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Batman/Deathblow: After The Fire

We've been told to await its coming with bated breath and we've learned to hate it with a fiery passion: the comic company crossover.

It really is something that is done purely for the benefit of the comic book fan. How long have the debates raged about whether Superman could beat the Hulk in a fistfight, or if Batman could whoop-up on the Punisher?

Companies pump out crossovers whenever they need an influx of cash, knowing full well that many of us will shell out the cash just to watch The Avengers duke it out with the Justice League of America. They are usually bad so we don't expect much more than an illustrated boxing match.

But every now and then the comic crossover tries to actually stand on its own as a story. Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire makes such an effort. With Brian Azzarello writing and Lee Bermejo doing some fine art, it almost pulls it off, too.

The set-up is what grabs you first: unlike most crossovers involving Superhero A running across Superhero B and inevitably mistaking each other for super villains before teaming up to take down a true evil menace, the two main characters never actually meet.

In case you don't know Wildstorm continuity from old (pretend it had continuity in the Leifeld era), Deathblow was a mercenary/assassin/government bad ass that shot guns, had red face paint, and may or may not have had some kind of super power (I can honestly say I never wasted money on Wildstorm comics before they moved to DC, so my character recall isn't the sharpest).

Anyhoo, Deathblow was sent on a killing mission to Gotham City ten years ago, seeking to eliminate a pesky terrorist cell headed by the enigmatic Falcon. Along with his handler, he goes on the mission, takes out a few lower rung terrorists, and just before he completes his mission, it gets botched by the arrival of a pyrokinetic (called a "burner") who almost takes out Deathblow.

Fast-forward ten years and a immolated severed hand clutching Deathblow's calling card shows up in a Gotham toll booth. Enter the Batman. Batman now has to solve a decade old murder and unravel the weaving of government red-tape covering the case, all while trying to find the same burner from a decade ago. Needless to say, Batman will be busy.

Azzarello almost makes this a great book, but he blows the ending so horribly it just detracts from everything else. The book ends with no story resolution. Azzarello doesn't explain the pyrokinetic's motivation for a recent (read: in Batman's Gotham) killing spree, nor does he really clear up the connection between the burner, the Falcon, and the government to my satisfaction.

It's a shame because this book was doing well up until the end. The pacing was wonderful; the dialogue, especially on the part of Batman and his manservant Alfred Pennyworth (doesn't "manservant" sound kinda dirty?) is dead on, and Azzarello also does some creative thinking involving the way Batman operates in Gotham. He makes the Batman/Alfred relationship parallel the relationship between a secret agent and a handler, which makes a lot of sense considering the way Bruce Wayne and Batman have to co-exist. It's just that damn ending. Azzarello is a great writer, which he's proven on other books like 100 Bullets and Hellblazer, but even he couldn't pull off a good crossover.

Another thing that makes me wish this had been a better comic than it was is Lee Bermejo's artwork. He's wonderfully cinematic in his style. The scenes involving Deathblow (and I'm mostly referring to Deathblow's penchant for gunplay) is page-turning action. The scenes lack a lot of dialogue, which just makes you pay more attention to the visual and Bermejo has no problem telling a visual story at parts. It reminded me of The Matrix, if no one had a harness and a guide wire on. I know I use terms like "dark" and "gritty" frequently, but I have been using them wrongly until now. Bermejo is as grim and gritty as they get and it really makes for beautiful reading.

I wish I liked this book more, at least enough to recommend it, but I don't. It is only $12.95, so if you're looking for something to read for a little filler between the newest issue of Powers (which was spectacular and mind-blowing, thank you Bendis) and a Starman collection, it won't set you back too much, but you can skip this one without missing much.

Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire

Robert Sparling

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