Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Bedlam 1-3

Ler me get this out of the way: Bedlam is a good comic. It  may even be the super hero comic of the last year.

 There is every reason for me to hate this comic. It's falls into the  "I wanted to tell a story using established DC/Marvel Comics characters but  the major comic companies would never let me do this stuff to their characters so I changed everybody's name and published it myself" type of story-telling that is often tiresome in independent super-hero comics. 

However, Bedlam manages to make the most of using characters that we are familiar with and then twisting them in unexpected directions. To be blunt, the premise of the book is  "What if the Joker were cured and became a police consultant, helping the police and Batman solve crimes?" 

The story hook is simple. Set in the city of Bedlam, Madder Red, the Joker pastiche (think a creepy mask instead of clown make-up),  is captured by the costumed vigilante, the First, who is essentially Batman. As anyone who as seen The Dark Knight knows, Red's capture is actually part of a plan to bring the city into anarchy from his prison cell. 

Unfortunately, the plan goes wrong and Red is believed dead by the authorities. In truth, he is spirited away by a man known only as the Good Doctor, who "treats" Red  and reintegrates him into society supposedly cured of his insanity. (This is helped by the fact that Red was never unmasked and thus can resume his civilian identity of Fillmore Press with no one the wiser).  When a series of murders in the city, Red, as Press, offers to help the police who take him up on his offer do to his ability to predict the killer's next move.

The series'real strength is that it is a Batman story utterly unconstrained by the limits of being a Batman story. Thus, it is free to play with our expectations. For example, it is free to do things with a stock  Batman  characters that couldn't really be done in a Batman comic. At the end of the day, for all of his flaws, Batman is the hero of the story. By contrast, the First is portrayed much less sympathetically, a burtal thug who beats confessions from suspects with the approval of the city's police forces.

The scariest thing about Bedlam is that even the heroes are corrupt. This is perhaps most exemplified by the Good Doctor. Loosely based on Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, the asylum keeper from Batman whose tendency to think of the various super-villains as victims in need of treatment goes a long way towards explaining why homicidal maniacs under his care keep escaping every second Tuesday, the Good Doctor takes that character in an disturbing direction. Having gone beyond traditional methods of treatment, the Doctor uses truly brutal techniques of torture and brainwashing  (Red goes from giving long speeches to having trouble speaking in complete sentences without getting distracted as an after effect of the Good Doctor's "therapy") to cure super-villain of their "evil" all the while without realizing that, in his own way, he is a super-villain himself.

The real star of the show is Madder Red. We're never quite sure why he's doing anything. There are hints that there was a method  to his madness and other hints that indicated that he was just doing it to relieve his boredom. (The first issue give us the sense that the reason Red  tries to goad a police inrterragator into simply killing him is not for the pleasure of driving a good man to murder, but  because it would be something new.) Similarly, after his "rehabilitation", we aren't sure if he's truly changed or he has some ulterior motive.

Ultimately, I have to say Bedlam is one of the best comics to come along recently. At the point I stopped reading, the book is still setting up it's first story arc and it's status quo. That being said, I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

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