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Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on a Serious Earth

Batman’s not afraid of anything.

It’s me. I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that the Joker might be right about me. Sometimes… I question the rationality of my actions. I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates… When I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me…

It’ll be just like coming home.

– Batman explains his unease at going into Arkham Asylum to Jim Gordon

I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised to hear recently that Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum is a somewhat “divisive” book. It is, one hand, highly critically praised and the best-selling graphic-novel of all time, yet Morrison scholars are quick to describe it as “much maligned”. I’ll admit that I took my time getting around to reading it – partially due to the fact that DC refused to keep the hardcover in print – but I eventually buckled and got myself the softcover 15th Anniversary Edition. What I found was one of the most densely challenging, cleverly constructed and brilliantly gothic depictions of the Dark Knight I have ever encountered (indeed, it might even be “simply the most” rather than a safer “one of the most”). It’s beautiful, it’s dark and it’s tough – but it’s also immensely rewarding. Come with me into the Asylum.

Batman comes home…

The plot – so much as there is one – sees the inmates of Arkham Asylum overrun the place, taking the staff hostage and demanding, among other things, that Batman come in and join them, as the Joker suggests, “where you belong”. Once Batman is in there, he finds himself playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the inmates, as he uncovers the dark secrets of the asylum’s architect, Amadeus Arkham. Arkham was, to say the least, a very troubled man.

This is Batman as gothic horror. The afterword suggests that Morrison was inspired to write the novel based on a paragraph he read about Arkham in DC’s Who’s Who, written by Len Wein (perhaps most famous for creating Swamp Thing). Hell, Arkham Asylum, the iconic institution for Batman’s foes, was first named in the 1970s, as a nod to the Arkham of Lovecraft lore. Here Morrison and artist Dave McKean populate the mansion (and story) with trappings of Egyptian folklore, from the imagery of the beetle to statues of Anubis.

No Joke…

Of course, the fact that Batman’s selection of villains has endured pretty much unchanged over the past few decades gives an indication of how successful the institution is. Some writers have made fun of the Asylum’s lax security, while Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns mockingly assigned it a ridiculously liberal agenda (even renaming it the “Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled”) as it gleefully declared its inmates (like Two-Face and the Jokers) victims of society and persecution. Instead, Morrison suggests that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the house itself, hinting at stories about “secret passages, the ghost of mad Amadeus Arkham, the door that’s supposed to bleed” and bringing us back to the institution’s foundation.

Morrison populates the story with the traditional trappings (it opens with the bat signal lighting the clouded sky outside of Gotham, it features Batman and his gallery of villains, it even features a flashback to the murder of Bruce’s parents), but this is an altogether different type of Batman story than most would be familiar with. It’s a lot more spiritual and mystic, featuring circles of salt to ward off evil spirits and lending the hint of a timeless cycle to Batman’s crusade (which would become the benchmark of Morrison’s take on the Dark Knight, but we’ll return to this later). It’s certainly dense and a bit difficult to read, but it’s ultimately more rewarding than most. For my money, it’s Morrison’s best work on the character.

Will there be blood on his hands by the time Batman’s through?

The book opens and closes with quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, hinting at the dreamlike nature of the story. This is Batman “down the rabbit hole”, so to speak. “You must be mad,” quoth the cat, “or else you wouldn’t have come here.” It’s interesting how Morrison populates the Asylum. With the exception of the Joker and Two-Face, who he meets in the lobby, there’s not really an a-list pool of villains. Instead, Morrison selects his characters wisely, representing archetypes.

There are the villains drawn from other sources, mythology or fable. I don’t think any other writer has ever been bothered to offer Maxie Zeus, Batman’s Greek-themed adversary, in anything resembling a complex light, but here Morrison draws the pathetic creature as “Lord of ECT”, lit up in shades of blue, worshipping at the “AC/DC altar”. The Mad Hatter, drawn from the works of Lewis Carroll, is represented – for the first time that I’m aware of – as a pedophile. Much like the Cheshire cat, he suggests to Batman, “We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. … Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.” These are all timeless images, drawn together into one narrative – this is Batman’s subconscious trying to glue itself back together.

… as mad as a hatter…

The other villains encountered all fit similar archetypes – Killer Croc as “the dragon within” “the Dark Tower”; Clayface, here rendered as seeking to “share my disease”, harks back to Batman’s description of the Joker as a “filthy degenerate” – he is literally filthy and degenerating; Doctor Destiny, a mostly forgotten character, is the lord of dreams and nightmares (“all he has to do is look at you and you stop being real”). There’s a popular theory which suggests that Morrison’s Arkham Asylum fits in continuity somewhere after either A Death in the Family (where the Joker kills Robin) or The Killing Joke (where the Joker cripples Batgirl), an observation which suggest why Batman is so “tetchy” (“Don’t touch me!” he yells at Clayface; “Take your filthy hands off me!” he warns the Joker), though it might simply be a reaction to the fears he confessed to Gordon about going into the madhouse.

If this is tied to personal loss, it perhaps explains the doubt hinted at in the script – and the fear. Those stories put Batman at his lowest ebb, and this story is about him confronting his demons – perhaps coming out stronger on the other side. Indeed, there’s a lot of discussion of the novel which focuses on the suggestion it makes that Batman is just as mad as those demons he fights, but that ignores that in the end, Batman makes the choice that none of them can – he leaves Arkham for the real world (“in the asylum,” to quote the Joker). It’s telling that – despite his unease at accompanying the Joker into the Asylum – he walks alongside him coming out.

Batman’s got an axe to grind…

Morrison brilliantly peppers the story with mystic imagery, tied to the zodiac, to lunar cycles, to curses and spirits. Even in the flashbacks to the life of Amadeus Arkham during the 1920s, the Joker and Batman are still present – albeit trapped at the edge of his consciousness. The “beating wings” that haunt the psychiatrist as he sleeps (eventually growing into a fully-formed bat demon), the clown fish in his aquarium – “an inexplicable frisson of deja vu”. Early in the novel, Batman and psychiatrist by the name of Adams play a game of word association. It appears that Morrison is doing the same with us. The fish become Pisces, Pisces of April, “poisson d’Avril”, April Fool’s. The tarot cards that Two-Face plays, with “the lovers” (which is about “surrendering control to a higher power”) and then “the tower” (which represents “false concepts and institutions that we take for real”), becomes a fixation on the moon (“it’s a big silver dollar, flipped by God”).

In doing so, Morrison ties Batman and his adversaries to a somewhat more epic and everlasting story than simply what unfolds in Gotham. Batman and his villains are basically dreams, dreams that have been with us all since the dawn of time – those wings beating away in the back in of our heads as they did inside Arkham’s – and represent thoughts and fears we cannot articulate. The Mad Hatter is violence to children (a thought particularly horrid to Bruce, the product of violence), the Scarecrow is a silent Jungian archetype that is scarcely in our vision before it moves on, Clayface is disease and infection – seeping and spreading.

Batman really embraced the eighties… Look at those shoulder pads!

McKean’s artwork here is impressive – to say the least. That it was constructed – as the afterword notes – before computers became widespread is nothing short of incredible. His sketches are rough and raw, and dreamlike. They are unreal, in the most wonderful way, like beings not fully drawn into being. Morrisons’ script (included in this collection) was written to afford McKean the greatest freedom in putting the story on the page – no panel-by-panel breakdown, written instead as a film script. And he knocks it out of the park.

There’s a lot of Morrison’s take on Batman included here. So much so that it arguably does a better job articulating Morrison’s thoughts on the character than his own run on Batman or Batman & Robin does. There are a whole host of familiar ideas here for anyone who has been following Morrison’s writing on the character, right down to the idea that going into the Asylum is “going home” for Bruce – it’s the Asylum where the climax of Batman R.I.P. takes place. Indeed, that sequences includes an element dropped from this particular story – the Joker in a dress, as suggested in the original script.

Who’s afraid of the big bad bat?

Morrison’s treatment of the Joker is equally cleverly articulated here, with the notion of his “super-sanity”, “more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century”. “He creates himself each day,” Dr. Adams explains, in a line that really makes sense of the title of Morrison’s prose-heavy Joker story, The Clown at Midnight. Of course, the fact Morrison included the line that the Joker’s disorder was “similar to Tourette’s Syndrome” has somewhat muddied the water (I have no idea how it might be like that at all), but it’s very much a smart way of reconciling “why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychotic killer”.

Even Morrison’s more spiritual ideas from Batman R.I.P. (and beginning to develop in Batman & Robin) begin to form here. There’s the notion of an otherworldly “bat” which haunts Gotham. It’s the imagery which drove Arkham’s mother insane, and him in turn. It’s the spirit that the mastermind of the breakout hopes he can trap inside the asylum once and for all. It isn’t a rational force – “only ritual, only magic, could contain the bat” – it’s one almost mythological. Morrison references voodoo, the zodiac, “Shamanistic practices” – all irrational ideas, but reflecting the fact that Batman has never – and never can – exist in a rational world.

Batman refuses to face his (Dr.) Destiny…

Morrison acknowledges his debt to other masters throughout the course of the story. His inclusion of the almost forgotten Doctor Destiny seems a fond nod towards writer Neil Gaiman, who revamped the character for his Sandman – a story which, if the afterword is to be believed, was pitched to DC at the same time as this graphic novel. The fact that the demands of the inmates included “store dummies” which are later visible in Clayface’s cell alludes to a famous Alan Moore short story where Clayface falls in love with a shop dummy. The psychiatrist Adams seems a reference to perhaps the most famous artist to work on Batman, Neal Adams.

The book comes packages with a whole host of extras, including Morrison’s annotated script, which offers a bit more insight than we might get in the actual book (for example, it offers a deeper exploration of the spiritual themes, and one or two bits cut – for example, a Black Mask cameo). There’s also Morrison’s sketchbook, which offers hints of a vastly different story than the one which ultimately made it to print – featuring more Gordon and even an appearance from Robin, along with looking a whole heap more conventional than McKean’s wonderfully expressionist art work.

Batman takes flight…

Arkham Asylum is a challenging novel, but it’s a rewarding one. It’s easily the best thing that Morrison has written for the character, and one of the most fascinating stories to feature the Batman. It’s a wonderful, magical and disturbing tale of gothic horror which manages to feel perfectly like a Batman story without feeling like a Batman story at all.

In short, you’d be mad to miss it.

You might enjoy our other reviews and explorations of Grant Morrison’s Batman-related works:

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16 Responses

  1. I read this while on a road trip to Maine. Easily the most entrancing graphic novel I’ve read. As soon as I was done I flipped it back over and read it again.

    Absolutely great write-up Darren!

  2. Very good write up Darren, thanks for posting 🙂

  3. Darren, my Mckean fansite may be of interest to you, its basically my whole collection on-line. (just click on my name) best Kevin.

  4. After my comments on Batman! and my views on reinterpretation of Batman, I think I should expand here. This is my favorite Batman story. MY version of Batman is a classic movie monster that might not be a man underneath the suit, living in a world crafted by Edger Alan Poe maybe. (This is why I’m so affectionate to the Tim Burton films and Strange Apparitions).

    • I’m glad there’s somebody else out there who likes the Tim Burton films! I think that Batman is a character who does work well in that sort of New England neo-gothic milieu. You can almost imagine a lost Poe story about “the Bat-Man of New England.”

  5. For my money this is the best Batman story ever.

    • And Darren what are you talking about overlooked? It’s the most famous establishment in all of Gotham!!

      • Ha!

        Fair point.

        I guess that’s coming from the perspective of a guy who only had limited access to comic in the nineties. Arkham Asylum was obviously not a part of Batman ’66, given it didn’t exist yet. It was also completely absent from Batman and Batman Returns. It played larger (although still small) roles in Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. It was a focal point of Batman Begins, but absent from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

        Outside of comics, the one place I remember seeing it with some frequency was in the DCAU. Part of me wonders whether a casual fan of Batman in other media would have been able to name the institution during the later nineties and into the new millennium.

        Then again, all this changed with the release of the video game.

        (On the other hand, I think that places like the Batcave and Wayne Manor are more ubiquitous in the mythology; not to mention the old “roof with the bat signal shining overhead”, which is rather generic, but still…)

    • I’m a big fan of it myself, actually. Re-read it with surprising frequency.

  6. Love the review, and I need to reread it because like most Morrison work, it only really comes together and makes sense at the end. On the note of Batman being “‘tetchy'” I read in the annotated script that Morrison felt it was an alternate universe type thing. For him, Batman was the hyper-competent Zen warrior he wrote in his JLA run and further Batman stuff. But here, Batman was far more restricted and repressed, especially sexually. He wanted to have the Joker cross-dress to make the sexual repression more explicit, but cooler heads prevailed. (Also he wanted Robin to be in the book, but Dave McKean thought that was too far, he wasn’t real crazy about drawing Batman. And since The Killing Joke OBVIOUSLY *sarcasm* took place before Knightfall, that means it couldn’t have come after Jason Todd’s death)

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