Arkham Asylum: Living Hell
by Dan Slott, Ryan Sook
(DC Comics, 2003)

Not to be confused with Arkham Asylum, Dan Slott's Arkham Asylum: Living Hell -- while similar in its descent-into-hell premise -- takes a far more direct approach than its arty predecessor. One page into this highly absorbing story and you'll find yourself in a landscape both familiar and utterly different from anything you've read before. AA:LH is just as good, if not better, than its antecedent.

Clever, taut and twisting without ever once losing its footing, AA:LH establishes itself from the get-go as a suspense thriller that's so gripping, with characters so real and yet so frightening in their disguised absurdities, that it would be easy to classify it as a supernatural thriller.

Warren "The Great White Shark" White is a scheming multimillionaire who escaped going to jail for securities fraud by claiming he had a "mental disorder." Unfortunately for White, his smug attempt to ditch hard time after scuttling millions of dollars worth of pension funds in Enron-like schemes does not go unpunished. A savvy judge sends White to Arkham Asylum, where he earns both the nickname "Fish" and a ringside seat to the unfolding events in which he's swept up: ghosts of the dead who want revenge, prison guards going toe-to-toe with demons, and inmates who make compacts with devils. The supernatural content is only half the story, though; the other half is solid, Oz-like prison drama, featuring one of the toughest and most humane cops ever to grace the pages of a Batman story: Aaron Cash, a man with a heart and soul to rival that of the masked vigilante himself.

Though the plot is presented as a straightforward thriller, it's the characters' absurd representations of themselves and their twisted games that elevate this story to the level of Gothic horror story in the very first pages. The atmosphere is at one and the same time very subtle and very vivid. The rogues' gallery is handled with a deft touch that mixes the lower tier villains -- who collectively represent a much bigger threat than any one "supersize" Riddler/Joker/Poison Ivy style baddie -- with the upperclassmen that constitute Batman's more high-profile villains. All of them, from Doodlebug to Mayfly to Junkyard Dog to Humpty Dumpty, are frightening enough in their own right, their madness almost mesmerizing in their completeness. As if that isn't enough, we've got Etrigan the Demon making a cameo appearance toward the end.

Fair warning: one prominent member of Gotham's crime-fighting community puts in an appearance only in the very beginning and at the end. But don't worry: there's so much going on in this tightly packed story that you'll hardly notice Batman isn't there.

Somehow, Slott, of Batman Adventures and Ren & Stimpy fame, manages to find the time to explore the personalities of these twisted madmen and women while simultaneously scoring more than a few points about the issue of recidivism. As if that isn't enough, he manages a trip down memory lane to the Gotham of the past, to a time when buildings had giant typewriters on them, and gives us a plausible explanation for why things had to change. And yet, it's not distracting: tightly packed as the story already is, the flashbacks and political comments support both the plot and the sharp characterization.

Ryan Sook's artwork calls to mind Mike Mignola's dark work in Hellboy, with its deceptively simple lines and excellent use of chiaroscuro. In a dark world like Arkham it would be easy to go all-out and be highly experimental, but Sook keeps the reader grounded with clean, lean, kinetic artwork so simple and effortless that it seems as though he did it in a single sitting.

There is much about this story that could have been contrived, but nothing here is deliberately rigged. In fact, it's hard to find a wrong note. It delivers a hard punch and manages to be completely engrossing at the same time. Fans of the Dark Knight may not like his lack of a starring role; however, if you love good Gothic stories with a cool twist at the end, this is one that you will not successfully dislodge from your skull long after you're done with it. Next to Batgirl: Year One, this is one of the best Bat-related miniseries of 2003. Don't miss it.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 3 April 2004

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