Batman: Noel (Retro Review)

By Carter Glace, Staff Writer

Just when I thought I couldn’t think of final column for the Holiday Season, the answer hit me like a ton of bricks: Batman. Believe it or not, Batman has been the star of what might be one of the greatest holiday themed graphic novels of all time. I know it’s hard to imagine that today’s gritty, brooding Batman could be the star of a Christmas-themed comic, a holiday centered around sentimentality, hope and optimism. But writer and illustrator Lee Bermejo realized that modern Batman now perfectly captured the spirit of one of the iconic Christmas characters: Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yes, Batman: Noel is A Christmas Carol but in the DC Universe. And it is brilliant.

Told from the perspective of one of the Joker’s henchmen, the novel grafts the general plot of  Christmas Carol on a story about a world-weary, ruthless Batman — literally referred to as Scrooge — trying to hunt down the Joker. Overworked and suffering from pneumonia, The Dark Knight has been going to greater and more harsh extremes to protect to Gotham out of guilt for the death of Jason Todd.

Right there is Noel’s secret weapon: finding a way to make a brooding, dour Batman empathetic. I have vented before at modern Batman’s reduction from serious but human character into a bitter, violent psychopath, and how comic’s attempts to make Batman more mature and serious have made him completely inhuman.

Yet Bermejo figures out  how to make this vision of Batman work by framing it differently than any other artist. He understands that this Batman is not something to respect or fear, but to feel bad for. A figure in Batman’s mythos for decades now, Bermejo figures out how to best use Jason Todd, by casting him as the Jacob Marley of the story, we are finally given an empathetic reason for why Batman would act like this. It really does come down to framing: when we see Ben Affleck staring at the graffiti-marked uniform of Jason Todd, we are suppose to respect and fear his obsession. When we see this Batman keep Todd’s uniform quietly in the Batcave, we are suppose to feel bad because he feels bad. He doesn’t want to be like this, but feels like he needs to be to save lives.

The selection of the ‘ghosts’ are all inspired DC Universe characters’ backstories, helping build on this theme perfectly. Catwoman becomes the Ghost of Christmas Past, Catwoman being one of Batman’s few ‘sane’ villains and also serving as the lost love Scrooge could have had in the story. This is also a moment where the art style is particularly brilliant, using the visuals and iconography of the Adam West Batman to present flashbacks to the hero’s lighter days.

Another perfect selection comes with Superman as the Ghost of Christmas Present. If there is one character in the entire world of comics who best captures the jolly, vibrant spirit of the ghost, it would be the Man of Steel. Again, Bermejo understands that the Batman/Superman dynamic only works when Superman is a universal good, a constant reminder that he is above bitterness and anger. Not to mention, Superman’s powers of x-ray vision and super-hearing allow him to be a window into the lives of the crook Batman chases throughout the novel.

And of course, Joker serves as the Ghost of Christmas Future, literally burying Batman alive. And in perhaps one of the comic’s most extraordinary moments is the vision of the future presented. Instead of Batman being disgraced and forgotten for his cruelty, people take the wrong lessons from how he fights crime. Bruce instead sees a world turned monstrous, the average citizens violently dealing with even the most petty of criminals. There is always a subtext in Batman comics about him being a symbol for the people of Gotham, but few writers have had the courage to ask if that might be a bad symbol.

I could gush about this comic for hours about how well designed the framing device is, how the art style reminds us that no one does gritty and realistic better than Lee Bermejo and the cool Christmas aesthetic is moody and beautiful and surreal, or how incredibly well the comic crafts its narrative to parallel its source material. But I wanted to focus on the subtext of the comic because it is what elevates Noel from a clever idea to something profound.

As of late, the best Batman material have been the works that have had something interesting to say about the character’s descent into gritty, grim, psychopathy, like The Return of the Caped Crusader and The Lego Movie. Batman: Noel might be the cream of the crop, building off the cliche of a Christmas Carol and using it to firmly declare, “Yes, Batman can be dour at times, but that doesn’t mean he always should be.”  And what better time to lighten up than the holiday season?

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