You don’t have to be crazy to live in Gotham, but it helps.
“Shadows of the Bat” is a twelve-part weekly storyline running in Detective Comics, which focuses on the rebirth of Arkham. For those who haven’t been paying attention, the infamous asylum was destroyed in Infinite Frontier #0, but instead of simply rebuilding Arkham, the mysterious Dr. Wear proposes a completely new version of the facility, throwing out everything that came before.
The new facility is called Arkham Tower, and this time it’s located at the heart of the city. Wear promises better conditions for the patients, and more effective treatment thanks to the talented Dr. Ocean. Wear’s idea is great in theory, since nobody has ever raved about the effectiveness of Arkham Asylum. And how many times have you heard someone joke about Arkham’s security problems?
For the Bat-Family, however, Arkham Tower seems too good to be true, and placing Gotham’s most dangerous criminals in the heart of the city feels like an accident waiting to happen. They’re right to be concerned. A flashforward in Detective Comics #1047 reveals things are going to go horribly wrong a mere twenty-four days after the facility opens.
I should mention that as a reader I enjoy this narrative tool. I know where the story is going, but not how it will get there, and what the ultimate fallout will be. As a result, every chapter of “Shadows of the Bat” feels like a ticking timebomb that could go off any second.
It doesn’t help that the events of “Fear State” have taken a toll on Batman, so he’s leaving the city in the hands of his partners while he rethinks his mission elsewhere. The Dark Knight picked a bad time to go out of town, but in fairness, it’s not like Gotham ever really has quiet moments. The Bat-Family is on high alert for developments in the Arkham Tower, but they’ve got their work cut out for them.
We know the Arkham Tower situation is more than it seems, but we still don’t know what Dr. Wear and Dr. Ocean’s true plans are. Dr. Wear is a grifter, but there is a reason his proposal about Arkham was appealing to the city. For years, Arkham has been broken, but nobody has cared enough to offer solutions. This storyline has caused me to think about the relationship Arkham Asylum has with Gotham City, and how we perceive the mental health of its patients.
In recent years, fiction has started doing a better job at normalizing conversations about mental health. A comic book like Tom King’s Heroes in Crisis probably wouldn’t have been published in the 1980s, and an animated series like Young Justice never would’ve been able to deal with Beast Boy’s depression. Remember that when Jason Todd died, there were a few conversations about Batman pushing himself too hard…and that was it. In 1979’s Flash #277, Barry was so distraught over the death of his wife Iris that he considered retiring. By the end of the issue, he had gotten over his funk and was as upbeat as ever.
That’s not how life works. This isn’t meant to be a knock on these vintage stories, the point is that comic books have evolved along with our understanding about the importance of mental health. We’ve normalized talking about the mental health of our heroes, but it’s not the same with our villains. We can sympathize with Barbara Gordon and Jason Todd on mental trauma because they’re our heroes, but it’s a struggle to feel empathy for murderers like Killer Croc or Mad Hatter.
Lucius Fox laid out this struggle during the “Shadows of the Bat” prelude in the Detective Comics 2021 Annual. “The patients of Arkham wrought hell on the citizens of Gotham City” he explains. “And so, for John Q Public, the condemnation is easier to swallow. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying that’s what you’re up against.”
In other words, nobody cared about the state of Arkham, because nobody wanted to advocate for the Joker’s mental health.
In many ways, Arkham Asylum was an asylum in name only. Most stories would treat it as a prison instead of a mental health facility. How often did we see the inmates receiving therapy? Over the years we’ve seen people like Dr. Ingrid Karlsoson (Detective Comics #1004) who have gone to work at Arkham with good intentions. Sadly, people like Dr. Karlsoson never last long in Gotham and either wind up becoming corrupted or killed. Other employees like Dr. Harleen Quinzel or Jeremiah Arkham become villains themselves. The theme seems to be that Arkham is a blackhole of madness that will destroy everyone it touches. Does that sound like a mental health facility that focuses on rehabilitation?
“Shadows of the Bat” brings back the comic book version of Dr. Chase Meridian, the criminal psychologist played by Nicole Kidman in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. (Quick sidenote—if Chase Meridian exists in the comics, would Aquaman confuse her with his mother if they met?) Before leaving Gotham, Batman asked Dr. Meridian to be his eyes and ears in Arkham Tower. Will she become another victim of the institution like so many doctors before her, or can Chase make it through the experience unscathed?
As each weekly installment is published, I can almost hear this figurative ticking timebomb getting louder. Gotham’s most dangerous villains are all in one place, with the tension building. I just hope the Bat-Family is prepared…
The twelve-part "Shadows of the Bat" by Mariko Tamaki and Ivan Reis continues this week in the extra-sized Detective Comics #1050.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.