In DC Comics, Batman's home town of Gotham City has been dissected from almost every angle, but writer Gerry Duggan's hoping to surprise readers with a new one.
Arkham Manor, which launches this week with art by Shawn Crystal, is telling the story of Gotham through the lens of the city's mentally ill. The unusual approach is one Duggan calls "fun," despite the fact that he's trying to ground the characters in reality among the "bleakness" of Gotham.
If anyone can make that topic entertaining and fun, it's probably Duggan, who's known for his work at Marvel on the whacky character Deadpool.
But there's plenty of Batman in Arkham Manor too. Not only does the story take place inside his family's mansion — as the city has taken over Wayne Manor to house the patients from the recently destroyed Arkham Asylum — but Batman himself has a starring role in the comic.
Bruce Wayne goes undercover in Arkham Manor as a mentally disturbed homeless vet. Taking on the persona of "Jack Shaw" to investigate a series of murder, Batman sees Arkham from the other side of the psychiatrist's desk.
Newsarama talked to Duggan to find out more about Arkham Manor, how it's associated with the new approach on Batgirl and launch of Gotham Academy, and what characters and concepts we'll see from the ongoing series.
Newsarama: Gerry, how did you come up with the idea behind Arkham Manor?
Gerry Duggan: In chatting with Scott Snyder and Mark Doyle, I knew about the coming catastrophe at Arkham Asylum coming in Batman Eternal, and the pitch came out of “Wait! What happens to the inmates?” It’s not a crazy or bad idea to the people of Gotham. They don’t know about the cave under the house. They just want these predators out of their neighborhoods.
Nrama: This reminds me of how many manor houses in England were turned into hospitals during wartime. Is this the same sort of situation? Does Bruce realize he's got all this real estate that can be offered to a good cause?
Duggan: Gotham more or less seizes the recently vacated house for their Arkham emergency, and don't forget, the original Asylum was opened in Amadeus Arkham’s mansion. History is repeating itself. Bruce is willing to give his life for Gotham, so sharing his house to protect the people of Gotham is a no-brainer.
Nrama: Out of all the different story angles on Gotham City, looking at it from the point of view of the mentally ill isn't one most people would have expected. What do you think makes this angle on Gotham City work?
Duggan: Unfortunately, the mentally ill are invisible unless you are confronted by someone on the street. I think part of it is stigma, but the larger problem is that we’ve underfunded public health, and in particular, services for the mentally ill. It takes money, and that takes political will. I wish we had a better system.
There is a new character that we’re introducing in the series and we’ll follow his unfortunate path to the asylum. Gotham City’s services have always been underfunded, and those systemic failures are where so many of the interesting damaged characters spring out of.
Nrama: A couple years ago, a group of psychiatrists began publicly pointing out through the media — including a couple reports on Newsarama — that the mentally ill aren't treated very well in comics. Did you see those reports? And if you didn't, knowing about them now, how do you feel about them, and how do you think they'll perceive Arkham Manor?
Duggan: I didn’t see these reports, but frankly, I’m in the entertainment business. I hope all my portrayals are grounded in reality, and I think the mental health industry would appreciate some of the group therapy scenes, but we’re still telling stories about Gotham, Batman and his rogues. This is entertainment. I’m trying to have fun, even in the bleakness of Gotham. That said, I hope they like Arkham Manor, especially the second issue, once we settle in.
Nrama: OK, let's get down to the basics of the story you're telling. How would you describe the tone of the book? There are so many different genres that can fit within Batman's world. What genre is Arkham Manor? What's the style and feel of the stories?
Duggan: It’s a masquerade. The Manor is covered up and playing a new part, and Batman puts on a new mask of a mentally disturbed homeless vet to investigate a string of murders. It’s a horror comic and a psychological thriller.
Nrama: So Batman's at the center of this book, going "undercover" in Arkham Manor?
Duggan: Absolutely. Batman has the mask of Matches Malone to observe the mafia, and now he has Jack Shaw to hide in plain sight at the asylum. It’s a chance for him not just to solve the murders, but perhaps come away with some insight into his foes.
Nrama: So these references to "inmate Jack Shaw" mentioned in a couple solicitations are...?
Duggan: He is a homeless US veteran with mental health issues that Batman impersonates inside the asylum. I don’t want to say too much more.
Nrama: So is Bruce Wayne (as Jack Shaw) the main focus of the series for awhile? Or does the focus shift?
Duggan: Batman/Jack drive the book to begin, but later you’ll see some other characters doing the driving...
Nrama: Interesting. As a comics fan yourself, are there any influences from past Batman stories (or any stories from comics or other media) that inform your approach on Arkham Manor?
Duggan: I’ve read almost every Batman comic for the last 30 years, and they’ve all left an impression on me. I’m as big a fan of what Scott and Greg are doing right now. We’ll have a few nods to the great Batman stories of the past, but we’re also excited about some of the new toys that will appear for the first time in the pages of Arkham Manor.
Nrama: You co-wrote Batman #34, and we met a character named Border, who works at Arkham and whom Batman described as his "ally" inside the asylum. Will we be seeing more of Border? Can you tell us anything about his role in the ongoing comic?
Duggan: Yes, Border is one of the good ones. He’s an important ally for Batman, and he has a significant role to play in the pages of Arkham Manor.
Nrama: And let's not forget the man whose name is on the cover. What role does Dr. Arkham play?
Duggan: He’s the head of the asylum, the lead doctor and the man responsible for everything under Arkham Manor’s roof.
Nrama: Another character you used in Batman #34… is Dr. Thompkins involved at all?
Duggan: Not early on, but keep reading.
Nrama: We know now that Joker is being featured in the main Batman title. Does that have anything to do with Arkham? And are other known DC villains involved in the Arkham series?
Well, for the Joker to appear in Arkham Manor, Batman would have to catch him...
You’ll see plenty of other villains.
Nrama: How does this book interact with other books in the Batman Universe — and in the greater DC Universe?
Duggan: Well, right now, all the madness of Gotham is once again under one roof, but you’ll see some cross pollination with some of the other titles, especially Gotham Academy. What a fun book that is. We’re proud to be on the shelves at the same time as these new Bat-books. Batgirl is a wonderful reimagination too. It would be easy to “play the hits” but these are books that are taking daring turns. I’m proud to in some way be a part of it.
Nrama: What's it been like working with Shawn, and what does he bring to the book?
Duggan: It’s honestly worth the cover price for Shawn and Dave’s amazing art. Shawn was always one of the most underrated talents around, but there’s been something much bolder about his worth since we arrived in Gotham. I thank both Shawn and Dave for letting me ride around on their coattails.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about Arkham Manor?
Duggan: I hope we surprise you, even if you think you know what’s coming.