Arkham City: The Order of the World
Written: Dan Watters
Colors: Dave Stewart
Welcome friends to another Off The Shelf, Church of the Geek’s review of recent comic book titles. I am Brian Bennett, campus pastor of the Lutheran Campus Ministry in Greater Pittsburgh and our student group PSALM serving Pitt, Carnegie Mellon, Chatham and Carlow universities AND I’m also your regular co-host of Church of the Geek.
Anselm of Canterbury, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury at the close of the 12th century CE into the early years of the 13th century penned the phrase credo ut intelligam, that is “I believe so that I may understand,” which is a riff on Augustine of Hippo’s dictum “I believe so that you may understand.” Anselm sought to summarize the relationship between faith and reason, ultimately saying that in order to understand a system’s thoughts and structures , one must immerse oneself in that system’s way of life.
I think that idea might be helpful as one reads Arkham City: The Order of the World, written by Dan Watters, illustrated by Dani; these two are the creators of the Image comic Coffin Bound, and they continue their collaboration in this gritty tale set in Gotham. The colors are done by Dave Stewart. His palette choices are well suited to this book. It is dark and rough and one must often comprehend both the negative as well as the positive spaces to make sense of the story.
I will admit that I was not necessarily feeling the whole vibe and direction of the book for the first three issues, but there are only six issues in this limited run series and I figured… why not stay on? The sunk cost fallacy is strong with me in comics. Nevertheless I am glad I waited. Apparently loose storyline threads begin to come together in this issue in some spectacular ways.
The story follows the psychiatrist Dr. Jacosta Joy in the aftermath of A-Day, the Joker’s deadly attack on Arkham Asylum. Survivors of that event are now spread throughout Gotham, and the Ten Eyed Man, who has those ten eyes embedded in his fingertips, is secretly under the care of Dr. Joy. She scoured Gotham looking for the Ten-Eyed Man, believing that he would fare better under her care rather than locked up in Blackgate or maybe something worse. The Ten Eyed Man is at work seeking to contain the rampant madness of Gotham that he perceives through his vision. Dr. Joy buys into his vision and assists Ten-Eyed Man with certain rituals. But each one she participates in brings her more fully into the way of life of Ten Eyed Man. She soon finds that life is complicated by trying to live with each foot in a different world.
We all crave some sort of order. The order we establish in our minds helps us make sense and create meaning in the world. Dr. Joy is, at least at the beginning of the book, fully convinced that science is the means by which she will bring healing and wholeness to her patients. She doesn’t believe the story the Ten Eyed Man tells her about how his fingers had eyes sewn into them. That’s not how biology works she says. But she does admit she doesn’t know how those eyes got there. She refuses to believe the Ten Eyed Man’s adamant statement that the ghost of Amadeus Arkham is haunting the city and that Gotham the city and Arkham the Asylum are in fact one. But she cooperates with the Ten Eyed Man’s various rituals, one of which includes digging up the skull of a priest from the earliest days of the city from under a tree where he had been hanged and buried. Somehow she continues to keep her world and Ten Eyed Man’s world separate and distinct. That is until she finally sees Amadeus appear. That sight of a green glowing spectral figure perched atop a building brings the carefully constructed order of her worldview crumbling down upon her. And it was that moment that I realized I loved this book.
Much of Dr. Joy’s thoughts are given to us in what look like journal entries, exposited marginalia of a sort. And there as she ran from the ghost, we read her words, “I spent weeks telling Ten-Eyed Man the Arkham Ghost was not coming to take him away. I was wrong. We were wrong. All of us, so sure of the order of the universe. So arrogant in our sanity. And now here I am, clutching the skull of a madman, hunted by another, as the order of the world drops away.”
If Anselm is right, and we must enter into a system to fully understand, is it possible to understand without getting sucked in fully. Can anything of the old remain? Or does it all drop away?
Throughout this book there are plenty of other characters who have their own order. Detective Dermot Stone, who is hunting down escaped Arkhamites, many of whom feature prominently, others peripherally. Solomon Grundy. Double X, Dr. Phosphorous, Nocturna, Professor Pyg, Mad Hatter. Azrael gives us a vision of religious faith in the extreme. All of these characters force Dr. Joy to examine the world order she has so carefully built as it falls to pieces around her.
Of course the beauty in this examination is that we must also ask the same question of ourselves. If we do not, we miss the wonder of this book. What sort of order have we created? Can we trust it? Can we trust ANY order that seems to be overlaid with our existence? What do we need to believe so that we make sense of the things going on around us?
We have had numerous examples over the past few years where particular communities have constructed strange edifices of irrational thought. QAnon sends secret messages to true believers. Flat earthers launch themselves into the higher altitudes. School boards face pressure to wipe out liberal boogeymen from the educational system. One has even banned Maus, the long-revered classic graphic novel about the Holocaust. We continue to see the rise of Alt-Right organizations pushing Christian Nationalism and white supremacy.
Is Dr. Joy our synecdoche? Is she the representative of us all wading through madness to find all order slipping away? Will she be able to return to a place of sanity? Or will we only find that Dr. Joy’s journals are the remnants of an unmoored manifesto? Adrift from all reason and faith because there is ultimately no reconciliation between the various parties all dwelling together in Gotham?
There are still two issues remaining in this series. I cannot foresee right now how Watters will seek to answer these ideas. Maybe I will be utterly disappointed in a flat ending. Maybe the ending will be as graphically bleak as the art that flings shadows and despair in almost every panel.
But here it is. And I have come to embrace this romp through an absence of order so that I might ponder what order we might actually have after all.
Geek be with you.
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