In the real world Arkham Asylum would a very, very bad idea. Putting the most diabolical and dangerous of Gotham’s lunatics together in the same building has ‘unwise’ written all over it. Also considering that many of former staff members, including Harley Quinn and Hugo Strange, are now inmates, and the architect went mad and hacked his family to pieces before the project was finished, it would send alarm bells to ring in any government officials head, leading to the building being demolished and the earth on which it stood salted. But thankfully comic books don’t subscribe to real world logic. If it did, we wouldn’t get books like Arkham Asylum: Living Hell.
This six-issue miniseries, written by Dan Slott with art by Ryan Sook, starts with the trial of Warren “The Great White Shark” White. Despite his nickname, he is not a new super villain but a high level investor facing charges of massive fraud. His plea of insanity has lead to the prosecution to try him in every state in America, but it’s when he is brought to Gotham that his plan backfires. He is promptly committed and sent to Arkham. While White slowly succumbs to the madness around him, Detective Harvey Bullock and special consultant Jason Blood are tracking down a supernatural killer, with all fingers pointing to an inmate at the asylum.
Slott does a good job of showing the viewpoint of the inmates and staff. From Jeremiah Arkham’s, head of the asylum, contempt for the place and the people who inhabit it, to some of the inmates view of it as a revolving door, it paints a pretty good picture of what life in Arkham is like. While it would be easy to focus on the established villains, like the Joker, Slott instead introduces new, previously unheard of characters to illustrate life within the asylum (though Joker does make an appearance, threatening White in the shower). While cult leader Death Rattle, White’s cell mate who forces him to sleep on the floor because the top bunk is where the ghost of one of the cultist’s victim’s sleep, and head of security Aaron Cash, who will be familiar to those who played Batman: Arkham Asylum, do make a mark, it’s inmates Jane Doe and Humpty Dumpty who are the most memorable.
Jane is a cipher, she has no real identity of her own, who takes on the identity of the people she kills. She is quite a disturbing character, perfectly becoming her victims in everything from looks to personality to speech patterns. We rarely see the real her, to Jane being someone else is a better prospect than being herself. No real reason is given for what she does, she just does it. To me, thats scary. Humpty Dumpty, on the other hand, is a much more light hearted character. Obsessed with putting broken things back together, he befriends White. To him, White is broken by his surroundings and the constant harassment of the inmates (at one point, White is stabbed by The Scarecrow because his scream was interesting to Dr. Crane) and only he can put him back together. It’s not till the middle of the series that we find out how far his obsession goes, a disturbing scene involving his dead grandmother and a lot of spools of thread. He is ultimately a good, decent man forced to do bad things by the madness that consumes, proof that not all of Arkham’s inmates are homicidal mad men and criminal masterminds.
The supernatural side of the story, a group of demons awakening underneath the Asylum, does feel like an intrusion. It would have worked just as well, maybe even better, if the focus was kept on the human horrors within the asylum’s walls.
WhatCulture’s 31 Days of Horror 2, a month dedicated to the horror genre in the run-up to Halloween has begun. Check out our articles so far here;