Friday, November 09, 2012

Review: Batman: Arkham City

I was pretty disappointed with this trade paperback, which collects both the five-issue 2011 miniseries of the title by longtime, cross-media Batman writer Paul Dini and video game designer Carlos D'Anda and five shot stories referred to as "Batman: Arkham City Digital Chapters." The latter are very short stories focusing on particular characters from the comic and/or the Arkham video games, and created by a variety of writers and artists (They appear to be written by some combination of Dini and Fridolfs, and drawn by a half-dozen artists, of whose work Dustin Nguyen and Ted Naifeh's are the most easily recognizable).

I was more disappointed with it than I tend to be with other mediocre Batman comics, however, because this is a comic book series I specifically wanted to read (or at least very close to it), and the sort of series I know I've asked for publicly and repeatedly before it was ever announced.

As many of you know, I love comics and I love Batman, but I am not the least bit into video games, and stopped playing them sometime around high school. To get all Old Man on you for a second, I think they are a tremendous waste of time, at least for me; even if I had access to a gaming system and a game, I can't imagine sitting there and playing any for very long, as I'd feel too guilty about the time I was wasting when I could be doing something more productive (Although, this is my idea of productive, so seriously, don't mind me; I'm not casting aspersions on gamers, simply relating how I personally feel about me personally playing video games).

But! That Arkham Asylum video game sure was popular, I know, based on all the damn articles all the damn comics news sites have written about it. And, skimming those articles, the game sure seemed to have a pretty unique design aesthetic for Batman and his entire rogue's gallery, looking an awful lot like a live-action Hollywood Batman movie on which the guys who design MacFarlane toys served as costume designers and art directors. I kinda wanted to see how they designed their Scarecrow and Penguin and Bane and Mad Hatter and so on, and how they played those characters, all of whom have been designed and redesigned so very many times over the years.

So, I thought, it would be cool if DC published a comic book adaptation of the game, presenting the game's story (I assumed there was a pretty involved story to it, right?), using those designs, for curious Luddites like me...and, given how goddam popular the game was, it seemed like it would be a good business move for DC. If millions of folks are buying and playing the game, and you're publishing somewhere between six and fifteen Batman comics every month anyway, why not make one of them especially to appeal to the folks playing that game...?

This is the comic book they came up with. As the blurb on the trade paperback cover says, it's "The lead-in to the BEST-SELLING VIDEO GAME", released between Arkham Asylum and its sequel game Arkham City, and meant to serve as a bridge between the two.

And it's not very good. It's competent, sure, but rather than adapt a story from either game, its attempt to "bridge" them both means it's continuing a story from one game (which I'm completely unfamiliar with, although it seems to have had an incredibly ridiculous ending) and foreshadowing the story of another game, which I'm also completely unfamiliar with (and asks for a pretty big suspension of disbelief commitment, even for fans of Batman comics), and, at the time of release in serial format, everyone would have been completely unfamiliar with.

The story is this: After the events of the game Batman: Arkham Asylum, The Joker is in a wheelchair and facing a chronic disease as a result of his using a super-drug called Titan, which seems to be a lot like Bane's Venom (it turned The Joker into a Hulk-like version of himself in the flashback's). His girlfriend, Harley Quinn, breaks him out of jail just as he and the rest of the Arkham inmates are about to be transferred.

Where are they being transferred? Well, the new Gotham City Mayor is the former warden of Arkham, who has been elevated to the status of hero after whatever went down there (I'm assuming Batman was the real hero of the Arkham incident, so if Gotham would have made him mayor, I assume the need for a sequel game could have been avoided—or else the game would have been very, very different, as players guided Mayor Batman through various meetings and ribbon cutting ceremonies).

He is being controlled via hypnosis through a mysterious figure (who is only mysterious if you've never read a Batman comic or seen a Batman cartoon), into endorsing the craziest, dumbest plan ever: Transforming half of Gotham City into a sort of open-air asylum/prison/free-range supervillain zoo called "Arkham City."

From what we see here, it appears to be an adaptation of the storyline from "No Man's Land," customized into a video game-ready format. I honestly didn't quite get it, as the scenes set in the newly opened Arkham City show us that prison guards will work inside the city, so...I don't know. It doesn't make a lot of sense, logistics-wise, which is probably fine for a video game and/or the telling of a story set in that setting, but since the premise of this series/story is how Gotham City goes from Point A (a maximum security prison/asylum where they store there super-villain mass murderers) to Point B (a city where the super-villain mass murders can start their own society), selling the premise would seem to be a priority.

Instead, the issues are devoted to slowly revealing the Big Bad behind the mayor, a plot involving a terrorist attack conducted by two suicidal Titan-abusers to convince the public of Gotham that super-crime is still a pretty big problem, and moving Batman, The Joker, Harley Quinn, The Penguin and a few other characters into place for the start of the game.

D'Anda's artwork is fine, and while he's drawing the game's versions of the characters, his style is very comic book-y, and doesn't seem to be aping the aesthetic of the game at all. It looks pretty much like your standard-issue issue of a Batman comic, and the characters and their costumes aren't vary too terribly different than their DCU least, not the majority of the characters who appear for much length of time within this comic (I suppose that is due in large part to the fact that DC Comics hasn't really had standard designs for any characters for a long time; every Bat-villain can and often does look completely different in every appearance, depending on how the artists involved choose to draw them).

Of the characters appearing here, most look just like their comic book counterparts. The Batman of the games seems to be very heavily armored and to look closer to one of the movie Batmen then the comic book's Batman, but D'Anda draws him with white triangle eyes and a swathe of black cape that covers his seam-filled armored costume. Catwoman looks like comic book Catwoman, save for her gigantic breasts and the fact that her costume is unzipped to display them. The Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Two-Face and Poison Ivy all look like themsevles, with minor variances (The Penguin doesn't have a long, beak-like nose, Ivy has some kind of green henna-looking skin formation on her legs, etc).

Of the villains Mr. Zsasz, who appears only briefly, seems to be the most radically reinvented, shown shaved bald and with fewer, more realistic looking hash-mark scars, and, of course, Harley Quinn, who has ditched her costume and clown make-up, and basically just looks like a blond lady with a lot of eye-liner wearing red and black clothes.

Visually, the most thoroughly reinvented of all of the characters is Robin, who most closely resembles the Chris O'Donnel version from the Joel Schumacher Batman films, albeit with a cooler costume. It's not clear who he is—I think he's meant to be Dick Grayson—but he's clearly pretty old and pretty big, being about the same size and shape as Batman himself.

The part of the book I actually ended up enjoying the most was the 13-page concept art section by D'Anda and Brandon Badeaux, which featured their attempts to redesign characters for the game. In addition to Joker, Harley, The Riddler and Two-Face, who appear in the comic, there are a few pages of sketches also devoted to Mister Freeze, Solomon Grundy and Talia al Ghul, who do not.
They aren't simply finished sketches, but show different choices or directions that they could go in, and so we get to see, for example, seven different Talias with different hair styles and costumes (all extremely revealing, with all showing off her breasts and half revealing her belly, and all looking like very tight versions of something you might be able to buy off the rack at places that sells stripper clothes and motorcycle gear), or four versions of Harley, again, all of which are extremely revealing, and, here all of which are based on fetish-gear. One of 'em has a version of her regular mask, one has a bondage mask, the others are mask-less. All have corsets and garter straps, and piercings or tattoos or both. Two of them feature her wearing the sort of novelty furry handcuffs you'd find at a sex shop.

It's kinda weird really, and while I don't know what version of her appears in the Arkham City game, these are notably for reimagining her as such an overtly sexualized character; not as in "drawn sexy" or "meant to be there for cheesecake value," but as in she is wearing the sort of gear you would find at a fetish or Rubber Ball, from head to toe.

Badeaux' Solomon Grundy and Two-Face are the most intriguing sketches. Beadeaux's Grundy seems to take cues from Dough Mahnke's design of the Frankenstein who appeared in the Grant Morrison-written Seven Soldier's, with a ragged Victorian coat and stitching; he's also very zombified looking, with musculature peeking out of ripped-off patches of skin.
The Two-Face almost all look cooler than the one that appears in the preceding comic; one features the "bad" side of him dressed in clothes that look as burned as his face, with his pant leg and suit-sleeve partially burned off, as if the left half of his suite was doused with fire or acid just like his face. In two of the sketches, Two-Face seems to be trying to hide or at least obscure his scars; bearing bandages all over it and, in another, a Phantom of the Opera-like half mask, made of gnarly-looking iron. I quite like that iron mask; both it and the bandages reminded me of the two-part origin episodes form Batman: The Animated Series, although I can't recall ever seeing him wear a mask like the metal one (In that cartoon, he awakens with bandages over half his face, but eventually loses them, and later wears half of a cowl/hood).

I can't really recommend this trade to anyone, it's not very good, and there are literally hundreds of Batman trades of equal or better quality out there, but I think the Arkham Asylum-derived stuff is at least worth taking notice of, if only because of the way it seems to have been a fairly successful outreach to a Batman-interested audience beyond direct market consumers, the way it seems to have influenced specific design choices of "The New 52" line-wide redesign (New 52 Batman, for example, looks more like the video game Batman then the Batman who appears in this comic based on the video game, and obviously New 52 Harley Quinn is heavily influenced by the game's Harleys; in fact, much of Jim Lee and company's New 52 designs seemed to have kept that live-action film costumes-by-MacFarlane Toys aesthetic visual accent) and the great extent to which DC's New 52 seem to be targeting the Arkham game audience with their content.

I'd still kinda like to read a straight adaptation of the games in comics format featuring superior artwork. In the meantime, I suppose I can just wait for DC to publish a paper collection of their Batman: Arkham Unhinged digital comics, which, if nothing else, should provide a decent look at the character designs that went into the games (Or hell, maybe there's a book simply devoted to character designs sketches...? Maybe I'd like that best of all...)


Akilles said...

Well, wasn`t gonna read it anyway.

Anonymous said...

If I may venture a non-sequitur, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the complete collected covers for L&R.

L&R might not necessarily be your bag, but aesthetically it's a timeless classic. I'd like to hear you compare & contrast their approach to design with that of the stacks you shovel through each week.