At the end of 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum, all's well: the Dark Knight's triumphant, the Joker's downed and Gotham City's still a safe, intact place. How, then, do we get to the starting point of that game's newly released sequel, where all the craziness of the asylum gets dropped smack dab into Batman's stomping grounds?
Turns out there's a new graphic novel that explains all of that. Out last week, the hardcover Batman: Arkham City collects the series that bridges the gap between Rocksteady's two Batman games. It's written by Paul Dini, who also penned the plots of those two games. Carlos D'Anda drew the comics and he's also contributed design work for characters in both Bat-games, as well as DC Universe Online and Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters.
The Arkham City graphic novel — which also collects some of the digital-only short stories that weren't available in print before — sets up a fair amount of the game's plot points, so consider this a mild SPOILER WARNING for anything that follows.
Spoilers beyond this point...
The introductory beats of the game get laid down in the comics' panels: Strange as master plotter, Bruce Wayne trying to counter in court of public opinion, Catwoman as a wild card. Folks who've played Arkham City already know that Batman's alter-ego winds up in the game, but the comics show Bruce Wayne's opposition to the creation of the Arkham City super-prison and has him confronting Hugo Strange and Mayor Quincy Sharpe, who was the former of Gotham City's asylum for the criminally insane.
One other development that plays out explains how the Titan drug — a variant of the Venom steroid Bat-villain Bane uses to get freaky huge — gets to Gotham from the island where Arkham Asylum is. The story also shows how the drug's use makes the already terrible level of crime in he city even worse. Ordinary thugs start becoming super-strong and this downturn in public safety fosters the willingness to wall off half the city and make it a habitat for psychopaths and killers.
The machinations that Hugo Strange orchestrates to get his plot into motion include psychologically manipulating Mayor Sharpe, whose personal history gets illuminated — and upending the balance of power in Gotham's underworld. Batman knows there's a scheme but doesn't know who's behind it. That brings up one important note about where the Arkham games sit as pieces of Batman fiction. They seem to live in their own little dimension, one that feels louder than the mainline DC Universe. So it's one where Robin looks super-buff and Batman's never me Hugo Strange before, despite the fact that's he's been around for more than 50 years as a villain.
These comics bolster the world-building that happens in the game. D'Anda's art traffics in bloated muscles and exaggerated warped expressions, but he keeps those tendencies under control when drawing "normal"-looking people like Commisioner Gordon. You'll see gameplay mechanics and gadgets referenced in the hardcover — like detective vision and the explosive gel — along with landmarks from the game like the Sionis Industries (itself a reference to Roman Sionis, the Bat-nemesis known as crime boss Black Mask). The origins of the Tyger private plice force who hunt Batman and others in the game.
In one chilling sequence, Dini shows how minor-league criminals don't want to get sent to Arkham City, knowing that they won't last long in its only-the-strong-survive ecosystem. Another unique element of the Arkham City comics is how they get inside Joker's head. Hearing the Joker's thoughts is a rare thing in most modern comics, made more rare by the clown's sickness. Dini's writing a Joker at a low ebb, but one who uses his sickness to synthesize more Titan. Wondering why the Clown Prince of Crime has some of the game's strongest thugs? They're made from his blood. Literally.
Other questions that you might have while playing the game get answered in the digital shorts. If you want to know why Riddler's roaming free, where the Tyger soldiers' blind obedience comes form and just how slick the game's version of Robin, then the reasons are in these pages.
In short, the Arkham City hardcover sets the table for the grand feast that the game delivers. For an iteration of Batman that's pinged from comics to games and now back again, the work here represents a good example of how the two mediums can interlock.