Overview: In Batman: City of Madness #1, Batman must help Two-Face endure a new voice at Arkham Asylum while a doppelganger, the Batman Below, runs amok.
Title: Batman: City of Madness #1
Writer, Artist & Colorist: Christian Ward
Main Cover: Christian Ward
Variant Covers: Christian Ward, Martin Simmonds, Bill Sienkiewicz
Release Date: October 10th, 2023
This comic book review contains spoilers.
Batman: City of Madness is finally here! I have eagerly been awaiting the release of this book since I first saw some of the art on Twitter (I refuse to call it X). Superstar comics creator Christian Ward (interviewed by our editor-in-chief here) brings his talents to Gotham City to give us a Batman story unlike any other on the shelf right now. I know there may be some who are apprehensive about a book where an artist is transitioning into filling the writer’s role as well, but rest assured, I do not think you will be disappointed.
The plot in Batman: City of Madness #1 revolves around three main threads in Gotham: Batman and Two Face, a young boy named Jevoney from Smallville who has traveled to Gotham, and the machinations of the Court of Owls. Ward is very judicious with utilizing the page count to tell the story; there are no wasted panels, there’s a ton packed into this issue, and yet it all feels very evenly paced. The Court of the Owls feels appropriately diabolical and menacing, and Ward writes them with an underlying critique of corporate elites. For instance, on being informed of the groundwater flood that caused a third of the Narrows to sink, the Court is unconcerned about the people’s fate and is more worried about their own underground hideouts. The three members we meet are Lord Strigidae, Brother Tytonidae, and the Talon. The first two are named for different classifications of owl species. Not only are there some juicy internal politics and power plays going on within the Court, but the door containing a dark horror, a monster later referred to as the Batman Below, has been opened, and the monster is able to escape.
While these events transpire, Batman is dealing with a Harvey Dent that needs his help. While the doctors at Arkham Asylum feel as if there is a third personality manifesting for Harvey, he feels as if he hears a signal coming, foretelling the arrival of something evil in Gotham. Ward utilizes the full power of the comic book medium to portray Harvey in a way that leans into the duality and split personality. Harvey’s dark side has a visual aura that extends chaotically away from the character, and this split is also depicted beautifully in the details of the room Harvey first finds himself in before Arkham.
Jevoney, who I believe is an original character, is a boy from Smallville who travels to Gotham with nothing but a gun concealed in the waistband of his jeans. Jevoney is looking for the dirty cop who he believes murdered his father. I liked Ward’s choice to use Smallville as the hometown for this character because it subtly plays on the reader’s mental image of the innocence and purity of the place. It makes the character’s choice to go seek vengeance feel more impactful and his journey from Smallville to Gotham kind of mirrors his inner “fall” from innocence to anger. His search through the streets of Gotham gets him into a sticky situation, but he is rescued by the Batman Below, who decapitates one of his assailants. Now, while this story has been rightfully compared to Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Gothic, I couldn’t help but also compare it favorably to the work Scott Snyder did with dark versions of Batman and Robin. I know this is only one issue, but I liked what is going on in this book much better.
With Jevoney on track to become a dark version of Robin to pair with the Batman Below, the theme of trauma and its consequences seems like it will be central to the story. Barbara Gordon mentions it during a conversation with Alfred Pennyworth in the Batcave and Alfred himself mentions it in a great narration that appears in the beginning and towards the end of the book. This narration also provides a unique angle into why Alfred assists, and some would say enables, Bruce with his nightly crusade. Alfred’s narration also makes me think this series will explore how Batman can sometimes go right up to that fine line “between sanity and madness”. This quote is from Batman’s internal monologue when he enters Arkham, and there is a panel where Ward draws his cowl differently from all other places in the book. There are hints of the Owl mask design in the cowl in this particular panel. Given the potential alliance brewing between the Court and Batman at the end of the of the book, I have to think this subtle change paired with the internal monologue was intentional. The art in this book is gorgeous throughout. I’ve enjoyed Ward’s work on Aquaman Andromeda and Invisible Kingdom and this is right up there with the best he’s done.
Editor’s Note: DC Comics provided TBU with an advanced copy of Batman: City of Madness #1 for review purposes. You can find this comic and help support TBU in the process by purchasing this issue digitally on Comixology through Amazon or a physical copy of the title through Things From Another World.