It’s Sam Kieth! What’s not to love?
DC, which, unlike Marvel, still releases original graphic novels every once in a while, recently released this one, which is written, drawn, and occasionally colored by Sam Kieth, colored the rest of the time by Michelle Madsen and Dave Stewart, and lettered by Steve Wands. It’s a slim volume – not quite 100 pages long, and it retails for $19.99. If DC releases a softcover, that might be a better version to get, because it’s an interesting comic, but not a great one, and that’s too bad.
The basic plot is simple: A nurse named Sabine arrives for her shift at Arkham Asylum in the morning and ends up staying for 24 hours when she’s drafted for the night shift as well.
It is, of course, a strange 24 hours. The Joker is doing weird things, and everything kinds of comes to a head while Sabine is there. Kieth is concerned far more with Sabine and the way she and the staff reacts to the weirdness going on at the asylum, so the plot is somewhat inconsequential. In many ways, this book is a nice companion piece to The Killing Joke, in that the Joker is trying to drive many people mad, and instead of turning a carnival into a madhouse, he simply uses the madhouse in which he’s confined. In some ways, this is a far more disturbing comic than The Killing Joke, because Kieth leaves the ending more ambiguous than Moore did. We think that the Joker is proven wrong and that not everyone loses their sanity when confronted with the insane, but then Kieth forces us to reconsider what happens. The idea that Kieth is toying with is an interesting one. Sabine needs the job – she’s a young mother and she and her husband don’t make much money – but does she need it to the point where it destroys her soul? Is her love of her son enough to resist the insanity that surrounds her? Will defending her child against the Joker drive her to the point where he wants her to go anyway? Kieth brings all of these themes up throughout the book, and although they don’t always work perfectly (mainly because Sabine remains somewhat of a blank slate, emotionally – she reacts to things as we expect her to react, and so we don’t really get a sense that she might swerve), Kieth is good enough to make the ending fairly gut-wrenching. It’s a decent psychological horror story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem with the story is that Kieth doesn’t really do anything new with any of the characters.
I know that he can’t really do too much because this is, presumably, “in continuity” and so he can’t change too much, but he doesn’t really give us new takes of the old chestnuts. The book that this is obviously hearkening back to, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (yes, I just compared it to The Killing Joke, but I can compare it to two different books, right?), at least gave us an odder version of the Joker than we usually see, but Kieth’s Joker is just the Joker. Even Killer Croc, a malevolent presence on the top floor, is similar to many other versions. Because of this restriction, it’s kind of difficult to care too much about what theatrics the maniacs in Arkham pull, even when it directly affects Sabine. Kieth toys a bit with the Joker – his obsession with Antiques Roadshow and old toys in general ought to become canonical – but in the end, he’s just the Joker. Kieth also hits all the common notes about Arkham – he brings up the idea that something deeper lurks within its walls, for instance – but it’s still Arkham. In other words, it’s still ridiculously understaffed even though the greatest concentration of evil in the DCU is concentrated inside it, and it’s still a wreck of a building that, even in an economic recession, is an embarrassment in a major American city. The idea of Arkham is always more interesting than the reality, and Kieth doesn’t do much with the reality.
The reason I can mildly recommend this is because the ending really does work well, as Sabine comes to understand her warped relationship with Arkham and its patients and why she acts as she does at the end, and because Kieth’s art is always fun to look at. His character design is wonderful, as he draws people as slight caricatures that reveal much more about them than if he drew them straight. He shifts from cartoony and benign to cartoony and violent very easily, making the violence stand out and more disturbing.
While his Joker looks like the Joker and even Killer Croc, as malevolent a presence he is, is still a big crocodile, Kieth’s visual portrayal of Harley Quinn is brilliant, wearing her hair in dreadlocks and laconically jousting with her replacement at Arkham, while Jonathan Crane, with his stitched-up lips, is a creepy demon haunting the halls. Kieth always does a good job moving from relatively simple line work in certain panels to fully painted panels in others, and his range is breathtaking. Kieth doesn’t quite earn the final image of horror (which breaks the tension that has been building up inside the asylum), but it’s a tremendous visual. While Kieth’s writing has been better than in this comic, it’s always a treat to look at his artwork and see what fun stuff he’s up to these days.
Arkham Asylum: Madness isn’t quite great, although it’s not bad. Kieth shies away from really delving into madness, giving us the standard insane characters of the DC Universe and not going too far into Sabine’s psyche to make a grand statement. Her struggle is a gripping one, but there’s a sense that Kieth had an opportunity to really dig in, and he passed it up to give us stories of characters we know far too well. Still, it’s a fascinating book because, like Dave McKean, Kieth is an artist who can make madness visually interesting. It’s a decent read, just not a brilliant one. But it’s still nice that DC actually publishes stuff like this every once in a while!
Tomorrow: An old morality tale … turned on its head!