I don’t know what the official line for this Renaissance of Bat-titles is, but it can’t be far off from the mark that each is aiming for a very different kind of Bat-title. In other words, no more of just Batman prowling around, whipping various lunatics into submission with a growl and a Batarang. Gotham Academy and the new direction for Batgirl definitely fit the bill, but it’s harder to see how Arkham Manor thinks outside the box for most of its first issue.
Part of its problem is that Arkham Manor takes place in the ambiguous continuity of Batman Eternal, and so resembles more of an Elseworld than anything else. We’re talking about a premise that depends on Bruce somehow losing his family fortune and the destruction of Arkham Asylum, events that are never further explained in the issue except to say they happened. This is a disservice to anyone not reading Futures End, a barrier Duggan could have avoided simply by offering a little more context.
Believe me, he has plenty of opportunity for it. Much of the issue is taken up by Bruce brooding on his personal history with Wayne Manor, which provided him both a refuge from his emotions and to wallow in them, as well as a place to train and work. Duggan writes these soliloquies effectively, and they’re necessary to show the sacrifice Bruce is once again making for the good of Gotham, but they’re also long and repetitive for an issue that could stand to answer some actual questions.
The conversion of the manor is swift and cursory, background noise against Bruce’s narration, and only towards the end of the issue does Duggan reveal the plot: two murders to bless the new Arkham, the perpetrator unknown. This is textbook stuff for Bruce, or it should be, which makes it all the more unexpected when he suddenly decides [Spoiler alert!] to enter Arkham Manor himself as an inmate. Thus he adds to his growing list of personas Jack Shaw, a heavily scarred, gold-toothed, mustachioed beast who fits right into the general populace of Arkham.
Only then does the title reveal its darkly luscious possibilities, though it remains to be seen if Duggan can capitalize on them. Batman has always been thinly removed from the mad villains he put away; whether he can resist falling altogether even while his goal is to pass among them can yield a lot of compelling material.
Crystal’s art is rough around the edges, but tight, like old scars, the lines straining to hold back the tension constantly working through the issue. Detailing is decent, and in fact there’s something of a Sean Murphy look to the art, except more in your face. It’s pure Batman, through and through, down to the way Crystal draws his silhouette like a phantom, less human than he’s looked for a while. McCaig’s colors are perfectly tinted, almost dull, suiting the issue’s somber tone.
A solid introduction that could have punched itself up a little better with more substance.We don't give nearly enough focus on this point, but it's a good one: Bruce steals the last possession of a forgotten, homeless veteran—his name—to get into Arkham. That's cold, man.