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Arkham Asylum: Living Hell #3

Posted: Wednesday, July 9, 2003
By: Cody Dolan



“Cracked Up”

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Ryan Sook (p), Jim Royal (i)

Publisher: DC Comics

Plot:
Readers learn the origin of Humpty Dumpty as the character shares his past with new cellmate Fish. At the same time, we get a glimpse into more of the daily goings on at Arkham as guards do favors for some inmates while being cruel to others. The issue ends with a mysterious appearance by a mystical character, seen recently in the pages of JLA, who shares some rather cryptic information about recent murder victims.

Comments:
While this issue barely advanced the plot, I found myself completely wrapped up in the issue’s driving narrative, that of Humpty Dumpty’s origin. While Slott starts the story with a fairly typical abused child motif, he quickly moves away from that, leading the reader to feel sorry for a character that doesn’t seem to realize the consequences of his actions. While his relationship with his grandmother is a focal point for Humpty’s motivations, the author never beats his audience over the head with her poor treatment of him. What we’re left with is an interesting story, told in a fairy tale rhyme scheme, that takes a decidedly dangerous turn at its conclusion as Humpty reveals why it is he stood up for Fish.

The subplots going on this issue read very realistically and I imagine there are other comic writers out there slapping their foreheads as they exclaim “Of course that would happen in Arkham.” We see a guard do a favor for an inmate that leads to a sexual encounter, but since Arkham is co-ed, Slott doesn’t have to rely on the somewhat tired device of prison rape. This may be a prison for the criminally insane, but it’s still prison. He also picks up the Jane Doe thread from the first issue of the series that, though it wasn’t my favorite part of the story that time out, has me eagerly anticipating the next book.

The art by Sook and Royal fits perfectly with the tone Slott is trying to achieve for this story. It’s gritty and ugly at times, much like the residents of Arkham. At the same time, the duo has the ability to switch styles and create the fairy tale atmosphere needed to tell the origin story of a character named Humpty Dumpty. The early scenes in Humpty’s tale carry a certain feeling of innocence that fades as the character falls deeper into his psychosis. This is reflected not only in lighter inks, but also in the brighter colors; reds and yellows not normally found in the asylum.

I’m not sure what it is about prison stories that interest me so much. Whether it be movies like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Cool Hand Luke” or comics like the “Hard Time” arc in Hellblazer, I find that tales that take place behind bars capture my imagination, and this series is no exception. The straight prison aspects of the narrative help to keep the story grounded and let the characters remind us that the residents, and not the setting, are what makes for good storytelling.

So, after all that gushing why doesn’t this book rate ? Well, Slott plays a little fast and loose with Gotham City’s skyline as evidenced by the enormous three-dimensional billboards on top of several buildings the beginning of Humpty’s story. These called to mind Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, and that’s never a good thing. In addition, one of the book’s main strengths, the exploration of a unique and underdeveloped part of DC’s universe, works against it as Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is in no way new reader friendly.

Final Word:
You have to know a good deal about Batman’s world, and DC’s universe, for this book to make much sense. Sadly, this fact may keep inexperienced readers from enjoying one of the best miniseries I’ve read in a while.



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