Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Arkham Vs. Blackgate, Round One: Softball

Tomorrow DC will release Forever Evil: Arkham War #1, the first issue of a six-part miniseries by Peter J. Tomasi, Scot Eaton and far more inkers than typically necessary. It will detail the conflict between Bane, who has raised an army of soldiers from his prison nation of Santa Prisca and by rallying those held in Gotham City's Blackgate Prison, and the significant portion of Batman's rogues gallery that are usually held in Arkham Asylum.

Following the events of the first two issues of Forever Evil—Batman, Nightwing and Red Robin taken off the board, the world's super-criminals all freed to run riot, worldwide blackouts, a permanent eclipse of the sun—the denizens of Arkham have split Gotham City between themselves, under the kinda-sort leadership of Secret Society of Super-Villains go-between The Scarecrow and the new mayor of Gotham City, The Penguin.

It's going to be the sane criminals versus the criminally insane criminals, basically.

This isn't the first time that the regular, old, not-so-colorful criminals of Blackgate came into conflict with the maniacal theme villains of Arkham Asylum, of course. It's likely to be a lot more violent (and long) though, as the last Blackgate vs. Arkham war was fought on a softball diamond.
Kyle Baker's cover for Showcase '94 #4
That conflict played out in writer Alan Grant, pencil artist Tim Sale and inker Jimmy Palmiotti's "Madmen Across The Water," a 36-page story that was split into two chapters and ran in 1994's Showcase '94 (It has since been collected in Tales of the Batman: Tim Sale, which collects all of the shorter Batman comics that aren't available in trade form; in other words, everything Batman comic he drew that Jeph Loeb didn't write).

The story takes place shortly after the events of the big "Knightfall" crossover, in which Bane blew open the doors of Arkham Asylum, armed the inmates and let them tire Batman out for him. It worked, and Bane defeated Batman and broke his back—only to have one of Batman's many allies, Jean-Paul Valley, put on a bat-suit and some high-tech claw gauntlets, and beat him into a near vegetative state.

This story, narrated by Grant's Jeremiah Arkham character, details where the Arkham inmates went while the asylum was being rebuilt. Against their wishes, his wishes and those of Blackgate warden Governor Zehrhard and those of all of the Blackgate prison population, they are to be kept at Blackgate.

Here's the cast of inmates Grant and Sale were working with:
It's worth noting that in the early '90s, Batman's rogues gallery was a lot tamer, and while I don't think anyone on that page (save for Sarter, one of the two characters Grant created specifically for this story) never killed anyone, they weren't all Joker-level homicidal maniacs taking multiple lives in every appearance. In fact, with The Joker missing from this story, Mr. Zsasz plays the role of alpha murderer, and he is therefore absent from most of the story (he's tossed into solitary after biting the nose off on a prisoner on page six).

(It's probably also worth noting that of the 11 inmates mentioned there, Grant co-created four of them).

For the most part, these guys are safe enough to be around that they aren't handcuffed or shackled on the way there, and Arkham and others mix more or less freely among them. The current fashion is to treat everyone Batman fights as a hardcore serial killer, but Grant writes and wrote many of these guys as merely colorful criminals with bad-wiring that lead to their quirks and incarceration (That is probably even more evident in this particular story, given that the Arkham inmates are the "heroes" of the story, of a sort, and it's more of a dark, humor piece than a crime or horror story).
Suffice it to say that the two different populations of career criminals don't get along all that great. And because Zerhard is himself greatly revolted by the "criminally insane," thinking them all cowards hiding behind their costumes and feigned mental illness in order to avoid paying for their crimes, his attitude prevails. Arkham, of course, is rather sympathetic to his charges (Both men suffer from a sort of reversed Stockholm syndrome).
Each conflict—bullying in the cafeteria, predilection for turning tools into instruments of evil, a successful suicide attempt, a riot—leads to the Arkham group losing more and more rights. It finally culminates with a bet between Arkham and Zerhard: If the Arkham inmates, none of whom have ever even played softball, can defeat Blackgate's team, they get all privileges restored, daily use of the main exercise yard and their own segregated canteen.

It doesn't go well, at first:
But Dr. Faustus, the other character Grant created specifically for this story, a Satanist who believes himself immortal, proves to be quite a coach, and soon he whips them into fine shape.

It helps that they've all got...unusual talents.
Cornelius Stirk, yet another Grant creation (along with Norm Breyfogle, who also co-created Amygdala and Mr. Zsasz), proves to adept at pitching, for example. Upon laying hands on a softball for the first time, he remarks, "Why, how like a human heart it feels...!" And, when his first practice pitch whizzes right past The Scarecrow, he brags, "They're well-exercised, those muscles...That's my stabbing arm, you know!"

Firefly's proves a pretty good outfielder:
As the only woman on the island, Poison Ivy doesn't really need any chemicals or pheromones to get men to do what she wants:
Making her good at both defense and offense:
And here's one of my favorite moments, as Scarecrow makes it to first base by scaring the first baseman into missing the catch, no fear gas or chemicals necessary:
At the risk of spoiling any part of this almost 20-year-old story, the "Crims Vs. Kooks" game never reaches it's proper ending, thanks to first another riot, this one involving baseball bats, uniforms and more team spirit:
And multiple escape attempts.

I expect a much bigger body count and much fewer sports action in Forever Evil: Arkham War. Sadly, I don't think we can expect to see art quite as good as that of a younger, less experienced and confident Tim Sale, and darker, muddier coloring than that provided by Bernie Mireault.

Here are some of my other favorite images from the story, both involving my favorite Bat-villain, who Sale would go on to perfect a version of in his various "Year One" era collaborations with writer Jeph Loeb.

As Sarter threatens to kill himself in the cafeteria, The Scarecrow eggs him on, oblivious to The Mad Hatter's designs on his juice:
And I love this image of him running in the background of this particular argument:
Oh, and here's the cover for Showcase '93 #3, which contained the first half of the story, by Mike motherfucking Mignola, in case you want to see Mignola drawing a bunch of Bat-villains (And who wouldn't?):

4 comments:

Akilles said...

Wow. Very different from Sales later takes on the characters.

SallyP said...

Incredible how a 20 year old story sounds so much better than the new one.

Kelly Tindall said...

When I first became friendly with Tim Sale back in the late nineties, I asked him about this 2-parter (which I read and loved). He said something like this: "If you want to be my friend, don't ask me about the Arkham baseball story."

Caleb said...

Sale provides one page prose introductions to each of the stories in the collection. It woulda been pretty cool if for the intro to this story he said "If you want to be my friend, don't ask me about the Arkham baseball story" in 48-point font.