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Batman: Broken City (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I can’t help but feel like Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso were massively unfortunate when they were asked to write Batman: Broken City. The story was placed immediately following the breakout sales sensation that was Hush, a massive blockbuster epic written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Jim Lee, offering a whistlestop tour of Batman’s iconic selection of villains. Azzarello and Risso inherited the title from them with considerable hype. These were, after all, the two creators of the celebrated neo-noir comic book 100 Bullets, so they’d work their magic on the title, right? More than that, though, their arc seemed to consciously play up its similarities to Hush, revolving around Batman’s attempts to solve a central mystery while taking a trip through his rogues gallery. Understandably, fans and critics were taken by surprise when they got a seedy detective vibe instead of an action epic. I can’t help but wonder if time has been kind to this six-issue storyline.

The Devil in the Pale Moonlight?

Brian Azzarello can write a successful Batman. He did, after all, write the celebrated graphic novel Joker, which seemed to emerge perfectly in-synch with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. While Azzarello and Risso might not have created magic on Wednesday Comics: Batman, the pair did make one very worthy addition to the mythos with Batman: Knight of Vengeance, a story I’m still waiting to see collected in a nice hardcover edition. Azzarello has written quite a bit on Batman, so one can sense his influences and his preferences – how he sees the Caped Crusader and the world around him.

Unsurprisingly, given his work on 100 Bullets, the writer sees Gotham as something out of a modern neo-noir film. It’s packed with women who are perhaps best described as “dames” or “broads”, lots of air pollution, and a Batman who likes his steak like he likes his city… tough and thoroughly grilled. In many ways, Azzarello’s vision of Batman seems like a more logical half-way point between Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns than arguably Miller’s own All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. It actually feels like a continuation of that particular take on the character, rather than any other – you won’t find Denny O’Neil’s bare-chested detective or Grant Morrison’s “Bat-god”between these pages, and I think that’s why it took a lot of people by surprise.

Butting heads…

As much as fans love Miller’s work on the character (at least the early stuff), I think that Azzarello and Risso arrived at an unfortunate time in the character’s history. The nineties had been nothing but grim darkness for Batman, as he became an increasingly paranoid and borderline sociopathic jerk, suffering tragedy after tragedy as he sank further and further into darkness. While Morrison’s Batman represented an attempt to lighten the tone a bit, and restor colour to the character, there were hints of rejection of that take on the character far earlier in the early 00s.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory had played out Miller’s noir origin for the Caped Crusader to its logical conclusion. It’s notable that “early Batman stories” told in the years following Broken City – like the superb Batman and the Monster Men or Batman and the Mad Monk – would play up the more colourful elements of the character, welcoming the more outlandish and less hardboiled aspects of the Batman mythos. Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again had already begun to sour readers on his version of the character, while the DC Comics “event” Identity Crisisseemed to hint that even teh writers at DC Comics had tired of relentless darkness.

Muddying the water…

That’s the context of Broken City, and it’s very hard to divorce Azzarello’s story from it, especially when he gives Batman monologues that sound like they could have been lifted directly from Sin City. “Though I can’t image my life without it,” he confesses, “I wouldn’t cry for Gotham either. I did — once — a life ago — before I was what I am. Before I learned there is no pity in god… No place in heaven for me or Gotham City.” That’s pretty bleak stuff right there, and it’s to Azzarello’s credit that his stuff works much better than most of the awkward attempts we’ve seen as writers try to imitate Miller.

Indeed, it’s easy to pick up on the references to Miller’s Batman. Azzarello’s Batman seems to wear Bruce as his mask, in the same way that we see in The Dark Knight Returns. The cowl is Batman’s true face. “I wear a mask,” Bruce explains. “And that mask, it’s not hide who I am, but to create what I am.” While not quite as deranged as the version Miller would give us in All-Star Batman, this version of Bruce is a little bit unstable, and one who almost seems to enjoy inflicting pain, while justifying it to himself. In a twist on Miller’s “I’m the surgeon” line from The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce observes (while torturing a crook), “I’d turn the entire city into my doctor…”As he burns the hand off one of his recurring foes, Batman seems to smiling.

There’s something unwholesome about that…

Indeed, Azzarello seems to be one of those writers who subscribes to the idea that Batman is the protagonist of the story, rather than the hero. His internal monologue drips with an arrogance that makes him seem almost delusional, as he boasts of giving Angel “top billing” on his nightly patrol. He brutalises Penguin, after he has been given the information he needs, perhaps more than is necessary to keep up the charade. “Growing nuts?” the Joker taunts him at one point, when Batman mentions a “hobby”, suggesting that Batman’s presence in Gotham serves as a focal point for insanity.

In many ways, Broken City feels like a back-to-basics Batman story, and it’s genuinely one that you could hand to a reader with little experience of the Caped Crusader. Not only does it cover the original, it also doesn’t feature any of the character’s convoluted continuity. There’s none of the expansive supporting cast that the character has built up over the years. There’s none of those silly Bat-gadgets. I really that about Azzarello’s Broken City, and I think it’s something that stands to it. It is a pure-and-simple Batmanstory, with no bells-and-whistles.

Dark Knight, dark city?

Part of me really likes Azzarello’s script, because it feels like what you’d get if you inserted these crazy constructs into a classic noir story. I admire the fast-paced back-and-forth he writes, eve if it feels a little odd in the context of a Batman story – it feels strange to cast him as the acerbic lead, when the character is usually defined as being rather stoic. “Margo…?” he asks his witness. “Farr,” she replies. “And to the wall for my man.” Batman’s quick, almost flirty, “You seem to be backed up against it.” She counters, “If it looks like what I’m up against is a wall, you’re the one that’s backed up.” It is honest-to-goodness dialogue between characters, that just flows in that lovely pattern we all remember from old black-and-white films. I can accept that it might seem a bit out-of-character, because it’s actually really fun.

And, to be fair to Azzarello, he has a pretty neat little plot lined up. I like the fact that he manages to tell his own particular style of Batman story while incorporating the iconic villains. I’m not sure he needed to include so many – with Scarface, Killer Croc, the Penguin and the Joker, it feels overcrowded, especially after Hush. Still, Azzarello might have just crafted my favourite Scarface story, taking a second-stringer in Batman’s selection of foes and making him seem human and rational and flawed and tragic. I never thought that a guy with a gangster puppet could be tragic, but I think that’s the magic behind Batman’s bad guys: no matter how weird they might be, they are all inherently tragic.

Getting the Ventriloquist all fired up…

There’s also an interesting angle Azzarello works involving a murder that feels remarkably similar to the one Bruce lived through all those years ago. “What kind of cruel ia a man who would kill a boy’s parents… yet leave him alive?” Bruce wonders as he considers the scene of the crime, two parents shot down while their son cries in the street. It provides a nice opportunity for Bruce to revisit the loss of his own parents, and Azzarello lets us see it play out inside Bruce’s head. In one version, all three members of the family survive. In the other, Joe Chill takes a third shot. “And we’re together,” Bruce remarks.

In fact, I do quite like the alteration Azzarello makes to the origin story. Batman has an iconic origin story, to the point where random people are familiar with the broad strokes, so it’s tempting for writers to come in and add their own take. Grant Morrison’s Batman: Gothic added satanic undertones to the murder, while Azzarello adds something that’s a lot more fascinating, and an element that plays up the guilt Bruce feels for everything that happened. Christopher Nolan would add a similar touch to Batman Begins, explaining how Bruce tries to shift his own misplaced sense of guilt to the criminal responsible (“it’s was him, and him alone,”Alfred suggests, the ultimate enabler).

He’s no dummy…

That said, I do find that Azzarello does play the idea that Bruce is a child who never grew up just a little bit too hard. I’ll concede that it’s a valid interpretation of the character. (Incidentally, so is the opposite idea: a child who grew up too fast.) Still, it feels strange when we witness Bruce engaging in all sorts of gratuitous violence to be treat to inner thoughts like he’s “always wished” that he could “fly for real.” It tries to make Bruce seem almost innocent and niave – an aspect that the ending of the book plays up quite well – but one that doesn’t entirely fit with the brutality and cynicism we’ve seen throughout.

The twist at the end is nice, as it suggests that Bruce isn’t as objective or as grown-up as he likes to think. However, that revelation doesn’t really work if you put that innocence in his captions beforehand – it undermines the dichotemy that you’re trying to create, the divide between how Bruce wants to be seen (as the hard man) and how Bruce actually is(a little boy who misses his parents). It feels almost as if Azzarello know what he wants to say, but is having difficulty articulating.

No rest for the wicked…

Eduardo Risso’s art is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the atmospheric feeling that it creates, with lots of black space and washed-out colours. Indeed, he draws a wonderful Batman. However, some of his faces are very strange, and really ugly. I know he’s trying to illustrate that these are the kind of people who live in Gotham, but it doesn’t work if Bruce looks more intimidating without his mask. His version of Bruce Wayne looks like a thug, rather than a suave businessman hiding his inner demons beneath a playboy exterior.

It’s little elements like these that hold the story back. Despite streamlining the narrative and removing the clutter of a supporting cast, it feels strange that Azzarello included the Joker in the final issue. It’s little moments in Batman’s internal monologue that don’t quite fit, throwing off the vast amjority that are written remarkably well. It’s a shame, because you have two very skilled craftsmen here, who would go on to do some really impressive work with the character.

Joining the gang…

Broken City is a solid little story, and one that feels like a solid recommendation for the many readers who came at Batman through Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. Azzarello and Risso’s Batman isn’t quite as definitive, and suffers from a moment or two that can derail an otherwise perfect atmosphere. Still, if you like the “dark” in your “dark knight”, you really can’t go too far wrong.

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