By now you’ve probably heard about the moment in Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo’s new DC Black Label series Batman: Damned, where a completely-naked Bruce Wayne’s penis is seen on panel. Go on, take a moment, and let the bats out of your belfry.
As eye-catching as that particular panel is, it’s the least interesting part of a fascinating comic that twists and tangles everything we know about the Dark Knight and what Bruce Wayne thinks he knows about himself.
Like all of DC’s Black Label books, nothing about Damned is technically considered canon — but, apocrypha or not, the story it’s telling is one that adds a new depth to the larger Batman mythos.
Though Batman: Damned isn’t an origin story in the traditional sense, it is a story about Batman’s origins and the forces at work in the shadows that put Bruce Wayne on his path toward greatness. In this world — hauntingly realised by Bermejo’s moody, dreamlike illustrations — the Joker has mysteriously died just as Batman takes a fall from a bridge into the Gotham River and nearly drowns to death himself.
Fighting for his life, Batman manages to get his head above the water and fill his lungs with air, but as he’s thrashing about in the river, he catches a fleeting look at a spectral vision of his dead parents standing on the docks that both shocks him and gives him the strength to pull himself ashore.
Despite his plans to return to the Batcave with Alfred’s assistance, Batman collapses in a nearby alley, quickly losing blood and his grip on reality just in time for Batman: Damned’s actual narrator to show up in all his unreliable, chain-smoking glory.
The larger mystical implications of John Constantine’s presence in Batman: Damned immediately elevates the book, and is one of the first clues that the visions Bruce is beginning to have with increasing frequency might be more than flights of fancy.
With the Joker’s death unexplained, Batman finds himself unmoored, at least briefly, as he tries to piece together who or what might have been able to accomplish what he could not (taking the Joker down) during his time as a vigilante.
The streets of Gotham are full of mysteries invisible to the naked eye whose existence Bruce is keenly aware of, and wary of, because of the ways they pull and prod at his perceptions of reality.
Characters such as Deadman and Zatanna make their way into Bruce’s life as he’s working this new, most personal case, but they never present themselves as their true selves. They appear in disguise, misdirecting the people around them to various ends; all the while, Bruce’s flashbacks to his time as a child become that much more immersive and disorienting.
There’s something cursed (in a magical sense) about Bruce Wayne and his relationship to Batman that’s realised in a scene deep within the Batcave where Bruce is at his technical safest and most psychologically vulnerable.
Reasoning that his hallucinations might be the result of physical trauma or exposure to an unknown substance, Bruce strips down to his skivvies in order to run a complete diagnostic on his body which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t turn anything up.
But a voice — the voice — in Bruce’s head invites him to begin considering whether whatever’s going on with him might be an outgrowth of his imagination, or worse, a completely broken mind.
In case you were wondering, while earlier versions of the comic book did, at one point, include tasteful, full-frontal Batman nudity, the books available in stores now have been curiously edited to fully obscure Bruce’s junk.
Given how this scene is, presumably, meant to highlight Bruce’s vulnerability, it’s an odd choice that only jumps out when you know what’s missing from the page. Also, consider that this is a story being told by John Constantine, and remember it’s a Black Label book for “adult” audiences.
Like a riddle, the mystery Batman: Damned presents us with isn’t at all straightforward, and the hints this first issue drops are purposefully meant to make you question the veracity of what you’re reading.
We all know that Martha and Thomas Wayne met their tragic ends in a Gotham alley at the hands of a two-bit criminal. But, Batman: Damned, suggests, there’s much more to the story of how they died than Bruce has ever let himself fully consider.
Bruce has always blamed himself for his parents’ deaths, and by the time you make it to the end of this first issue, you might be swayed to consider that maybe, just maybe, Bruce was right all along.