When introducing a new character, particularly a villain, getting their backstory and motivation down pat is tricky. Sure, there are some characters who work better when you don’t know what makes them tick, like the Joker. If you understand the Clown Prince of Crime, he loses the element that makes him truly terrifying: unpredictability. Is he a failed comedian who had one bad day? Did he used to moonlight as a costumed gangster, adorned in a red helm and matching cape? Who knows? He probably doesn’t, and if he does, he doesn’t care.
Then there are characters that are most effective when you know their histories and motivations. Two-Face could be a gimmicky villain with his fixation on duality, but his beginnings as a D.A. on the right side of the law make his fall from grace all the more compelling. Same goes for Mr. Freeze, who was a gimmicky one-note villain until he was given a tragic backstory. Gone are the days when Freeze is a bad guy with a freeze ray, as he is now a complex figure who wants nothing more than to reverse his life’s greatest tragedy.
Time will tell how this character truly “sticks,” but with Detective Comics #1004, Peter Tomasi has succeeded in giving the Arkham Knight a compelling origin.
It’s a good thing that he’s successful, too, because her backstory takes up the bulk of this issue. And while, yes, it is a compelling origin, it’s how her story is told that’s just as interesting as the story itself.
Honestly, this could have been gimmicky, but Tomasi, Walker, Hennessy, and Fairbairn pull it off: Batman and Robin listen to Jeremiah Arkham’s story of love and loss, with events unfolding as if drawn on a scroll. It’s an interesting design choice, and it could have easily come across as hokey. The way it’s framed in the story, though, it really works. It’s made even more effective because it’s being presented as Astrid’s drawings, starting when she was a young girl and evolving over the years, showing that even from a young age she had a particular disdain for the Dark Knight.
Given that this issue is largely backstory and exposition, it could have easily been bogged down with overly-explanatory dialogue. It’s wordy, yes, but more than that it’s interesting.
Tomasi deserves all the credit for making the writing compelling, of course, but its Walker’s visuals that really sell this story. All throughout, this issue is the most creative Walker has been on this series. Up to now he’s been asked to draw good comics, a task in which he’s been successful. Here, though, his design work with the flashbacks (along with Hennesy’s inks and Fairbairn’s lovely flat coloring) is absolutely stunning, with each page of Astrid’s story projected against a background of parchment. Look no further than the very first page of the issue, just above there, with its clever nod to the Detective Comics #31 cover.
You know the one:
Reimagining the classic image of Batman looming over a spooky castle and making it a child’s beastly impression of who she perceives to be her greatest enemy is the best kind of tribute: it’s clever without being distracting, and it works with the story being told.
There’s even a nice nod and parallel to the first time we saw any part of Astrid back in issue 1000.
Coloring gaffes aside, I thought that was a nice callback.
So what is Astrid’s story? Like many characters, hero and villain alike, hers is wrought with no uncertain amount of tragedy. And for a tragedy to be truly impactful, there needs to be a fall from a great height.
Astrid’s parents met within the walls of Arkham Asylum, as her mother Ingrid Karlsson served as a general care physician. Jeremiah is clearly, tragically still in love with this woman, mentioning how she would light up a room just by entering it, and how she truly made him want to be a better man. Theirs was an easy courtship, her the ideal woman, and him all but helpless to be enraptured by her grace. So wonderful was Ingrid that Jeremiah claims she was able to calm even the most difficult of patients, all of whom were protective of this caring woman.
If any of this sounds just a bit too perfect, I kind of think that’s the point: like Astrid has a skewed (if somewhat understandable) view of Batman, Jeremiah still sees Ingrid as perfection personified. She may have been a great woman, I don’t doubt that, but the way he describes her she’s almost angelic. Tomasi may not have intended this, sure, but that’s how I interpret this story: Jeremiah himself got caught up in the fairy tale of a woman he loved and lost, and his coping mechanism was focusing on her positive attributes and nothing else.
And that’s what makes the scene where Astrid discovers what really happened to her mother all the more impactful. Without going into too many details, it’s clear that Ingrid has died. Jeremiah, however, didn’t tell this to Astrid. Instead he led her to believe that her mother was broken by the Asylum and that she left shortly after Astrid was born. Her discovery of the truth is a very impactful scene, and Tomasi finds ways to make her hatred of Batman and her focus on medieval imagery work together.
The latter half of the issue is more a prelude to an upcoming conflict than anything else, and its effective in its own way. After such a compelling and interestingly presented flashback, the more straightforward nature of the closing scenes does take a bit of the wind out of the sails regarding the issue’s momentum. There’s one shot, though, that I think perfectly captures the type of character that Astrid is supposed to be: for better or worse, like her father, she’s a romantic and an idealist. That’s much more interesting than somebody who just hates Batman because they think his methods are more destructive than they are helpful, or an outright psychopath who wants to hurt and kill just because they can. Time will tell, sure, but the Arkham Knight is a truly tragic figure, and all credit to the creative team for making this arc so powerful. More than that, this is the best this title has been in some time by a long stretch, and I’m loving every second of it.
Plus there’s a bit of Damian being a little butthead.
What more could you ask for?
- You’re interested in the Arkham Knight’s backstory.
- You love great visual storytelling.
- You’re just all in on this arc, and why shouldn’t you be? ‘Tec is on a roll lately.
Overall: Gorgeously illustrated and compellingly written, the story of the Arkham Knight is as tragic as it is gripping. There are instances where her backstory strains credibility, but I think that’s the point: she was raised by an idealist and became an idealist herself. Tomasi’s scripts continue to shine, with spot-on characterization and rock solid pacing, and the art of Walker, Hennessy, and Fairbairn is the best we’ve seen of this team so far. Detective Comics hasn’t been this consistently good in years, and I don’t see any sign of the series slowing down.