Written by: Brian Azzarello
Penciller: Lee Bermejo
Inkers: Tim Bradstreet, Mick Gray, Richard Friend, Lee Bermejo
Colourist: Grant Goleash
Cover artist: Lee Bermejo
Published by DC Comics
Batman/Deathblow was Brian Azzarello’s first collaboration with artist Lee Bermejo. Since then the pair have created two more books for DC; Luthor, and Joker. As suggested by the titles, both focused on the villains, and were unusual, yet interesting and brilliant works.
Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire is no less unusual or remarkable, and fits right into this body of work, proving worthy of a reprint and the deluxe hardcover treatment. It is a high-concept, non-linear tale full of twists and surprises. In short, it is just what you would expect from Brian Azzarello.
The black-ops soldier Deathblow came to DC along with Jim Lee, as part of the Wildstorm universe that Lee brought with him to the company. What makes this crossover so different is not that DC and Wildstorm were still separate universes at the time of writing. It is the much more unusual fact that despite the shared billing, and both spending time in Gotham, Batman and Deathblow never actually meet in the book. At the time of its writing, Deathblow was already dead, and remains so during the story (that in itself is odd for a comic character, of course).
The book has two timelines, the present, and ten years earlier, when Deathblow was in Gotham for an ill-fated mission. Batman never learns of Deathblow’s visit at the time, and in the present, Deathblow has long since shuffled off his mortal comicbook-coil. Azzarello weaves both timelines into one brilliant narrative, dealing with espionage, terrorism, the military, and all the grey areas that inhabit the spaces between these forces. After the Fire deals with the difficult, darker patches that none of these powers would like to admit to. Originally published the year after 9/11, the ten years since then have made it more relevant, more incisive and telling.
The story and the dialogue, while clever, are both elliptic, and unforgiving to the casual reader. Like The Wire, whose dialogue was designed to force the viewer to pay attention, this is a book that demands your focus, insisting you keep up and do some thinking. To be clear, this is no bad thing. It is an intelligent, and nuanced narrative; one that is both interesting and rewarding.
After the Fire benefits greatly from being in a collected edition. Like any good boxset, this is a story best enjoyed all-at-once. A book like this can suffer with a monthly gap in between issues, making the reader forget details, stretching the story too thin to be really effective. The art too, benefits from the collected and oversized format. Bermejo’s angular, brooding style is aided by Grant Goleash’s drained, almost noir-ish colouring. The extra space allowed by the oversized format allows the art to really make an impression, for the atmosphere to seep off the page and into the reader.
If you’re willing to try something a bit more cerebral, then After the Fire is just the right antidote to the poison of certain samey superhero titles that demand no more from the reader than three dollars and bag and board when they’re done. It is a gripping, twisting spy story that doesn’t shirk on the action, either.