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.

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