Arkham City: book review


The Batman: Arkham City hardback, published in the UK by Titan Books, collects the five issue DC ‘Arkham City’ comic series, and the five “Digital Chapters” of the separate online series. The whole collection works as a prequel to the game; but who is it aimed at, and is it any good?

The two names on the cover are Paul Dini and Carlos D’anda. Dini has plenty of experience in the Batman universe, best known to many for writing Batman: The Animated Series; and he scripted the Arkham Asylum and, of course, Arkham City games. D’anda, with a wealth of comic book illustrating experience behind him (including Thundercats) also worked on the games, drafted in for character design. Dini here however shares writing duties with Derek Fridolfs, and D’anda is in fact at the top of a list of no less than seven artists. One of the colourists carries the hilarious name Randy Mayor, but perhaps it’s best you make your own jokes for that one.

Let’s look at the printed series first. With seven artists credited, you might expect the art to be inconsistent and conflicted. It is in fact consistent and, more to the point, brilliantly done. The quality of artwork in today’s comics is more scattered than ever, with pages full of cover-quality art sitting alongside comics illustrated by people who seem to be swinging their pencils along the paper while half asleep. Arkham City is full of fine detail, deep shadows, and a fantastic job done by just two colourists. Aesthetically, it can sit proudly amongst some of the best Batman strips out there; though surprisingly, Joker and Harley Quinn don’t quite look like they do in the games.

The story begins right at the end of the Arkham Asylum game, and finishes shortly after Arkham City is created. Those who have finished the Arkham City game will probably realise that several blanks remain in the story when the credits finally roll; this comic fills in (almost) all of them. It’s not necessary to have played Arkham Asylum to understand this comic – potential confusions are quickly and smartly eliminated – though you’ll certainly have maximum appreciation of events if you have. But what of the Arkham City game this story immediately precedes?

Creating a coherent prequel is a tricky business so far as spoilers are concerned. By mostly filling out background details hinted at in the game, there are no big spoilers here. If you have no idea which characters come up during the course of the story and want to keep it that way, however, finish the game before reading this. If you want to avoid all spoilers, do not take a look at the concept art at the back of the book, which contains two characters you may not know you’ll come up against.

It’s clear that Dini and Fridolfs have stuck firmly to the simple plan of bridging the gap between the two videogames, with the result that the story arc – and even the finer details of the plot – are pretty straightforward. This is disappointing to a degree, given the complexity the very best Batman stories revel in. There is no moral conflict here; no blurring of the line between Batman and his enemies; no mistakes with far-reaching consequences from the dark knight here. No introspection, no horror.

There’s still plenty of skill to be seen in the writing. The most prominent villain is Hugo Strange, whose picture is painted to perfection. His maniacal self belief pervades every one of his actions and every line of his dialogue. The impossible is achieved; we easily accept Batman as the stalked rather than the stalker. Batman himself is, thankfully, every inch the moody avenger he should be. Brooding detective one minute, wielder of just-brutal-enough violence the next.

Joker crops up little and often, but with mixed results. As ever he is a slave to his dark sense of humour; some times you’ll laugh along with him, others you may be supposed to but you don’t. The biggest mistake was to allow the reader occasional insights into his internal monologue, the worst offender being his second appearance. Joker should never, ever be straight faced unless he’s dangerous, and he should sure as heck never be clearly all-out terrified.

Two Face, Penguin and Catwoman are relegated to cameos, with one more villain in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance. What is there holds together so well, however, that this is an observation rather than a complaint.

Each of the five Digital Chapters is a fairly brief, self contained story. The art (one artist per story here) isn’t quite up to the quality of the paper series, but still very good indeed across the board. It seems that they were created primarily to tidy up minor details not tackled in the comics, such as how and why Riddler came to be in his Arkham City den; fleshing out the details of why Strange’s soldiers are so steadfastly loyal; and more. They’re nicely done, but feel shallower than the main series. It’s nice to have the luxury of reading them in a book, however.

If you want to delve deep into the story of the Arkham games and find every last detail there is to be had, this collection is wonderfully done and will not disappoint (even if it does leave a last few questions unanswered). If you’re a Batman fan and you’re curious about the games then, even though the events here sit between the two, it’s worth picking up and may push you toward a purchase. For the record, the writing in Arkham City the game is actually just a little tighter, just a little sharper.

So: this rises far above what people generally expect of licensed videogame literature, and easily does the Batman name justice. It trades the philosophy and depth of the most famous stories for a spoiler-free and game faithful script; but they’ve done the maths here. Batman comics fan + Batman videogame fan = happy customer.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

Leave a Reply