about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

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Review: the Arkham Asylum softball game in Alan Grant and Tim Sale's "Madmen Across the Water."

So it's recently come to my attention that some of you have never heard of this story where the Arkham inmates played softball against the inmates of Blackgate Prison. Because that totally, actually happened.

This is one of those great little oddball (no pun intended) stories that will probably be of interest to most because it features early Batman artwork by Tim Sale. That said, it's only Sale's pencils inked by Jimmy Palmiotti, and while Palmiotti is a fine enough inker and even better co-author of books like Jonah Hex, the result is art that looks like a poor man's Matt Wagner with a dash of poor man's Bill Sienkiewicz. Which is to say, it's still pretty darn interesting to look at.

To make matters even more flawed, it's written by Alan Grant. Oh, Alan Grant. Now there's a writer I never learned to appreciate until very recently, even though I grew up reading his Batman work. Whereas I used to find his writing cheesy and a tad pretentious, I now find it charmingly earnest and ambitious. I enjoy and admire those qualities in writers even their stories are subpar.

As such, I hadn't given "Madmen Across The Water"* (from Showcase '94 #3 and 4) much thought until yesterday, when I was rereading it in preparation for this post. While it still falls short in areas I prefer, namely treating the Arkham inmates as characters in their own right rather than just crazy characters in wacky outfits, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the character of Jeremiah Arkham as written by Grant, and I think that this story is one of his finest appearances.

And again: it's about the Arkham inmates playing softball. I don't know why you haven't just skipped all my rambling and clicked on the cut-tag already!

First things first, let's start off with a kick-ass cover by Mike Mingola.

Hell, while we're at it, let's see it in the original inks:

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'd love to see Mingola draw an Arkham story. Draw, not write.

Okay, now onto the story! Some context: this takes place shortly after Knightfall, which kicked off with Bane blowing up Arkham Asylum and releasing the inmates. Batman eventually exhausted himself by recapturing all of the escapees (including Harvey, whose story I covered here and here), but there was still the question of what was to be done with them while Arkham was being rebuilt:

Sale's Mad Hatter is clearly a direct lift from Mark Badger's 1993 Who's Who pin-up version, which was ITSELF a lift of Bill Sienkiewicz's 1986 Who's Who profile. This might even have become the definitive look if it weren't for the version that Tim Sale would later do with Jeph Loeb, and why that version has endured instead of Kevin Nowlan's brilliant design for Batman: The Animated Series, I'll never understand.

In case you're wondering why you haven't heard of "Sarter, the suicide freak" before, it's because this is his first and only appearance. Alan Grant, much like Grant Morrison, has a tendency to bring in brand new characters without giving them a proper introduction, as if they've already been around for years.

Personally, I loathe this practice. I'm fine with new characters, but I want to be introduced to them, not just have them pop up out of nowhere. It annoys me like so much Mary Sue fanfic, and it seems like Grant always threw in a few brand-new inmates in every Arkham story he wrote, which is how we got no-name non-characters like Vox and Waxman (Who? Exactly.) standing alongside the Joker and Two-Face. Grant created a lot of great characters (and also Anarky... I kid because I love), but he often put the cart before the horse, which probably explains why one character got featured on a cover without ever actually appearing in any story. But all that said, I do like Sarter and Dr. Faustus, the other new character to randomly show up in this story, as Grant uses them well.


In case you couldn't tell, that looming island structure is Blackgate Prison, where the Arkham inmates will need to be held as the new asylum is being built. Nobody is fond of this idea, least of all Blackgate Warden Wardhen (that's his actual name) Zehrhard, who correctly anticipates a clash between his prisoners and the patients. The prisoners provoke a fight, and a riot nearly breaks out until Zehrhard gets them under control.

Lost character alert! When's the last time we've seen Zehrhard? Right around Cataclysm? Man, poor Blackgate Prison: nobody cares about you and your sane criminal types. Then again... hmm... from the way he rocks the baldness and those thick round glasses, and the fact that he pretty much only appeared from the early to late 90's... hmmmm... could this perhaps be where Hugo Strange was hiding all along? Probably not, but ooh, I like that idea.

I also like that both Arkham and Zehrhard have ideologies, which makes their conflict in this story more meaningful than just a clash of egos. I can easily imagine that many Batman writers would take either of their sides when it comes to how they view the villains. I, of course, favor Jeremiah's view entirely, seeing them not as monsters but as "malfunctioning" people (wo_meimei, I'm definitely looking forward to your thoughts on this), but even I know that such thinking can be a trap when it comes to the Arkhamaniacs.

"Well, that showed him!" Way to go, Jere. *pet pet*

Wait, his name is Jim Paul Sarter? Really? Oh, Alan Grant. And seriously, what's this poor guy doing alongside Harvey and Cornelius Stirk? He's clearly not a threat to anyone but himself. Really, it makes you wonder just how many harmless or self-harmful inmates there are in Arkham, rubbing shoulders with the worst Gotham has to offer?

Something else occurred to me: Blackgate should still have a number of criminals who were put away by District Attorney Harvey Dent back in the day. That aspect really should have come up, not to mention that many of the prisoners inevitably are former henchmen for Harvey, Scarecrow, or Ivy at least. That's an aspect of this story that I wish had been explored.

Man, anybody else think it's weird to see Tim Sale draw Squishy, Jervis, and Harvey--three rogues he's famously redesigned in later stories--in their standard comics appearances?

Jeremiah's compassion and protectiveness doesn't jive with the Dr. Arkham who was first introduced a couple years earlier in Shadow of the Bat #1, where he was a strict disciplinarian and near-sadist who would torture the Scarecrow with holographic birds. But then, even Jeremiah himself references this change, as he next writes in his diary: "Amazing how my attitude toward my charges has changed since I first filled my illustrious ancestor's shoes. I think I was afraid of them before. Now it's easier to see them as people... albeit damaged, dangerous people. And sometimes, I even feel a certain... kinship."

By this point in comics, we already knew that Arkham danced around the rim of insanity, and while this would reinforce that theme, it also seems mingled with genuine compassion. He burns with indignation on their behalf through the story, especially once he learns that his patients are to be sequestered off to their own tiny yard in leg-chains while the Blackgate prisoners get the main yard to themselves for softball during their rec time. Arkham hates what's being done to his inmates, but feels powerless to do anything.

Poor Jeremiah Arkham. Sure, he was originally a bit of a Mary Sue for Alan Grant (new lead character who's related to an established character? Red flag), but he's got enough complexity and flaws to make up for that. He was introduced as an antagonist, not so much a villain but a Walter Peck style dick to muck things up for the hero, and all because he allowed himself to be manipulated by Mr. Zsasz. Ol' Jere's not a bad person, just kind of a naive and pompous ass who himself teeters on the brink of insanity.

Even still, I get the impression that Grant sympathizes a great deal with Jeremiah. And disturbingly enough, I kind of do too, when I read the above page. That's not a good thing, is it?

Jeremiah's pride is what makes this entire sequence for me, as does the fact that it's Harvey who acts as the one to decide whether or not to be inspired by Sarter's words. Of course, in keeping with Grant's take on the characters, Harvey speaks less as a character and more as a representative of the Arkham inmates, but then again, which inmate would be better suited to that particular role? If they acts under a "common impulse," then Harvey is their voice. Interesting.

That said, man, Tim Sale's early take on Two-Face is really unattractive. He looks like he'd fit right in with one of those gaunt 80's character actors like Billy Drago, Lance Henricksen, or James Remar. How fitting, then, that Remar should be the one to voice Harvey for Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Also, I've always been fond of the gray/red pinstripe suit look for Harvey, as well as the Wagner-like way his sleeve disappears into the suit. That's very in-keeping with a certain school of comic artists in the 80's.

Zehrhard and Arkham clash once again, realizing that something needs to be done. Arkham proposes something ritualistic to channel their aggression, and the Warden says all they have is softball. So they agree to pit their respective "teams" against one another, and furthermore decide to place a little wager on the match:

Kyle Baker is the man, and I so wish I could find an unlettered version of this piece.

So softball practice doesn't go so well, with Amygdala nearly breaking poor Riddler's arm with a softball. But under the guidance of Doc Faustus (another brand new character who shows up out of nowhere), the team starts showing promise of actually, possibly pulling together!

Hmm... perhaps softball isn't Harvey's sport. If he has to stop and flip the coin every time he makes a move, perhaps he should take up chess or pool.

From the big blank space over Zehrhard's profile in the third panel, followed by Jeremiah saying "deal" to the proposal he just made, I get the impression that Zehrhard's own terms of the wager were cut out. I wonder if they made it back into the Tales of the Batman Tim Sale collection? Either way, we don't ever get to actually hear what Zehrhard would get if the Blackgate Boys won. Either way, Jeremiah isn't worried at all.

I'll let more learned people than me comment on all the ways that Jeremiah is naive or wrong-headed entirely when it comes to his hopes and dreams, but I do think it's interesting how he's suddenly thinking in terms of his OWN ambitions now, not out of the interests in or sympathy for the inmates. If he's thinking about them at all now, it's how he's going to be their savior world-wide. Oh, let the poor foolish bastard have his dreams before they're utterly shattered.

Gotta love how Zerhardt sees the Blackgate criminals as "respectable" compared to the Arkham inmates.

Not helping, Eddie.

... If Firefly has his wings and jetpack, why the hell doesn't he just escape?! No, no, don't think about it, Hefner.

Furthermore, it just occurred to me how odd it is that we never see Harvey at the bat, considering his past experience with Louisville Sluggers.

Unfortunately, that's right about where the fun ends. The two troublesome Blackgate prisoners provoke Amygdala into attacking, starting a full-blown riot in which they attempt to escape via helicopter. The softball game plot is abandoned entirely, favoring instead a big action climax, in which Faustus gets himself killed. I'm sorry to not include it here and give these scans a sense of anticlimax, but frankly, I think it's the least interesting part of the story. Just think of it as incentive to pick up the Tales of the Batman collection and read it yourself.

So fast-forward through the riot and explosion, when pretty much everything went to shit for poor Jeremiah Arkham.

After all that promise throughout, it's kind of disappointing that the story doesn't seem to go much anywhere other than "things fall apart, the end." But really, what more is there to say about Jeremiah Arkham, a character who actually tries to use the rogues to his own ends, even with good intentions? Sure, he hoped to make a name for himself out of the deal, but I like to think he'd also come to genuinely care for and empathize with the rogues in this experience. But that any of them would thank him for it.

I suppose it's inevitable that Jeremiah would eventually snap entirely (though the machinations of others, mainly Hugo Strange) and become a criminal alongside the rogues. Even if he didn't become the new Black Mask, it's entirely likely that he'd have gone on to become a different villain. Even so, it's disappointing. Stories like this showed that he's a far more interesting and complex character when he's teetering on the brink. What's more, he's speaks for those of us who identify and sympathize with the rogues above and beyond Batman and his sidekicks, while still warning us not to look too closely into that abyss.

Again, if you'd like to read the whole story, it's been collected in Tales of the Batman, a collection of Tim Sale's miscellaneous Batman work. It also features the James Robinson story Blades from Legends of the Dark Knight, which is considered a classic by many. I loved it back in the day, but it's been many years since I read it, and I don't know how well it holds up.

*The title is taken from an uncommonly-great Elton John song, although I greatly prefer the extended version.
Tags: alan grant, arkham, poison ivy, riddler, tim sale

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