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.
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.
* 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.