With comics, I have the same concerns about their treatment of psychology that I do about their treatment of politics: they just don’t do it very well. Not that I think they can’t—anyone read Daredevil lately?—but writers mostly dumb down mental illness to being either crazy-violent or crazy-deluded, without much sensitivity to the depth and range of psychological issues people can suffer from. I don’t think comics need to be preachy about it, but they should strive for less shallowness, too.
The biggest problem when writers only show the symptoms of mental illness, but not their causes, is it distances readers from the stricken characters. Accessibility is already a hurdle with fictional characters, and when combined with our natural discomfort with the other, that means a writer has to put in more effort to make that connection, not less. Otherwise you end up feeling vaguely sorry for someone like Seth Wickham, without really caring all that much about his fate.
And poor Seth probably deserves more sympathy than Duggan sets him up to have. A single page isn’t really enough to understand the nature of any mental illness, and Duggan only shows its violent effects on Seth’s family. You understand the need to put him away, but not the tragedy. Duggan actually treats Seth more as a criminal than a patient; Seth gets sent to Arkham (itself an institution intended for criminals) only because “the prison system would be a death sentence” for him. Maybe this is just another one of those ways that Gotham is Gotham, but it’s also a gross misconception of how modern mental health treatment works.
The same confusion arises when we view the group therapy session led by Dr. Arkham himself. In almost every respect, Arkham is a terrible counselor, being at once self-promoting (“You are very much alive and if I do say so myself, receiving excellent care.”), arrogant (“…the catastrophe at the Asylum will not be repeated here.”), and rigid (when Scarecrow demands to be called doctor, Arkham snaps, “Not while you’re in here.”). So does Arkham suck as a psychologist because that’s how broken an institution Arkham is, or is it because Duggan doesn’t really know how therapy works?
There’s a good argument for the former. The way Arkham drills his patients about their crimes, using the recent murders in the manor to get them to feel “the dread that your victims must have felt,” is vengeful, almost malicious. We don’t know much about Arkham’s past, but it’s not hard to imagine years of treating unrepentant, entirely lucid murderers like Victor Fries (Mr. Freeze) and Jonathan Crane (Scarecrow) may wear down both patience and compassion.
Bruce, who’s not known for either virtue but the closest thing we’ve got to a moral compass here, doesn’t bat an eye at Arkham’s inappropriate treatment. He’s entirely focused on solving the murders staining his home, to the point that he estimates he’ll be done and out before the day’s done. But we’re talking about an institution whose entire clientele (and some of the employees) are potential suspects, not just those named (or referred to, in the cases of “Mr. Meek” and “John Doe”). Bruce thinks he has a lead with the missing Zsasz, but that’s likely only a red herring for some other party altogether.*
This is a series dominated by men, which suits Crystal’s gruff, gritty style just fine. Each character is easily distinguishable from the other, despite their uniform clothing, and while everyone looks tough and hard to break, they’re not so muscular as to be implausible mental patients. There’s not much action this issue, but Crystal sells what little there is with snappy shifts in POV and quick-hitting panels of movement. The overall effect is like a sudden mental break, starting with no warning and ending before you can fully grasp what just happened. McCaig fills the manor with gloom, making it look more natural in darkness than light, suggesting that the place is doomed.
* I like to think it’s the patient who died in Seth’s arms after they got trapped underground during the collapse of Arkham. He did get impaled by a drill-like pole, and the latest victim got drilled in the head.
– “I have an ally on the inside. A man from Metropolis.” Who now? Is Bruce talking about Border, the only orderly who seems to have any competence whatsoever, or Clark?
– Spoilers for Gotham Academy: one Arkham patient is Sybil Silverlock, whose secondary persona, “Calamity,” Bruce considers with weariness.
There's a lot more we have to know before we can tell if Duggan knows what he's doing, but there are positive signs in this issue.