What I like most about Bedlam is that the de facto hero of its noir-inspired universe – a guy oh-so-facetiously called ‘The First’ – is relegated to the margins of the work, dismissed as a curiosity and given what is undoubtedly the least significant narrative role of any of the comic’s characters. We know he’s a hero because his attire is so laden with all of the visual signifiers we’ve come to expect from that archetype: a long flowing cape, an armour-like, skin-tight bodysuit tailored to show off his ridiculous Adonis physique, and a head piece which, of course, obscures his true identity. But what soon becomes apparent is that ‘The First’ has no true identity (at least not yet – the comic is on-going), and if we look closely at the few panels in which he makes an appearance, we can see that his mask is blandly anonymous: a completely featureless blank surface. Indeed, he doesn’t look like anything so much as an artist’s wooden mannequin, something deliberately under-designed. And on the rare occasions that he does show up, the illustrations always seem unfinished, as if Riley Rossmo – whose inky, loose artwork is usually so concerned with transmitting expression, detail and atmosphere – just couldn’t be bothered.
My over-laboured point is that the featureless-ness of this hero (featureless in terms of his dress and his personality) is no happy accident, nor is it the result of lazy writing. The world of Bedlam comprises much of the stuff of familiar super-hero comics, but writer Nick Spencer doesn’t care about the individualist mechanisations of a blandly moralistic hero. Rather, Bedlam takes as its subject the philosophy of evil, and poses its major question in a provocative by-line “Is evil just something you are, or something you do?”. And so ‘The First’ is representative of the entire visual and narrative aesthetic of Bedlam, a comic that hugs genre conventions close with one hand, and stabs them in the back with the other.
Bedlam’s primary focus is the fidgety and garrulous Fillmore Press, a one-time murderous psychopath who worked under the guise of ‘Madder Red’. Fillmore has spent 10 years undergoing a kind of psychotropic therapy that has erased all of his homicidal tendencies and moulded the former super-villain into an upstanding member of society. The story of his treatment is intermittently told in flash-backs, made visually distinct from the ‘present day’ scenes by an ingenious pallet swap. Fillmore has entered into an informal working partnership with detective Remira Acevedo, and together they attempt to discover the identity of the city’s newest serial killer.
There’s a lot of dialogue in Bedlam, and it’s a testament to Riley Rossmo’s abilities as an artist that long sequences of convoluted exposition (that often veer dangerously close to plain old info-dumping) always remain visually interesting and inventive. Juxtaposed against these explanatory conversations are frequent passages of uber-violence and gore, characterised by a liberal application of splashy red ink. But for me the comic’s most successful moments come when the two leads – Fillmore and detective Acevedo – interact. There’s a definite odd couple vibe to their relationship, and the tension between Fillmore’s Joker-esque anxious hyperactivity, and Acevedo’s cool professional focus is a delight to watch unfurl. This contrast plays out on a visual level, too, with Rossmo’s contrasting character designs offering the perfect complement to Spencer’s lively dialogue: Fillmore is all messy corners and pale skinny-ness, whereas Acevedo’s lines are confidently curved and definite.
As Bedlam is still on-going I can’t write about the plot in any completionist sense, but writer Nick Spencer’s refusal to let the comic settle into any kind of monthly status-quo is refreshing and keeps the tension high. I’d be surprised if Fillmore Press has really become the wholly new man he attests to being; there’s too much of a disparity between his former identity as the truly terrifying and psychotic Madder Red, and his new life as the helpful assistant to a detective – I just don’t trust him… And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a further development of Bedlam’s refusal to re-cycle old comic clichés, the as-yet unknown serial killer doesn’t have some philosophically complex motive that belies the seemingly base sadism of his acts.
Bedlam doesn’t always hit the mark: the chain of murders inspired by various biblical figures and punishments is already a cliché of middle-brow crime fiction, even if it is given a moderately fresh take here. Elsewhere, many of detective Acevedo’s actions – such as giving Fillmore access to ludicrously high-level information and materials – seem at odds with her pre-established concerns for professionalism and propriety; such actions seem, to me, more in service to driving narrative momentum than to saying something about Acevedo as a character. But these are small niggles in what is an otherwise very successful new comic, one that challenges the precepts of its own genre, while simultaneously remaining deeply respectful and enamoured of its forbears.