There’s an element to certain Batman stories that defies comprehension—namely, the way they interrupt our impulse to neatly understand the world around us. This is a legacy that Christian Ward’s Batman: City of Madness #1 contributes to, crafting a haunting Lovecraftian tale that’s perfect for spooky season. The story introduces a new Batman into Gotham City, known as the Batman Below, who has tentacles where his mouth should be in perfect Lovecraftian fashion. Writer/artist Ward first drew the character as a piece of fan art in 2021, which later fleshed out into the idea for this prestige format, Black Label book.
Batman: City of Madness follows the Dark Knight as he uncovers a sinister new presence in Gotham City. While visiting Two-Face in Arkham Asylum, Batman is warned that a new person may have infiltrated Harvey Dent’s mind. The “Good Harvey” insists that it’s not a person, but “a signal” from “somewhere worse than here.” Considering how bad Gotham City already is, we can only imagine the kind of terror that lies ahead.
At its core, Batman: City of Madness is a tribute to the most unique aspects of Batman as a pop culture icon. As widespread as the Dark Knight is, so many of his greatest stories are frightening explorations into the human psyche. He’s a character who confronts the unsavory truths about his own reality, highlighted in stories like Arkham Asylum. There aren’t many other characters in pop culture who regularly do this, and Batman: City of Madness takes full advantage of this in its references to Arkham Asylum.
As a refresher, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth pioneered a nightmarish vision of Batman, where both hero and reader alike were thrust into the depths of Arkham for one night. McKean’s artwork brought Arkham Asylum a sense of violence that went beyond bloodshed: the spidery, darkly impressionist panels were as much an assault on the reader’s mind and eyes as the events of the story itself. In short, stories like Arkham Asylum leave a mark, and City of Madness is built within this vein.
But Lovecraft and Arkham Asylum are far from the only influences behind City of Madness. The Court of Owls play a significant role in the story, and will no doubt be a welcome sight to see for fans of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. For those who aren’t familiar, Snyder and Capullo’s debut story arc reveals that a secret society known as the Court of Owls has been controlling Gotham City for hundreds of years. The identities of the members are kept anonymous by the creepy owl masks that they wear, giving them a soulless appearance.
Arkham Asylum and the original Court of Owls Saga in particular are a brilliant combination of influences, given how both stories are about the horror of comprehending what is in front of you. There are also hints of The Batman film sprinkled throughout, adding a human cost to the violence in Gotham City.
While Batman: City of Madness proudly wears its influences on its sleeve, Ward’s art and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s letters introduce a self-contained visual lexicon for the book, making it instantly memorable. It’s clear that immense care was taken into crafting each page, with Ward’s swirling vision of Gotham inviting readers to stop and look, as if there are secrets hiding in the shadows of each page. Ward is a master of building out the world that characters interact in, imbuing simple conversations with gravitas and tension as backgrounds skirt the line between impressionist and surreal. Similarly, Otsmane-Elhaou continues to establish himself as a star letterer, matching the precarious tone of the book with a fiercely creative set of balloons and fonts. There are a lot of characters and dramatic moments in this story, but Otsmane-Elhaou deftly modulates the range of voices and story beats in time with Ward’s script and art.
There may be a lot of Batman books on stands today, but City of Madness is quick to prove that it is not messing around. While part of the book certainly feels like a love letter to darker points in Batman’s publication history, the issue still provides compelling new takes on familiar characters like Two-Face. I may have read dozens of Harvey Dent stories over the years, but Ward’s sensitive take on the character has made me realize that I am only just beginning to understand him and his condition.
Batman: City of Madness is a story where you genuinely have no idea where the next page will take you. With two more issues left to come, I cannot wait to see what other tricks this bold vision of the Dark Knight has up its sleeve. We’re in for a frighteningly good time with this story that will surely leave a mark.
Batman: City of Madness #1 by Christian Ward is now available in print and as a digital comic book. Look for Batman: City of Madness #2 in stores on December 12, 2023.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Jules Chin Greene and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.