Batman: Arkham Reborn is just the right mix of "scary with a story." As opposed to David Lapham's Crisis Aftermath: The Spectre, which seemed to be just a random collection of gore, each of Hine's gruesome surprises serve to draw the reader deeper into the dark plot, in which it remains tantalizingly unclear even in the end who's really behind it all. I figured the Arkham Reborn miniseries for a silly one-off capitalizing on the "Batman Reborn" hubbub, but the story turns out to be surprisingly relevant and well-connected to events in the regular Batman titles.
[Contains spoilers. Big spoilers. Reading past this point will reveal a bunch of spoilers for the "Batman Reborn" storyline.]
I think it's interesting that Hine accomplishes much of Arkham Reborn's horror in retrospect, and not in fact. Some of the goriest scenes of the book (or, at least, the goriest left up to the reader's imagination) are in the childhood remembrances of Dr. Jeremiah Arkham's patient No Face, the criminal Raggedy Man, or Arkham's assistant Alyce Sinner. Hine creates suspense in that the reader knows something terrible has brought the character to this point, and then the reader relives the character's origins knowing that the terrible moment is inevitably imminent.
As the book progresses, the terror of the book moves from the abstract to the immediate. Clayface, Mr. Freeze, and Killer Croc all suffer attacks, but the Raggedy Man's is perhaps the most shocking, as Sinner forces Raggedy Man to kill himself by cutting himself open. The increase in actual violence mirrors Jeremiah's growing loss of control of the asylum, until, in the end, he himself becomes a perpetrator of violence against Mr. Zsasz. Here, surprisingly enough, Hine retreats from the horror, perhaps to demonstrate that the story is at its end; the reader is lead to believe for one moment by Zsasz's dialogue that Arkham has cut out the villain's eyes, but we find that Arkham has only delivered a minor cut instead.
If you've read Tony Daniel's Batman: Life After Death, you know that Jeremiah Arkham turns out to be the villain Black Mask. This creates an interesting dynamic in the second part of Arkham Reborn (which contains the Battle for the Cowl special, the three-part Arkham Reborn miniseries, and the two-issue Detective Comics follow-up by Hine). Black Mask would seem to be the villain here, opposing Jeremiah's efforts to rebuild the asylum via Alyce Sinner's mayhem; rather, we find in the third part that Arkham is Black Mask, and his enemy has been himself. I credit Hine in negotiating a difficult group of characters and balancing secrets kept in other titles, but still making each part of this book feel self-contained; one could easily leave the Arkham Reborn miniseries satisfied with the Jeremiah vs. Black Mask story, never missing the third part unless you knew it was there.
What Daniel and Hine establish here was perhaps inevitable; Arkham Asylum is such a large part of the Batman mythos that it seemed almost ridiculous that Arkham himself wasn't a villain, and now he is. Hine directly addresses one of the great conceits of the Batman stories -- that Arkham is supposed to be this vaunted asylum but yet they can never seen to rehabilitate nor even retain most of their prisoners -- by suggesting that Jeremiah Arkham has been under the mental control of either the Joker, Hugo Strange, or someone else almost since the beginning, and that the asylum fails on purpose. This is a fair theory, and other writers can likely build on the same in that Sinner, Black Mask's pawn, is now herself in charge of the asylum.
Daniel and Hine's stories work well together, and I imagine if one reads Life After Death, they'll want to read Arkham Reborn and vice-versa; I was pleasantly surprised, even, to find that the two books share a scene in common. The question that remained for me, however, was to who, if anyone, controlled Black Mask; Daniel has Batman considers the question in Life After Death, and Hine suggests it's either the Joker or Hugo Strange, but no mastermind actually steps forward. This made me wonder about how the two writers split this story's labor, so to speak; did Daniel pass to Hine to reveal the mystery villain, and that revelation is subtle, or is Hine purposefully playing fast and loose so that Daniel can pick it all up later? Who, dear reader, black-masked the Black Mask?
Regardless, Batman has a compelling new villain in Black Mask -- a villain easily recognizable on his own, with the added layer of being an Arkham in Arkham; I'm curious to see where the villain pops up next. Kudos to David Hine and artist Jeremy Haun for a compelling horror story I can get behind; I thought this would be light fare (and DC perhaps had to bill it as such to hide the book's secret), but I was pleasantly impressed with how it fit into the overall "Batman Reborn" storyline (the Daniel/Winick half, at least; the Grant Morrison side of things could just as soon be taking place in a different Bat-universe).
[Contains full covers]
More reviews on their way!