This is about the exact opposite of what I was expecting from this book. Your typical Batman-related mini-series is generally entertaining (if you’re, like me, a big fan of the Dark Knight), but not terribly groundbreaking. So, despite the fact that I like both of the creators attached to this book (Slott is better known for his work on DC’s animated titles and Sook is the Mike Mignola-influenced artist who handled the now-defunct Spectre relaunch for much of its run), I wasn’t looking for anything overly spectacular.
And apparently I was wrong to have such low expectations.
Rather than the typical “villain Batman hasn’t fought in the main titles in a while” storyline, Arkham Asylum is an atmospheric piece of character-driven psychological horror.
After the opening scene (which centers on archaic, brutal methods of “rehabilitation”) passes, the mini-series’ “protagonist” is introduced. Warren “The Great White Shark” White, much to the dismay of the judge presiding over the case, is found innocent by reason of insanity in one of the country’s largest stock market fraud cases. White’s requested change of venue to Gotham City is offered as the reason for such a radical turn in the case. However, while the jury of Gothamites allows White to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for his misdeeds, the judge seizes the moment and, in light of the white-collar criminal’s “mental disorder,” orders him to undergo psychiatric treatment within the city…at Arkham Asylum. Outraged at the lack of respect he receives from the madhouse’s guards and terrified by the jeers of the inmates, White (now called “Fish” by his fellow Arkham residents) latches on to the only sane person he can find: his state-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Anne Carver.
The scene with Carver, literally the halfway point of the book, marks a shift in perspective. Now, we view the conditions in Arkham from the viewpoint of one who is not a prison in the literal sense, but all the same feels trapped by her association with the legendary repository for Gotham City’s criminally insane. Briefly, we are shown the impact that working with Batman’s archnemeses for a living has on a normal person’s social life and personality, but the focus quickly returns to Dr. Carver’s work. Feeling increasingly strained by the daily barrage of conversations with dangerously unstable individuals she faces, the doctor makes a risky proposal to White, her only seemingly sane patient. And while the ending, upon a re-reading, was apparently foreshadowed earlier in a passing phrase, I found it nonetheless surprising the first time around.
Slott has a real grasp for the mannerisms of the members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery depicted within and Sook is just as capable in terms of visually rendering them. All in all, Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is an exceedingly solid effort, taking what is usually nothing more than set piece for a larger Batman story and using it as a focal point for what appears to be a very thoughtfully-crafted mini-series.
When I first read this book, I must say, I was a little disappointed. Then I took a second to stop and sort of put things in perspective in regards to what both the book in general and issue in particular are supposed to do. And when I did that, New Mutants seemed like a much more worthwhile endeavor. But I’ll explain that in a bit.
Sofia Mantega is a mutant. She is also an adolescent girl. In her home country of Venezuela, her family shelters her from the harsh reality that being born with the power to control the wind (and, additionally, to hear the sounds of voices that the wind carries) will not be accepted in the world at large. However, when random violence takes the life of her doting mother, Sofia is sent to America to live with her father, Mr. Barrett, a wealthy businessman who resents the intrusion of an illegitimate daughter on his life, choosing to perceive her mere presence (much less her inborn abilities) as an embarrassment. Although she struggles valiantly to fit in, both in the world of her father and that of her peers, Sofia eventually snaps, using her powers to escape the confines of her prep school and, in an attempt to claim some fraction of her remaining parent’s attention for herself, destroy one of Barrett’s stores.
And while she does succeed to drawing her father’s eye, she also draws his ire, resulting in his declaration to allow her to spend the night in jail while he arranges for a paternity test to “prove” that she is not in fact his daughter. When things look at their bleakest (which, considering the barrage of tragic mishaps that have befallen Sofia so far, is an accomplishment), Dani Moonstar intervenes, whisking the young homo superior away to Xavier’s School and ending the issue.
So the question then is why I disliked the issue initially, as well as why I changed my mind.
To begin with, I was irritated that a) this story of teenage isolationism, masquerading not-so-subtly as a tale of a mutant out of place, has been done too many times already and b) it doesn’t feel like anything happens, particularly in light of the fact that only two characters of the book’s new roster are introduced and only one properly. Valid complaints, I felt. I enjoyed the book, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t feel all that special to me. Valid arguments, that is, until I remembered one thing.
I’m not exactly the target audience for this book.
The whole gist of the Tsunami initiative was to draw in new, younger readers. Presumably, at least some portion of those new readers are hoped to be female ones (a rare commodity in the comics industry, to say the least). With that in mind, New Mutants is a nearly-perfect opening issue. It doesn’t assume a foreknowledge of the book’s core concept (and even with a veteran audience, that would be a mistake, since the original New Mutants concept has technically been absent from the Marvel Universe for over ten years). It doesn’t open with a “widescreen” fight scene with a team of do-gooders spewing testosterone-charged hyperbole at an equally ridiculously-clad villain. And it doesn’t, at least at this point, appear to be a “boys club” sort of title, as the only protagonists in the issue are female.
It’s gender-inclusive, interesting without being overly complex, stream-lined without being simplified. This book, along with Runaways, is probably the Tsunami title most likely to attract and retain a new comic book reader. However, the difference is that, by virtue of the familiar concept and title, New Mutants is more likely to attract veteran readers, making this book, at least on paper, the best idea the imprint has produced thus far (in my opinion).
There are, however, some issues with the manga-tinged artwork by Grant. While overall the panels are clear and accessible to those unfamiliar with the workings of comic book storytelling, periodically, figures are drawn with their heads at angles that would normally be less than comfortable. That is to say, their heads appear to be balancing on their over-long necks, rather than being physically connected to them. In addition, some characters’ arms are clearly too long in relation to the rest of their bodies. Again though, overall, the art is more than adequate, anatomical issues aside.
As a closing testimonial, I’ll say this. I enjoyed New Mutants. If Marvel is going to insist on producing a glut of X-Men-related books (and who can blame them?), then New Mutants serves a purpose, that’s for sure. At the same time, I bought an extra copy for my 13-year old, female cousin, to go along with her much-awaited monthly copy of Spider-Girl. She took a quick flip through it and immediately pronounced, with wide-eyed interest, “Cool…” How many other books on the shelf can say that, satisfying two such totally different audiences?