Bizarro Back Issues: The Arkham Asylum Softball Team (1994)
Since the last installment of the Bizarro Back Issues column was a request explaining one of those memorable Silver Age covers that only got weirder once you cracked it open and read the actual story, I thought it might be a good idea to see if there were any other comics people had always wondered about. I put out the call, and to be honest, the last thing I expected was to find out about something I'd never heard of before, but then @saintwalker88 suggested a story that I knew would be amazing before I even read it.
Because this is the story of the Arkham Asylum Softball Team and their game against Blackgate Prison.
This amazing little artifact of the '90s comes courtesy of Alan Grant and Tim Sale in the pages of Showcase '94, and really, that oughtta be enough reason to go dig it out of your nearest dollar box and give it a read. Thanks to work on books like Long Halloween, Sale is a pretty high-profile Batman artist, and while there's nothing in this particular story that's built like the big, moody splash pages that you get from those books, it's still pretty awesome to see him drawing a good chunk of Batman's Rogues Gallery, even before you get to the part where they're playing softball for the right to eat dinner in a cafeteria instead of their cells.
See, the story takes place at a really interesting time in Batman comics. It's just after the events of Knightfall, a story that more or less starts with a gigantic hole being blown in the side of Arkham Asylum, which makes it a pretty poor choice for buildings that are meant to contain thematic bank-robbers and other assorted villains. So while the main focus of Batman's story --- and the key part of Bane's plan that actually ends up working --- is that Batman has to run around gathering everyone back up, the question becomes where you're going to put them all.
All things considered, it's a pretty minor question --- Jeremiah Arkham mentions at the end of this story that it's only going to take three months to get Arkham up and running again, a time frame that suddenly explains why everyone's always breaking out when the construction workers are definitely rushing to get things done --- but it still allows them to get out of their familiar surroundings.
Which is exactly what Grant, who had focused quite a bit on Arkham during his run on Shadow of the Bat, did when he relocated the whole gang to Blackgate. Or at least, some of it. Here's who we're working with here:
Even if you're a die-hard Batman fan who is actually familiar with Cornelius Stirk and Amygdala, you may spot a name in one of those center panels that you don't recognize. No bets on trying to figure out who doesn't make it to the end of the story.
With Arkham under construction, the current plan is for Arkham's most notorious criminals to be confined, along with Jeremiah Arkham, at Blackgate, the prison for all of Gotham's crooks who don't necessarily focus on Egyptian Cat Statues or wear costumes covered in question marks.
The bulk of the story focuses on the idea of the conflict in the criminal community in Gotham City, and I love that idea. It's something that comes up in Gotham Central, too, with the MCU's mandate to handle all the "freaks" in the city, but Grant and Sale approach it from the point of view of the crooks and their wardens. Jeremiah is, of course, dedicated to the idea that he can actually reform some of the Asylum's inmates, and makes the point that society would probably be a lot better off with criminals who just robbed banks with no fatalities and left clues for Batman, rather than the hardened murderers of Blackgate. Meanwhile, Zehrhard, Blackgate's Governor, considers the Asylum's population to be cowards who won't even admit they're criminals, hiding behind some claim of insanity rather than owning up to their sins.
And on top of that, there's even an interesting look at the hierarchy --- an arch-criminal goes to Arkham, but the henchmen go to Blackgate, which gives them a pretty hefty desire for revenge once they see the people that made them fight Batman.
As you might expect, there is quite a bit of tension.
It just keeps building, too, with with the Asylum inmates being steadily stripped of their privileges in a series of events that, to be fair, seem pretty logical. I mean, it's not like you can let a guy who built a flying flamethrower suit into the machine shop to make license plates, you know?
That bulletin board makes several appearances throughout the story, and it's fantastic.
Eventually, things come to a head, and rather than watch a riot jump off, Arkham suggests that they give the prisoners a constructive outlet for their rage, and since the only sporting activity that they have on the island is softball, that's what it is: Arkham vs. Blackgate, and if Arkham wins, they get access to the yard and their own canteen.
What follows is basically The Bad News Bears, but with the Riddler, which is everything I have ever wanted from comics.
Please note that they are practicing in full costume, and when the game arrives, they will be wearing baseball jerseys over said costumes, including the Riddler and Two-Face, who are already wearing suits.
Eventually, Team Arkham gets a captain in the form of Dr. Faustus, who has made a pact with Satan that requires monthly human sacrifices in exchange for immortality, because sure, why not, and once the game starts, Grant and Sale load it up with some really great touches. Firefly using his wings to catch a fly ball is the obvious one, but the single best line in the two-issue story comes from the revelation that Two-Face won the coin toss.
Of course, this being Gotham City, the game doesn't stay a game for long. After Amygdala gets up to bat, he's provoked into starting a riot that's meant to cover the escape of two run-of-the-mill murderers from Blackgate. To their credit, the Arkham patients actually try to stop it...
... and they actually succeed, sort of. See, while the two cons don't get away, Dr. Faustus does, going up in the plane and promptly (and purposefully) crashing it on the rocks of Blackgate Island, claiming immortality with the pilot as his sacrifice.
And that, as they say, is the ball game. Unfortunately, since Blackgate was up by a single run when the riot broke out (although Arkham had the bases loaded), they are technically the losing team. It's bad luck, but really, we should've all seen it coming.
I mean, they never have been too good at dealing with bats.