Batman Annual 2

Batman Annual #2 takes a moment to stop and consider Gotham City’s most famous institution, Arkham Asylum. Though Scott Snyder is there in spirit and to help with the plotting, the writing falls to one of his students, Marguerite Bennett (should it concern us that the guy with an uncanny knack for writing Batman seems to be collecting younger protégés?).

While many of us (read: I) wish we could be in her shoes, writing an annual is a big responsibility – especially for DC’s biggest name. How does Bennett fare on her first step into madness? Read on to find out.

As Arkham’s latest orderly arrives, Batman enters the asylum in order to test the supposed hospital’s defenses. From that simple and familiar premise, Bennett introduces us to a new patient of Arkham and gives us an impressive look at Arkham Asylum and Batman’s relationship to it.

Our villain is something strange for a Gotham City story, she’s not as grounded as many of Batman’s enemies and she seems more like something out of Animal Man or Swamp Thing. I guess we can trust that Bennett shares Snyder’s taste for the horrific. While Snyder’s contributions to the plot could lead one to think that the Anchoress was his creation, there’s something distinctly in line with southern horror in her that suggests that Bennett, at least, had a strong hand in her creation.

Though it’s not as traditional, there’s something appropriate about the Anchoress being an Arkham-centric villain. Though it takes its name from quintessentially New England horror, Arkham’s twisting corridors, eerie relationship with biblical punishment, and quiet psychological horror make it hard not to think of some old haunted manse. The deeply personal connection between both Batman and the Anchoress and the old asylum is present throughout the tale and really drives the story.

At times Bennett seems a bit too eager to please, the escape demonstration providing Batman an excuse to walk us through his methods. He’s quick to remind Dr. Arkham how well he knows his adversaries, but at times it seems a little strange that he feels the need to remind the good doctor of such simple things as the former professions of his patients. It can feel as though Bennett wants us to know that she, like Eric, has done her homework. Still, it’s clear that she has, and, excepting one mention of Man-Bat, who hasn’t yet demonstrated a need for Arkham in this continuity, Batman more than lives up to his reputation for planning and deductive reasoning.

Our other protagonist, Eric Border, is another great addition to Gotham, who I hope we’ll see a bit more of in the future. Eric walks the line between optimism and willful ignorance expertly, making a convincing case for hope, even amidst the walls of Arkham Asylum. Bennett does an excellent job of integrating him into the story, without taking the spotlight off of Batman, and his inclusion enriches the plot as well as the reader’s sense of Arkham.

In fact, I’m not sure I remember a time when Arkham felt so alive. Though Bennett doesn’t add many more characters than the average Arkham story, her choice to focus on the everyday employees makes you feel like this is an actually functional institution. I think that Aaron Cash was a fine addition to Batman’s universe, but this story in particular makes it abundantly clear how strange it is that one of the only employees of the asylum that we can name is the head of security.

The story provides an interesting look at reclusivity and captivity, more than earning its title, Cages. The subtle distinction that the Anchoress makes between her enforced isolation and proper incarceration is perfectly clear by the story’s end and she, rather horrifically, argues her opinion that the cruelest weapon is a cage.

While I loved this concept, the word cage comes up just a little too much. There are plenty of subtler mentions, but it’s a minor blemish to have it stated so openly and so frequently. A somewhat similar issue arises in the case of the Anchoress’ powers. I feel like one too many things are attributed to quantum tunneling, though, in Bennett’s defense these were just believable enough that I had to ask her to make sure that truth wasn’t merely stranger than science fiction.

One other now familiar convention is the use of repetition in dialogue. Though there are moments where it falters, these repetitions are a hallmark of Bennett’s naturalistic writing style on this issue. Though there’s an undoubtedly lyrical style at play here, they’re lyrics built out of very real dialogue. Characters stumble dramatically over emotionally charged statements, changes in topic feel abrupt despite the clear threads that lead their speakers there. You can almost hear the character’s intonations, and you know that Bennett could.

Wes Craig handles the pencils for this issue. I don’t recognize his name, but I hope I’ll see it again. Craig’s Batman is probably the most on model that I’ve seen him since the New 52 began. Despite the fuss made over the New 52 redesigns, most of the time the differences are played down. Craig’s rendition of the Dark Knight Detective brings out the beauty of the new design in simple strong lines. I feel that some will look at Batman and think that he’s generic (which is fair), but I disagree, and I think that looking at Craig’s other work in this issue will prove that he does far more than draw in the house style.

While Batman is very much the iconic, larger than life figure that he tries to portray under Craig’s pen, he brings life and character to each of his ‘human’ characters. Jeremiah Arkham is every bit the hawk-faced master of the house you’ve come to know and newcomers, Mahreen and Eric are surprisingly lively. At the worst, large mouths and foreshortened noses can make characters appear a bit frog-like (Eric kind of looks like the Happy Mask Salesman from Majora’s Mask in at least one panel, the result of a slew of inkers called in to assist on this issue), however the very nature of that complaint acknowledges Craig’s excellent use of angles. It’s also exceedingly rare to be able to tell characters apart by their noses without them becoming caricatures, but Craig’s work passes that test with ease.

When it comes to our villainess, however, I have no complaints. For all the wonderful creative work that Bennett puts into forming the Anchoress, she really comes alive when put to paper. Skin sagging, eyes stained purple as if by too many tears, the Anchoress is a unique and threatening addition to Arkham’s patient list. At the turn of a page she can be a creature of rage or sorrow, each one rendered so that she seems a spirit of emotion as much as a being of flesh and bone.

Craig’s work isn’t the type that necessarily blows you away with any single panel, however, he shows his proficiency over the course of the entire issue. It may not be what most artists want to hear, but Craig’s greatest strength seems to be his range. He seems equally comfortable drawing the smooth (occasionally too smooth) lines of Batman’s cowl as he is penciling the details of the Anchoress’ withered features. He draws a bright, slightly cartoony, Arkham, but also plays with silhouettes in the grand Batman tradition.

Scott Snyder has obviously taught Marguerite well. Despite her relative inexperience, her layouts are very strong. Despite being a quiet and complex art, unique to the medium, layouts do a lot to change our opinion of a comic, and Bennett clearly considers them important.

Though there’s a definite style to the page layouts, each one feels individual and considered. Bennett and Craig avoid the temptation to use the common 3×2 designs that we so often see without sacrificing storytelling real estate. Good use of skinny panels and layered designs allow for cinematic reaction shots and wordy debates about the nature of Arkham without the issue feeling overly decompressed. And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least say that there are two wonderful sequences that take place in our players’ memories. The teams’ storytelling chops are front and center, and Craig’s unique gutters make each a visual treat. He even devises clever ways to mark the transition from physical space to mental space.

Batman Annual #2 is a delightfully cerebral issue that keeps its energy high without the need for rushed detective work or needlessly violent conclusions. Though the ‘testing the prison’ story is something I’ve seen before, the introduction of another great resident of Arkham Asylum helps propel this issue beyond the foundation of its premise. The structure is simple, perhaps an appropriately conservative choice for an opening act, but, as Batman would say, himself, it’s all in the details.

I hope that the creative team is pleased with what they’ve accomplished, because, while it isn’t quite a For the Man who has Everything or an Eye of the Beholder, Cages is a fine example of what an Annual should be. It follows the tone of its title, without feeling like just an oversized issue. The story is self-contained and rather friendly to new readers, however, it holds the potential to influence future stories, and I really hope it does. As exciting as the Anchoress is, the character I’m most interested in seeing more from is Eric. He stands as an example of an undervalued but wonderful archetype of comic book everymen like Jimmy Olsen, Renee Montoya, and Jonah McCarthy.

Though it has its own flavor, Batman Annual #2 is a worthy addition to the New 52 Batman. If you liked David Hine’s Arkham stories from the Dick Grayson Batman period, you’ll probably enjoy this, even if Bennett and Hine have differences of perspective.

Before I picked up this issue, I don’t believe that I’d read anything by Craig or Bennett, but, having done so, I’m eager to hear from them again. Welcome to the madhouse Marguerite; it suits you.

 

 

A Ramble on Batman, the Anchoress, and the nature of Arkham

Spoilers for Batman Annual #2 and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth

Though I thought this was an excellent debut for Bennet, Eric Boarder, and the Anchoress, I kind of disagreed with bits of it. The Anchoress argues that Batman has made Arkham Asylum into a prison when it should be a literal asylum. There’s certainly evidence to support her position as Batman is present in the story so that he can test the new Tartarus wing of Arkham. Named for the greatest prison of Greek mythology, the Tartarus wing clearly has more in common with a supermax prison than with any place of healing.

Though it’s hardly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the complex relationship that Batman has with mental illness, Arkham Asylum is a troublesome institution. The need for Gotham to have its beloved rogues nearly guarantees that it will never succeed in curing its patients and Grant Morrison, among others, established Arkham as a place of horror, more a psychological state than a location.

Though all continuity is a little wobbly in the wake of the New 52 reboot,Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth established that the asylum was the creation of Amadeus Arkham who converted his family home into a hospital. Though he claimed to be a healer, Arkham’s dark experiences drove him to consider the asylum a place of punishment, where the deranged and the diseased were disabused of their evils by whatever means necessary.

The ambiguous haunting of Arkham has been a favored theme for at least twenty years, and some stories have even wondered if Arkham’s continued existence somehow contributes to Gotham’s notoriously low standard of mental health, the beating heart of the monster that is Gotham City (somewhere Scott Snyder is happy and doesn’t know why).

One of the most interesting elements of David Hine’s recent work was the struggle of Jeremiah Arkham to purge the asylum’s dark history and the way that that history struggled against him in return. The inevitable failure and unsettling signs of what was to come made the loose series fascinating to read. One of the most interesting elements was the way that Hine provided a way to keep Arkham Asylum a monsterous place, without making it a walking human rights abuse. Here we saw Dr. Arkham struggling to avoid the Bedlam stereotype instead of reveling in it.

While I would be a bald-faced liar if I pretended that there wasn’t a strong argument for Batman doing as much harm to Gotham as he prevents by way of escalation, there is generally a sense that, however limited, Batman is making a positive difference.

Many people, seemingly including Geoff Johns, think of Batman as a hammer of justice, uncaring for personal circumstances and with a fanatic devotion to personal responsibility. While there’s much in that description that could be valid, it definitely falls a bit off the mark from my understanding of Batman. Though Bruce was a clear choice for the Sinestro Corps, I contend that, like all the best heroes, Batman is essentially about hope.

How else can we celebrate a grown man in a bat-suit attacking criminals to avenge the death of his parents? Batman can’t be simple retribution. Batman is a shamanic force, one who dives into dark waters to fight what lies within – a man locked in a staring contest with the abyss. As such, any version of Batman where he doesn’t believe, or at least want to believe, that his enemies can be rehabilitated rings hollow to me. The question of whether Batman is crazy is hotly debated but, as I see it, there’s no question. To paraphrase The Dark Knight Returns, sure he’s crazy. He’s always been crazy. He has to be crazy.

Technically Cages doesn’t disagree with that, but the tone is rather different. As the story is primarily from Eric’s perspective, Batman remains fairly aloof and unknowable. One of the most interesting lines, Dr. Arkham’s question as to how Batman would escape, goes tragically unanswered, which unfortunately works to show us how little of Batman we get to discover. We simply don’t know how Bruce feels about Arkham or the criminals housed there. We see that the Anchoress’ invasion into his mind has seriously hurt him, but we don’t know what his normal feelings would be. Especially since most stories ignore the possibility of there being patients at Arkham who aren’t homicidally inclined, the Anchoress herself is an argument for mercy.

Eric is the voice of such concerns, ever believing that wrongs can be righted and demons laid to rest. Mahreen chuckles at this, unsurprised that he’s from Metropolis. And, while I love the Metropolis/Gotham dichotomy, I think the story would be stronger if, like the climax of The Dark Knight, it were a story about ordinary people that even Gotham can’t break.

My biggest other objection is the implication that Arkham used to be a place of healing. Particularly in this era of Snyder, where Gotham’s history is ever deepening and deadly important, I can’t believe that Batman was the first one to introduce darkness to Arkham.

It’s not a serious flaw with the story, but it does provide an interesting angle from which to view the problem of Arkham (and I do love rambling about mental health in Batman). As I said, it’s my hope that we’ll get to see more of Eric, as his struggles could easily tap this theme and provide a very different but equally valid adventure.

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