White collar criminal, Warren White, figures he’s got the system beat. By pleading insanity, White thinks he’ll spend a short spell in the relaxed hospital environment rather than serving hard time in a “real” prison. Unfortunately for him, that harmless institution he was hoping for doesn’t exist in Gotham. He’s going to Arkham Asylum, a nightmarish place that’s going to prove a living hell for him in more ways than one.
Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Deluxe Edition includes issues #1-6 of Arkham Asylum Living Hell by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook. These chapters are presented in the enlarged “Deluxe” format for an even better viewing experience. Removing the dust jacket reveals a glossy hardcover featuring the same wrap-around color illustration but now un-obstructed by text.
It’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Oz set in Gotham City. If that sounds awesome to you then, great! We’re on the same page. However, even with a surefire premise like that to work with, the series also adds in Etrigan the Demon and the subplot of an oncoming resurrection of a supernatural entity with a name that’s about as close as you can get to spelling”Cthulhu” without getting sued (Fun Fact: Denny O’Neil gave the asylum the name “Arkham” as a tribute to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Also, my joke about getting sued doesn’t really work since I’m pretty sure Lovecraft’s stuff is public domain nowadays).
Batman exists on the fringe of this story, appearing only in a handful of panels, and that’s good. In fact, the hero with the most “screen time” is actually Etrigan, but you never really want to see either good guy for long because this isn’t typical superhero vs. villain comic book fare nor is it a dreamlike character study like Serious House on Serious Earth. At its core, Living Hell is about the day-to-day life inside Arkham Asylum and when it sticks to that simple idea it’s an amazing read that’s never slips into being too horrific or too campy. Writer Dan Slott’s wry sense of humor (I particularly enjoyed a line of dialogue that nodded to Sean Young’s infamous Batman Returns audition) is in perfect balance with the book’s darker themes so things can still get appropriately serious when they need to and the experience is always fun. Sook’s art plays a vital role in all of this as well, delivering perfectly paced panels that are playful one moment and unsettling the next. The only aspect of his art that I didn’t much care for were a few of the character designs such as Humpty, Joker, and Mad Hatter, who all seemed more like caricatures than people. Otherwise, the characters all showcased an incredible level of detail and expressiveness, and every page was delivered with great energy and a cinematic feel.
The narrative is structured a great deal like Oz. We mostly follow White, who is a stand-in for Tobias Beecher, and serves as our fish-out-of-water character (a fact the story doesn’t hesitate to hit you over the head with to great comedic effect). As White learns the ins-and-outs of his new surroundings, so do we. Over the course of six chapters, the suffering he endures shapes him into something new much like the transition Beecher made over multiple seasons of Oz only White’s breaking bad metamorphosis occurs over a shorter time span and the end result is a lot more extreme. But what would you expect from Arkham?
In addition to White, we also get to know other inmates and even the Arkham staff. Yes, A-list baddies have cameos, but the book shines when it focuses on the little guys. It’s great to see Slott and Sook humanize these characters that typically just stand in the background as extras or serve as casualties in the average Batman comic. It makes the world of Gotham feel so much richer and more alive and it’s just great to feel something for these guards for a change rather than looking at them as the butt of the joke that is Arkham’s “revolving door.” Through characters like Cash (a security officer) and Carver (a resident psychiatrist) we see how the Arkham employees feel like prisoners themselves and it’s actually heartbreaking. Amazingly, many of Slott and Sook’s creations have endured far beyond this six issue mini-series. Ever heard of these guys?
- Great White Shark
- Humpty Dumpty
- Jane Doe
- Aaron Cash
All of those character have their first appearance right here and I bet you recognize at least half the names! Lunkhead and Humpty Dumpty showed up in multiple episodes of Beware the Batman. Jane Doe caused trouble in a Detective Comics annual just a year ago. Aaron Cash was a wonderful supporting character in multiple titles as the face of Arkham’s overworked security and he had quite a few scenes in the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game as well. And Great White Shark has continued to cause problems for Batman for over 40 issues including a major role in the One Year Later storyline. So no matter what you think of its quality, Living Hell stands as an important chapter in Batman’s history just for introducing so many worthy new characters to the mythology.
Of course, some might disagree with how the established characters, especially the A-list rogues, were handled in Living Hell. I enjoyed how Batman was written in the few scenes he had and Jeremiah Arkham was the most different from his typical portrayal. Jeremiah isn’t an unreliable flake like in his first appearance nor is he the super villain that Tony Daniel turned him into– he’s actually a shrewd and dependable administrator here and I found that to be a refreshing change of pace. But the A-list rogues? Seeing some of the more dangerous baddies walk about freely makes both tension and humor easier to come by in this story but some of those moments don’t always ring true to a longtime reader. Arkham has a more relaxed feel than we’re typically used to seeing in a lot of Batman comics, where it’s basically depicted as a dungeon– and I hate that. The whole point of having these insane folks go to a mental hospital is so they can get treatment, right? Sure, there are madmen like Joker or Zsasz who need extra security and probably shouldn’t mingle with the general population, but there’s nothing wrong with letting Arnold Wesker play checkers with Edward Nygma in-between therapy sessions. What I’m saying is Slott played it just a couple degrees too loose with the level of freedom Gotham’s most dangerous had and those who are especially monstrous seemed “nerfed” in their cameos.
I won’t go into the smaller details of the story. As I said, it’s mostly about watching White survive while also getting a glimpse at how the folks who work at Arkham manage to put up with all the chaos and then go home at the end of the day. Those readers who love Etrigan and the supernatural will likely love this book through and through while others, like me, will quickly forget the more absurd elements and only remember the unique blend of fear and amusement that comes with watching a sane man try to survive in the most famous prison in all of fiction.
As you’ll learn in the ample bonus material, Living Hell was originally pitched as an ongoing series. I believe it would’ve made a great companion piece to Gotham Central and it’s a shame that we never got to see Slott and Sook explore the halls of Arkham and these fascinating characters further. Part of me does indeed feel like the fault might have been in the use of Etrigan and that bizarre finale with demons that totally disrupted the overall texture of this Oz-inspired work.
Phenomenal. In a sea of lazy bonus material filled with variant cover galleries and nothing else rises Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Deluxe Edition. These bonus features offer incredible insight into the making of this book from original pitch to character designs and more. You’ll get to see how the idea evolved throughout production and gain a better appreciation for the making of comics, it’s exactly what good graphic novel bonuses should be.
Value: FULL PRICE!
It has a high re-read value, it’s new-reader friendly so you can easily share it with friends who are casual readers, and it has the added bonus of containing a number of first-appearances by various characters who have become an important part of the Gotham tapestry. Plus that bonus material? Come on! You have to understand, I look at a lot of graphic novels and 99% of them don’t have anywhere near this level of quality extra features. Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Deluxe Edition is absolutely worth the full price of $22.99.
I loved it — absolutely loved it — for the first three quarters or so when the name Arkham Asylum: Living Hell seemed metaphorical. However, once Etrigan the Demon and numerous ghosts showed up in the finale to transform the institution into a literal Living Hell my interest waned. Still, the good far outweighs the bad and I think fans of Batman’s villains will find this immensely entertaining. It’s also an important work for having added so many new characters to the rogues gallery and playing a major part in influencing the Arkham Asylum video game and the TV series Beware the Batman. Lastly, the quality of the Deluxe presentation this story was given cannot be understated. It’s a sexy-looking hardcover with fantastic bonus material and if you’re already a fan of this mini-series I think you’ll find this to be the definitive edition.