Batman: Damned is a Trip Through the Darkest Parts of the DC Universe

Brian Azzarello tells us about the genesis of Batman: Damned, the dawn of DC's Black Label, and how that John Constantine team-up happened.

When DC’s Black Label imprint was first announced, fans were promised that they would journey to the darkest edges of the DC Universe with some of the most brilliant creators as their guides. Batman: Damned, by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, kept that promise, delivering one of the most terrifying, challenging, and controversial DC projects in decades. With heart-stopping, fully-painted art by Bermejo, Batman: Damned is a horror mystery tale that sees Bruce Wayne trying to solve the murder of none other than the Joker. Batman enlists the aid of John Constantine (a character that Azzarello is very familiar with) to guide the Dark Knight through the mystical side of the DC Universe, where the Dark Knight must battle magic and demonic forces to solve his most horrific case. It was our pleasure to sit down with Mister Azzarello and discuss how Batman: Damned came to be. 

Take us to the genesis of Batman: Damned. How did it come about?

Joker did really well and caught DC off guard that it sold so many copies so quickly. They had nothing like it to follow it with. Will Dennis, who was the editor at the time, and Mark Doyle who was the Vertigo editor and Will’s assistant, they were talking about what we could do next. What makes this Joker book unique? It’s the characters but they look different and they behave a little differently. Why aren’t we doing more of this kind of stuff? So we were talking about it and it was called “Jokerverse.” That’s what we were calling it. It then morphed into Black Label because they wanted to bring in more stuff. 

Then Warner Bros. said, “No. No more R rated superheroes.” So it just got put on the backburner for a while. Then Jim Lee brought it back out when I was working on something. It was going to be this enormous crossover with Batman and Justice League Dark. I was such a square peg with the story I was telling. It was not fitting in the round hole. Lee Bermejo and I were talking about it and Jim Lee came to us and said, “Why don’t we launch Black Label with this?”

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For those living in a Batcave, what’s the elevator pitch for Batman: Damned?

Joker is dead and Batman doesn’t know if he did it. It’s a horror story. It’s not a traditional story. It’s not a traditional Batman story. There’s way more elements of horror. The characters are the supernatural characters of the DC Universe, like John Constantine and Swamp Thing. The monsters.

I’m glad you brought that all up. It must be so much fun to write a Batman versus magic story. Batman is always in control, but with magic, he is out of his element. How does Batman deal with magic in Damned?

Very frustratingly. A lot of it he ignores. Some of this stuff… a character like Batman, if he can’t fit it in a box, he tends to just turn away from it. That’s the way we play it. 

What are some of your horror influences that may have colored Damned?

Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have any. I tend to be more interested in the cosmic kind of horror. What we were trying to do with it, this was more 1970s Italian style horror, maybe. Ken Russell kind of stuff. It’s a bit more unsettling rather than monstrous. 

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How did it feel to return to John Constantine and what were your goals for the character in Damned?

We needed someone who was in control. Why not use the guy who pretends he’s always in control, but he never really is? It was great to go back to that character, honestly. When we were doing it, Lee and I were both like, “Why hasn’t this happened before?” John Constantine works so well with a character like Batman, you know? It was great. 

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It was late in the game when we decided that John was going to be the narrator. That was a decision I made because during my run on Hellblazer, there was no narrator. That was intentional because I wanted John to be mysterious. John is the type of character that works best when you don’t know what’s in his head because he’s a con man. For 140 issues before I did it, the book was always narrated by him. I wanted to pull John back to what he was when he first appeared in Swamp Thing when Alan Moore first wrote him. That was my approach there. This time, it’s like, all right, I want to get in this guy’s head because I think he has a lot of interesting things to say and think. So, to be able to comment on what was going on, when he narrated he was not talking about himself, he was talking about Batman. 

Your Demon is note perfect yet very different. What appeals to you about this character and what role does he play in the book?

He’s an entertainer (laughs). That was one of those things where Lee and I were like, “Let’s update this character.” He’s a rhymer? Okay, he’s a rhymer so he’s going to be an MC. Let’s put him in nightclub. Let’s not make him look too demonic; let’s make him look like he’s maybe human. 

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It was similar with what we did with Riddler in Joker where we sort of reinvent him by saying, “Okay, who is this guy? He’s very smart. He can figure out puzzles. He has a cane. Why does he have a cane? Well, let’s make one his legs shorter than the other.” It’s just approaching these characters with a real world destination in mind. 

This is one of a number of stunning collaborations with you and Lee Bermejo. Talk about Lee’s unique talents and how his style pushes you as a writer. I was stunned by the spread he did of Gotham City. It felt like you could fall in.

That spread you’re talking about? Originally, it was conceived of being full of reports of what the Joker was doing. Joker was going crazy all over the city, a sighting here, a sighting there. It was going to be very dense with text. I got that page and I was like, “I’m not going to ruin this page.” We just put one word on it. That’s how Lee communicates what needs to be communicated. I didn’t need to say something. We have a great relationship. I work most closely with him than any of my collaborators. 

Even Eduardo Risso?

Yeah, Eduardo is just like, “Give me the script and leave me alone.” 

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Did Lee contribute story ideas? Because his We Are Robin was freakin’ awesome. 

We pretty much plotted it all together verbally before I wrote anything down. He was instrumental in the story. 

What keeps drawing you back to Batman?

I don’t think I’m ever going back again (laughs). Batman is, as long as you don’t mess with the core of him, Batman fits into different kinds of stories. I think he’s one of those characters where the circumstances around him can be updated all the time. Batman is not of an era. Superman for example, Superman is of an era. Truth, justice, and the American way is a very particular place in time. It doesn’t mean the same thing now as it did then. But the myth of Batman, it’s adaptable. It’s so primal that it’s not going to change.

In many ways, throughout Damned, you focus on Batman’s vulnerabilities. To you, what makes Batman vulnerable?

To me? To me what makes Batman vulnerable is hubris. That’s what makes him vulnerable, the fact that he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Put him in a situation where the walls are constantly shifting, and the floor is falling and he can’t get his bearings. That’s what Damned is. By the end of this story, the whole thing hinges on his denial of the truth, of what he did. 

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Talk about kicking off DC’s Black Label, the imprint that has now supplanted Vertigo?

I don’t think DC could have had a better launch than what it got with Damned. They might not like it, but everyone knew what Black Label was the next day. 

What does it feel like to be the creator that kicked off Black Label, kind of like Alan Moore and guys like Neil Gaiman kicked off Vertigo?

I haven’t even considered that. It’s some heady company to be in, if I’m in. I don’t think so, man. What’s really great is that it did well. I think that we proved that these types of stories can be told and they can be told to a really wide readership. Your book was selling better than the regular Batman title at twice the price point. I hope they see, like, there are readers for this type of material. I think they do. Look at the packaging they put the hardcover in. This book, the hardcover collection, it’s beautifully put together. It is not for kids. 

Now that the collection is out, how would you like Damned to be remembered as it becomes DC’s next evergreen Batman book in the vein of Killing Joke, Long Halloween, and Son of the Demon?

Oh, I don’t know. It’s so soon. I never think about that sort of stuff, the big picture. But the way this ends, it ties into some evergreen books. It was our way of creating some non-canon. 

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Any hints and clues to what might be next for you and Lee at DC?

Lee and I don’t have a project at DC at the moment. I’m doing Birds of Prey