Writer: Nick Spencer
Artist: Riley Rossmo
Colorist: Jean-Paul Csuka
Letterer: Kelly Tindall
Design: Tim Daniel
Cover: Fraser Irving
Bedlam was actually a comic I first heard of thanks to ComixTribe. Tyler James wrote a column about the series, laying out why he thought it had the potential to be the next big creator-owned comic success, and just the description of the high concept alone was enough to make me want to read this first issue: what if The Joker got treatment, was rehabilitated, and decided to use his unique insight into the criminal mind to help the police hunt serial killers? Sold! Take my money! On top of that, looking at the creative team – written by Nick Spencer of Morning Glories and Thief of Thieves fame, with art by Riley Rossmo, who crafted some really intriguing work for Green Wake – told me this book had a strong pedigree of talent behind it too. Plus, as I’ve said a few times lately, Image seem to really be on a roll with their new titles. With all that taken into consideration, plus the great reviews and word of mouth I’ve been reading about it, and Bedlam found itself propelled to the top of my reading list for the week of its release. I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this book!
After finally getting to read it, I have to say it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I was expecting it to be. Perhaps it was a case of over-hype setting my expectations too high, as I feel that if this comic had taken me by surprise, I would have found it to be a solid debut.
I think it may be best to get what I didn’t like out of the way, so I can dwell on the multitude of positives available to discuss about this fascinating first chapter. While the narrative has its share of genuinely great moments, largely surrounding the vile deeds of the villainous Madder Red, I think there are some problematic plotting issues in this first issue. There are issues with clarity over exactly what is supposed to be going on at a couple of crucial plot beats that repeat reading didn’t do anything to alleviate. Now, it could be that the ambiguity is deliberate, creating a mystery that will be revealed in future, but it didn’t feel like that to me. It felt like I was generally supposed to know what happened, but the hows, whens and whys of that didn’t mesh together in palpable fashion, making it feel a bit clumsy. I’m sorry for being vague in this, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but hopefully when you read the issue yourself you’ll see what I mean.
Another issue with the plotting is that it lacks urgency. Or rather, that most of the high stakes and tension comes from the flashbacks, rather than the present-day “A-story”. I’ve talked about how great a high concept Bedlam has, how that alone sold me on the comic. Well, by the end of issue #1, it feels like we’ve only got as far as that elevator pitch, what we already knew about the book going in, without being given any additional hook to lure us back for issue #2. It’s like if Morning Glories #1 had just ended with the kids stuck in the big school: we knew that would happen already from the synopsis. Instead, there the first issue had the kids getting stuck in the school…. THEN you got hit with an additional monstrous twist that left your jaw on the floor and had you feeling you needed to see what happened next. I think Bedlam #1 could really have used a beat like that to close.
But I don’t want this review to appear overly negative, as my overall impression of Bedlam was a positive one. There was plenty to like about this first issue, most of all the fact that’s it all anchored around an incredibly compelling main character. Madder Red is an excellent supervillain, with an instantly iconic design, and a personality reminiscent of The Joker: equal parts trail-of-consciousness lunacy of the comics and cynical dismantling of authority of the Dark Knight movie. Only this is The Joker without the restraint of being published by DC, violently murdering children with wild abandon. You can tell that Nick Spencer just has a ball bringing this horrifying individual to life, crafting his malicious and sometimes blackly comic monologues with pure relish.
But just as effective is the characterisation of Fillmore Press, Madder Red’s alter ego. When we meet Fillmore, 10 years have passed since his killing spree as Madder Red, and in the intervening decade he has been locked in an asylum and been subjected to radical, behaviour-altering treatment to “cure” him, before being released back out into society to live a “normal” life. In contrast to the loud, charismatic Madder Red, Fillmore Press is timid, withdrawn, a deeply damaged shell of a man. He’s quite clearly mentally ill, but that manifests itself in drastically different ways than it did during his time as Madder Red. Spencer plays a deft hand in managing to make this character oddly likeable, even after showing us the horrific things he’s done in the past. I’d say that thus far, this is the big hook that is going to bring me back for issue #2: the chance to learn more about this most unconventional of protagonists.
Riley Rossmo’s art is a delight. His distinctive visuals were the highlight of Green Wake for me, and marked Rossmo out as a talent waiting to break out with the right project. Sadly, the early demise of Green Wake meant that wasn’t to be the vehicle to do that, but Bedlam just might be. If anything, Rossmo’s work is even better, capturing the ethereal mood of his earlier work, but bringing with it more polish, managing to appear cleaner while still capturing that rough, offbeat spirit that characterised his work before. And as mentioned before, the design of Madder Red is a triumph. Rossmo is ably assisted by the colors of Jean-Paul Csuka, not just in the stark grayscale/red pallette of the flashbacks that most reviews seem to be raving about, but in the washed out, Seven-style aesthetic of the present day.
So, in closing, is Bedlam the next breathtaking creator-owned comics sensation? Not quite yet. However, there are enough promising elements in the mix here that, given time, it could very well develop into it. Definitely worth a read.