Latest Arkham Asylum GN goes too light on the crazy

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

Sept. 7, 2010 -- Ever since Grant Morrison’s 1989 Arkham Asylum: A Serious Place on Serious Earth became a huge hit and an evergreen graphic novel, stories about the notorious mental hospital where The Joker is kept have become something of a cottage industry. Unfortunately, the latest in this genre, Arkham Asylum: Madness ($19.99, DC Comics) is one of the weakest.

Madness is by writer/artist Sam Kieth, who made his bones years ago with the quirky Image series The Maxx, which became a short-lived animated show on MTV. Maxx had unusual psychological elements made corporeal, which is often an Arkham genre requirement, beginning with Morrison’s use of Jungian archetypes to explain the place as both physical and conceptual. So Kieth would seem to be the right man for the job.
But alas, as with Arkham itself, appearances can be deceiving.

Kieth’s story focuses on Nurse Sabine Robbins as she interacts with other employees during a double-shift. This puts front and center the question why anyone would ever work at Arkham; not just because it would be terrifying and depressing, but also because of the high mortality rate for staff. So will Nurse Robbins quit? Will she stay and go mad? Will she be killed? Will we care?

Not really, because this ground has been plowed before, especially in the far superior Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (2004) by writer Dan Slott and artist Ryan Sook. Slott’s story was told through the eyes of a number of Arkham habitués, including psychiatrists, guards, inmates and director Jeremiah Arkham. Plus, Sook’s artwork was more appropriate, as Kieth’s cartoony style seems grossly out of place at grim Arkham.

And the story itself left me cold. Elements meant to ratchet up tension – a bleeding clock, frequent references to Killer Croc’s unstable confinement – felt heavy-handed. The staff was straight out of central casting: the wise-cracking best friend, the wise old janitor, the humorless boss. And the climax of the story, in which Nurse Robbins makes her decision, I found both anti-climactic and unconvincing.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh, because Madness is an adequate addition to the growing library of Arkham Asylum stories by a proven professional. But when you’re running with big dogs like Grant Morrison and Dan Slott, a trifle like Madness doesn’t make the A list.

Reprint Roundup

* I’ve been eagerly waiting for Superboy to join today’s cavalcade of reprints, primarily because DC Comics and the heirs of Superman’s creators have been battling for the legal rights to the character for years, and I was afraid these seminal stories would remain forever out of print. But, huzzah, here comes The Adventures of Superboy Vol. 1 ($39.99, DC), which begins reprinting the Boy of Steel’s solo adventures chronologically from their start in 1945.

Perhaps because of my anticipation, these stories – mostly seven- or eight-pagers from January 1945 to October 1947 in More Fun Comics and Adventure Comics – were disappointing. They’re lighter than meringue, usually revolving around what I assume to be childhood preoccupations of the 1940s, but are now just archaic curiosities: marble games, soap-box derbies, radio quiz shows, etc. And Superboy himself is little more than a child, a mere 10 years old, substantially younger than the experienced and adventurous Teen of Steel I’ve known since the 1960s.

Further, in the 1940s Superboy had yet to develop a supporting cast. So there’s no Lana Lang, no Pete Ross, no Lex Luthor, no Krypto – even Ma and Pa Kent make only token appearances, with neither the Kent farm nor the Kent General Store in evidence. The only attempt at a regular is reporter Jack Smart of the Daily Planet, who makes two appearances before disappearing (ably replaced for a single story by a young Perry White).

Which is not to say that these gentle stories from a simpler time don’t have charm to spare. I’ll keep buying this series for that, as well as their historical importance. But Lana Lang can’t arrive soon enough!

* Dark Horse’s hardback series reprinting Dell and Gold Key Tarzan comics is up to volume six, and artist Jesse Marsh’s deceptively simple style is beginning to grow on me. That’s good, because the stories in Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Vol. 6 ($49.99) are all from 1952 – and Marsh drew the Apeman until 1965! We’ve got a long way to go, and Marsh and I are just settling in.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 196

Tags: arkham, batman, comics, jessemarsh, kieth, madness, morrison, slott, superboy, tarzan

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on September 13, 2010 at 10:04am
ARKHAM ASYLUM: MADNESS: I’m not a regular reader of Batman, but I usually buy ‘evergreen” Joker stories such as this, and I usually buy Sam Keith comics as well. After reading your tepid review, however, I think I can safely remove this from my “to buy” list.

SUPERBOY: I think you may have had unrealistically high expectations for the stories in this volume, Cap. I, too, have been waiting for these with bated breath for years, but, although I cannot refute the gist of your review, I lean more toward “charm to spare” than “lighter than meringue.” There’s a discussion (titled “Adventures of Superboy”) on the main forum if you missed it.

TARZAN: Don’t you find it difficult to think up something new to say about successive volumes of this series. “Jesse Marsh’s deceptively simple style is beginning to grow on me,” too, but a decided “sameness” from volume to volume bumps these down on my “to read” stack, below such other Dell/Gold Key material as Dark Shadows, The Mighty Samson (both of which shipped last week and I read over the weekend) and Dr. Spektor (solicited for September 29 release).
Comment by Captain Comics on September 13, 2010 at 10:59am
I agree, Jeff: There is a sameness to the long-running Dell material like Turok and Tarzan. In fact, in Turok that sameness has devolved into formula (Andar does something stupid, Turok saves him) that I complained about in my last Turok review. The Tarzan material isn't quite as bad, primarily (I think) because it has a more robust cast and background to draw upon. Whereas Turok has just Turok, Andar and the honker/caveman threat of the month, Tarzan has all the lost civilizations and supporting characters Burroughs created for the pulp series. So in the latter we have Lt. D'Arnot, Jad-Bal-Ja, Boy, Tantor, the Waziri, Jane, etc., and instead of just hanging out in the jungle they can all go to Pal-Ul-Don, Opar, and so forth.

If you've ever read the the prose stories, ERB had a trite formula that grew tiresome toward the end, where Tarzan would A) find a lost civilization and get captured, while B) Jane was kidnapped, then C) Tarzan would hear about Jane, escape and come rushing back to the escarpment, while D) Jane would escape and go looking for Tarzan, after which E) the rest of the novel would be spent with the two passing each other in the night while pursued by their respective antagonists until they would finally bump into each other and defeat all the bad guys at the end. And when Tarzan defeated the bad guys in the lost civilization there was always a noble leader who was unjustly dethroned/exiled who was conveniently present to take over and lead his people into enlightenment after the despot was overthrown. (I always wondered if some of those guys were faking until Tarzan left, and then became just as despotic as their predecessors. That would make for an interesting story, since the Apeman was always picking the leaders of all these lost civilizations, and he couldn't be right ALL the time.) I'm kind of pleased that the comic doesn't use that formula, although it's probably because of space limitations rather than an editorial decision. Anyway, Marsh is quite clearly improving with each volume, so that's keeping me interested.

As to Superboy ... well, there's just not very much there there. Seven- or 8-page stories don't leave room to say much, and they are aimed squarely at 10-year-olds. Yes, they're charming, and I said so. And I will enjoy that charm. But as I implied, I now understand why Lana Lang was introduced, and I'm looking forward to that occurring, and also the Boy of Steel becoming the Teen of Steel -- in other words, the Silver Age Superboy I remember, and one that's a lot more interesting than a 10-year-old. (HOW many times did we see kids playing pirate on a raft? Once is enough!) And since Lana was around for much of the 1950s and my Superboy collection only goes back to 1961, there's a lot for me to look forward to!

One more thing about Arkham. Near the end of the book, we see two shots of Nurse Robbins' crumpled-up resignation letter. Look at it closely. In both instances, the signature is CLEARLY not "Sabine Robbins." Also, in both cases, Human Resources is misspelled "Human Recourses." (I'd like to think that's a pun of some sort, but I suspect it's a spell-check error.) Further, the letter is addressed to Dr. Herd in one, and Dr. Hurd in the other. Further further, Nurse Robbins is Nurse HENRY in the second one.

I understand that this was a photo that Kieth had photoshopped into his artwork, and perhaps he didn't want to go through the photo process a second time to make fixes after name changes or errors. But that smacks of laziness -- and that kinda irritates the copy editor part of my brain. The whole thing was kinda pro forma in that fashion; I felt taken advantage of by the end, as if Sam Kieth was simply padding his bank account or fulfilling a contractual obligation and didn't bring his A game. For $22, I expect a second photo to be taken; I expect things to be spelled right; I expect better than for the creator to phone it in.

But that's all speculation and opinion on my part. For all I know, Kieth labored long into the night on every page. But if so, the final product doesn't reflect that.
Comment by George on September 13, 2010 at 3:38pm
John Taliaferro's fine Burroughs biography, "Tarzan Forever," points out that ERB was burned out on Tarzan after the first four novels. Ditto for John Carter of Mars after about the same number of books. But the needs of his bank account and rather lavish lifestyle kept Burroughs returning to these characters for the next 30 years. And the books did become increasingly tiresome and formulaic.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on September 16, 2010 at 10:10am
Do the Tarzan and Turok volumes have writer credits? Most of the Jesse Marsh Tarzan stories were written by Gaylord Du Bois (but not all, and not the very first ones). The GCD credits Du Bois with the first Turok stories, but only up to #8.

There's a piece here by Du Bois in which he writes about his career and particularly his Tarzan work. Where the piece first appeared isn't stated.
Comment by Captain Comics on September 16, 2010 at 2:47pm
Dark Horse credits Robert P.Thompson with the two Four Color Comics stories, plus Tarzan #1 (which presumably was originally intended as a Four Color entry). Gaylord DuBois is credited with all stories from Tarzan #2 through to the latest reprint, Tarzan #32.

Paul S. Newman is credited with everything in Turok Archives Vol. 1 (The two Four Color issues and Turok #3-6*), and everything in Turok Archives Vols. 3-6 (Turok #13-37). Turok Archives Vol. 2 (Turok #7-12) credits both Newman and Gaylord DuBois, but doesn't specify which man did what.

* As you probably guessed, there was no Turok #1-2.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on September 17, 2010 at 12:09am
I'd guess it was the writers that made the difference (not that I've seen it myself, as I haven't read any Turok stories). Western/Gold Key comics come across to me as written as well as drawn in a house style, but even when working in a house style artists bring different qualities to the work, and it seems to me logical that the same should be true of writers.

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