If we are to believe the subtext of Batman Annual #2, then most of the cages we find ourselves in are self-imposed. We cage ourselves in anger, in bitterness and in pursuit of fruitless perfection. The comic uses the terrifying prospect of Arkham Asylum as a literal place to find the various aspects of our compartmentalized minds. We try to break free, and in doing so are confronted with opportunities for hope or despair. But often the cages we create force us to lean toward the later.
For an Annual advertised as being tied to the recently launched “Batman: Zero Year” storyline, there is but one page tied to that origin tale. Call it what it is, and that is a bait and switch. More people have probably read this comic because of that false piece of advertising, but that does not dismiss the bad taste is leaves in your mouth. That’s too bad, because the story developed by Scott Snyder and newcomer Marguerite Bennett is quite good. DC has done it a disservice by not having the confidence to let it stand on its own.
The book opens well enough with a clever, if common, story hook. Batman is being locked up in Arkham…to test the asylum’s security system. But this story isn’t from his perspective; it’s from the point of view of new orderly Eric Border. He is ambitious, optimistic and hopeful. As I mentioned earlier, we are often confronted with opportunities for hope or despair. Eric is the hope.
The despair comes in the form of longtime Arkham resident The Anchoress. Her back history is one of tragedy and mental and physical instability. There was once a hope that she might recover, but then came the Batman, and with him her hope vanished. He brought with him a new breed of criminal insanity, a type that forced The Anchoress to be forgotten.
Alone in her bitterness and despair, all she could do was blame Batman for her stalled recovery. As we discover, the cage she sits in really cannot hold her, it’s practically self-imposed. When I say the subtext of Batman Annual #2 is about us creating our own cages, we have a very obvious metaphor for that in the predicament of The Anchoress.
The Anchoress’s vendetta against Batman is a variation on blaming Batman for the super criminals that have appeared since his arrival. Did Batman create villains like the Joker, the Riddler or Two-Face? Or would they have been as insane as they are with or without him? It’s a classic question from the post-modern era of Batman stories. Batman: The Animated Series dedicated an entire episode to exploring the question. It certainly doesn’t have an answer, but what Batman Annual #2 tries to say is that the question does not really matter. What really matters is holding onto hope.
It’s tough to find hope in the gothic-like Arkham Asylum, at least in its usual depiction. Here penciler Wes Craig opens up the place, giving it a bit of cleaning to resemble more of a modern prison than mental health hospital. It’s still creepy when it needs to be, but the overall aesthetic for Arkham is that of a home for wayward minds meeting the prison-industrial complex.
It’s a very relevant topic, the prison-industrial complex, but the authors of this Annual have more interest in telling a campfire ghost story within the universe of Batman. While the story certainly has its scares, much of it gets muted in repetitive dialogue. The narrative does demand explanations and character motives, but not in a way that resembles a skipping record.
The last beat of Batman Annual #2 tries to reinforce this idea of hope. Arkham, no matter how you describe it, is a terrifying a place – a place that can be a symbol of hope or despair. Eric describing Arkham, calls it, “A beacon in the dark. A friend.” He might as well be describing Batman, for the two are intimately tied together – both thematically and in the case of the last panel, visually. Unlike Batman, Eric hasn’t put on a mask to overcome tragedy, though he wears a white coat uniform like a costume. He cannot be a frontline defense against the madness, but he can be that sign of faith that we can overcome our self-imposed cages. But it’s his first day, and you have to wonder if this bit of story is ever revisited, would he still be as confident about this “beacon in the dark?”