The transportation of A Christmas Carol into a superhero or science fiction setting is hardly new. In an episode of the animated The Real Ghostbusters called “X-Marks the Spot” the boys traveled back in time and accidentally “bust” the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future! Quantum Leap did it with the episode “A Little Miracle.” Doctor Who did it most recently with an episode actually called “A Christmas Carol,” and if you count the Muppets as both science fiction and superhero-like characters, then there’s no forgetting A Muppets Christmas Carol with the incomparable Michael Caine as Scrooge.
But now, none other than the Caped Crusader is getting Scrooged with the just-released Lee Bermejo graphic novel Batman: Noël. Is it a little corny? Yes. Does work? Mostly.
Spoilers for Batman: Noël
It’s a little shocking that with all of the totally out-of-control villains from the 1960s Batman TV show that somehow there wasn’t also a criminal called “Father Christmas” or “Saint Nick” who rode around on evil reindeers, threw exploding packages as bombs, and always had Batman, Robin, and Chief O’Hara on his “naughty” list. This is particularly lucky for writer/artist Lee Bermejo too, because in Batman: Noël he casts a few of Bruce’s foes in the roles of the spirits visiting Scrooge.
This isn’t framed in a literal sense with the Joker declaring himself “the Ghost of Christmas Cheer” or anything like that. Instead, there are two overlapping narratives, one which is the real story of what is happening, and another, generic contemporary everyman narrator describing the basic plot of A Christmas Carol to what we have to assume is a child. The text of the storyteller’s words are happening simultaneously with the actual word-balloon dialogue of Batman, Alfred, Gordon, Catwoman, Superman, and all the other folks who get in on the action. The attempt here is to make it seem like Batman is having a rough night, and the emotional themes just happen to dovetail with those of Scrooge in a Christmas Carol. In essence the re-telling of the story of “Scrooge” by a mostly unseen narrator serves the same purpose as a voiceover.
After catching a cold, and being extremely rough on some poor peon of the Joker’s, Batman thinks he sees a visage of Robin sort of coming to life for a second. You have to assume this is Jason Todd-era Robin, Batman’s “partner” from the past, and a stand-in for Jacob Marley. Batman blinks it off, as the narrator talks about how Scrooge was visited by three spirits. Next up, Bats has it out with Catwoman, who is supposed to be a representation of The Ghost of Christmas Past, and it is here where some of the meta-commentary of the graphic novel truly shines. When Batman flashes back to the “happier” days with both Jason Todd and Catwoman, we see an almost perfect homage to an Adam West kind of giddiness. Batman is smiling. Catwoman has a tiger attacking Robin. The Batmobile has curves. And this isn’t the cheesy stuff! This is effective because not only do we feel this particular version of Batman has lost something, but we also feel a certain sadness that the representation of the character in the current culture has maybe become overly grim.
The success of Bermejo’s artwork with these kinds of panels is to show us that a smiling and confidently whimsically Batman, could also look cool. (The flashback sequences in the animated film Batman: Under the Red Hood also managed this effect, albeit, not as visually beautifully as here.) After awhile, Batman’s cold gets the best of him and Superman shows up to give him a ride back to his car and maybe a stop at corner pharmacy for some Nyquil. At this point, the narrator is talking about The Ghost of Christmas Present, which fits Superman fairly well. It’s also nice to note that by starting with Robin, then going to Catwoman, and then Supe that the “ghosts” alternate between hero/villain/hero/villain. Meaning the final ghost is none other than the Joker.
Now the graphic novel gets even more surreal than in previous sections, as the voiceover asserts that the notion of The Ghost of Christmas yet to come couldn’t have been as real as the other two ghosts. This seems to be mostly a convenience of the writer because the Joker drags Batman to a snowy grave where Bats proceeds to have a flash-forward vision of the future. In this future, two rival gangs appear to be fighting for control of Gotham City. One group of toughs is covered in Batman-style tattoos, while the other is a gang of clowns, clearly representing for team Joker. These images are just briefly touched on however, and both groups seem fairly brutal and terrible. The message here I suppose is to make us feel like if Batman continues to be cold with his methods that everything could eventually go to hell. This mostly relies on the premise that Batman is using the peon (a guy named Bob) he beat up at the beginning as “bait” for the Joker. Superman tells him this is a pretty shitty thing to do, and we’re supposed to feel like Batman doesn’t have enough sympathy for Bob and his young son, who are just stuck in a bad situation. The problem I have with this is that it’s too easy. If Bob started working for the Joker, there’s no telling when the Joker might have turned on him. Batman didn’t put him in danger by using him as “bait” at all. Bob put himself in danger by working for the Joker in the first place.
Either way, Batman comes to, realize he’s been acting like a jerk, and rushes to Bob’s house, where sure enough, the Joker has arrived! Batman beats him up, and then Bob has a moment where he can shoot the Joker, but of course, he doesn’t. Batman tells Bob to show his son how to act like a hero, which here, of course, mean not killing people, but instead “bringing them to justice.” This all works pretty well emotionally, and it’s nice to see Batman being polite to people again, if only for a second. Though on a basic plot level, Batman’s unethical plan actually kind of worked, and the only reason that is might have backfired at all was because he had the sniffles and was moving a little slow. This confuses the emotional resonance of the story on its own, and also makes the Dickens narrative a little mismatched towards the end. Do we see Bruce/Batman noticeably acted different towards his fellow man at the end? Other than supposedly sending a Christmas Tree to Bob’s house, the answer is, no, not really. I imagine Batman is still going to growl and snarl, because otherwise, he wouldn’t be effective at his job.
But, as a meta-message to the Batman community (if such a thing exists!) I think the idea that Batman needs to lighten-up a little is a positive one. Even The Dark Knight can have a little more kindness on a day-to-day basis. And we’re not just talking about the character either, it seems like Bermejo was making a mild critique of the storylines needing to be more fun, too. I’m not saying Batman: Noël is asking for all incarnations of Batman to suddenly be more like Batman: The Brave and the Bold or the 60’s show, but that the fans should be more inclusive of these other, lighter versions. In essence, I think this graphic novel says “Hey, that’s Batman, too.”
Because the various apparitions visiting Scrooge in the original A Christmas Carol are not angels, or deities, the moral universe of Charles Dickens’ most famous creation is firmly a secular one. At the risk of making an obvious statement like “light comes from the sun”; the reason A Christmas Carol resonates is because it’s about our actions while we’re alive and how that affects other things on Earth. Despite the warning from Marley about “the chains forged in this life” Scrooge soul isn’t in peril because he might live in eternal damnation for his sins, but instead because he is already living in a self-inflicted hell. The secular nature of a character like Batman is actually very suited to this kind of morality play because just like Scrooge, his torment is self-inflicted. This is one of the reasons why Batman is so popular among is super-powered friends. He’s a real person, constantly in danger of having his baggage permanently ruin him. That’s what makes him a nice stand-in for Scrooge.
Lee Bermejo both wrote and did the art for Batman: Noël. Naturally, because it’s a Dickens pastiche, the story is hardly original. But the images are beautiful and some of the underlying themes are quite satisfying. A Batman/Scrooge mash-up could have been awful, but Bermejo wrapped the present just tightly enough to make it all work.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.