A clever idea by writer Scott Snyder is expanded by newcomer Marguerite Bennett and a whole bunch of artists in "Batman Annual" #2, which introduces a couple of new characters behind the walls of Arkham Asylum. Bennett explores an intriguing why-didn't-I-think-of-that notion that's well-thought out amidst the backdrop, establishing each new character's place in the storyline. Along the way, this deservedly-lengthy thirty-eight page story stumbles a bit, but also delivers some nice surprises.
A well-narrated sequence of the very first page gives way to an immediate, pleasant, and best surprise of the book on the second and third pages in the form of a very clean, attractive and well-composed double splash page by penciller Wes Craig and the inking team. Such splashes nowadays are often overused and ill-placed, but Craig quickly sets the feel for the story right out of the gate. Batman is appropriately imposing and larger than life, but not cloaked in excessive darkness or moodiness; another tactic that's often overused.
This well-lit Batman aligns itself well with the brighter and more sterile Arkham Asylum depicted. Arkham, often a dark and dank-looking dungeon, doesn't look out of character -- more like someone finally changed a few light bulbs and took a broom to the place. It's not a defining or iconic depiction, but it's a nice change for readers who feel like they need a flashlight every time they consume a story featuring Arkham. Correspondingly, the art all around has a lighter, almost Mike Allred-type feel to it; the overall shinier look of the story is atypical for a Batman tale, but not out of place at all. The mood has an appropriate level of seriousness that one would expect in a Batman title and the look still supports it. And it's remarkably consistent for a single story with six different inkers.
Bennett's study of Arkham's internal defenses is fun and thorough, and her introductions to the new and fresh characters immediately establish their opposing natures; one is a young, naïve new male orderly full of optimism and hope, and the other is a very old female patient who has been committed there for a very long time, alone and all but forgotten. But after these introductions is when Bennett starts to stumble; once their setup is complete, both characters exhibit repetitive and one-dimensional behavior. Their natures are clearly laid out early on, but things never really go beyond that. There's no real development, but instead just a lot of wordy and heavy-handed exchanges. It's as though Bennett, despite the solid introductions, feels readers will forget who these characters are, and feels compelled to remind readers constantly, and unnecessarily, page after page after page.
No character in this story behaves more uncharacteristically than Batman himself, near story's end, unraveling what had been a largely enjoyable tale despite the shallow characterization. A few tweaks could have made Batman's action more understandable and justifiable, but this late in the story Bennett is clearly focusing on the finish line and not the immediate surroundings. The story does manage to recover at the very end, though, with a conclusion that's more upbeat and hopeful than might be expected. An Arkham Asylum story with a happy, and satisfying, ending is an accomplishment that's rarely, if ever, been done.
Overall, this is the kind of story that's better than those typically seen in annual issues, which often feel like needless filler motivated by an attempt to carry on a beloved summertime comic book tradition. While likeable enough with enough uniqueness to make it feel somewhat different, the final execution just doesn't allow it to be anything that's truly special.