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Batwoman Gets Frank About Arkham's Status as a 'Hospital'

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for the plot of Batwoman #16, in comic book shops now.

There are a handful of incontrovertible truths when it comes to the Batman franchise. For starters, the series revolves around a billionaire philanthropist named Bruce Wayne whose alter ego is the superhero Batman. As Batman, Bruce Wayne protects Gotham City from all manner of deranged supervillains. Once Batman has captured said supervillains, they are inevitably sent to Arkham Asylum, the monolithic psychiatric hospital that ostensibly treats its patients in the hopes that they can be rehabilitated and released into society. If there is anything that could be deemed a "core narrative loop" in the Batman franchise, this is it. Batwoman #16 asks if this loop is inherently broken by calling out the notorious Arkham Asylum.

Batwoman #16 concludes an arc in which Kate Kane's sister, Beth Kane, is being used as leverage to lash out at the superhero. An old acquaintance of Batwoman's, Tahani, captures Beth and drugs her, forcing her supervillain persona Red Alice to emerge after lying dormant for years. Beth ends up being the catalyst for a major rift between Batman and Batwoman. After Kate thwarts Tahani's plan to release a colony of infected bats over Gotham City, Batman shows up to deal with Red Alice. His plan draws from the core Batman narrative loop playbook: He sees a supervillain on the loose and knows exactly where they need to be sent -- Arkham Asylum. As it turns out, Batwoman isn’t on the same page this time around.

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Batwoman knows she has a choice to make. A common refrain throughout the issue is Kate mulling over her dedication to immediate family versus her dedication to her Bat-family. "The Bat, or my sister," she muses on more than one occasion. Astonishingly, Kate sides with her sister and lashes out at the Batman himself. As longtime Dark Knight fans know, this is no small feat, and Kate uses every dirty trick in her playbook to escape the Dark Knight, drawing on her knowledge not of Batman, but of Bruce Wayne himself to give her the upper hand. At one point, she plays an audio clip of the same kind of gun that killed Bruce's parents to stagger the hero. Then, she drops a giant K (from a Kane Industries sign) right on Batman, which tears the bat insignia from his chest -- an allusion to the repercussions Kate faced years ago when she killed Clayface.

Kate does all of this for her sister, or, more precisely, to ensure that her sister is not sent to Arkham Asylum. Writer Marguerite Bennett makes it very clear that this is the case. "She will die if she's put in Arkham," Batwoman says. "She won't receive treatment. She'll just be brutalized in there. Maybe once upon a time that place was a hospital, but it's a prison now." Later, she continues: "If you throw her in Arkham, she will never come out as anything but Alice." These are harsh words that tear at Batman's longstanding, unquestioned practice of offloading Gotham's villainous underbelly onto the asylum. They also go a long way to reveal what class of person gets proper mental health care in Gotham and the DC Universe as a whole. Essentially, if you're a superhero or a person with deep pockets, you get care that might actually work. If you're any one of Gotham's mentally broken supervillains, you get shunted off to Arkham where you'll only emerge more resolute in your villainous madness, perhaps with a troupe of lackeys in tow.

The closest example of this phenomenon is Beth herself. When Tahani kidnaps Beth, it's not from Arkham. Instead, she is being cared for at the Weibe Kaninchen Sanatorium in Geneva. Beth seems relatively normal up until the point Tahani injects her with a chemical cocktail that forces Red Alice to reemerge. It's perhaps unlikely to assume that Beth would have ever been able to live on her own, but the little we see and hear about her progress leads the reader to believe that her treatments are working and that, at the least, she is happy and comfortable. This is a far cry from Arkham, the inspiration for which can be found in the short stories and novels of famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and has been described as nothing short of a living hell throughout the years.

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Again, this is a stark contrast to the kind of care superheroes, the affluent and their kin receive in the DC Universe. Tom King's upcoming series Heroes in Crisis looks to confront how superheroes receive mental health care in the line of duty via an institution called Sanctuary. Early reports indicate that the Sanctuary facility is a state of the art creation backed by the DC Universe's trinity -- Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman -- and that it is partly Kryptonian in origin, staffed solely by robots and holograms. Sanctuary's sole reason for existing is to cater to the psychological needs of DC Comics' superheroes, who, in a given week, could be beaten, bloodied or outright killed (and then, of course, resurrected for a timely comeback). Compare that to the popular perception of Arkham, perhaps the most recognizable mental health institution in comics, and a picture of who gets proper psychiatric treatment, and why, becomes clear.

The focus on superheroes getting the mental health treatment they need while villains are left to fend for themselves, thus collapsing into rampant recidivism, is an inherently problematic one, as it reveals a deeply ingrained narrative dissonance when it comes to the struggle against good versus evil in the comic book format. For superheroes to retain relevance, they must have adversaries. If their adversaries were to, say, go off and find competent care and long-term treatment plans, well, there wouldn't be a whole lot left in the way of compelling adversaries. This line of thinking has led to the widely accepted belief that Batman creates his own villains, but Batwoman #16 asks if that's really the case. The Dark Knight has been feeding villains into an asylum widely known to create monsters for years. He might not be making the villains himself, but his continued devotion to a plan that failed long ago more than makes him an accomplice.

Batwoman's run ends with the forthcoming Batwoman #18, which is a shame, as this most recent issue takes steps towards cementing her as one of the few superheroes willing to stand up to Arkham Asylum's greatest patron.

In comic book shops now, Batwoman #16 is written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Fernando Blanco and Dan Panosian. The issue's cover art was provided by Michael Cho.

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