While the design for the villainous Madder Red is admirable, the rest of Bedlam #1 lacks any such spark. It’s padded, laborious, and, frankly, dull for too much of its double-sized yet half-thought space. A comic that talks so much, yet has nothing to say.
When I say it “talks so much”, I mean a whopping ten pages out of a nearly fifty-page issue consist of large, impenetrable walls of text over sketchily drawn panels. This isn’t like Steve Gerber’s experimental use of prose in comics like Man-Thing or Howard the Duck–often a postmodern way for the author to speak directly to the reader–only a crutch for lazy plotting. The worst offender is a four page press conference consisting of an infodump followed by a mealy-mouthed speech serving as a call to stop idealizing chaos-themed villains (“The sacrifices that were made, the bravery that was shown–that’s the only thing exceptional”). Hypocritical, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The rest of the comic is devoted to Madder Red, a Joker-esque psychopath, grandstanding about nihilism the way Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight, only with half the eloquence and none of the brevity. While writer Nick Spencer could have used an editor (none are credited), Riley Rossmo does make a page where the villain gives the people of Bedlam (ersatz Gotham) an ultimatum look decent. It’s a minor twist on a similar scene from Dark Knight, and still an overwritten bore, but the art throws in some Crispin Glover mannerisms and a neat static effect to simulate video recording. It’s certainly more appealing than the hideous Thief of Thieves, the Robert Kirkman comic Spencer wrote for. Rossmo spends a great deal of effort making Madder look like a bold, theatrical villain, only for him to mostly yap through the entire comic.
The only compelling sequence in the entire ordeal occurs early on, in a flashback. Madder, having murdered a bunch of people, plays cards with a little girl. Obviously, she’s terrified, and he’s insane, blah blah blah, and so on and so forth. What makes it pop is the black, white, and red color scheme Jean-Paul Csuka uses for the past. Not quite as stylized as the coloring in Frank Miller’s Sin City, Csuka does lend a dreamy, surreal quality to Rossmo’s artwork for the flashbacks. All the more disappointing when Bedlam shifts to the present day, sporting an ugly, brown/gray palette. It also speaks to how much power colorists wield in the modern comic industry (as in Dean White’s spectacular work in Uncanny X-Force, even with mediocre artists).
Bedlam’s color change occurs after Madder has been presumed dead for years (tucked away by a mysterious doctor). The specifics of this are kept vague, presumably as a mystery of some sort, but the aesthetic choice gives away the underlying problem of Bedlam: Spencer and Rossmo’s infatuation with Madder Red. They are so much in love with him, I’m surprised they didn’t make that the title. Having the city as the title implies some exploration of it as a social entity, yet at no point does the script show much interest in Bedlam. Cops, citizens, politicians, even resident superhero the First (Bedlam’s Batman) are all given stock traits rather than personalities. The First only exists to bark out dialogue, not even striking an intriguing figure with his generic costume. Bedlam itself is a featureless void, made of spaghetti boxes with brick lines drawn in them. For a name that is synonymous with “insanity,” there is nothing to indicate madness. In fact, the draining of the high-energy black/white/red suggests wonder and fun left Bedlam once Madder Red was no longer terrorizing its people.
Any scene that doesn’t have Madder Red only exists because Spencer and Rossmo begrudgingly have to do something else. When the press conference speech comes, it’s meant to reject the philosophy of Bedlam’s Joker stand-in, except Spencer offers no alternative. Not one character or ideal to latch onto. Without Gerber’s empathy, Spencer can only resort to hip freakiness, like Madder licking a gun barrel, or smug self-satisfaction, as in the dialogue. The only thing he inspires is sleep.