Monday, October 31, 2016

REVIEW: BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM

Not as much spooky fun as you might want...

INTRODUCTION 
Rocksteady's BATMAN ARKHAM ASYLUM video game took the world by storm in 2009. It was creepy without being oppressive, and violent without being (too) disgusting. It put players into the role of the dark knight like they'd never experienced before and is ranked as not only one of the best Batman games/franchises of all time, but also one of the best superhero games period. Where Rocksteady studios got it's inspiration for the dark, hazy atmosphere was from a graphic novel of the same name which came out in 1989. The work was as criticized as it was praised for being an a-typical batman story. Fans raved that it was cerebral and told a story they never though possible in the Batman universe while those not fond of the unique take complained that it just didn't feel like a true Batman comic. Being a big fan of the game as well as it's two primary sequels myself, I was wildly intrigued by the material that inspired it and have been saving it as a quick Halloween read.

HOW I RATED IT 
3/5 While not terrible, this is also by no means an especially brilliant work of graphic fiction. It does deserve some praise for daring to go where no Batman comic had gone before, but it ultimately failed to deliver any real satisfaction for me by the time I'd flipped past the final panel.

CHARACTERS
Herein lies a lot of this graphic novel's  problems. Batman has always been known for the legion of psychotic villains that threaten Gotham city and the small army of brave souls who stand with him against the madness. In ARKHAM ASYLUM, this is something that just doesn't really come through. Mainstay villains like Two Face are given lengthy introductions while more obscure villains like Killer Croc and the Mad Hatter just kind of pop up randomly. There are plenty of interesting characters that make an appearance during Batman's odyssey through the madhouse, but they all lack any sense of real meaning or presence. They're creepy in the moment, but have no more affect than a cheap spook inside of a haunted house. Then there's the Joker who's impressively tame and insufferably boring in this iteration of the character. For some reason the writers chose to make him less of a maniacle killer and more of a raving lunatic. Sure he sets the asylum into chaos and threatens the lives of the doctors working there, but during the course of the actual story he doesn't do much at all aside from taunt Batman. He even has the dark knight within arm's reach more than once and all he does is give him a nice slap on the ass?! Yes you read that right....

Jim Gordon appears at the beginning and end of the story, but doesn't really have much to offer aside from his steady demeanor (which is still awesome, just underused). There are also a couple of doctors that remain in the asylum after Batman has entered and while each of them have interesting motives, they don't really add all that much to the narrative other than to further the theme of madness. Robin gets no physical appearance, but the writers were sure to throw in a couple of homoerotic innuendos because it's totally funny to imagine Batman having a thing with his adoptive son...I guess I'll never get why this is such a longstanding joke...

Fortunately there are two shining lights in this list of characters. One is Batman himself who undergoes as much a mental crucible as he does a physical one. The idea that Batman himself might actually be insane is explored in a good deal of depth and it was actually very interesting to have my notions about him challenged. Running parallel to Batman's trip through the asylum is a series of flashbacks to Amadeus Arkham, the founder of the asylum. His is a story of madness and tragedy (mostly tragedy through madness). I never really felt like I got to know him in the same way that I knew Batman, but his bits were still pretty fascinating anyway. It all comes to a head for both characters and there was some amount of reward in seeing how each character dealt with the crescendo of insanity that threatened to overcome them.

WORLD/SETTING 
Easily one of the better aspects of this work, what's most fascinating is that the story really only takes place in one location. This is a rare thing for superhero comics in general and is probably fairly hard to pull off in any medium or genre. The world of ARKHAM ASYLUM is set in the mansion that Batman fans know as the madhouse where all of his villains go after getting bested. But before all that, it was the family home of Amadeus Arkham. Batman's side of the narrative explores the asylum in it's present state as home to the criminally insane while Amadeus's sections show how the building slowly evolved (or devolved) from a childhood house to a grizzly prison. It helps that the mansion itself feels quite large, with lots of dark corridors and gloomy rooms. It's not quite as expansive or diverse a place as it perhaps could be, but there's still plenty of variety to keep the imagery fresh. Ultimately, it's the dark history of this building that makes it feel unnervingly alive.

PLOT/TONE 
If you haven't guessed by now, this is a rather grim story. It deals with madness and loss of not only what one has, but who one is. It's pretty heavy material that asks some fairly deep questions. Sadly, there's never really a satisfying wrap up or answer to any of it. The story leaves readers on a hanging question which was deeply disappointing for me. That's not to say that a story can't end this way, but normally when such an ending is used, it's introducing a new question or idea, not one that's been asked all the way through the course of the story. The result is a rather empty and incomplete feeling. That said, the journey down this dark joyride is quite fun. The moody atmosphere held a menacing grip over me as I poured through the pages of this tale, never knowing exactly where it would take me. Exploring some of the darker parts of Batman's mind was a real treat and getting a bit more backstory behind such an iconic place felt like it was well worth the price of entry.

ART
Alarmingly inconsistent is all I can really say. This is not to say that the art looks bad, in fact in some places it's quite stunning. It's just that I really wish the artist had picked one level of fidelity and stuck with that because from one panel to another, this can look like a totally different comic and that's a pretty great way to break reader immersion. Fortunately the style never strays away from a gloomy, creepy sort of feel which is pretty much the only thing holding the visuals together. It's also a shame that even the lettering is tough to look at at times. For full disclosure's sake, I did read this as an eBook and since this definitely was not designed for that medium, it's possible that it looks a little better in print though I would doubt it given how oddly it's done in some contexts. Overall though, I noticed no real quality issues with this edition of the book.


CONCLUSION 
Not an essential read for Batman fans or even fans of Rocksteady's BATMAN ARKHAM game franchise. ARKHAM ASYLUM is different in some of the right ways but fell short for me in too many places for me to recommend it with too much enthusiasm. It's not really the satisfyingly spooky read I was hoping for this October nor was it particularly fulfilling as a story in general. BATMAN THE LONG HALLOWEEN and even BATMAN VOLUME 1 THE COURT OF OWLS would be better choices for the type of appetite I was trying to oblige, but if you're curious about this one, then it's probably worth seeing what it's all about for yourself.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

REVIEW: INJUSTICE GODS AMONG US YEAR TWO VOLUME 1

 A new regime takes over...


INTRODUCTION 
INJUSTICE GODS AMONG US YEAR ONE brought forward two of the most compelling volumes of comics I've ever had the pleasure of reading. VOLUME 1 opened with a series of shocking events which would prove to be the catalyst for a DC universe in which things go horribly wrong. Stricken by grief, guilt, and a desire to never let history repeat itself, Superman was slowly pushed over the edge. He murdered the Joker and banded his fellow Justice League members together on a path that there is no turning back from. Heroes who once served diligently to protect the freedom and safety of all now worked to overthrow governments they deemed unjust and replaced them with ... well ... themselves. These once mighty protectors now head down the road of transforming into the world's almighty dictators. It was an absolute treat to see how some of the heroes actually think this shift is a good idea while others are hesitant about it all. Then there's Batman who saw these events unfolding before they came to full fruition and he pulled together a team of his own. In essence, it was Batman vs. Superman done right and once I got past a couple of the duller issues from VOLUME 1, I was treated to a wild emotional roller coaster where the once familiar DC Universe begins to tear itself apart. YEAR ONE ended with a bang so I was very excited to finally jump into YEAR TWO and see what the first half of that had to offer.

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 Picking up right where YEAR ONE left off, INJUSTICE GODS AMONG US YEAR TWO VOLUME 1 delivers another set of five issues which continue to shape this alternate DC Universe into what players saw when they entered into the video-game which this series is a companion to.

CHARACTERS
The Green Arrow, among other DC staples like Martian Manhunter are dead and the first issue of this volume begins with Oliver's funeral. Members of Team Batman are horrified that Superman could really kill one of their own, but this fear has only strengthened their resolve, especially since they now possess Superman's enhancing pills. One of the things that I liked most about this volume was that it actually doesn't really focus on the Superman vs. Batman struggle all that much. After his crippling encounter with Superman, Batman has been whisked away by Zatana and Doctor Fate to a mystical realm in which Superman cannot find him. This doesn't mean Superman's given up on his old friend though. He immediately sends an army of his enhanced soldiers into Gotham who waste no time in brutally assuming control over the city. This makes for an interesting setup where smaller characters like Jim Gordon, Detective Montoya, Harvey, Oracle, Black Canary, and Huntress come together to form a small resistance with the recently unemployed GCPD.

Where the majority of the cast falls though is actually on the side of the Lantern Corps. Much of the story revolves around Hal, John, and Guy as they all deal with Superman's actions in a different way. Lots of other lanterns take on smaller roles in the plot including the little blue men who appear to watch over the entire universe. Ultimately the Green Lanterns decide that they are not in favor of Superman's regime and decide to take action against him. This leaves things open for Sinestro to establish himself as an ally to Superman's cause and it was a great deal of fun to see how his relationship with Superman and company evolves. Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner are two other big standouts as each have drastically different attitudes towards what's going on at earth. I enjoyed seeing Hal advocate for Superman's cause and even though I didn't agree with him, I did like seeing how he stood firm in his beliefs even when the rest of the Lanterns were against him.

WORLD/SETTING 
The world of Injustice gets a lot bigger in this volume. The involvement of the Lanterns opens up the conflict to the greater cosmos which provides a truly epic scale to the narrative being told. It was great to see shots set in faraway places like the Lantern homeworld and Dr. Fate's Tower. There are also plenty of scenes up on the watchtower and down in the dingy streets of Gotham. While I took no issue with the number of different places that YEAR ONE took readers, I also felt like I got a lot more variety this time around. There are so many moving pieces spread across such a wide breadth of the DC world that the stakes just felt that much higher this time around. I loved seeing how Superman's rise to tyranny created issues for people beyond Earth making the conflict interplanetary rather than international. The time spent in Oa, the lantern home world, was particularly interesting for me since I know very little about the lanterns other than the fact that each color represents a different emotion, some good, some evil. Since most of my exposure to them was in the astoundingly dull GREEN LANTERN film, it was refreshing to see the Lanterns represented in a far more exciting context.

At the end of YEAR ONE, Superman unveiled his new army of super soldiers. Now we get to see them in action as they execute a sort of martial law over Gotham. Being a huge Batman fan, I've seen Gotham in all sorts of peril at the hands of one insane super villain or another, but seeing it under military rule - that's something that felt entirely new. Seeing the chaos that stems from absolute order was a real treat and I loved that the stage is set for the conflict to heat up in future volumes.


PLOT/TONE 
This volume is possibly the most intense so far. Superman must face the truth that even he is no match against the entire Green Lantern Corps. This fact coupled with the impending threat of Earth being invaded by his former allies brings Superman to the conclusion that he must ally with the Sinestro Corps. Seeing this leap in logic was really interesting for me since I found it quite weird that the video-game showed Superman with both Hal Jordan and Sinestro on his team. The interactions between these three characters were absolute gold. The best part is that it actually made sense as to why Sinestro would take an interest in joining Superman, why Superman might eventually come to trust Sinestro (to an extent), and why Hal would continue to see things Superman's way. This slow shift in principles for all three men was fascinating and it challenged my understanding of who each of them are. It's fantastic that among all the action, there's still a deeply personal touch that this narrative manages to work in.

In much the same way as YEAR ONE saw the relationship between Batman and Superman disintegrate, this second year seems to be centered around the world of the Lanterns being turned upside down. A whole new rush of brother vs. brother tension culminates into one of the most insane clashes the series has seen so far. It will be very interesting to see where things go from here as there is no turning back from some of the decisions that have been made by these characters.

ARTWORK 
One of the things that makes this series so great is it's stunning visuals. The art style seems to have changed slightly for YEAR TWO, but the good news is that it's every bit as detailed as before, if not a little more intricate. Every strand of hair, every gesture, and every backdrop seems to be rendered with a loving hand which really helps sell both the emotional and physical turmoil that the story tries to portray. There really isn't much more to say other than that I couldn't have asked for better artwork to accompany this epic story. If I had to choose one little thing to nitpick, it's that some of the covers are a little misleading. There's one in particular which features the Birds of Prey doing battle with Superman's soldiers in the streets of Gotham. Not only does the issue this cover is attached to not have anything to do with such a battle, but nowhere in the entire volume does such a scene unfold. It's a small thing, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be a little bothered by it.

CONCLUSION 
If you enjoyed INJUSTICE GODS AMONG US YEAR ONE, then this volume ought to be at the top of your reading list. The second year of INJUSTICE raises the stakes, delivers on top-notch action, pulls at the hearts of DC fans, and brings this version of the universe that much closer to the way players saw this world when they began the game's campaign mode. The best thing about this series for me continues to be the fact that the story is agnostic of all other DC publications. The world is self-contained and since it's a prequel to the game it's associated with, you don't even have to be a gamer in order to enjoy it. If you're looking for a great series that you don't have to be a hard core comic fan to really get into, then this is definitely the series for you.