Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arkham Asylum: Madness (comics)

Writer/Artist: Sam Kieth
Original Graphic Novel

You'll notice there's no "Batman" in the book title. It's intentional. Arkham Asylum is the star of the show here. Batman doesn't even make an appearance.

It's nice when we get a comic about Arkham Asylum. That type of Batman story is one wisely kept to occasional stories, but when we do get to delve into the madness, it's often a treat. It's rare we get a look strictly at the asylum, however, even in its spotlight stories. This one bucks the trend; the high concept is that the reader spends twenty four hours with the staff of Arkham, seeing firsthand what the staff has to go through on a given day.

This is one of those comics that depicts Arkham as hell*. It's a working environment so harsh and difficult that staff tends to come and go with alarming frequency, frequently leaving the building short staffed. It's a take I've always found particularly interesting, as you have to wonder what a place like Arkham could do to a person. The personalities within go beyond extreme and into downright frightening territory. We even see some staff come and go within the book itself.

Sam Kieth writes and draws the book. He is professional in both aspects. He sells us on the characters within and the trials they go through. Some stick around for the pay or hours, having given up or resigned themselves to the job they hate. Others are there out of desperation, trying to claw their way out of a debt all too many in the world feel the weight of.

Our main character is one such nurse and I felt Kieth really sold her troubles. She's practically trapped there through an ever crazier day, first wanting to get out early, then being stuck with the full shift, then stuck with a double. I actually felt some tension from the book, wanting her to be able to leave the place before the other shoe drops. That's a very good sign.

Sam Kieth's art is even better. He does not draw in some sort of house style. He ranges from dirty to simple to painterly work, depending on what a scene needs. It doesn't look like typical comic art and that's a strength. He sometimes exaggerates the things he draws - and not every choice in how he draws certain characters work** - but it's in a way that serves the story in ways that similar styles just do not manage.

He is, frankly, perfect for this kind of book. His style easily renders itself to giving the sort of nightmarish pictures a book like this needs. This is, after all, something akin to a horror comic. Clocks drip blood, inmates torment the staff, flashbacks show someone losing a limb to Jokers madness. Under a normal sort of artist, it can be quite effective. Under a guy like Sam Kieth, it's twisted. Great work on his part.

In the afterword, he mentions the fanboys perhaps not being pleased with his art style. This is true, I suppose. Sam Kieth does not draw quite like anyone else. But that's a boon; pair him with the right project and it's clear he can really kick ass. I hope he's "let out of the cell" again fairly soon; I think I'd like to read more work like this.

The Score: 8 out of 10

A very well put together OGN that was well worth the time. It's not perfect and it won't change the comics world, but it's a very interesting project. Even if you're not really a fan of Sam Kieths style, I think this book is well worth tracking down, as this is the sort of story his work really meshes with. Give it a look.

* Boy, is it ever hell. By the end, some questions popped up in my mind. What happens if everyone, or at least the vast majority of the staff - were to quit? How the hell does the asylum go on? You'd think SOMEBODY would have to be moved there, or else the crazies would be loose or transferred somewhere else, basically starting the process over. But at that point, how much money would you have to offer someone to work Arkham of all places? Who really runs and keeps it in check? I know the Arkhams built it, but isn't there some kind of institution that would have to regulate it? This is the kind of crap I think about at night.

** I'm not a fan of his choice for Harleys look. For some reason, she has her hair in dreadlocks. It looks damn odd on her. Some give the Arkham games flak for their sexualized depiction of Harley, but even with the cosmetic changes she looks like herself. Here, she looks more like a used up junkie. But that's the thing about a style like this; you're going to find some things that don't work for you, even when the work is this good.

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