At this point, presenting a fresh take on a tried-and-true character like Batman seems like a rather difficult task. But Gerry Duggan does just that with Arkham Manor. The series finds Batman’s world turned upside down when inmates of the recently destroyed Arkahm Asylum move into Wayne Manor.
Bruce Wayne isn’t exactly a fan of the move, and who could blame him, but he realizes his childhood home does indeed allow the best protection for the people of Gotham. Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong in the manor, and suddenly there’s a murderer on the loose taking out some of the city’s most brutal criminals one by one.
Knowing the nooks and crannies of the manor like the back of his hand, Bruce passes on the batsuit and instead goes deep undercover as inmate Jack Shaw. During his investigation, he finds a badly injured Victor Zsaz, battles a large lipped, Joker-Clayface hybrid named Clownface and even gets some assistance from a surprisingly affable Mr. Freeze. Still, the killer remains at large, and Bruce determines the escalated situation needs more than Jack Shaw – it needs Batman.
After much build up, Arkham Manor #5 is the series’ climax, especially give the news from Duggan on Twitter that issue six would be the finale. The first half of the series really took the time to develop its namesake: the manor. This story wasn’t Batman’s; rather, it’s an absorbing tale about a place that’s as central to the Batman mythos as the city Gotham itself – something that Fox is exploring on television right now. The manor for Batman has always been a safe house; somewhere Bruce can peacefully and safely take off the cowl. But now that Gotham’s most dangerous and demented fill manor, there’s a certain uneasiness and vulnerability felt by both Bruce and Alfred. Stopping a killer wreaking havoc within the walls of the now-asylum now feels far more personal for Bruce than usual.
There’s a very Shining-esque set-up at the beginning of Arkham Manor #5: snowfall blocks the police and prevents an evacuation while a murderous madman rages inside the manor’s walls. Luckily, and less Shining-like, Batman is already inside and is now face to face with the killer. What follows is an epic Batman battle beautifully drawn by Shawn Crystal and colored by Dave McCaig. One of the highlights of the entire Arkham series has been the art, which would stand out to a casual reader with its more playful and cartoon-like vibrancy. And yet, the shading still gives Arkham Manor a very brooding and melancholy feel as to remind the reader: “Don’t get too comfortable. This is still a Batman story.” Characters are often long-jawed and humanized with facial details, such as Batman’s not exactly perfect teeth.
The killer, who comes to be known as Spider, puts up a tough fight. So tough that it’s unlike anyone Batman’s ever faced before. But it doesn’t take long until Batman gets the upper hand and keeps it that way. Batman even shows a bit more brutality than usual as he makes an example out of Spider by launching him out of the manor’s third floor.
“Men like this will never be tolerated. Especially… not in my house,” Batman says as he glides down to meet his now-defeated opponent helpless in the snowdrift. Perhaps the most compelling moment in the issue is when Batman tries to ask Spider his real identity. But Batman already knows the answer to his own question: Spider is simply a cold-blooded killer. He is another in the long line of deranged and psychotic birthed by Gotham and the reason for Batman’s existence.
Though Spider has been defeated and is safely secured by asylum staff, Batman’s work is not over. Dr. Arkham meekly attempts to thank Batman for his help, which Batman quickly rebuffs, and then he informs Batman that there are still escaped inmates on the loose. Two inmates still pose such a threat that Batman quickly readies his more-boxy-looking-than-usual Batmobile, and speeds toward Gotham. Upon arrival, Batman finds a violent scene and knows his work isn’t done yet.
Arkham Manor has been quirkier enough to separate it from many of the darker Batman titles, and the series’ slow burn definitely made its narrative more effective. And yet Batman was barely seen. So, when Arkham Manor #5 unleashes its Batman-fueled, action-packed penultimate issue, it really brings the series to its apex after what was a fascinating take on the dark knight and his connection to home.