This past week saw the release of two comics by DC that are ostensibly horror stories set in the city of Gotham, Arkham Manor #2 by Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal and Gotham by Midnight #1 by Ray Fawkes and Ben Templesmith. Reading them in the same sitting, I was struck by how very different they were given that they could both still be found to occupy the same genre. Nothing about these two comics is similar from the tone or the aesthetic yet they’re both, at their heart, haunted house stories.
Arkham Manor is perhaps less obvious as a horror story but it utilizes both thriller and slasher elements with a uniquely horror setting. Wayne Manor, converted into the asylum of the title, is the consummate haunted house with a rich history and a vicious specter haunting it. However, the figure haunting the manor isn’t the slippery serial killer preying on the mentally ill inmates of Arkham Asylum. It’s Batman. Bruce Wayne fits the role of vengeful spirit to a T as he haunts the halls of his ancestral home, angered at the arrival of new occupants to disturb him and the homestead. His presence alone would be enough to make this a horror story before the introduction of a serial killer on the loose in a home full of serial killers.
Batman’s investigation into a double-murder at the asylum serves as the narrative thrust and the book follows him as he scrounges for leads before directly confronting the killer in this issue. The book is following slasher conventions as Batman only becomes aware of the violence once it’s too late and is unable to halt the killer afterward. Batman, having previously filled the role of a Michael Myers waiting to strike, has finally switched places with his prey.
Adding to the book’s slasher-movie aesthetic is the pencils by Shawn Crystal and the colors by Dave McCaig. Shawn Crystal shares some artistic DNA with the likes of Sean Murphy with his figures being made of severe lines meeting at startling angles. Everybody and everything looks like it’s on edge; inmates in group therapy become cobras ready to strike. And the coloring, dark greys with the occasional dash of vibrancy like a burnt orange, creates a stark and eerie tone that places the story in a dark corner of the human psyche that is more Silence of the Lambs than The Others.
As previously stated, Gotham by Midnight #1 is a much different animal in the way that it portrays Gotham itself as the ultimate haunted house. The book follows Detective Jim Corrigan, the human host of the Judeo-Christian God’s wrath, and his small crew of detectives and consultants that investigate the various supernatural threats that come to plague the city of Gotham. The city, as rendered by Ben Templesmith in greens and yellows that recall bile snaking its way up one’s throat, looks as if it’s rotting from the inside out. It’s a dead city occupied by the poor unfortunate souls unfortunate enough to haunt it.
There’s a way that Templesmith draws the ordinary that makes it look supernatural, implying a creeping sense of doom around the edges of every panel. People are drawn without a real eye for anatomy with inconsistencies creeping in so that when someone’s arms stretch longer than they should or their bodies move in a way that should make a contortionist jealous it doesn’t come across as entirely surprising. It’s still vastly unsettling but it feels natural given the tone that’s been established. It creates a tone not unfamiliar to viewers of House on Haunted Hill.
Beyond just Gotham, there appear two other haunted houses in the issue. The first being the home of a couple whose children have been returned from the police after a kidnapping only to reveal themselves as changelings. These twisted mirrors of their children haunt the house spouting gobbledygook until the appearance of the Gotham City Police Department’s “midnight shift” appear to do something about them. The children move unnaturally and their arms extend out like hooks eager to rip out the spirit of anyone who should move in front of them.
The other haunted house is a shack making an appearance in Slaughter Swamp, as perfect a name as Camp Crystal Lake if I ever heard one. When Jim Corrigan enters this shack he finds a perverse facsimile of a classroom filled with children that appear as apparitions while their “teacher,” a horrible black monstrosity that similarly plays off the appearance of being a nun, instructs the class. The strong mess of greens and the perverse imagery tells us that what we’ve found is, if not the, is at least a source of the rot affecting Gotham.
Location, location, location. That’s what makes each of these books so unique. Arkham Asylum has long been used as a haunted house, literally and metaphorically, but transporting the inmates into Wayne Manor has turned that home into a new haunted house. It’s a matter of a disease being transported through infection. Gotham City, on the other hand, is portrayed in such a way as to be comparable to the body of an AIDS patients in that its body is so worn down that it can no longer fight off infections on its own which has allowed multiple disease to fester within. Batman and his myriad assortment of allies fights the disease of supervillains and maniacs as shown in Arkham Manor while Jim Gordon and the GCPD fight the criminal infection. But those dark, magical infections festering under the skin? That’s all Jim Corrigan and his midnight shift.
These two books prove that there’s more than one way to tell a horror story, even if they both fall back on a couple of the old haunted house and slasher tropes. It’s that diversity in content and tone that is truly astounding. Seriously, this is an era in which editor Mark Doyle is diversifying that Batman line of DC Comics in such a way that even the two horror books they’ve launched feel like they could potentially belong to two different lines or publishers.