“Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire” is a hardcover “deluxe” re-issue of a 3-shot miniseries from 2002 which crossed over Batman and a ‘90s Wildstorm character, Michael Cray aka Deathblow. The book has a really confusing plot that’s hard to explain, but here goes: first off, it’s not really a crossover as the two characters never meet but instead have their two separate stories running parallel throughout. Batman’s storyline is set 10 years after Deathblow’s, though both take place in Gotham.
10 years ago, Deathblow is hunting a bad guy called Falcon who’s selling organisational secrets and whose former bosses have hired Deathblow to silence him. Accompanying Deathblow is Scott Floyd, who winds up as Bruce Wayne’s buddy years later and is the only connection between the two characters. Standing in Deathblow’s path to Falcon is a pyrotechnic mutant.
10 years later, the pyrotechnic mutant has reappeared along with a number of corpses horribly burned. One of the victims turns out to be Scott Floyd, and as Bruce investigates his friend’s death the trail leads to Deathblow and the events of 10 years ago. Batman decides to finish what Deathblow started by tracking down and capturing the mutant and finding out the fate of the elusive Falcon.
Azzarello/Bermejo/Batman – just that combination of words is enough for Batman fans to instantly buy this because, after “Deathblow”, they went on to create the superb “Lex Luthor: Man of Steel” and the controversial but brilliant “Joker”. It’s no surprise that DC looked at the success of those two later books and thought a reprint of their earlier, lesser-known comic was in order. And I’m glad they did reprint it if only for Bermejo’s art, which is always amazing, rather than Azzarello’s writing which, for me anyway, is often hit-or-miss – and in “After the Fire”, it’s definitely lacking.
The plot is easily what disappointed me most about this book – it’s convoluted to an absurd degree especially when the double and triple crosses begin happening towards the end. For a 3-issue mini-series, it didn’t need to be so twisty and over-complicated. Yes a lot happens, but when you take a moment to think about what’s going on, it makes very little sense, especially the reveal at the end when you find out that the whole chase was kind of pointless. Also, Bruce’s “friend” is someone we’ve never seen before and never will again. He’s just inserted into the story as a plot device rather than an actual character which felt incredibly contrived. I did like that Azzarello’s penchant for realism meant that we get to see a lot of Bruce Wayne rather than Batman, which made for an interesting angle to the story rather than the usual superhero schtick.
Part of the book’s problem is that Deathblow is simply not an interesting character: he’s your run-of-the-mill tough guy with a gun and no personality. He’s like a cross between the Marvel characters Nuke (they both paint lines on their faces and have military backgrounds) and the Punisher (they both hunt bad guys, have no superpowers, and have no problems with killing people) – not exactly the best ingredients to create a memorable character. And then to top it off, name him “Deathblow”?
Despite Azzarello’s script lacking a cohesive plot, so long as you don’t think too hard about the story, it’s an enjoyable read mostly because it’s such a gorgeous book to look at. Because the real reason you should be reading this is for Lee Bermejo’s art: incredible is one way to describe it though the full range of superlatives are applicable. If you’ve never encountered it before, it’s breathtakingly beautiful art that’s realistic and fantastical all at once. Bermejo’s Batman is one of the best renditions of the character I’ve ever seen – it’s just perfect. While this early work doesn’t show the refinement which Bermejo acquired since this book (see “Batman: Noel” for his most recent, brilliant Batman), it’s still an amazing version of the Dark Knight that few artists can come close to.
Bermejo and colourist Tim Bradstreet give Gotham this early 20th century look with a lightly golden sheen to the panels, dotting its skies with zeppelins, though the references to Vietnam in the past put it at least late 20th century, and the mutant’s outfit is definitely modern contemporary (looking like something Tyler Durden would wear). Mixing in different aesthetics gives the story a warped – but not unpleasant – timeless feel and coupled with Azzarello’s story jumping back and forth 10 years every other page, makes for a quite discombobulating reading experience.
This deluxe edition is repackaged in a sturdy hardback designed like other Batman hardcovers and features a nice slip-on cover. Extras-wise there isn’t much, just a handful of sketches and notes by Bermejo explaining his process. These are interesting but I’d expect more from a deluxe package.
“After the Fire” is definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of Azzarello and Bermejo’s books though it’s don’t expect anything as good as their later works, and if you haven’t experienced “Lex Luthor” or “Joker”, I highly recommend picking up those over this. “After the Fire” is a very poorly plotted noir-ish pseudo-political thriller where Batman only pops up in a few scenes but Bermejo’s art is extraordinary and makes picking up this book worthwhile in the end.
“Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire” Deluxe Edition by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo is out now in hardback
This article was first posted on March 19, 2013