I’m a big fan of retellings–fairy tales with a twist, new angles on old myths, the reinvention of familiar stories–and I’ve written my share of them as well. So I was very excited to read Lee Bermejo’s (Joker) new Batman: Noel, especially after a look at the teaser pages in several of the #2 issues of DC Comics New 52 a few weeks ago hinted that it might be a Batman twist on everybody’s favorite reworked Christmas story, A Christmas Carol.
First, the art in Noel is gorgeous, and particularly evocative are Bermejo’s wintery cityscapes. Gotham (at least the way Lee Bermejo draws it) is a natural fit for Christmastime in the City, and the whole book has a bittersweet air of urban nostalgia–It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, with a haunting, decayed edge. It’s a perfect fit for an update of Dickens’s Victorian London. Colorist Barbara Ciardo’s muted, misty colors only enhance the gothic mood of the art and are equally beautiful. Likewise, Bermejo’s rendering of classic characters is lush and satisfying–particularly noteworthy here are his images of Robin and Catwoman. It’s a physically beautiful book, and it’s a pleasure just to look at it.
Less satisfying for me was the story. Granted, with a property as familiar as A Christmas Carol, reinventing it–and doing it really well–is a tremendous challenge. And, in a lot of ways, Bermejo succeeds. The Batman-Scrooge mashup is surprising at first, but in that take-notice way, and, in Bermejo’s hands, turns out to seem quite natural. Seeing our hero Batman/Bruce Wayne cast as the villain in need of redemption is an inventive twist on the theme. The Batman mythos is so rich and already steeped in backstory, and Bermejo has a lot to work with here, and, on the whole, does it pretty well. Casting canon standbys as Dickens’s classic spirits is part of the fun of a retelling like this, and Bermejo clearly enjoyed playing with this aspect of the tale (especially clever is his choice for Spirit of Christmas Present). It’s clear Bermejo understands both his source material and his current Batman toolbox, and has no trouble blending them.
So what doesn’t work? Well, for me, the book is almost killed by the heavy-handed narration, which matches neither the subtlety or inventiveness of the rest of the book. It’s as if Bermejo was concerned that we wouldn’t get it, unless he reminded us on every page that Batman = Scrooge (and, even worse, “Scroogey”). I’m typically a fan of this sort of conceit, and the Dear Reader touch certainly evokes the Victorian classic, not to mention the legacy of hard-boiled detective noir of the Dark Knight himself. But in Noel it just detracts from a story we already know, and from the artful execution of the retelling.
Still, a second flip through the book was just as enjoyable as the first journey, and Bermejo gets high marks for ambition. Although I didn’t love it like I wanted to, Noel is a clever and worthy addition to the Christmas Carol tradition, and a great gift for the Batman fan on your list who already has Hush: Unwrapped.