“City Of Madness” – Book One
Writer/Artist: Christian Ward
Letterer: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou
Review by Steve J. Ray
Batman: City of Madness #1 has hit the shelves like a bomb. I’ve been nervous/excited about this release since it was announced, back in July. Now that the first issue’s finally here, many of my fears have been quashed, and my excitement levels have truly ramped up.
In recent years several comics artists have taken the leap into writing as well. Of course, not everyone can be great at both, but Christian Ward is at the very top of the list of names who don’t just succeed at taking on double duty, this gentleman excels.
Why did I have concerns? The reasons are multiple. First of all, Batman is my all-time favorite comics character, so when I heard phrases like “Cosmic horror” used to describe a story, I automatically wondered where things would lead. Then I went on to learn that the story would be a “pseudo-sequel to Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth“. This tale, created by comics legends Grant Morrison and Dave McKean is, and always has been, one of my favorites. I bought the book when it was first released, way back in 1989. I’ve read it to death and have had to buy replacement copies in the intervening years, that’s how much I love it.
I always worry whenever a true classic spawns a sequel as, most of the time, the follow-ups don’t succeed. I’m delighted to say that, after reading Batman: City of Madness #1, most of my doubts have dissipated. Christian Ward has a good ear for dialogue and an incredible imagination (I’m sure that anyone who’s read his brilliant take on vampire mythology, Blood Stained Teeth, will agree). It’s also very clear that he knows Batman and Gotham City, because his takes on the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent, and the Court of Owls all hit the mark. Better still, he also manages to add fresh spins to, and deeper takes on, all three.
The whole idea of a “Gotham Below”, a dark mirror-image of the city comics fans know and love, evokes both Scott Snyder’s wonderfully whacky Dark Nights: Metal, and Death Metal series and Neil Gaiman’s classic novel, Neverwhere. Brilliantly, Ward has also managed to give the always nefarious Court of Owls an extra layer of depth, as Gotham’s secret protectors from the terrors that lurk in its twisted twin city.
I’ve made no secret of how much I miss Alfred, since his tragic passing back in 2018 (Batman #77). Seeing Mr. Pennyworth and hearing his thoughts add another extra layer of emotion and heart to this story. Bravo, Mr. Ward.
So far, I’ve mainly spoken about Christian’s writing on the book. Of course, anyone who knows anything about comics will know that he’s also one of the most exciting artists working in comics today. Just look at the images attached to this review, and you’ll understand why. Every panel on every page of this issue is a feast for the eyes. The use of color and light is stunning and no line is wasted. The initial double-page spread of Batman racing across the Gotham rooftops has been my desktop wallpaper for the last three months, and I don’t see myself changing it any time soon.
The sequence where Batman returns to Arkham truly honors Dave McKean’s work on Arkham Asylum, while still being something that’s uniquely Christian Ward. That’s about the highest praise I could give anything. What I will say, though, is that I hope that DC publishes a hardcover collection of the series once it’s complete with a brand new Dave McKean dust jacket and/or foreword. That would be beyond awesome.
Now I’d like to praise Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, a man whose work I’ve loved for a few years now. I’ve always championed letterers as they are true artists and horribly overlooked and underrated talents. Hassan’s work is some of the finest you could ever hope to find. Of particular note are his speech balloons and fonts for Batman and Harvey Dent, and Alfred’s hand-written diary entries. This is gorgeous work. Once again, not only do we know exactly who’s speaking and when, but the Arkham scenes are incredibly eery.
Hassan has created a real atmosphere and also channeled the style and energy of the letterer who worked on the original Arkham Asylum graphic novel. The late Gaspar Saladino (1927-2016) was a 60-year comics veteran and one of the very first letterers to create unique speech/text for each character in a story, a practice that’s now commonly used in comics. Hassan’s work is, once again, both totally his own and a wonderful tribute. Just as with Mr. Ward, there’s no higher praise I could give him.
With an intriguing plot, great side characters, flesh-crawling horror, pitch-perfect characterization, and stellar art, Batman: City of Madness #1 has ticked a lot of boxes straight out of the gate. I came in a little bit nervous but now cannot wait to see where the story goes next.
This issue is well worth your time, so please pick up a copy.
Images Courtesy of DC Entertainment