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Batman: Shadow of the Bat – The Last Arkham (Review)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

In 1992, DC comics launched Shadow of the Bat. It ran for eight years and ninety-two issues. Alan Grant wrote most of those issues, before his creative relationship with the publisher eventually broke down. (Grant is still upset about the manner of his dismissal.) As the driving force behind the book, Grant was able to give Shadow of the Bat its own unique flavour, focusing on the madness of Gotham, and the strangeness of its inhabitants.

The opening four-part story, The Last Arkham, remains perhaps the most definitive of Grant’s contributions to the Batman mythos, teaming up with artist Norm Breyfogle to offer a rather creepy and unnerving exploration of the city’s ever-slipping sanity.

Me thinks the Batman doth protest too much...

Me thinks the Batman doth protest too much…

Alan Grant really doesn’t get enough credit for his work on Batman. In the eighties and nineties, he was one a of a stable of writers churning out stories featuring the character, along with writers like Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench. Each writer had their own approach to Batman as a character and concept, and they are all probably better known for the volume of material they’ve contributed to the character rather than any individual story lines.

While I am (mostly) quite fond of the work done by Dixon and Moench, Grant is personal favourite. The Scottish writer’s vision of Batman and the surrounding environment of Gotham is so willfully bizarre and surreal. It’s cheeky and subversive, focusing on the insanity of the basic Batman set-up. It feels strangely appropriate, then, that Grant and his frequent artistic collaborator Norm Breyfogle, were working on Detective Comics when Tim Burton released his version of Batman – as there’s a similar fixation on the macabre and the disturbing.

Knightmare...

Knightmare…

(It’s interesting to note how dramatically the release of the movie affected the sales of Detective Comics. It went from a book that wasn’t selling enough to earn its writers royalties to one of the best-selling books in the business. So perhaps all those attempts to tie comic books into movies do have some foundation in logic. Although it’s worth noting that Grant himself has not been overly fond of any of the adaptations of Batman.)

The Last Arkham reads as something of a psychological horror story. Indeed, it’s not too difficult to feel the influence of The Silence of the Lambs on Grant’s writing. The new modern Arkham Asylum has glass cell walls allowing for conversations with inmates. While Grant and Breyfogle steer clear of overt references and shout-outs, it’s hard to shake the sense that The Last Arkham owes a debt to Jonathan Demme’s film. The first issue of The Shadow of the Bat was released in June 1992, more than a year following the release of the Thomas Harris adaptation and three months after it swept the Academy Awards.

As the crow flies...

As the crow flies…

The character of Victor Zsasz is very clearly his own creation, and one markedly different from Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. (Indeed, Grant had created his own cannibalistic serial killer antagonist for Batman in Cornelius Stirk, who cameos here.) Zsasz has his owe philosophy and methodology, and he’s obviously uninterested in consuming human flesh. However, he’s portrayed as a shrewd manipulator capable of running rings around those tasked with his treatment. Zsasz is treated with the utmost caution by the staff, and we’re informed that he’s recently brutally attacked an orderly, evoking comparisons to Lecter’s history shortly before his first encounter with Clarice Starling.

Arguably Grant’s most lasting contribution to the Batman mythos is the variety of original villains he created. Although the nature of comics means that more modern foes tend to have difficulty securing a place of importance opposite enduring and iconic heroes, Grant is responsible for several recognisable second-tier Batman baddies. Grant created the Ventriloquist, a character who is still part of Batman’s roster of adversaries. He also created the character Anarky, who has been chosen to be the Caped Crusader’s arch-foe on the recent cartoon Beware the Batman.

Naked villainy...

Naked villainy…

None of these characters have really broken through the villain glass ceiling in the same way as Bane, or even Killer Croc, but Grant’s characters still pop up from time to time, lingering long after he’s left. Zsasz is on of the more successful of Grant’s creations. Although he’ll never appear on any of the cartoons, for example, Victor Zsasz made a small cameo in Batman Begins and has played a role in both Arkham Asylum games. For a character who is essentially a serial killer with a gimmick, he’s endured quite well.

Part of this is down to the fact that Grant imbues the character with a hint of personality and gives him a central philosophy. Zsasz might not be the most visually memorable of Batman’s adversaries, but Grant still crafts the character with a great deal of care. The “tally marks” give what might otherwise be a generic design a unique visual identity and offer him something approaching a distinct gimmick. Although the fact that Zsasz is a recurring foil somewhat blunts the effectiveness of the sequence, the scene where Grant and Breyfogle introduce the villain’s gimmick is quite striking.

It's a mad world...

It’s a mad world…

Grant also gives the character something approaching a moral philosophy. Grant had an intriguing habit of blending moral and political philosophy into his work. Anarky is the most obvious example of this, serving as a mouthpiece for various anarchical beliefs. In contrast, Zsasz is pure nihilism. He’s not a mindless killing machine. “A clever man, Zsasz,” Jeremiah Arkham muses. “Too clever by half. Too dangerous to leave free. And worst of all — he doesn’t seem to care.”

When Arkham calls Zsasz to task for the attempted murder of an orderly, Zsasz responds, “You should have let me finish the job. One less mouth for the world to feed…!” When Commissioner Gordon declares “oh my God!”, Zsasz corrects him, “There is no God, commissioner. Hasn’t Batman ever told you that? God would never allow these awful things to happen, would he Batman?” Even here, without too much in the way of back story – we discover Zsasz was a serial killer and Batman caught him – there’s enough to make the character feel like more than just a generic adversary.

Just when things look Stirk...

Just when things look Stirk…

Grant uses Zsasz as a counter-point to his version of Batman. The nineties were a tough decade for Batman. Grant would be one of the creators to work on Knightfall, the mega-arc where the character had his back broken and had to claw his way back to being Batman. Gotham would then be ravaged by a plague in Cataclysm. Even after Grant had left, Shadow of the Bat would find itself roped into the grim No Man’s Land crossover where Gotham became an apocalyptic warzone following a freak earthquake. The nineties were a dark era for comics in general, and that’s reflected in the Batman comics of the time.

It seems like most of the writers working on Batman found themselves in the shadow of Frank Miller’s massively popular portrayal. In the eighties, stories like The Dark Knight Returns and Year One cemented the idea that Batman was somewhat morally questionable. To be fair, Steve Engelhart was really the first writer to explore the idea that being Batman was not a mentally healthy thing for a survivor of gun violence, but Frank Miller really amped that ambiguity up.

Shine a light...

Shine a light…

A lot of eighties and nineties comics play with that idea. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke hints that Batman might just be as messed up as his mortal adversary. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum threw the character into the haunted corridors of that infamous institution. Doug Moench’s Prey seems like a rather crass response to the idea that of psycho-analysing a pop culture icon like Batman. The theme also plays through Grant’s work, as he explores the question of whether Batman is well and truly sane.

The Last Arkham sees Batman admitted to Arkham and remanded to the care of Jeremiah Arkham, the nephew of the man responsible for building the original asylum for the criminally insane. Arkham insists that Batman must be insane. After all, he dresses up in a silly outfit and takes the law into his own hands. The second issue of the story features Batman supposedly murdering a police officer for making an off-hand quip within earshot.

Visiting hours are always fun...

Visiting hours are always fun…

However, Grant never delves too deeply into the psychology of it all. It’s quite clear to even the most naive of readers that Batman would never murder a cop. And Arkham doesn’t seem all too invested in curing Batman if he is mentally deranged. Instead, he organises “group therapy” sessions featuring a host of familiar faces and making none-too-subtle threats. Batman is a nice scholarly article (and possibly a book deal) waiting to happen.

So Grant rejects the notion that Batman is insane. Indeed, the whole story seems set up so Batman can answer any of Arkham’s criticisms by pointing to Zsasz. “You want madness, Arkham?” Bruce taunts. “Look into his eyes! That is madness!” Batman isn’t a deranged lunatic who needs to be picked apart and repaired, despite the grimness that surrounds him. The second issue in the story opens with an incredibly heart-warming scene where Bruce finds a young girl alone and takes her home to her family.

A dark night...

A dark night…

Incidentally, you can typically spot a good Batman writer by how they handle Batman’s interactions with children. While Batman can seem gruff and aloof to adults, the best writers remember that the very core of the character is built on knowing what it feels like to be a child and alone and scared. No matter how aggressive or violent he might get, Batman understands how children respond to trauma, and he’s very sensitive to it.

Grant doesn’t argue that Bruce is psychologically healthy. Far from it. He’s presented through Norm Breyfogle’s wonderfully atmospheric artwork as something of a stalking demon, a night predator. However, Grant also draws our attention repeatedly to the fact that Batman is a comic book character. The entire plot of The Last Arkham runs on comic book logic.

Beware the Batman...

Beware the Batman…

The notion that nobody is watching or checking in on Zsasz when he slips out is absurd, for example. Arkham’s refusal to remove Batman’s mask despite having the Caped Crusader entirely at his mercy feels contrived. “I will learn his secret identity,” Arkham boasts. “He himself will tell me… when he’s good and ready.” There is an appealing comic-book-character level of arrogance of that logic, to be fair. The ease with which Gordon and Batman decide to fake a murder seems a little contrived, as does the fact that Batman doesn’t seem to clue in Nightwing or Robin. Guy must be tough to work with.

These are all comic book tropes, and they’re all forgiveable because this is a comic book story. Investigating Bruce’s arrest, Nightwing concedes that his mentor is not the most healthy of individuals. “Sure, Batman walks close to the edge,” he reflects. “There  have been times when even I thought he was crazy.” And maybe he is a little bit. But that doesn’t make him evil, or undermine the heroism that he does around Gotham.

Zorro in Arkham...

Zorro in Arkham…

“Come on. I’ll take you home,” Batman assures a little girl lost in the night. “It’ll be all right. No one will hurt you while I’m here.” Grant’s Batman is unquestionably a hero, despite the fact that he’s damaged. Grant and Breyfogle devote some space to the yellow oval here. Grant uses it as a metaphor for the “flame” burning inside Bruce, his inner light that keeps him from completely slipping into darkness. Breyfogle uses a spotlight to recreate it inside Arkham, as if to emphasise its importance in making Batman a lighter and more heroic character.

Batman has his issues, but he is very clearly and unambiguously a heroic figure. Which brings us to one of the more interesting attributes of Grant’s work on Batman. He makes a pretty compelling argument that Gotham is completely and utterly insane. The new villains and characters he develops for the world of Batman have a tendency to be completely out there, and off-the-rails. The Human Flea comes to mind immediately.

Running the asylum...

Running the asylum…

This is hardly something new. As journalists eager to stir up controversy have noted, Batman comics tend to have a long history of associating mental illness with villainy. Some even make similar arguments about the Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Grant tended to focus on the Asylum and its inhabitants, but he also adopted a rather humanistic approach to these supporting players.

These are villains. They have murdered and stolen. Many will likely re-offend. And yet Grant is sympathetic towards them. It’s clear that Jeremiah Arkham’s punitive approach to treatment is a very shallow and abusive of dealing with the very real problems that these characters face. Interviewing the Scarecrow, Arkham mocking asks, “Do you expect me to believe there’s a tiny scarecrow in your head who tells you what to do?” Jonathan Crane’s reply is pathetic and heart-rending. “Well– actually, yes, sometimes I think there is! He makes me do things, even when I don’t want to!”

He sure knows how to make an entrance...

He sure knows how to make an entrance…

It is very hard not to pity him. Grant even suggests that Batman is sympathetic to the plight of his foes. Far from being an absolutist who relishes throwing his foes away to rot inside these cells, Batman is horrified at the way that Arkham is treating the inmates. Arkham’s approach to dealing the inmates feels brutal and harsh. In his spare time, he can be seen reading B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which advocates radical behaviour modification.

There’s a curious resonance between Alan Grant’s work and the work of Grant Morrison on Batman. Indeed, both worked with Frank Quitely, for example. Obviously, there are significant differences. Alan Grant never had one single over-arching story, while Morrison did. Both writers worked on multiple titles, but Grant’s work was spread over a much longer time than Morrison’s. Morrison had a tendency towards bigger and bolder thematic and plot points, but there’s still a fascinating overlap between the two Scottish writers.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

Most obviously, there’s the way that Grant incorporates Morrison’s Arkham Asylum into The Last Arkham. Not only is Jeremiah Arkham identified as the nephew of Amadeus Arkham from that graphic novel, but there are also references to the latter’s insanity and to the journals he kept. While Batman has paid quite a few visits to Arkham over the years across multiple books, there’s a thematic resonance between Morrison’s repeated “Zorro in Arkham” theme and the visual of a heroic straight-jacketed Batman here.

However, there’s also an interesting approach to continuity. Morrison rather famously declared that absolutely ever Batman adventure ever had happened in one form or another, and pilfered references from Golden Age comics through to Christopher Nolan’s films. Suddenly every little bit of Batman continuity was on the table again, despite reboots and reimaginings and slate-changes and so on and so forth.

Building on what came before...

Building on what came before…

Grant isn’t nearly as bold. However, there’s an obvious attempt to incorporate ideas and themes dating back through the character’s history. After all, both Grant and Morrison offered versions of Bat-Mite that fit within the context of modern continuity. (Morrison’s Bat-Mite showed up in Batman R.I.P., while Grant wrote Mite Fall.) Alan Grant worked with Frank Quitely on Batman: The Scottish Connection, itself an update of the 1953 Lord of Bat-Manor!

And you see that attitude toward history playing out here. It’s a theme playing out in the back ground of The Last Arkham, as Jeremiah Arkham tries to figure out his relationship with what came before. “One of man’s major mistakes — keeping the past alive long after its expiration date,” he explains, burning artefacts of the old Arkham. He throws “The Journal of Amadeus Arkham” on the bonfire, hoping to forget about it.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

The irony is that those who forget the past cannot learn from it. Grant insinuates that Arkham is trying to banish the memories of his uncle out of fear that he may succumb to the same mental illness. And yet, as the guards patrolling Arkham point out, history begins to repeat itself. Observing the design of the bold new prison, one guard wonders, “Why the hell has he based the floor plan on the classical labyrnth?”

Indeed, when Batman finds the young girl out playing by herself, he notes that she flinches at the mention of her father, with obvious bruising. However, it’s interesting what she has picked up. “Her father beat her. She beat the dolls. Repeated the words she’s no doubt heard a hundred times.” History repeats itself, and those unwilling to understand it often find themselves trapped within it, rather like the labyrinthine floor plan of Jeremiah Arkham’s bold new(ish) Arkham.

Some fight in you? I like that...

Some fight in you? I like that…

The Last Arkham features the artwork of Norm Breyfogle, who worked with Alan Grant on his Detective Comics run. The illustrations are wonderful and atmospheric. Breyfogle gives the whole thing a very dark mood, but without seeming overly stylised or oppressive. It’s easy to see how his artwork compliments Grant’s writing style, and why the two worked so well together. It’s the perfect blend of a superhero book with something a bit moodier and more atmospheric. Breyfogle would illustrate the following issue, but this is the last real hurrah of their partnership on Batman.

The Last Arkham remains a great read. It’s not quite perfect – the comic-book-y elements all feel a bit rote and paint-by-numbers, even though they aren’t the real point of any of this. It’s a very clever microcosm of Alan Grant’s Batman work, and a fitting launch to a comic he’d shepherd for years.

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