By Andrew P. StevensArkham Manor #1 knows its readers sit on the cusp of Halloween, awash in all the nostalgia inherent in any fall. Artist Shawn Crystal and colorist Dave McCaig evoke the season on each page with the gnarled bodies of trees, fallen leaves, and an exclusive palette of muted greens, blacks, blues, oranges and browns. The color choices on McCaig’s part channel a mood of genuine All Hollow’s Eve glee without pastiche or self-mockery, a challenge in a season crowded with cheap representations aimed at lazy consumers.

And in keeping with the season, Batman is embellished here in dark bold lines, with gritty scratches of ink that reflect him as a creature of the night. After the recent catastrophic events of Batman Eternal, the reader senses that Batman remains hellbent on his usual diet of order and justice as he grapples with the corrupt systems of Gotham, only now with an added touch of malice. One system rises over the others, and functions as a source of ongoing aggravation for the Batman: Arkham Asylum. In Arkham Manor #1 the original Arkham is gone, and after many stake-holders in Gotham protest their institutions as potential new sites, the city exercises a clause of eminent domain and annexes Wayne Manor as the new asylum.

Early on, we watch a workman hammer away a Wayne ‘W’ into an Arkham ‘A,’ while a foreman explains on the phone that a painting of Thomas and Martha Wayne has gone missing. (The foreman comments, “No, I dunno who the hell would want that either.”) Here one senses tension between the past’s personal value and its uselessness to anyone else but those connected to it. Bruce Wayne stands torn between his benevolent identity co-opted and devalued by the city, and his identity as a vigilante validated with the potential for control of Arkham through a closer proximity to the asylum.

In the background of writer Gerry Duggan and artist Shawn Crystal’s Arkham Manor rests a mediation on the systems of Gotham that regulate its criminal element, but also function as a service to the oft-murdered, maimed, and assaulted average citizen. At its center, however, the creative team aims its focus on memory, specifically that of Batman’s link to his childhood home.

One notable two-page spread divides adult and child, as Batman/Bruce Wayne carefully steps into the foyer of what’s become of Wayne Manor: on the left stands a childhood Bruce rendered in sepia tones, greeted by Jim Gordon with Alfred and others in the expanse of the Manor’s halls. Duggan and Crystal carefully place Thomas and Martha Wayne’s portrait in the background as an object that carries vital symbolic weight. Removed from the manor, as noted earlier, the painting – now a talisman that evokes the grief that Bruce suffers – is carefully stored within the safe confines of the BatCave. On the right, institutional blues and blacks color television monitors, bullet-proof glass, and a nameless Arkham official, who engages Batman by saying, “You can’t come in here.” (“Let him through,” Detective Harvey Bullock casually insists.) In the contrast of these two pages, the reader understands that neither Batman nor Bruce, regardless of the functionality or ownership of the manor, could ever truly return home. In this juxtaposition one gets a sense of the comic’s intent – an exploration of identity as linked to place, an intention solidified even further in the final pages of the work.

The reader encounters a resurgence of this ghostly past with a brilliant, triple-doorway full page splash, where Bruce advances through adolescence awash in sepia tone. The splash page is interrupted at bottom right with a sudden, snot-green panel featuring an exhausted, stubbled Batman being jerked away form his reverie (“… this home is what saved me…) with his discovery of a mutilated and murdered Arkham inmate.

The creative team portrays this Batman not as a knight, but rather as an obsessive and slightly sick enforcer of a righteous code: during a standard mugging encounter, Batman ruthlessly punishes the two assailants, and their screams exit the scene of the crime and halt the steps of a group of teens and a father with his son. The rescued victim runs from the alley and, upon Batman’s request, shouts, “call 911!” One senses here the potential cruelty of Batman, a hero averse not from violence, but the final act of killing. It’s a blurred division given this grim application of justice.

There are three major characters at play in this issue – Gotham, Batman and Arkham. The first is characterized plainly with the opening line, “Gotham City is a vicious old animal“; it establishes Gotham as Batman’s protectorate, but also evokes a sentience for the city as an organism all its own. Arkham, in its destruction, then becomes the true antagonist that infects Gotham’s myriad of concerned citizens. (“When Arkham fell, the walls of the tumor burst, its sickness spreading into the arteries of the beast.”)  The dysfunction of Gotham’s immune system, if one sticks with the metaphor, are succinctly played out with an exchange between two of the city’s public servants, here a doctor and policeman: Arkham’s inmates are temporarily housed at a local hospital where a flummoxed doctor throws up his hands and protests, “we’re not equipped for this!” and the policeman responds, “Oh? Welcome to Gotham.”

While the examination of page one might seem beleaguered here, it bears noticing that in its five panels the reader understands all the stakes of Arkham Manor: the criminally insane of Arkham could potentially be released to damage Gotham, so the city in turn responds with an ineffective bureaucracy that cannot successfully contain the asylum’s “sickness.”. These two forces function together and create a plausibility for Bruce’s easy acceptance of the city’s terms.

This creative team knows their craft. The logic of their piece, as explained above, allows the reader a complete immersion into this world and its plot, without the nagging questions that often arrive in the outlandish plots of the Caped Crusader’s comics. Writer Gerry Duggan, and the editorial team Matt Humphreys and Mark Doyle marshal narration, communicative objects, and rapid plot development without sacrificing its fresh new take on the world of Batman.

The Batman they present in these pages, unshaven and pale, coalesces with the motif of sickness in Arkham and Gotham, and presents the whole network as a place worthy of quarantine. These three forces are sick in their own ways, whether through bureaucratic dysfunction, literal insanity, or the bizarre impulse to disguise oneself as a Bat to fight crime.

By its end, Arkham Manor promises both a gritty and fresh take on Batman, while presenting a complex psychological portrait of a character who is presently enjoying his 75th year of limelight.

DC Comics/$2.99

Written by Gerry Duggan.

Art by Shawn Crystal.

Colored by Dave McCaig.

9 out of 10