‘Arkham Manor’ #1 Redecorates Batman’s Home… With MURRRRRDER! [Review]
When DC Comics announced the new lineup of Batman Family titles a few months back, Arkham Manor was the only one that actually gave me a "wait what" moment. Dick Grayson as a super-spy traveling across the world dealing with stuff like a dude who had his eyes replaced with guns? Sure, makes perfect sense. Hipster Batgirl fighting crime with the power of Snapchat? All for it. Teens running around a creepy boarding school in the one place in the DC Universe where no one in their right mind would send unsupervised children? It's the book I've been waiting for all my life.
But Arkham Manor stuck out. Right from the concept, it's this weird variation on familiar themes, trying to twist them into something new. That makes it an inherently interesting idea, even if it's one that I'm approaching with caution as a reader. I want to know what's going on here, and with the first issue out, it lives up to that. More than anything else, Arkham Manor #1 is intriguing.
I think what I like most about this comic is that Gerry Duggan, Shawn Crystal and Dave McCaig are showing us something that I don't think we've ever seen before, a feat that's almost impossible to pull off after 75 years of Batman comics. There are elements here that have been done before, of course. Batman leaving Wayne Manor behind is a trick that goes all the way back to the '70s when the comics made a clean break from the TV show by relocating Batman to the heart of Gotham City, and there are plenty of stories where Batman finds himself in Arkham in some way or another. In fact, the setup of this issue bears more than a little resemblance to the first issue of Shadow of the Bat, which was the last time Arkham Asylum underwent a massive overhaul.
At the same time, all those puzzle pieces are being put together to make something new, and it ends up being one of those things where I almost can't believe that it hasn't happened before. It's a classic, simple reversal: What if Wayne Manor, what if Batman's home, was turned over to his enemies? It's the kind of role reversal that comics love to spring on their superheroes to keep things fresh, and it's that idea that makes it so intriguing.
The way it plays out is great, too. As explained in the opening sequence for the benefit of those who aren't planning on keeping up with the events of Batman Eternal, where I assume all of this setup is actually going to play out, Arkham Asylum has been destroyed, and Bruce Wayne has lost his family fortune, leading to the seizure of the family estate. Put those together, and you've got yourself an Arkham Manor.
And in a way, this is perfectly logical -- at least, for comic book logic and very specifically for Batman comic logic, which is its own special beast to grapple with. If you're the kind of person who memorizes maps of Gotham City for research purposes, then you already know that Arkham Asylum has been sitting there on Mersey Island, right next to midtown, which is probably not the best place to keep your genocidal clowns and murderous crocodile men. Wayne Manor, however, is all the way across the river, removed from various museums that may want to exhibit the Twin Cat Riddle Statues of Ancient Egypt without having to clean up the bodies of a dozen dead security guards on opening night. Plus, if we're sticking with the idea that Arkham Asylum itself originally started as the ancestral home for a family of psychologists and gargoyle collectors, there's a thematic unity too.
But it also throws in an interesting dynamic. If the villains are in Arkham, that's one thing, but if the bad guys are shacking up in Bruce Wayne's house -- in Thomas and Martha Wayne's house -- then that makes everything else a little more personal, and for a character who already takes things so personally that he's driven to the extreme of dressing as a bat to battle criminals every night, that's saying something. It's a new layer to a classic setup, and it's built in a really interesting way. You get to see that conflict play out through the narration, of a Batman who's telling himself "this is for the best" but who clearly doesn't believe it. That's the best part.
One of the other things that's interesting about this comic is the title. As you can tell from the logo on the cover (which, to be honest, I kind of hate for being such a plain bunch of letters with a drop shadow slapped on), this isn't Batman: Arkham Manor. It's just Arkham Manor, even though Batman himself is not just in the book but taking center stage. It makes me wonder if stuff like Batman Begins and the video game series have made the word "Arkham" on its own just as identifiable as an element of the DC Universe as "Batman."
So yeah, it's a great concept that, generally speaking, is delivered really well, but there are pieces of it that don't sit quite right, either, and cheif among them is this:
I love the idea of Batman not only stopping a mugging, but making the crooks apologize to the person they were attacking, and if the scene had ended there, it'd be great, especially with the way Crystal draws Batman lurking behind them, shadowy and intimidating. Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. Maybe this is just sticking out to me more now because that tired old idea of Batman being a privileged plutocrat who gets off on beating up the lower classes has been rearing its head again lately, but scenes like this don't sit right. For Batman to continue beating on two crooks who have already surrendered isn't heroic, it's being the jerk that he's accused of being. It's excessive, and while you will never, ever find anyone who loves seeing Batman just cold wreck dudes in the face more than I do, but even with the story's setup about how Batman's on edge and stressed out about the Mad Hatter living in his mom's bedroom, this just makes him seem like an asshole.
That one page does a lot to throw the whole issue off, but in the end, Duggan and Crystal are strong enough at selling the concept that it still works, and has me more than interested in seeing how it plays out over the course of this story arc. It's a solid read, and another reason why the Batman family of titles are better right now than they have been in years.