It’s that time of year once again. The time when all the annuals come out. BATMAN ANNUAL #2, for its part, tries to tell its own story while tying things into the current storyline, Zero Year. For what reason has the Dark Knight been locked into Arkham Asylum? Who is the mysterious Anchoress? And what does any of this have to do with a proto-Batman’s attempts to stop the Red Hood gang?
The answers to those questions are, in order: To test the institution’s newest cell block by trying to break out; the oldest inmate in Arkham; and not a damn thing.
No matter the incarnation of Gotham’s perennial mental institute, Arkham Asylum can be described in one word: crap-hole. And yes, it’s counts as one word because of hyphenation. Any time anyone goes into the place, it’s almost inevitably terrible and counterproductive as a place of psychological healing. Those who most need help instead stew in their own madness, eventually breaking free to wreak more havoc. And those whose insanity is lite to nonexistent find their conditions made worse, and that’s counting both inmates and staff if you count Harley Quin. It would be charitable to say it doesn’t work, and more accurate to say the place should be burned to the ground and its residents summarily executed for the good of humanity.
So count my surprise when BATMAN ANNUAL #2 actually has the gall to depict the place with hope.
We’re introduced to Eric Border, the newest orderly in Arkham newly transferred from Metropolis, so we can perfectly understand his optimism. I suddenly find myself humming the line “you will learn” from the opening to Sweeny Todd. His desire is to do good, believing that anyone can be cured of their afflictions.
Border’s first night on the job (because it is always night in Gotham) also happens to be the night when Batman is brought in to test the Asylum’s new cell block. The Tartarus Wing is meant to be the extra-special block for the worst inmates. Inevitably this block will do exactly nothing to stem the tide of escapes, and will in fact never be mentioned again. But nonetheless, Batman is locked into it so he can find any possible escape routes.
Border, for his part, is more intrigued by the presence of Arkham’s oldest inmate…a woman called the Anchoress who can quantum tunnel, move through walls, etc. She is also easily over a hundred years old. The product of an accident of science that killed her parents, the Anchoress took refuge in the Asylum, which acted as a more literal asylum for her rather than a prison. She was even getting better, or so she tells Border when he visits her.
And then the Bat Man came and ruined everything.
It’s kind of a two-part deal. First, Batman foiled a lot of villains’ plans, sending to Arkham where they could stink up the place and turn it into, as I’ve described before, a crap-hole. But in a more personal sense, Bruce broke into the Asylum before he became Batman while investigating the Red Hood gang, and the Anchoress tried to shoo him out of her place of healing. But she was caught out of her room and being violent, so they locked her in a poorly explained cage that could hold her, and she stopped receiving treatment. Knowing that Batman is in the facility, the Anchoress decides now is the time to get revenge. It involves mind hacks and tragic pasts for everyone involved.
Oh, and by the way. That bit of backstory with Bruce investigating Arkham records for clues about the Red Hood? That is the only connection to Zero Year we get. Great tie-in.
Although let’s be fair, while BATMAN ANNUAL #2 isn’t a good tie-in, it’s a great stand-alone story. The Anchoress is a great villain, mostly because she has probably one of the most legitimate grievances with the Dark Knight than any of his rogues gallery. And it turns the entire mythos on its head by making Arkham a place of healing and Batman the bad guy. And it does something that most other stories can’t or won’t do: provide hope for the future.
The constant of all Batman lore is that Batman, his supporting characters, and Gotham itself are trapped in limbo. Caught in a state of perpetual darkness. Batman himself is trapped because he can never let go or move beyond the trauma that made him what he is. Everything else is trapped by circumstances that refuse to leave things better than they were. The villains of Arkham could get better or be killed, but neither occurs. It’s a cycle of death, misery, and small victories that, at best, allow Batman and his allies to break even, though often they lose a lot before their enemies are locked up again.
All of this, by the way, stems from the never ending continuity of Batman. Things can’t get better or advance too far. There’s really no changing that.
But BATMAN ANNUAL #2 seems content to merely defy this status quo. To carve out a victory and maintain that yes, things can get better. Maybe not for everyone, but for someone. Granted, as I said before, this entire adventure will likely never be referenced again in continuity except maybe as a call-back, especially when/if Scott Snyder leaves the book and his successors never bother to read everything he established here. But it’s the thought that counts, because I feel more hope in this book than in a long time.
Plus, if the Anchoress ever shows up again, I’d get excited. She’s hard core, man.