Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shepherd492 reviews: Batman: Arkham City

Batman: Arkham City

Arkham City was originally published as a five part miniseries from July to October of 2011. The trade paperback was released in September of 2012.

                Arkham City is the tie in to the acclaimed 2011 video game of the same name. Despite having the exact same title as the game, it isn't actually a novelization. Instead, this is a look into the events that set the stage for that story. This book promises to look at Mayor Quincy Sharp's efforts to implement the Arkham City project, the Joker's recovery after the events of Arkham Asylum, and the formation of the new criminal underbelly that is important to the structure of the game. As a prequel story, it is very important that Arkham City manages to tell both a compelling story in its own right while also doing plenty of things to properly build towards the more high-profile entry that it is drawing inspiration from.
                The core of this book is Batman's efforts to investigate the mysterious new confines of Arkham City and the odd behavior of former Arkham Asylum warden Quincy Sharp. He employs all manner of tricks to pull off his information gathering, including an extremely cool sequence where he dresses up as a hardcore biker to infiltrate Joker's criminal hideout. In doing this we are treated to a look inside how Joker runs his enterprise and finds new talent, and it is a method totally at home with his maniacal need for chaos and brutality. This scene may be the highlight of the entire book, but there is plenty more about Batman's actions to take note of. He spends most of his time doing the usual stalking and sleuthing that more properly defines his character, fighting off the dangerous Tyger guards that have been implemented to maintain order, and doing his best to get to the bottom of the illogical development of Arkham City. Along the way are a few higher stakes action scenes, where Batman faces the overt criminal element already taking shape in Arkham, including a rather weird set of titanized twins that present an interesting challenge for the Dark Knight.
                One of the more interesting elements of the Arkham City project is exactly how something so prone to disaster would be accepted by the media and civilians of Gotham at large. Housing criminals in a giant open air prison and giving them free reign to do whatever they want within those confines doesn't seem like something that would be palatable to the average person. This book does deal quite a bit with this issue, first showing us how Hugo Strange manipulated Quincy Sharp into agreeing to the hare-brained plan, then giving us many sequences involving the media that show us the public opinion side of the affair. Characterization throughout the book is absolutely spot on- The Joker is as entertaining as ever in his comparatively minor role in this book, and Hugo Strange shines as the true mastermind behind the Arkham City planning, although the character is lacking most of the oddity and perversion that so defined him in Prey, his most iconic role. Batman is more of a generic character here- this is clearly not a book aimed at delving into his psyche and instead we get a serviceable but shallow portrayal of his character and fellow protagonist Catwoman.
                The only thing stopping this from being a legitimately good story is the lack of a meaningful ending. The book ends with basically an advertisement to go buy the game to see what happens next, and nothing really gets resolved. Similarly, too many actions in this book just don't seem to have much consequence. They might be fun, but they just aren't going anywhere. All the principal characters have to be alive, unchained, and ready for action at the onset of the game, so there is only so much you can do with them. As such, this story often feels quite a bit like a guided tour through Arkham City, with a bit of exposition to fill in crucial details about the setting. This isn't a game-breaker because it is an entirely entertaining ride, but it does limit this otherwise enjoyable book to an audience more interested in learning about Arkham City than in experiencing a well rounded Batman tale. 
                As you might expect, the artwork in this tie-in borrows heavily from the designs and styling of the video game. The art team does a fantastic job of re-creating this style, particularly with the characters themselves. Catwoman and Joker look absolutely perfect. The team does a fantastic job of showing just how poorly the Joker has been responding to his rehabilitation, a trait that almost makes you feel bad for the perpetual antagonist. Of course, keeping the Arkham style means that we have to deal with the flaws. The titanized characters are still weird and unappealing, though suitably grotesque if nothing else, and Bane's outfit is utterly ridiculous. Perhaps most importantly, this book does a superb job of bringing Arkham City to life. It retains the run down, dilapidated feel of the game, looking more like Gotham with an attitude than a bona fide prison. There may be only a few instances of truly amazing artwork, but as a faithful representation of the game's style, Arkham City is a finely constructed comic that has far more hits than misses.

                Also included in this collected edition are a handful of "online chapters" that are basically vignettes featuring a few of the important characters from the Arkham universe. Featured characters include Bane, Robin, Hugo Strange, and the Riddler. These chapters vary wildly in quality, from a surprisingly enjoyable Riddler story to an unbelievably lame Robin story featuring some excruciating dialogue. Each was created by a different art team, so as you might imagine the results vary quite a bit. Compared to the main story the production values are rather low, with the Hugo Strange story looking particularly bad, but there are a few standout panels here and there. As a bonus, these are a nice treat especially in conjunction with the more conventional sketch pages and concept art, but they aren't much on their own.
                Arkham City is a book that fans of the video game will appreciate. It does a fantastic job of giving us more information on the many details leading up to the video game, most crucially the founding of Arkham City. People who aren't interested in the game will still find plenty to like in the excellent characterization and solid artwork, but without the game as a frame of reference, most of the revelations will have little impact on you, and the conclusion will be woefully disappointing. As an interquel that has to insert itself between two far more recognized works, Arkham City is a success, but for all the fun there is a genuine lack of high stakes tension and meaningful actions that prevent the otherwise fun story from achieving greatness.
Final Score

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