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It’s Valentine’s Day! So I have a few errands to run, a dinner to cook and a mission to make myself look presentable for when my breadwinning wife comes home from work. So a comic book review for today and I’ll return to some larger text for tomorrow’s review.

As it happens, this comic features my favourite supervillain – Harley Quinn. Poor Harley is quite demented, but also quite sweet in a strange kind of way. She does see herself as the Joker’s companion/number one fan, so a touch of madness is to be expected. I mention my interest in Harley, because when I first visited Stephanie, I saw that she had painted her own portrait of the former Arkham Asylum staff member (FYI, Harley is the one on the right lighting a bomb with a cigar). I took this to be a good omen, an indication of our suitability for one another as a couple.

I was not wrong.

Arkham Asylum: Madness is unusual in that it is set in one of the most famous landmarks in the Batman mythology, but does not feature the character at all. In fact he is barely even alluded to by the book’s cast. Instead, the story focuses on the ordinary staff at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in particular a young nurse named Sabine, and their fraught interractions with the dangerous psychopaths locked up behind its walls.

Sabine works the day shift at Arkham despite its reputation, so that she can afford to pay off her family’s debts. The one thing that allows her to get through the day is the thought of returning home to her son Ozzie. She has few friends working with her, with an elderly janitor named Eddy and a fellow nurse Randy, managing to make her smile now and then, despite the oppressive atmosphere of Arkham itself.

As the day progresses tension continues to build, a tension that the inmates are far more receptive to. Small things like a hallway clock marking the time left for lunch slowing down, or Dr. Hurd’s unusual health issues, are ominous hints of some threat approaching.

The Joker, Arkham’s most feared patient, acts as a barometer for the rising anxieties within the building. The staff are terrified of him and he, in turn, enjoys nothing more than to increase their fear of what he may be capable of. His latest scheme is to follow to the letter a suggestion by one of the attending doctors to take on a hobby, like collectibles. Joker seems to have become obsessed with an innocuous collection of comedic props, but the true nature of the items is far less innocent.

Then disaster strikes for Sabine as she is ordered to stay on for the nightshift. Prevented from spending the evening with Ozzie, she falls into a depression, seemingly reflected by the asylum itself. The clock in the hallway begins to bleed, Joker springs his trap on Dr. Hurd and then in the ensuing choas the inmates make an escape attempt. The attendants and guards are the only thing between the psychopaths and freedom.

This book is a genuine treat for fans of Sam Kieth. I first discovered his art style through the MTV adaptation of his comic The Maxx, before tracking down his excellent miniseries Zero Girl. I love his punk/painterly aesthetic, the contorted bodies and smooth faces. Sabine is for all intents and purposes a traditional Kieth heroine, innocent in appearance, but possessing a hidden inner-strength, in this case the intensity of her love for her son. This book also features fantastic redesigns of Harley Quinn and a less-than-dapper Harvey Dent.

Arkham Asylum: Madness completes an unofficial triptych of stories set in this Lovecraftian Bedlam. The first, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, was a fantastic artistic showcase for the latter, with Batman’s righteous heroism eroded by the condensed madness of the asylum. The second, by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook, marginalised Batman in favour of a new inmate, the White Shark. Kieth disposes of the caped crusader entirely, creating a terrifying vacuum.

It is unfair for the likes of Sabine to be trapped in this hell with criminal psychopaths. The book shows how her spirit is crushed over the span of an exhausting twenty-four hours. The Batman series has always been party to a certain sadism and Kieth demonstrates the cost of the popularity of these villains on such ordinary people as Sabine.

Chilling and gripping, with wonderfully kinetic art.

Fellow blogger Colin Smith over at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics has been on a roll lately. First there was his excellent series of articles on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman versus J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One . Then he quickly followed that up with another series on the DC event series Kingdom Come.

What can I say, I like his comic reviews. Also I am all over the comments threads for these pieces like a bad rash!

So I am taking a leaf out of Colin’s book and doing two comic reviews this weekend on the writers I am most excited about  for 2011, starting with Paul Cornell. Chances are, whether you know it or not, you have already enjoyed his work. With an impressive television career, he’s written for everything from Holby City to Coronation Street. Prior to his entry into American comics Cornell was mostly known in nerd circles for his Doctor Who novels, at least one of which was adapted for television, the excellent Human Nature. With a CV like that, and with Marvel/DC overrun by television writers such as Joss Whedon, Marc Guggenheim and Allan Heinberg it’s no wonder Cornell got a shot.

To date his comic career has shown a fondness for injecting a vibrant (and welcome) sense of optimism into the vicariously grim affairs of superpowered folks who like to wear garish costumes. He also specialises in rediscovering discarded characters and concepts, giving them a bit of a polish and then expanding upon their initial appearances.

Dark X-Men was published during a company wide storyline by Marvel Comics known as Dark Reign. To summarise in brief, the villains won and the US government itself has been infiltrated by arch-manipulator Norman Osborn, an erstwhile Spider-Man antagonist given a new shot of life by the series.

As such he has adopted an aggressive public relations campaign, creating his own superheroes, including a new X-Men team – filled out with former supervillains given new identities. His X-Men are the shapeshifting terrorist Mystique; Beast an evil doppelganger of this world’s Hank McCoy from another timeline; Mimic, an opponent of the original X-Men who first appeared back in the 60’s; and Omega, who was recently possessed by a destructive entity known as The Collective.

A wave of mass suicide attempts, with each individual chanting ‘I am an X-Man’, alerts Osborn to a new crisis. He is not so much concerned about the potential loss of life as he is copyright infringement. He orders the team to investigate. The duplicitous Mystique, who is attempting to gain the support of the other team members to revolt against Osborn’s control, discovers the cause of these events is a psychic being thought dead known as ‘X-Man’.

The team is ordered to capture and detain this immensely powerful mutant. However, they come to realize that if X-Man defeats Osborn, perhaps they could profit by the new regime. Villains will be villains after all and one double cross leads into another.

Where Cornell’s script excels is in its shades of grey. Mystique has betrayed so many people in her life no one trusts her anymore. As it happens she is only leading Osborn’s X-Men as he has placed a bomb on her that he will detonate if she tries to rebel. Mimic is tortured by his own inadequacies. Leonard Kirk draws him to resemble the original X-Man character Warren Worthington. This is a cruel joke on the character, a hired gun in the employ of a madman who has deceived the general public to see Mimic as a hero.

Dark X-Men is a book about characters who want to be something more than doppelgangers and stealers of powers. The sting in the tail of the book’s final panels is perfectly done.

The X-Men are not so much superheroes, as civil rights advocates in comic book hero drag. Osborn complains ‘Mutants are super heroes with politics.’ Cornell not only nails that ambiguity, he realizes the full potential of such X-Men action clichés as psychic combat, introducing Kirk’s grotesque image of a brain composed out of hundreds of bodies. The formerly lugubrious X-Man, Nate Grey, is rescued from comic limbo. There’s even hilarious running jokes throughout (each character is introduced on panel with a song title that describes their traits).

Combined with Kirk’s soft, yet dynamic pencils (the moment when Beast cheerfully smiles is both cute and terrifying)  that rivals Stuart Immonen, this book is both action packed and thoughtful. Great fun.

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