I have a confession to make. One I'm actually rather ashamed of. Arkham Asylum is actually only the second Batman graphic novel I have ever read, after Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. In fact, the only graphic novels I have read other than these two are Garth Ennis's entire run on The Punisher's MAX series, the first few issues of Preacher, and Alan Moore's Watchmen. That's it. I've skimmed through other people's copies of "The Crow" and odd issues of various Marvel comics, but that's it. I am not well versed in the world of graphic novels.
That said, I still feel capable of reviewing Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, so here are my opinions on it:
Whilst the subplot involving Amadeus Arkham and the founding of the Asylum is thrilling and intriguing, Batman's storyline is, for the most part, fairly dull. The majority of the villains who appear are only seen on one or two pages, often not really doing anything. Whilst the inclusion of Clayface, the Mad Hatter, and Maxie Zeus was undoubtedly to add to the atmosphere of insantiy, I would have liked it if these villains had actually done something. Whilst Doctor Destiny's early fate felt rewarding, had I known that all the encounters with Batman's adversaries would be this brief, I probably wouldn't have enjoyed that scene quite so much.
In fact, every last one of these characters could have been switched for just standard deranged inmates - they play no real part in the story, other than adding to the atmosphere. However, when you've just come from reading Ennis's Punisher, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight, you have an expectation that the villains will all be a struggle to defeat, and will all play a significant role. Instead, we have a group of villains who do nothing but sit around and talk, and whilst I can see what the intention was: to contribute to the atmosphere and insanity of the piece, the fact that I was expecting Batman to have to fight all of these villains meant that their appearances were more of a let-down than anything else. Perhaps as a first-time reader this would have been a more intriguing approach - reminiscent of the scenes in the Shining such as Shelly Duvall running in on the original furries, or Jack Nicholson's unfortunate bathroom experience - but coming from reading The Dark Knight Returns, it just felt like a cop-out. As though they didn't have enough pages to really show off these villains, but still wanted to include them. Still, having now finished the book, I feel that what they did with these characters, whilst frustrating at the time, was a clever divergence from the comic-book norm, and as such helps contribute to the uniqueness of the piece.
Another thing which makes this graphic novel unique is the artwork - the panels vary from grayscale pencil sketches, to full blown watercolours, to even what appear to be photographs, and the lettering is just outstanding, with each character being given their own style of lettering to mimick their speech. Whilst batman's speech bubbles appear black with white text, the joker speaks in a sharp, red, manic font which, whilst occasionally making it difficult to read what he's saying given how small the print of the book is, really gives us a great insight into his state of mind, and an amazing representation of his speech pattern. All these things contribute to that word I keep coming back to: Atmosphere - as that is what this comic is truly about.
The backstory to Arkham Asylum is dark and thrilling, with Amadeus Arkham's tale being gripping right from the first page - from his mother's insanity, to his dealings with the man who inspired him to set up the asylum and later went on to push him over the edge into full-blown insanity himself, this story could have been written as a stand-alone and still been well worth the read. The way the story is intercut with Batman's storyline is also incredible, especially with the juxtaposition in the fight with Croc (my only real disappointment here is that it wasn't Bane who Batman was fighting - since each character is simply characterized by being massive and strong, but Croc's physical nature takes away from the realism of the piece, being a mutant-crocodile and all...)
The ending as well, whilst initially a let-down, leaving too many open questions, suddenly became brilliant with the revelation on the last two pages. I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't read it, but if you've reached the point when it looks like everything is resolved and are still wondering "Well, that was dumb, because what if...?", turn the page to the final two-page spread for the reveal, and suddenly the ending seems quite brilliant, and makes the earlier scene in which Batman decides to go back in after finding the tunnel out of the Asylum finally make sense.
In all, then, I would recommend this book for its fantastic artwork, and the imposing atmosphere it creates. The story is brilliant as well, as long as you know what to expect going in. Don't go in expecting this to be anything like The Dark Knight Returns, and you should do fine. Think of it more as being Batman's The Shining, and I guarantee you'll enjoy it. Now please press Ctrl+f and see how many times I've used the word "atmosphere", then berate me for not being able to come up with any suitable synonyms.
So, to sum up, whilst disappointing in areas at first, once I had finished the book, I realized what it all meant, and was thoroughly impressed with the end result. The joker is drawn absolutely insanely, and you should probably buy this book just to look at the way in which his speech pattern is imitated in text form. The book is also responsible for the inclusion of the "disappearing pencil" magic trick in The Dark Knight, in case there are any fans of the film out there, so if you want to see the origins on that little gem, look no further. Arkham Asylum tells a fantastic horror story, broken up with a thriller of a man on the run from a crowd of lunatics who want him dead, both of which come together like a Johnny Gossimer novel at the end. If you want a horror comic, and are a fan of Batman like myself, look no further. at 128 pages, it is a little on the short side, and I felt Batman's storyline could have been extended to make it into more of an epic. But then, if it had been too long and included unnecessary subplots I'd just be bitching about that now instead, so whilst there are areas which could have used a little more attention, I'm happy with the short length of the piece.
I'm rambling now, so I'll sign off. I liked this book, and so should you. Here's a little teaser to pique your interest:
Now I guess I'll have to play the game "Arkham Asylum" and see if it's anything like the graphic novel...
P.S. in the gym, waiting for my training partner to arrive, the Princess Diaries came on, and I started watching it (confusing it with The Princess Bride, a film everyone tells me I need to watch (No Homo)). Suddenly, I'm looking forward to seeing Catwoman in the next Batman film...
Don't worry, guys, she's 19 here. You're safe.
Reading this also makes me less concerned about the reboot I mentioned earlier, because it actually gives the creators a chance to go in a completely different direction. Let's have the first Batman Horror movie. Let's have Batman's The Shining. Then maybe we won't be wondering what the fuck they're doing planning a reboot before Nolan's last film is even out.