This second chapter of the opening arc for this new series, “A Home for the Criminally Insane”, does all the things the first chapter should have: tosses us into the deep end of the Arkham pool and says: “swim kiddies!”

We’re introduced to Seth Wickham just long enough to care about what happens to him, someone lets the Zsasz out (so now we have two murderers running loose?), we meet a mysterious old man in a wheelchair, a mysterious young woman in a coma, and Bruce (as Jack Shaw) realizes he may be stuck on the inside for longer than he expected.

Be forewarned, though. This book is not remotely interested in what you know about what’s going on in the rest of the current continuity. At first I was having trouble reconciling this and worrying about whether I should be thinking about the timeline of events, but now, frankly, I applaud the decision to just throw it all out there. If you’re not reading the other Bat books, it doesn’t matter what you know. If you are, the spoilers and the crossovers and everything else aren’t going to impact your enjoyment of this (and in some cases, might even enhance it).

As just a small example, take the case of Eric Border. Events here predate the regular Batman series continuity. “Endgame” technically happens in the future. So we’re one step ahead of Batman in this book in that regard and so it sets up a Hitchcockian dynamic that could be a lot of fun!

Bravo to editor Matt Humphreys for taking this book in this direction. I think it frees it up wonderfully to explore this niche without the baggage of the rest of the DCU to worry about.

ArkhamManor_02_01

Meanwhile, irony: it’s lost on Mrs. Wickham.

The Good

We’re taking a departure from Shadow of the Bat’s “The Last Arkham” in this issue, which is a big relief.  Gerry Duggan’s script swings for the stands with a multilayered story that includes a little bit of everything and everyone. You got Freeze, you got Amygdala, you got Crane, you got Zsasz, you’ve even got Sybil Silverlock (whose only just been introduced in Gotham Academy, so possible spoilers there). And look: it’s Doctor Arkham himself. We don’t get enough of him to know what he’s like or what he might be up to in this new world, but it’s nice to see he’s along for the ride.

Shawn Crystal’s art this go-round feels more confident and much more consistent. The chins are under control and the environments look much less distorted. In fact, looking back at issue no. 1,  I want to say that the first issue now looks rushed and less deliberate overall, whereas this one lavishes more detail in both the panels and in laying out the storytelling. No strange, inexplicable moments and no gaps or lapses. I thoroughly enjoyed this book visually and feel much better about its direction if Crystal can maintain this level of coherence. Stylistically, the heavy blacks continue to work well (particularly with Dave McCaig’s palette, which this go-round is sort of mid-hell orange rather than fringe-hell ochre). The choice of rendering Zsaz as an inky black shadow-figure is almost more gruesome than being able to see him in full light.

I feel like Travis Lanham’s lettering on the sound effects is too cartoonish for the subject matter, but they work in their own weird way (I laughed at the “Boop” when Arkham shut Freeze down, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since it was a funny moment). And I have to give Lanham props for the panel in which Border is asking Shaw “how many fingers?” and there’s just a swish of numbers floating outward, the first of which, curiously, isn’t a number at all, but the letter “J”.

Great action sequences too! Does Jack Shaw seem a bit incompetent or is this just Bats’ hubris getting in his own way?

ArkhamManor_02_02

That’s going to hurt.

The Bad

The new guy in the wheelchair who gets identified but never named: why would they have brought him to Arkham and stuck him in general population when 1.) he’s a helpless old man, and 2.) he’s not a immediately identified as a violent offender. It’s a little like throwing a kitten into a crocodile pit, isn’t it? Also, methinks Arkham’s intake is a bit lacking. Oh here’s some geezer, I’m just going to park him right here for now. Then again, it’s Border who does it, so who knows what’s up. I did like the line: “Please don’t paint him.”

I need to get off this architectural nitpicking jag, but permit me a little harangue here. When the title of the book is the location of the story, and when that location is Arkham Asylum (whatever its form), then Arkham itself becomes a major player and is going to get scrutinized.

So: they had to install all those doors, yet they used key-locks? To house some of the most dangerous criminals in the world, they couldn’t be bothered with wiring the place? Okay, maybe Gotham is bankrupt, and I’m the first person to complain of there being too much fancy technology, but key-locked doors strikes me as more convenient than organic under these circumstances.

Otherwise, the converted manor looks generally more convincing with many architectural features (like the staircase, Arkham’s office, and the cupola) actually looking like a private home rather than a hospital. The vague layout of the place lends itself to windows that overlook other windows, however, which is also more convenient than natural. Nevertheless I like the sprawl of it and the curious sense of unease at never really having a clear picture of how the place is laid out.

And what exactly is Jack Shaw painting for “occupational therapy” anyway? Could just be busywork, yet the fact that he says he’s enjoying it makes me think Bruce really needs a holiday.

The Ugly

I really wish the Arkham inmate togs had been designed a little less to look like Star Trek cosplay uniforms. But other than that, this category is not seeing much action. Hooray! Maybe it’s time to rethink it.

Recommended If…

  • You love Arkham! The asylum, the doctor who runs it, and the whole concept of an “Arkhamverse”.
  • Layered mysteries are your cuppa tea.
  • Continuity be damned and let’s just throw everything in there!

Overall

This is the race which Arkham Manor should have come charging for last go-round, but better a wee late to the start than to not get out of the gate at all. Bruce is overconfident and blindsided by a problem more complex than he expected. Is he stalking Zsasz? Is Zsasz stalking him? And is there something even creepier going on (is that even possible given how creepy Zsasz is)? Also, keep your eye on that Border fella. I know I am.

SCORE: 8/10