My first bit of advice to you: Don’t read Bedlam #1 alone in the dark. If you should choose not to heed my warning, then congratulations, you will achieve nightmare fuel by the time your head hits the pillow tonight! For the beginning of a new series, Bedlam #1 is heavy on the creep factor with just enough mystery and intrigue to keep it interesting. It’s not so much scary as it is disturbing and unsettling, which is way worse in my book.
The premise of Bedlam, written by Nick Spencer, is a philosophical question of whether we’re born evil or become evil. And who better to explore such a question than a supposedly ”recovered” or “rehabilitated” psychopath? Fillmore Press was once known as Madder Red, a villainous crime lord who terrorized the city of Bedlam. After what was to be his tour de force of villainy, a moral conundrum of the highest caliber for the citizens of the city and its as-of-yet-unnamed Superman-esque hero, Madder Red supposedly died in an explosion at police headquarters. A decade later, the former villain struggles with his inner psychopath, but also discovers that he might actually be useful in helping catch other of the same ilk.
The story itself jumps back and forth between Fillmore’s current situation and his Madder Red days ten years prior. Of the two, I actually prefer the present to the past. While the flashbacks are suitably creepy, they’re a bit dialogue heavy as Madder Red waxes philosophic to the police, the superhero listening from a distance, or to no one in particular. His philosophy is a bit too reminiscent of The Joker from The Dark Knight with the morality of Bedlam resting on the decisions of the average citizens in response to Madder Red’s final act. Granted, this is only the first issue, so some parameters have to be set and it is quite interesting how the flashbacks inform the present. I also like the idea of a Superman-type versus a Joker-type. In the present day, however, Fillmore is living in inner city Bedlam and fighting his inner demon. Despite the pills and broadcast affirmations, Madder Red continues to haunt him and drives him to put the pieces together of a possible serial murderer on the loose. What really makes the character, though, are his distinctive voices. As Madder Red, he’s confident in his actions and while he doesn’t find any of his crimes particularly funny, he’s possessed of a sense of humor that had me laughing despite the seriousness of the situation. But as Fillmore, there’s a disturbing eagerness in his voice combined with a less confident cadence that reminds you of a person you might have met in passing that seemed just a bit off kilter. Fillmore is fighting Madder Red, but there’s just enough desire there that he’d probably let go and give in under the right circumstances.
The art is truly gorgeous in this book. Riley Rossmo and colorist Jean-Paul Csuka make past and present appear as though two worlds are possible at once. The world of Madder Red, arguably the world of memory, is all black, white, and shades of grey with the accentuation of red where the artists want to draw your eye, which forces you to constantly stare at the mask of Madder Red. I’ll give the book this, despite the obvious Joker inspiration, Madder’s get-up is far creepier simply because there is no expression other than what is painted on his mask. And when you can’t see the expression on another person’s face as a means of gauging their reaction, you’re already forced into a vulnerable position. The world of Fillmore is more colorful, but even those colors are muted. The only vibrancy comes from anything colored red. Fillmore himself is a man of little consequence with dead eyes that only perk up when he begins to piece the murders together or when confronting some gun-toting thugs in a an alley. I actually think he looks a little like Cillian Murphy with the slightly effeminate features that belie the maelstrom of psychosis underneath.
Overall, I’m willing to keep up with this book. It’s funny, disturbing, and the groundwork is being laid for a very distinct anti-hero in Fillmore Press. Or, perhaps, it’s not as much about being heroic as it is about being…helpful.