Review: Arkham City: The Order of the World trade paperback (DC Comics)

 ·  1 comment

Not perhaps for the first time, I’m amazed by the longevity of comics, that unbroken thread that leads us about 30 years after Sword of Azrael to Arkham City: The Order of the World. Though I think the Jean-Paul Valley character has depths he’s not always given credit for, that a Batman done purposefully by way of 1990s excess would not only still exist but show up in Dan Watters and DaNi’s thoughtful horror comic Arkham City speaks to all the good things about shared comics universes.

Arkham City is indeed a gem — gripping, gruesome, and brimming with ideas, the kind of unexpected art we sometimes get amidst tie-ins of varying quality to the comics event du jour (in this case, Batman: Fear State). The book would not nearly hold the power and resonance that it does without taking place within the long-established shared Batman universe; at the same time, Arkham City so often feels like it’s about to ascend to become its own thing, the ties to the DCU feel unfortunate (particularly the expectations created at the end). Artist DaNi evokes her work on The Low, Low Woods, and Arkham City well deserved the recognition of a Hill House title as opposed to “just another” Bat-book.

I’m thrilled Dan Watters is continuing with Azrael (the collection aborning at the time of this writing), and the skill of Arkham City makes me that much more likely to check out his Lucifer, too.

[Review contains spoilers]

Through its first five chapters, Arkham City treats us — and the last living Arkham doctor, Jacosta Joy — to a Gotham hellscape-slash-scavenger hunt that slowly reveals a vast conspiracy tying the architecture of Arkham Asylum to Gotham’s own. It is not by far the strangest thing we’ve ever encountered on these streets, and it’s especially believable once Watters evokes that ultimate of Arkham ghost stories, Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Which makes the twist all the more fantastic, when Watters employs the book’s demented Greek chorus, the “gone normal” (but not really) Nocturna and Doctor Phosphorus, to note what hogwash it all is. The simpler explanation is the machinations of two other Gotham villains and the gullibility of a psychiatrist in mourning — though, what the reader's excuse is, is still an open question. In a story about madness, whether the mentally ill are just “differently sane” and what line there is between normal and crazed, Watters leads the audience to believe a delusion, all the better to demonstrate how we all can be misled.

As a Hannibal fan I’m inclined to see shades of Hannibal anywhere, though the story of a psychiatrist rapidly blurring the lines with her patients leads us there faster than most. Dr. Joy is among those most delicious of protagonists we don’t get as often as we’d like, who stares into the abyss long enough that her pursuit of answers begins to erode her professional responsibilities. Again within that conversation with Phosphorus and Nocturna, Joy is ready to bring the whole thing crashing down, to call the authorities to save two innocent victims — but then doesn’t when Nocturna offers the keys to the mystery. It’s not, of course, how we’d like a doctor to act in the real world, but within the story, in a remarkably small space, Watters believably presents how an otherwise-normal person might rapidly let go the morals that tether her to everyday society.

Which makes it all the more tragic that Watters leaves Joy bleeding out in the book’s end. Hard to say what I’d like to see instead — not, to be sure, Joy donning a costume to go cackling in the night against Batman under another writer’s pen. But in this light cliffhanger, this mild uncertainty whether Joy will live or die (probably die), Arkham City feels unfinished, not in the least perhaps because it takes place in a universe where things tend to go on. Better maybe if Joy had lead a flock of Arkhamites out in to the wild, determined to try to cure them her own way, but then perhaps I’m favoring the maudlin conclusion over the one more horrific.

Over in Batman: Urban Legends, Watters' Azrael prelude had Jean-Paul Valley not altogether that far gone; the dogma of the Order of St. Dumas had been traded for Christianity, and yes, Azrael believed Lazarus resin signaled the Resurrection had arrived, but in the end he still knew himself to be Jean-Paul, late of Justice League Odyssey. Here, Azrael again believes he talks to angels, not to mention that his promise to Batman against murder seems forgotten.

Suffice it to say, something changed, and I’m hopeful Watters' Sword of Azrael will fill in the gaps. Meanwhile, another great moment was Joy as the mythological Cassandra in the final chapter, warning everyone of the carnage if Professor Pyg released Azrael from captivity into Pyg’s makeshift asylum, and then Joy being proved right. Azrael was an effective existential threat in this position, though I couldn’t help but think Watters could have used more pages to make the dread even more palpable.

Watters choice to have Pyg leading a working and sensible asylum was weird and not entirely in-character for Pyg, though Joy points that out herself and wonders if No-Face was actually pulling the strings. That said, there is so much here that seems logical within this fictional realm — letting Ratcatcher run himself in mazes, giving Ten-Eyed Man room to conduct his “rituals” — that convincingly demonstrates the (Gotham) mental health system is broken but that redeeming it is possible.

All of this is followed by the “Arkham Tower” stories, so maybe that promise will be found, but I doubt it. Meantime Watters' explications of madness are really well done — take for instance the Ten-Eyed Man, who may very well have psychic abilities, just not as much as he thinks, and so where Ten-Eyed Man conflicts with society is the space between what he actually preternaturally knows and what he thinks he knows and can’t be convinced otherwise.



In my most cynical take, Arkham City: The Order of the World is a story that won’t change future portrayals of the villains involved at all (a beheaded Solomon Grundy appears next in a Harley Quinn issue where he quips that he “got better”), and we’ll never hear from Dr. Jacosta Joy again. That’s not particularly what I want, but it’s what I expect; Arkham City is one of those “just because” tangents that probably found a place in the publication queue precisely because it could be made to spin out of “Fear State.” But, again, it’s also a fantastic bit of horror at a time where DC still tries to figure where that fits in their line, and also blessedly not really a costume piece despite all the costumed supervillains. More like this would be wonderful; highly recommended.

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches]

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Such a weird, fun, wonderful book. Is it this one that's got a full-page splash that redoes the Joker face over the Asylum, or am I remembering a different recent bat-book? (I know Snyder/Capullo did a page of Batman entering Arkham, but without Joker's face superimposed, so that's not it.)

    Either way, such a fantastic and modern thematic sequel to "A Serious House on Serious Earth," with a wonderful slate of B-list baddies. Such a fascinating and spooky take on the Ten Eyed Man, and I didn't know I needed a Jen Bartel take on Doctor Phosphorus, but here we are. Azrael was just the icing on the cake for this child of the 90s.


To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.

Newer Post Home Older Post