Joker’s mind and Batman was the one who was killed. Either the Joker was playing Batman in his mind or the Joker was in the person of Constantine or the Joker was the reading observing the whole thing.
Sometimes, not knowing the answer to these sorts of questions can be a sign of a great work of literature. Other times, it can be the sign of muddled storytelling. I suspect more the latter than the former in this case. Which is unfortunate, because again the art here is really, really well done.
Also, kind of a dumb side-note: there was a minor controversy with the first printing of this volume in which Bruce Wayne was completely naked. Second printings of the book cast the offending member into shadow (or ‘censored’ it, if we prefer that language). If this were a better book either no one would have cared or DC would have been praised for their ‘edgy’ boldness in showing male nudity. Since, again, it was a fairly muddled story, this is what people latched on to for something to argue about.
At the end of the day the poor storytelling here is unfortunate given that most of the themes the book was going for are worth working out. The world is kind of scary. We don’t always know what’s going on. Sin is pervasive. Redemption is something we all need. Judgement is coming. And so on. These are all Biblical themes that we know apply to our lives, even if we’re not always sure how. Batman is a uniquely qualified superhero for getting into these themes. Batman: Damned just drops the ball in its attempt to do so.