My 3-year-old really digs Batman, and I don’t get it. Why is it that Batman speaks to him in the same way as Spider-Man or Captain America, both much sunnier heroes with more earnest goodness and humor. Batman, at least as he’s been depicted in the past 25 years, is a hero of darkness. He lives in a cave, dresses in black, moves at night and in shadow, associates himself with bats. Why doesn’t he automatically come across to my toddler as a “bad guy”?
Arkham Manor, written by Gerry Duggan, exemplifies why Batman isn’t for children. In this gritty, disturbingly twisted and gruesome addition to the Batman mythology, Arkham Asylum has been destroyed, and the city is looking for a temporary home for the inmates until the new asylum can be finished. Their solution is to house them in the vacant Wayne Manor. When a murder happens within the new, temporary Arkham, Batman goes undercover as new inmate Jack Shaw to stop the killer. But what he finds is far stranger than he expected.
The Batman of this collection is a cunning detective, but he allows himself to vent his anger and frustration in violent and destructive ways. In his frustration at having the Manor co-opted for Arkham, he purposes sets out to have an extra violent patrol. Though he has subdued two muggers, he beats them up just for sport, leaving one in need of reconstructive surgery. Grant Morrison, among others, has described Batman as “a rich guy who beats up poor people.” He’s not very sympathetic, and certainly this scene doesn’t want to make him so. He’ll have a bit of a change of heart later in the collection, but it becomes difficult to see Batman as a hero rather than another crazy character deserving Arkham’s cell.
That’s probably the low spot of the comic. As it goes on, it amasses interesting twists, and the mystery Batman is investigating engages the brain and builds tension.
Furthermore, the conceit that Batman’s rogues gallery would all become housed in Wayne Manor’s walls with Batman disguised (or rather not) amongst them is a brilliant way to have their multiple personalities and relationships with Batman on display. My favorite of them was Mr. Freeze, who mostly interacts with the others via a glorified scooter with a screen attached, since he’s stuck in his cold-storage cell. Freeze has a wisdom and humor in his character and is the lightest part of the comic.
The art, by Shawn Crystal, fits the narrative well. Heavy lines, dominating black, a slight boxy quality to the forms. The art tonally evokes the darkness and madness of Arkham’s inmates now in Batman’s home. The covers are especially brilliant, frequently depicting the madness at the heels of Batman as he hides behind the identity of Shaw. In the example that follows, Shaw is Batman’s double, dwarfed by the ominous head of an inmate who has counted his time in Arkham with murders.Arkham Manor’s not for the young or weak of heart. The narrative stares deep into the heart of psychosis’s most violent path. But if that sounds intriguing rather than off-putting, this is an interesting story-line with artistic flair. For fans of Shutter Island, Shock Corridor, and Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil.