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Batman – Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

There is something absolutely compelling about witnessing the surreal and the impossible through the eyes of ordinary people. In the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, DC seemed to take a novel approach to the larger Batman mythos. Acknowledging the absurdity of the world inhabited by the Caped Crusader, comic book fans were asked to look at that strange world from the perspective of the ordinary people inhabiting it.

Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark all collaborated on Gotham Central, the wonderful police procedural that offered a new way of examining the streets of Gotham. As observed by the members of the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, Gotham’s population of heroes and villains seemed particularly unsettling and ethereal. It is one thing to imagine the weird and wonderful world inhabited by the Batman and the Joker and the Mad Hatter. It is another to imagine sharing that world.

He knows how to make an entrance...

He knows how to make an entrance…

Launched a few months after the first issue of Gotham Central, Dan Slott and Ryan Sook’s wonderful Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is a six-issue miniseries that invites the reader inside the eponymous institution. As glimpsed through the eyes of white-collar criminal Warren White, Arkham Asylum is a place that defies explanation – a macabre and horrific environment that is home to all sorts of depravity and brutality.

Batman himself barely appears in Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, existing at the fringes of the book as he does with Gotham Central. However, despite these limited appearances, it remains clear that Warren White has found his way to the other side of the looking glass.

We all face our demons...

We all face our demons…

The notes at the end of the recently-published deluxe edition of Living Hell reveal that Dan Slott had originally pitched Arkham Asylum as an on-going series, with Living Hell serving as the first six-issue arc. The series was pitched as “Oz in the DC universe, by way of Arkham Asylum.” In a way, it is disappointing that DC never developed Dan Slott’s pitch. It would have made a wonderful companion piece to Gotham Central, providing a number of interesting and contrasting views of Gotham.

Living Hell introduces a wealth of new characters and concepts. A few of them have reappeared outside of the context of the series. Paul Dini has shown a particular fondness for the characters and concepts that were introduced in Living Hell. Arkham security guard Aaron Cash and his missing hand became a major part of the Arkham Asylum video game, while Humpty Dumpty appeared in Dini’s Streets of Gotham.

What a Croc!

What a Croc!

Even outside of Dini’s work, Warren White has remained a minor recurring character in the Batman books. He was revealed as the villain of the Face the Face arc published in the wake of Infinite Crisis. He has even worked his way into the “new 52”, appearing as part of Arkham War. While the character has hardly become a breakout hit, he has become a minor fixture of the Batman universe. For a comic published a little over a decade ago, that is quite an accomplishment.

Living Hell is a fantastic piece of work from writer Dan Slott and artist Ryan Sook. The premise is compelling and exciting – building on some of the most interesting aspects of the Batman mythos to tell a unique and fascinating story. Arkham Asylum has been a part of the Batman mythology for almost four decades at this point. It was the focal point of Grant Morrison’s superb graphic novel. It has appeared in countless interpretations of Batman. And yet, despite all this, Arkham Asylum has found something new to say.

Flipping out...

Flipping out…

In many respects, Slott and Sook are simply building on what came before. Arkham Asylum has consistently been portrayed as a horrific location. Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum was a horror story, for all intents and purposes. Alan Moore’s visit to the facility during his Swamp Thing run and Neil Gaiman’s trips to it in Sandman and Black Orchid both suggest it is a haunted and unsettling location in the wider DC universe.

After all, Denny O’Neil did name it for the fictional east coast locale featured in the work of famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Given Lovecraft’s themes of insanity and revelation, it is no surprise that Arkham Asylum has been consistently portrayed as a grotesque and uncomfortable environment. One of the more intriguing aspects of Living Hell is the way that Slott and Sook build on this association with Lovecraft.

A gas time...

A gas time…

Capitalising on the fact that Lovecraft’s work is part of the public domain, Living Hell features an appearance from a Lovecraftian demon at its climax. Cthugha is summoned beneath Arkham Asylum through ritual and sacrifice, unleashing hell upon the asylum itself. To be sure, this is not exactly Lovecraft’s version of Cthugha. Though summoned through fire and associated with hell (and, thus, fire), the creature is more physical that the flame monster featured in The House on Curwen Street.

Although not entirely in keeping with the version of Cthugha created by Lovecraft, Slott and Sook do remain faithful to the spirit of Lovecraft’s work. Beautifully realised by Ryan Sook’s artwork, Cthugha never seems entirely real – looking more like an elaborate and grotesque wall sculpture than a demonic presence. More than that, the creature presence seems to threaten the sanity of all involved. Rather than acknowledge the horror, everybody convinces themselves that the Scarecrow’s fear toxin was at work.

Punching above his weight...

Punching above his weight…

There’s a very dark sense of humour running through the comic, even as it seems like Slott and Sook are laughing so that they don’t start crying. Hilarious juxtapositions populate the book, some wonderful gags that demonstrate Sook’s remarkable comic timing and Slott’s wry sense of humour. Living Hell is a book that rapidly and cleverly alternates between horrific and hilarious, often within the same page or panel.

The idea that the staff and patients all blame Jonathan Crane is one example of the book’s grim humour, as is a nice inside joke about Sean Young’s terrifyingly insane attempt to land the part of Catwoman in Batman Returns. “Remember that time she showed up here in a Catwoman outfit?” one guard asks another. Warren White’s delightfully jerkish behaviour to the other inmates – before he realises what awaits him – seems particularly dark.

Great White...

Great White…

And, despite that, there is a strange tragedy to Living Hell. The comic ends with the revelation that the demons will be returned to hell to torture one another as part of “one big, long, looping conga line of pain.” It is violence and brutality perpetuating more violence. White proposes the idea to Cthugha, and it seems quite apparent where he got the idea. After all, Arkham Asylum seems to be one big example of suffering projected from one person to another.

Indeed, this reflects one theoretical perspective of prison in the real world – suggesting that locking criminals up with other criminals is not conducive to rehabilitation or reformation. Inevitably, criminals tend to victimise and brutalise each other, creating a chain of abuse and violence. Alternatively, prison provides a fertile ground for criminals to network, allowing people to associate with more serious criminals and make connections that will follow them back into the outside world.

Staying sharp in Arkham...

Staying sharp in Arkham…

While obviously exaggerated as part of a superhero comic book, Warren White went to Arkham Asylum as a white-collar criminal. His time in the institution – the suffering he received as a result of his incarceration – transformed him into something altogether more serious. Warren White became an out-and-out super villain who could negotiate with hell itself to serve his own ends. He goes from victim to bully, “fish” to Great White Shark. It seems reasonable to suggest that his stay at Arkham was not conducive.

Warren White is not the only example of a character who is trapped within this looping cycle of violence and brutality. Jeremiah Arkham reflects that violence and horror are so common that the sensation of a good night’s sleep is alien to him. When Aaron Cash is attacked by Killer Croc, Arkham convinces him to come back by remarking, “You can sit there and be a cripple… or return to a job where it’s socially acceptable to cripple others.” Cash gives the same advice to another guard on the final page.

Oh how I want to be free...

Oh how I want to be free…

Then again, Slott and Sook suggest that even the staff are prisoners of Arkham in one way of another. In a subplot that seems to recall the creeping insanity that spread from Rorschach and infected Malcolm Long in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Arkham psychiatrist Anne Carver finds herself trapped by her job. “You have no idea what it’s like to be trapped in a place like this,” White tells her during one session. “Believe me… I know,” Carver responds. She reflects, “Every night I try to put Arkham behind me.”

There is, of course, a delightful irony to all this. While Anne Carver is a psychiatrist who feels trapped by the asylum, she is killed and replaced by Jane Doe. Jane Doe is an inmate who steals Anne Carver’s life and wears her skin. It would appear that the prisoners of Arkham are more free than the staff. The narration and dialogue in Living Hell is fully of irony and nuance, asking us to figure out if Anne Carver’s caption boxes are retroactive Jane Doe lost in Carver’s character, or Jane Doe as Jane Doe.

Facing up to himself...

Facing up to himself…

(This level of forethought and nuance is in evidence throughout the book. For example, as Slott explains in the Deluxe Edition, there are subtle clues that the Riddler has deduced that Jane Doe has replaced Anne Carver. These hinge on his homophonic use of “deer” instead of “dear” during one brief panel, a snippet of dialogue that could easily look like a typo to a casual reader, but is instead wonderfully prophetic.)

One of the more interesting aspects of Living Hell is the way that the book portrays Jeremiah Arkham. Introduced by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle in The Last Arkham, Jeremiah Arkham has consistently been portrayed as flaky and unreliable. Although Grant was sympathetic towards the character, he never seemed to picture of mental health – more likely to cause problems for Batman than to solve them. Tony Daniel’s run on Batman took this to its logical conclusion and made him a supervillain.

Painting the town red...

Painting the town red…

In contrast, Living Hell presents Jeremiah Arkham as a confident administrator and a shrewd operator. Aaron Cash describes him as “silver-tongued bastard.” During the riot at the book’s climax, it is Arkham who takes down Killer Croc. It is Arkham who is familiar and level-headed enough to recognise the riot, even when the on-duty staff cannot sense anything is wrong. It’s a portrayal of Arkham that feels rather at odds with most of the other portrayals of the character.

Then again, perhaps this is the point. Living Hell is a book that is interested at the people who exist at the eye of the storm – caught right in the middle of this insanity. Perhaps it makes sense that Arkham appears insane or unstable to Batman or James Gordon. He is, after all, operating in a day-to-day environment that is completely surreal and unsettled. Batman and Gordon might fight this sort of insanity nightly, but Arkham lives with it. For his safety, and the safety of his staff, he has to own it.

Talk about a people suit...

Talk about a people suit…

There is a beautiful sense throughout Arkham Asylum that the institution exists at some strange point of intersection between reality and something much more strange. There are repeated references made to children’s stories and fairytales, even outside of established villains like the Mad Hatter. Humpty Dumpty’s version of Gotham, as presented via flashback, seems more like a magical world than anything that could exist. Killer Croc mocks Aaron Cash by going “tic toc”, evoking Peter Pan.

Living Hell is a modern Batman classic, an interesting glimpse at the world of Batman from a rather unconventional – and inspired – perspective.

2 Responses

  1. One of my favourite Batman stories but I get a bit lost with the final parts of the story, when the demons are introduced. As a look into Arkham though, it’s brilliant.

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