Those who have read about the recent events in Batman (# 697) would know that the identity of the Black Mask have indeed been revealed as Jeremiah Arkham. So the question is: did DC really set the groundwork for this revelation? Well, the answer is yes, as the early issues of “Shadow of the Bat” (numbers 1-4, 1992) had one of the best debuts of a new ongoing series with “The LAST ARKHAM”. This story arc now collected in one volume follows the events of the graphic novel “Arkham Asylum” and may well be the catalyst of the “Black Mask” storyline depicted in recent issues of “Batman“. The "LAST ARKHAM" also introduces the characters of Jeremiah Arkham (Shadow of the Bat # 1), Amygdala (in # 3) and Mr. Zsasz (also in #1)
Batman has been committed in Arkham Asylum and is now under the care of Jeremiah Arkham, the nephew of Amadeus Arkham. Jeremiah has re-modeled the asylum to be nearly impregnable using labyrinth-like designs and high-tech security systems. Meanwhile, there has been a flurry of grisly murders in Gotham City that has the victims set up as ‘alive’ with their throats slashed and left to bleed to death. All clues point to the serial killer called Zsasz, as this is his modus operandi. But the problem is, Zsasz is also locked up in Arkham Asylum in a special holding cell that allows him little means to move for most of the day. Is there a copy cat that lurks the inhabitants of Gotham… Or is there something more grim and sinister at work? But the Batman may have succumbed to the madness and is also immobilized within Arkham Asylum; with his old enemies who are also after his head. What are the secrets of Jeremiah Arkham and the murderer called Zsasz?
Those who are familiar with the Batman know that the man is obsessed, driven and may have his own level of psychosis depending on who you ask. Think about it, the man saw his parents get murdered in front of his eyes so of course he would have a little of a loose screw up there to dress up like a bat to take his vengeance on the criminal underworld. Yes, Bruce Wayne is crazy, just not in the way you may think. Writer Alan Grant and ace Batman artist Norm Breyfogle bring this feared possibility into fruition as we wonder why and how Batman would be incapacitated within Arkham Asylum. Zsasz makes for a good nemesis for the Batman, he is scary and definitely imbalanced. He sees his murders as an act of mercy on the zombies of society, he scars himself with each life he takes to remind himself that he also is a sinner.
Chapter one presents a look inside the personality of Jeremiah Arkham as he tries to establish a new order after the fall of his Uncle Amadeus and the new Arkham Asylum as we get to take a look its inhabitants. We also get to see how he treats his patients and it was surprising to see some of the villains cower in fear to the therapeutic techniques of this new warden. Indeed some of these ‘treatments’ appear real violent and we see the Asylum’s most feared patient; in this case the Batman. Jeremiah chooses to let his identity remain a secret as he expects Batman himself to tell him who he was as the truth and a sign of his being ‘cured’ when the time came. A lot of villains have chosen this road, as they admit a fascination to the secrets of Batman’s identity. (see Batman: Venom
However, we all know that this story arc is the debut of a new series back then right? So yes, Batman had himself committed for a reason. He is here investigating the murder of several people, and he believes that one of its patients, Zsasz is the one responsible as he continually taunted him. Batman together with Commissioner Gordon hatched a scheme to have Batman investigate from within the confines of the asylum. This may well prove to be one of the series’ underlying plot holes as we see Batman still with his “utility belt” (perhaps it was empty) and I did find it a little hard to believe that most of the patients were still wearing their ‘costumes’ (the Joker, the Riddler, the Scarecrow etc.), I found this a little hard to buy into but perhaps it was a method used by Jeremiah Arkham with his therapy or something else. It didn’t bother me much but it was something that was left a little underdeveloped.
Alan Grant does manage to generate a feeling of suspense most especially in the first two chapters; as the reader is shocked to see Batman in chains and to see him reminisce how it all started. The murder investigations can be seen as something lifted from the movie “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs”. They had that somewhat unnerving atmosphere and even though this was illustrated without the aid of computer enhancements, Breyfogle still manages to get the right tone and the right mood to keep things going. Breyfogle’s illustrations sometimes do strike me as a more gritty Jim Aparo merged with the more shadowy light sources that Todd Macfarlane and Marshall Rogers uses. Please keep in mind that this story arc was published in a new ongoing series at the time, so expect it to be a little mainstream.
I also liked the fact that the writing did remember to give some spotlight to Batman’s protégés; Robin and the original “Robin”, now known as “Nightwing”. The current Robin (Tim Drake) relates the story to Dick Grayson (he is now wearing the mantle in the conclusion of the Black Mask storyline) and I found it real interesting that Tim is following Gordon’s orders to stay away from the asylum, and believes that there may be a possibility that Batman may have indeed gone insane while Grayson NEVER believed a word of it. “Not Batman…not ever.” This is a testament to the bond between Grayson and Wayne; they have a relationship more complex than a mere mentor and student. Grayson would always think of the best of Bruce Wayne, no matter what happens.
The four-parter also has a lot of action as the Batman takes on orderlies and some of his old foes. Wayne is a superb, trained fighter so his foes without their goons, pure psychosis hardly proves a match. The action is indeed very cool as Breyfogle illustrates the fights with a gritty and tough attitude while it shows them almost as if it is something out of play or a dance since it has fluid motion. Even when tied down, the Batman can still fight off his attackers.
However, I did wish that the Joker would’ve been more involved in the storyline but I guess the writer wanted to focus on Jeremiah Arkham’s relationship with Zsasz (the Joker would just draw all the attention away after all). Their relationship and conversations did somewhat remind me of the exchanges in “Red Dragon” between Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. I did like the scenes where the reader gets to witness the drive and raw resourcefulness of the Caped Crusader as he seemed to be able to find a way to get himself out of tough situations. “The Last Arkham” does display the mindset of the Batman as being always expecting the worst out of any situation.
Despite some flaws, “The Last Arkham” still managed to bring me a very suspenseful read and it was a delicious opening story arc for the “Shadow of the Bat” monthly series which was being promoted as the grittiest, darkest title in the Batman comic books during that time. I liked the fact that the story arc explored some aspects of the Batman persona and is a great follow up to “Arkham Asylum”. It sets the groundwork for Jeremiah Arkham’s descent to madness that takes place in current issues of the more recent issues of Batman and takes the Dark Knight in the world of serial murderers.
Highly Recommended! [4- Stars]
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"The Last Arkham" collected volume