In Batman: Noel, a fabled Christmas story is re-imagined with a clever twist on the myth that seeks to turn a mirror on Batman and his history and his present state of affairs. Batman battles internal and external adversity while encountering figures from his past and present, all while common man Bob Cratchit seeks to carve an existence in the repressive city of Gotham. Featuring cameo appearances by some of the more important characters among Batman's supporting cast, gorgeous art, and surprisingly solid writing, Noel is a book that will let precious few readers down.
This book follows the same story structure of A Christmas Carol, with very few deviations and instead merely re-imaginings of the characters from that book with their closest matches in the Batman universe. As Bruce Wayne struggles with a persistent cough, an identity crisis, and yet another Joker breakout, his surly attitude comes to light. While this certainly isn't new, and in fact is all but an accepted facet of the character now, with people like Alfred and Dick Grayson barely even batting an eyelash when Bruce flies off the handle and disrespects them in the serialized comics, the unique part of this book is that this isn't presented as a positive or particularly enduring thing. The whole book is essentially a plea for Batman to regain just a bit of the fun and light hearted side that he once had in addition to the ruthless detective that scares all the criminals. That plea comes from the same plot mechanic as seen in A Christmas Carol: three ghosts from throughout time coming back to reminisce about old times, help through the present, and warn about the future.
These ghosts come out to play during Batman's most recent obsession: tracking a man under employment with the Joker in order to learn the whereabouts of that famous criminal. The man, and his physically impaired son, play an important role in the story as the more grounded protagonists in an otherwise high flying tale. Bob's money struggles and unfortunate descent into organized crime seem to serve as a way to explore Batman's focus on stopping the bad guys instead of helping the good guys, and in fact the disconnect between Batman and Gotham is readily apparent in the way he is viewed with a notable blend of distaste and mistrust by Jim Gordon and the officers of the Gotham City Police. The dislike that Gotham seems to have for the caped crusader is an important and very intelligent underlying theme for this story, something that gives it a very distinct feel. As we progress through the various ghosts and Batman is forced to confront the idea that he can and should change, the book only gets better, culminating in yet another showdown between Joker and Batman. Noel is a thoughtful look at the character of Batman and his tumultuous history, giving fans a new way to view the classic character without sacrificing the narrative gimmick that the book is built around.
As majestic of a ride as most of this book is, there are a few weak moments. Our hero, a poor man turned to crime to support his son, doesn't have a very relatable side. Granted, his son is adorable, but for the most part this guy seems like a legitimate sleazebag. He whines a lot and spends way too much time wallowing in his horrible situation or cowering before somebody. Of course, when he does manage to get the upper hand on someone (through reasons totally unrelated to his own actions) he cements his status as an obnoxious and unlikeable protagonist by suddenly acting brave and heroic. The Ghost of Christmas Past was poorly picked and not explained well enough to make up for this. Catwoman is an important character in the Batman mythos, but she doesn't have the kind of past with the character that Robin or even Alfred has. More importantly, while her part does reference that fun-loving, campy side of Batman from the 50's and 60's, it doesn't do much with the rest of his past. She doesn't talk about how he started out being almost as crazy and gritty as he is today, or about the 70's and early 80's era of Batman adventures. Due to this in particular, somebody like Alfred who has been there through it all feels like a far better choice. It isn't bad and does enough to advance the story, but it seems a little off for certain. Finally, though the Joker has a fairly consistent voice during his scenes, his actual plan and methodology leaves a lot to be desired and really doesn't have any signature elements of the character. Using such a big name may have been important to fit with the look back on Batman's history, but he is pretty much wasted in actuality and could have been easily replaced by a lesser known villain. As with the other criticisms, this is what amounts to a nitpick at a strange decision, and there is no reason that any of this stuff should ruin your experience reading this book.
The artwork on this book is nothing short of phenomenal, managing to succeed in capturing an entirely different look than most Batman comics (and even marking a significant deviation from Bermejo's previous work on Joker.) It is an all around brilliant piece of work that goes through many different moods, carefully building many different environments and creating a one of a kind book that is a perfect feel for the holiday season. The gorgeous and frequent two page spreads embody the spirit of the season, presenting a slightly different view of Gotham, while also giving us very Gothic and dated visuals that call to mind the setting of the source material. There are also some very dark scenes, like a grim look into the future and a trip inside one of the Joker's hideouts, that showcase Bermejo's impressive array of talents. Even the narration, free of text boxes and rendered in an attractive and simplistic white, blends into the artwork and further adds to the atmosphere. Another important detail is the magical, golden aura radiating from Superman during the present sequences. Superman's glow meshes beautifully with the surrounding snow and contrasts with all the dingy back alleys and walls that form the background of most of his scenes, and you get a great feel for what the character stands for just based on something so simple. The book is full of careful visual cues like the above, and in fact it is a great showcase of the positive things that can come about when an accomplished artist tries his hand at writing: there is quite a bit of restraint with the dialogue and many scenes where expressions and body language tell just as much of the story as the actual words being spoken.
Although it is more seasonal and far less "heroic" than many Batman books, eschewing the traditional elements and characterization of a Batman story in favor of a brilliant and unique twist on the history of the character, this is a book that just about anybody can enjoy. Fans disillusioned with the prevalent portrayal of Batman as a borderline insane, certifiably obsessed vigilante will really enjoy this, and the easy to digest, beautiful visuals and generally toned down violence make this a great book for kids too. Noel is a surprising success that presents a clever take on both the beloved Christmas tale and the enduring superhero franchise.