An all-new Bat-series spinning off the events of Batman Eternal! Do you hop on board this crazy train or stay safely in the station and watch it pull away? Only you can decide, but I’m here to give you some things to think about before you cast your yay or nay ballot.

To qualify, I was very excited when this title was announced: a modern, serious take on the problem of Arkham Asylum? It’s a dream come true! But perhaps that’s not what’s in store for us here as the basic premise feels a lot less intrepid and more like your run-of-the-mill horror-house thriller. Am I disappointed? A little. But it’s not a bad thing, mind you. Just requires an adjustment of expectations right up front that I was seriously hoping I wouldn’t have to make.

Before we begin with “Chapter One” of this first story arc called “A Home for the Criminally Insane”, however, you should also know, that because the events of this story post-date next week’s Batman Eternal No. 30, you’re going to read some unavoidable SPOILERS here.

The Good

Shades of Arkham: Hell on Earth (even the cover is reminiscent) and Shadow of the Bat could make this either sadly derivative or help strengthen its ties to a rich history within the Bat-universe. For the time being, I’m going to say that I’m on board with Gerry Duggan’s story even though we barely get a slice of it in this too-brief introduction. A number of pages are spent just getting us up to speed with things that haven’t even happened yet: the destruction of Arkham Asylum, the collapse of Wayne Enterprises, and the seizure of Wayne Manor for the purpose of rehousing Arkham’s inmates.

I’m not even going to try to propose a timeline in which all of this has happened. It could be that eventually this book will dovetail with others but in the meantime I’m treating it as a story of its own, independent of whatever else is going on in Detective Comics, Batman: Endgame, etc. Otherwise you might hurt yourself trying to reconcile everything.

Getting that out of the way, it’s nice to have something “new” that isn’t so entwined with the rest of what’s going on in the DCU. Your mileage may vary, but I prefer not having to understand the continuity of ten different books just to understand the one (even if I do read all ten).

Duggan’s script is driven by the first-person narrative of a somewhat embittered Bruce as he struggles with the turmoil in his current state of affairs. He and Alfred are living in reduced circumstances (and apparently drinking as a result–that’s a joke, I hope). Batman is knocking heads on the street in the manner he often does when he’s peeved at the world. It might feel a little uncharacteristic to some, but if we accept it within the context of whatever vague awful business has befallen them, we can let it slide a little–this is meant to be a dark corner of Wayne’s world.

It works for the most part. Duggan does well to set the tone and establish this reordered world, even if the particulars are lacking and the premise requires an immense suspension of disbelief.

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Batman’s having a bad time of it.

There are also some very effective visual moments.  The stripping of the Wayne emblem from the door is a nice touch, for example. Much more on the art shortly.

Also well worth noting is the muted, decayed palette of Dave McCaig. His use of amber/ochre  especially brings a sinister, sulfuric quality to the atmosphere.

The Bad

Okay, the art.

Shawn Crystal’s art is really rough. It has moments of brilliance (like a sequence in which Batman walks down a hallway full of doors and we see him grow up in those rooms from a boy to a man), and an amazing full-page splash of the batmobile smoking at the foot of Arkham Wayne Manor, but the balance tips, unfortunately, to a lot of flat angles, indistinguishable characters, and face and anatomy that skews to the grotesque. Between Bruce’s chin (which looks like a huge kiwi fruit glued to his lower lip), and his doorknob-squared-off ears (page 19), he’s the strangest-looking incarnation I’ve seen in a long while.

It wouldn’t be so bizarre if there was more consistency, but occasionally Crystal renders features that look “normal” by comparison, so I’m really struggling to understand what seems to be a rather tumultuous and capricious style. It doesn’t help, either, that grasping the action is sometimes more difficult than it needs to be.

  • Why is Batman punching the batmobile’s screen? Is it because it’s malfunctioning or is it malfunctioning because he’s punching it?
  • A double-page spread of Batman entering the Manor, juxtaposing past and present is also just weird. Who is that greeting him at the door? It’s Gordon! Oh, wait, Bruce’s silhouette intimates that he’s a kid. It must be his father. No, that’s his father in the portrait above. So it is Gordon. I think. I feel like this should have been a wowser moment, but mostly I was just perplexed and asking myself what it might have looked like with another artist at the helm.
  • The murder victim’s limbs are broken off into what appears to be a void. At first I thought it was just a curious choice of shadows, but if you look closely, the leg is actually bent/folded over the edge of the darkness (this is more obvious in the second panel).

The entire ending exchange about Jack Shaw (which is kind of critical) is a mix of convoluted story-telling from both Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal. I seriously had to read it three times to understand it, and while I admit I can occasionally be a very lazy reader, I don’t think I’m all that dense.

Honestly: why did I have to work so hard to understand these panels/pages?

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I still have no idea what this silent exchange is about.

In a way, the art puts you so off kilter that maybe it works.

There’s certainly something gratifying about the high contrasts of Crystal’s swaths of black: lots of deep shadows for Bats to prowl in. But his rendering of this mansion-turned hospital also shows phenomenally strange choices and these seem less deliberate.

While it’s understood that the place has been hastily retrofit, does that really mean they used outdated fixtures, cracked all the walls, and generally turned the billionaire’s meticulously-kept estate into a rickety old Kirkbride? Of course that’s what we expect of Arkham and to be honest, I typically try not to sweat the goofy “how we got here” premises of comic books, but this was pushing it for me when the whole point of the book is that this is supposed to be Wayne Manor.

I’m going to say at the moment that the fault may be partially mine. Sometimes getting accustomed to a new art style is just a matter of decompression and letting go of expectations. So I’m hoping when I return to this series in November, my eyes will be better prepared to follow the rhythms of Crystal’s very particular approach.

The Ugly

That chin! Oy vey! It’s so bulbous and spiny it looks painful.

The final big reveal was also anatomically torturous. I’m all for stylization, but again, consistency is the issue here for me. We can accept that Popeye has ginormous forearms because that’s part of his consistent character design. Here, I can’t look at Bruce and not wonder if he jacked himself up on venom on the way in.

Why You Should Read Arkham Manor

If you’re relatively recent to the Batman comics mythos (within the last 15 years), this will feel like breaking all sorts of exciting and fun new ground. Batman out of his element, Arkham center stage in a strange locale, and an intimate murder mystery wherein an undercover Bruce can put his detective skills to their best use. If you’ve been around (and around) the block, this might be a bit of old crust from yesteryear.

But I think there might be something here even for the intrepid few with encyclopedic knowledge of the Batverse. It’s just hard to tell yet since the story has only just begun and most of it at this point is expository. If I weren’t reviewing this book would I continue to pick it up? For now, yes. Despite how much the varying quality/style of the art was off-putting, there is still much potential in the location, tone, and premise–all ripe for a great Batman adventure.

Recommended If…

  • It’s just good timing to take a train out of Capullo-Snyderville for a bucolic jaunt in Duggan-Crystal County.
  • You like your Batman (sans cape and cowl, even) really back down to gritty detective roots.
  • The Manor: you just can’t wait to see what they’re done to the place!

Overall

Color me a bit skeptical, but I wasn’t totally blown over by the opening salvo in this new Arkham Manor saga. Still, there’s plenty of opportunity for this book to evolve into an interesting and exciting event and Duggan has proven in Batman No. 34 that he can write a truly horrifying tale.  Maybe now that the set-up is all out of the way, we’ll see more of what the team of Duggan and Crystal are capable.

If the current continuity is all you can muster energy for, if you’re feeling a bit of Bat-fatigue, if you absolutely insist on house-style art–this may not be the time for you to pick up this book. If you’re looking for a new adventure and love all the potential Arkham has to offer, gamble on a copy and let’s see if it turns out to be a big winner!

SCORE: 7/10