Batman: City of Madness #1 is published by DC Comics, written, drawn, and colored by Christian Ward and letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. This is part of DC’s Black Label imprint. Beneath Gotham is a second city containing nightmares and twisted mirror images. Some of Batman’s most hated enemies may need him to save their lives as something is released into the true Gotham.
This issue is a thing of psychological beauty. Directly inspired by the iconic Arkham Asylum graphic novel, Ward approaches Gotham and Batman with the same unbridled dread. The places that are normally home are uncomfortable, with jet-black themes running through them. While out in Gotham itself, a trio of storylines are beginning. Batman is busy dealing with Two-Face, who seems eager to parley with the Bat. A young boy has entered Gotham on his own with a gun under his belt. And underneath the city, an ancient order has lost control. And it isn’t long before those three storylines start interjecting.
The issue is double-sized, and the pacing is slow and methodical. This brings the reader into Gotham and gives them time to be unsettled. It builds the atmosphere of the situation. There are several moments where a scene is played out for longer than it perhaps needs to be, but it raises the tension and the unease of the whole issue. The plot is mysterious, breaking into a new lore. It is nightmarish because the first glimpses are twisted, with the promise of even more. But even the normal Gotham is a frightening, unwelcome place for anyone. Like with many Black Label books, Batman: City of Madness #1 exists in its canon, and it is always fascinating to see the pieces brought in to tell the story. There are multiple shocks and surprises, not all originating from the variables being brought into the city but those already existing.
The dialogue is fascinating. Batman is relatively quiet for much of the book, as it is the city that needs to come alive. There are so many events around him, and it feels like he is oblivious to what’s coming for much of this issue. His interactions with Two-Face hint at the history and honesty the duo have with each other. But Dent has some alterations to his personality that make him unpredictable, even more so than usual. The scene inside Arkham is a direct homage to the graphic novel, with that same surreal feeling once we are inside. What is a huge surprise is the narration of Alfred, appearing in undelivered letters to Master Bruce. It’s bleak and devastating, setting the tone early in the comic. Then underneath that is the mysterious society, well known in Batman mythos. Their clandestine plans seem to derail even their usual principals.
The art in Batman: City of Madness #1 is intensely captivating. Ward combines the bizarre with beauty and weirdness with wonder. The style is perfect for the unsettling nature of the story. And with Ward being both author and illustrator, this is his world. The characters are haunting and cleverly designed. Two-Face has details that extend beyond the outline of his head, which is deeply intriguing, and it’s difficult not to keep staring at it. One of the most important characters is Gotham itself, stunning and scary at the same time. The haunting beauty of the artwork is stunningly atmospheric. The lighting always has patterns swimming within it, even more important when the book is based on illusions and trickery. The city can be either filled with neon colors that overlap and help create a cacophony or dark and insidious to implement the twisted visions.
The fight scenes have a fluidity and brutality to them. When the book moves to the iconic location of Arkham Asylum, it is one of the most visually interesting moments of the first chapter. As Batman walks through, the start of the scene shifts the traditional art style to direct homage to the brilliance of Dave McKean. It’s something that draws a smile and celebrates the influences. But after the beginning of the scene.
The painted style that Ward uses leads to a phenomenal use of colors. No one in comics creates a starry sky like Ward can, as it looks like oil splashed onto water. In the first fight scene, the blue that bathes Gotham is interspersed with a robust, vibrant red. It clashes, but then that same red is represented on Two-Face’s scarred half of his head. Additionally, the colors make those extra effects around Two-Face more prominent. Each page has a painted experiment on the page. The blending and manipulating shades shouldn’t work together, but Ward uses that opposition to make unique color palettes. Red is always the most imposing and brightest of the colors Ward uses. As the comic gets heavier, the tones get darker, and the red intensifies and multiplies when the danger is higher. The lettering is the most creative in the business. Every individual word balloon seems different and carefully constructed to help tell the story.
Batman: City of Madness #1 is a visual masterpiece. It’s a fascinating story that is venturing into nightmarish territory. The full extent of what Ward will drag up from the city below Gotham has barely been shown, but the opening gambit is terrifying. While love is briefly demonstrated in books that have inspired Ward, this graphic novel is an expansive world of his creation. It’s such a special, stunning comic. Ward has such a magical aesthetic that the twisted, fantasy concoction created here feels exclusive to something only one creator could make. Auteurism is difficult to find in comics, but a prime example is here.
Batman: City of Madness #1
Batman: City of Madness #1 is a visual masterpiece. It’s a fascinating story that is venturing into nightmarish territory.