Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics
25 years ago and well before his celebrated seven year run writing various Batman titles, Grant Morrison and Sandman cover illustrator Dave McKean collaborated on the best-selling and mind bending Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. The comic told two stories. The first was Batman investigating a hostage situation at Arkham Asylum orchestrated by the Joker, and the second was Amadeus Arkham founding Arkham Asylum and writing about it in his diary. By the end of the story, these two stories dovetail into one narrative through a series of shared images and the major theme of madness. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is truly insane in his thoughts and actions. Morrison and McKean delve into his tortured psyche using words, imagery, and his rogues gallery to explore the madness at the foundation of his character.
Early in Arkham Asylum, Batman tells Commissioner Gordon that he is afraid of going into Arkham Asylum because he thinks that it could be the one place that could be home for him. And he fits in very well with the denizens there. Morrison isn’t afraid to show Batman at his weakest as he cuts himself with a piece of glass to overcome a vivid hallucination about his parents. This incident is uncannily similar to one of Amadeus Arkham’s earliest patients: the rapist and murderer “Mad Dog” Hawkins, who practiced self-harm as well. Throughout the comic, Batman seems very out of his depth. For the most part, he speaks in short, terse sentences with a lot of outbursts, like “No” and “Mother”. In contrast, the Joker sexually harasses him, tells an extended dead baby joke, and even uses an April Fool’s joke to get him to come to Arkham in the first place. Morrison digs beneath Batman’s heroic facade and reveals the scared child beneath the cape and cowl. He does the same with Amadeus Arkham, who slowly descends into the madness he tried to cure and even dons his mother’s blood stained wedding dress to try to drive out the ghost of his mother, murdered wife and child, and other more primal beings that haunted him.
Dave McKean does an excellent job using recurring images, like clocks, mirrors, checkerboards, and tarot cards, to illustrate the continuity between both Batman and Amadeus Arkham’s experiences. His art is surreal, and characters change shape depending on their roles in the scene. Batman begins as a strong, heroic figure at the beginning of the comic, but when he enters Arkham, he becomes a shadowy figure with no depth. The Joker dwarfs him in their scenes together with his pale, smiling face and wild, green hair. Letterer Gaspard makes the Joker’s dialogue blood stains, which act as a verbal extension of his character. This lettering is especially effective in a two page spread where Joker reveals that the inmates have taken over Arkham Asylum. McKean’s big layouts give Morrison plenty of room to tell his story with dialogue and the Arkham diary entry caption boxes, but sometimes the symbols get in the way. For example, the Hebrew alphabet, bits of text, and tarot cards make the aforementioned scene with the Joker unnecessarily confusing.
Arkham Asylum is at its best when Morrison’s words and McKean’s illustrations work in synergy to tell both Batman and Arkham’s story. This is most clearly seen in an extended fight sequence between Batman and Killer Croc. These pages are dialogue free. They just contain excerpts from Arkham’s diary that tell of his mental struggle with a “dragon”, and his attempts to explain it using Jungian archetypes and tarot symbolism. The climax of the scene is when Batman takes a spear from the statue of the archangel Michael and gores Killer Croc while Arkham compares himself to various “dying gods” of mythology, including Attis, Odin, and Christ. The pages feature some of McKean’s most striking art as Batman falls from a rooftop in the midst of a lightning storm and engages in single combat with Croc. He acts as a visible representation of Arkham’s greatest fear, which is eventually manifested in the form of a bat. The fallout from the battle is the most important because Batman isn’t depicted as a conquering hero, but slips back into the shadows of his true home: Arkham Asylum.
Along with having detailed, nightmarish art and providing insights into Batman’s character, Morrison also fleshes out and plays with Batman’s enemies. Two-Face plays an especially big role in the story as the Arkham staff have tried to cure him of his obsession with duality by giving him deck of 78 Tarot cards to make decisions with. This backfires though because he now has trouble making even the most basic choices, including ordinary bodily functions. Batman uses Two-Face as a case subject of how Arkham Asylum does a horrible job treating its inmates. Batman’s action towards Two-Face also plays a big role in the story’s conclusion. Batman encounters even more of his rogues gallery, including an eerily quiet Scarecrow and a monosyllabic Clayface, who Batman is afraid of touching. This short sequence with Clayface is a physical representation of Batman’s sexually repressed nature that Morrison hints at in an earlier conversation with the Joker. Batman talks with the hookah smoking Mad Hatter, who is a pedophile and tells Batman that Arkham Asylum is a “looking glass” to himself. Then he disappears and is replaced by Batman’s face. Maxie Zeus is especially important to Amadeus Arkham’s story as his dialogue foreshadows Arkham’s eventual god complex and attempt at purging his family’s house with magic and electricity.
Arkham Asylum is a very unique Batman story and explores the mental and psychological side of the legendary superhero. It contains a lot of interesting theories about Batman and his villains, like Batman being motivated by madness to fight crime and the Joker being “super sane”. Morrison also inserts lots of references to writers like Lewis Carroll, James Frazer, and Carl Jung making this comic as much an homage to them as it is a Batman book. He shows that he is not afraid to delve into the dark and messy side of costumed superheroes. They are not people with their heads screwed on straight. Grant Morrison plunges the Batman into an abyss, and that abyss is himself.