A review of the graphic novel “Arkham Asylum: Living Hell”

This is one glorious fever dream of a graphic novel from DC, one of their hits from 2003.

It tells the story of Warren White, a super- rich fraudster and embezzler who makes the mistake of pleading insanity in Gotham at his trial in the hope of a cushy sentence.   It doesn’t, it gets him committed to Arkham.   Here he finds himself in an infernal carnival of the criminally insane. Nothing is what it seems.  And Hell itself will shortly come calling…

Writer Dan Slott gives us a multi layered narrative who different threads interweave in a truly narrative fashion.  It has moments of genuine, creep you out horror, pathos, and very dark humour.  It’s an example of how the DC Universe can be more fantastical and lurid than its Marvel counterpart.  DC really pushed the limits of the comic book frame in what we can imaginatively accept without the whole thing becoming too absurd for even the most ardent comic fan.  It’s one reason why DC struggles more to make their stuff work on the big screen.

It’s great to see old favourites here, the Joker, Riddler, Poison Ivy, and more, as well as the beginnings of a new creature, “The Shark,” and those we know less about e.g. Humpty, Jane Doe.

Batman and Batgirl are on the margins here, with most of the heroics being dished out by weary Prison Guard Mr Cash.  He’s an intriguing character; cynical, maimed and almost defeated, it’s when things are at their most dangerous and bleakest that he truly finds his strength.  And this is a blueprint for the heroics in all of us.

Ryan Sook and Lee Loughbridge are penciller and colourist respectively, with the inkers being Wade Von Grawbadger and Jim Royal. Together they create a dark and murky world of dark tones and lurid hues where black, green and of course red predominate.  Frames tell the story at a rapid rate and you are left feeling that there is always a horror you have missed, something nasty glimpsed by the corner of your eye.

Mike Heisler’s lettering has some interesting variations including gothic script for he more infernal creations, and a storybook type for Humpty’s tale.

If you like DC tales that focus on the Super Villains, then you’ll love this.


A review of “The Long Halloween” comic book series

“The Long Halloween,” written by three times award winner Jeph Loeb, drawn by Tim Sale and lettered by Richard Starkings, is a continuation of the Legends of the Dark Knight series and was a big part of the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Movies.

Released 1997, it tells the story of a heroic triumvirate who pit themselves and their integrity against the Gangster bosses of Gotham City, principally the Roman family.  That triumvirate are; Commissioner Jim Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent and the Dark Knight himself.

As they grapple with a well organised underworld and Police corruption, Batman and Catwoman find themselves suddenly involved in the same scraps, and out of nowhere a vigilante killer starts shooting crime figures dead, on different public holidays, and leaving the weapon and a holiday memento at the scene to signal their presence.  With good guys and bad guys desperately trying to unravel the identity of the holiday killer (named “Holiday” appropriately enough), the ‘freaks’ join the fray, including the Joker, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter, all with an interest in the killer, be it stopping him because they resent the loss of limelight (the Joker) or relishing the distraction the shooter brings so they can advance their plans.

Through it all District Attorney Harvey Dent, Jim Gordon and Batman fight to stay sane and whole and defeat the evil without resorting to evil and corruption themselves.  Sometimes this evil and corruption will take a tangible, physical form, such as Ivy’s crawling, trailing, vines (there’s a superb image in the book where they seem almost to grow out of Bruce Wayne) and sometimes it’s the temptation to pursue dark paths to achieve good objectives, which Catwoman seems to symbolise for Batman with her seductive whispers to him for them to team up.  Dent’s is the most tragic corruption and you can see how Nolan took this and ran with it in his “The Dark Knight Returns.”  The birth of “Two Face” is shocking, even if you know what is coming, and the physical disfigurement echoing the spiritual one is a powerful image.

The art work is bold and powerful, with the colouring bound by stark black lines, and single frame dramatic images occasionally faded to negative colours splashed with blood red.  All this accentuates the ‘noir’ feeling of the story.  Batman is bound by a powerful musculature, dwarfing any screen representation, and Catwoman also is defined by a powerful, athletic physicality. The ‘freaks’ are larger than life and powerfully grotesque, from the giant Solomon Grundy to the long freakish limbs and teeth of the Joker.  Lettering is bold and emphatic, with a more subdued italicised style for Batman’s interior monologues that form part of the narrative.

I have two editions of this story.  “Absolute Batman:  The Long Halloween” is like a dvd box set with extras, an A4 hardback in a box case, with interviews with Christopher Nolan, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and a feature on the covers, with a commentary.  Not to mention the original proposal notes for each edition.  It’s a wonderful publication, great to immerse yourself in.  The second is a rendering wholly in black and white to accentuate the ‘noir’ themes, called, quite understandably, “Batman Noir:  The Long Halloween.”  This is a striking visual representation but unnecessary.  It’s an experiment that I feel did not need to be published.  The noir themes do not need overstatement.

But if you are a fan of comics or superheroes or Batman, the films or the books, you can’t afford to miss this landmark tale.

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A review of the limited comic series /graphic novel “The Wake”

This review is for an advanced reader’s edition uncorrected e-proof.

“The Wake” is a comic limited series, available now in graphic novel form, that tells the story of a group of scientists and specialists pulled together to study a strange life-form discovered at the bottom of the ocean.  Dr Lee Archer has studied Whale calls and associated marine phenomena, and soon suspects that the creature and it’s call is of significant importance.  What follows is a rapidly developing story that expands over a larger and larger canvas.  The creature gets loose and decimates the population of the rig before calling a huge papa creature and loads of mates.  These turn out to be the harbingers of a wider apocalypse on mankind, as cities flood, and the creatures invade.  The second part of the story follows an enigmatic young woman called Leeward and her Dolphin pal, inhabiting a post flood apocalypse continental mass that still centres on a remnant of American military power.  Leeward find a piece of radio transmitter and picks up a signal, seemingly from Dr Lee Archer, which may hold the clues not only to humanity’s salvation, but to its origins.

If this seems to hold a massive amount of imaginary conceit, it does.  Whether it holds together this ambitious narrative into an integral whole is debatable. The story begins with riffs on ‘Alien’ and sundry other “team of scientists investigate and then are pursued by a new horror” stories, whilst also channelling H.P Lovecraft’s “Shadow over Innsmouth” and his other stories of a terror from the deep.  It has also that Lovecraftan emphasis on monsters that can control and turn the human mind, and are reptilian, cold and utterly alien.   A word here on the creatures, the “Mers.”  Their design is one of the most successful components of the series.  Shadowy echoes of the Mermaid myth, they are a fast, deadly combinatios of razor claws and teeth, with a haunting whale like cry and abilities to shoot out a substance from their eyes that can cause people to hallucinate.

So from the “Alien” like first quarter we move on to a greater threat of numbers and a larger parent creature as with “Aliens,” before a huge change of gear that plunges us into post apocalypse drama, before referencing “Chariots of the Gods” and some very high concept science fiction.  For me the last sections were not wholly convincing, way too much of a stretch, and not entirely clear.  But still, it is good to be stretched and challenged and not dumb down.  But there is a sneaking suspicion it does not add up, or make sense.  But this is far outweighed by the massively entertaining ride of the story as a whole.  Scott Snyder’s writing powers the story along and is as immersive as its ocean setting.  Sean Murphy’s artwork and Matt Hollingsworth’s colours conjure a world of dark, cold underwater spaces and also in other sections, a shimmering, almost washed out quality to the colouring, as if the pages had been retrieved from the sea.  It makes the whole thing dream-like, as if things are always not quite in focus, which fits with the stories understanding of the human predicament.  The style also gives the Mer’s a shadowy menace, as if you are catching them out of the corner of your eye, a feeling the first ‘Alien’ film established so well.

This is an ambitious ride of turbulent imagination.