Bedlam

Bedlam / Nick Spencer and Riley Rossmo. Began publication in 2012

Bedlam is a creator-owned thriller series from Image comics. I came across it when my wonderful spouse (who is not into the genre in the slightest) picked it up thinking I would be interested. I went into Bedlam with no expectations whatsoever, having never heard anything about the series. I’ll note right here that it’s incredibly violent, although less explicit than The boys.

Since the series is still being published, this review is based on the first two trade paperback volumes.

Brief plot description

(not really any spoilers but the exact premise isn’t exactly revealed right away)

Fillmore Press is a slightly unstable pacifist who wants to help make the world a better place. In the first volume, he does this by attempting to assist the police in their hunt for a serial killer using his special skills and knowledge. Press was previously (unbeknownst to the world at large) known as “Madder Red”, a serial killer who terrorized the city of Bedlam and had a death toll that reached four figures before his apparent death. In actuality, Press was detained by an underground psychiatrist and eventually rehabilitated before being released to live on his own. 

So how is it?

It’s thought-provoking and disturbing. Rossmo’s art deserves high praise, as his highly stylized, “sketchy” art style really helps to prevent it from being a gross-out comic. Bedlam is all about psychology, and a style like Darick Robertson’s would detract from this surprisingly introspective work by drawing too much attention to the violence.

It’s easy to draw comparisons with the superhero genre: Madder Red bears more than a passing resemblence to the Joker, and there is a Batman-esque vigilante called The First. Still, thematically, artistically, and plotwise, Bedlam is completely different from your average superhero series. The probably-reformed Press is certainly bizarre but is also quite likeable. He does his best to integrate with “normal” society without much success. His apartment is completely empty. He attempts to purchase a pre-paid phone with change, and is completely incapable of figuring out how many minutes he actually wants. He prevents a murder by encouraging the would-be killers to shoot him instead of their intended victim.

The story alternates between the “present day” reformed Press and flashbacks of Madder Red’s career and eventual confinement and rehabilitation. The colors are subdued throughout, but the flashbacks are presented in stark black and white with splashes of red, while the other segments, while still retaining a subdued palate, have some more variety. The presentation helps to make the reader feel like they are seeing things as Press perceives them. As a result, it’s ambiguous as to whether or not the events portrayed are part of Press’s delusions or are actual events. The grotesque nature of the doctor and his two assistants adds to this ambiguity.

The second trade is somewhat weaker than the first, as it focuses less on the rehabilitation process and more on the “present-day” case. It’s possible that I have judged the second volume unfairly because I was more interested in the story of the strange psychiatrist who takes care of Press. I’m currently re-reading the first volume and it’s possible that I’ll enjoy the second volume more the second time around. I do find myself continually looking for a thrid volume, but as I just recently noticed that there was a year between the first two and the second was just released this past March, I have a feeling it will be a while before it shows up on shelves. The publication schedule seems to be somewhat erratic, and the most recent issue was published in January of this year. I sincerely hope this doesn’t mean that the series is over, as there are still many more secrets to be revealed.

Strengths:

A compelling premise

Art and text work very well together to maintain the the tone of the story

Does an excellent job of raising the central question that is the series’s tag line: Is evil something you are, or something you do?

Weaknesses:

It’s incredibly violent and disturbing

Quality seems somewhat inconsistent

Recommendation:

This is a hard series to recommend. The extreme violence makes recommending it a chancy proposition, and the fairly disturbing thematic elements are also going to rule out a large number of readers. (Within the first few pages, we “get” to watch Madder Red play poker with a small child while surrounded by corpses before he murders that same child in front of the hero who has come to rescue her).

That being said, it’s highly recommended to anyone who can get past those initial concerns. I haven’t recommended it to anyone yet (although there are a few people I keep intending to recommend it to and forgetting).

Similar titles:
The Marquis / Guy Davis (Full disclosure: I did not enjoy this one, but it’s thematically very very similar. People who liked this will definitely like Bedlam though)

Locke and Key / Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Young Liars / David and Dan Lapham (Full disclosure: This title was almost too disturbing for me when I read it. I’m not sure if I would still feel that way, as it’s been quite a while)

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