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Review: "Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth"

Nathan Kiehn is a blogger at Keenlinks, a contributor at Geeks Under Grace, and the author of "The Gray Guard" ebook trilogy on Amazon.

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Seeking Asylum

Amadeus Arkham watched his mother ignobly struggle with mental illness until her death. When she passed, he inherited her home and transformed it into a psychiatric hospital, which Amadeus named after her.

“Arkham Asylum.”

The facility is renowned in Batman lore as the hospital where many of the Dark Knight’s adversaries have been institutionalized and routinely break free from it. Arkham has been spotlighted in numerous stories over the last several decades and depicted in several other forms of media, including Batman Begins, Batman: The Animated Series, Gotham, and, perhaps most famously, the Batman Arkham series of video games.

It’s difficult, then, to overstate the importance of the institution to Batman’s mythos… and it’s equally difficult to overstate Grant Morrison’s influence on Arkham through their graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. The story, in the years since its publication, has gone on to great acclaim, upheld alongside The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, Death in the Family, The Long Halloween, and The Killing Joke as an integral chapter in Batman’s history.

Today, I hope to delve a little into the madness and mayhem of Arkham, exploring what exactly makes this particular graphic novel so fascinating.

“Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” Credits

Writer

Grant Morrison

Penciler

Dave McKean

Issue

"Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth" graphic novel

Publication Date

October 1989

It's gonna be a dark knight in Arkham tonight

It's gonna be a dark knight in Arkham tonight

On the Steps of Arkham

This graphic novel is an incredibly dense work of fiction, layered in philosophical, psychological, and religious symbolism. I am, primarily, going to skirt around this, my general unfamiliarity with Morrison’s broader work and their beliefs hampering any intention to properly give such notions credence. I wish, instead, to dive into the story itself.

On the face of it, Arkham Asylum appears simple. Led by the fiendish Clown Prince of Crime, the inmates of Arkham have rioted and taken control of the asylum. The Joker demands Batman show up and journey through the darkness with them. Through this premise, Morrison explores not only the psyche of Batman but those of the inmates themselves, providing readers with a grim trip down the rabbit hole.

Is Batman mad as a hatter?

Is Batman mad as a hatter?

The premise, to me, seems to simply be a narrative mechanic for Morrison to pull our Dark Knight Detective into the asylum. Once inside, Batman is given ample opportunity to engage with his rogues gallery; likewise, Morrison is given various chances to explore what makes these prisoners, and by extension their winged-wrapped warden, tick.

By throwing Batman in with the lunatics, Morrison stresses the point that, just maybe, Batman is a tad more at home inside the asylum than outside. “Enjoy yourself out there,” the Joker tells Batman at the end of the graphic novel as the vigilante leaves Arkham. “In the asylum. Just don’t forget—if it ever gets too tough… there’s always a place for you here.” Batman is thrust into a world of insanity and evil that he must confront and combat yet simultaneously faces the risk of falling headlong into. He faces corruption, or perhaps, a deeper look at himself…and a better understanding of who he really is.

Batman finds he has an axe to grind

Batman finds he has an axe to grind

Going Rogue

Threading through the novel exists a grim duality between Batman and the villains he encounters. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke summed up the concept nicely through dialogue—“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy,” the Joker tells Batman. Morrison explores that concept by placing Batman into the heart of madness, wringing him out, and seeing what comes out the other side.

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As Batman encounters each of his adversaries, distinction is drawn between who he is vs. who they have become. Maxie Zeus, represented as a being of blue energy with aspirations of godhood, offers Batman power in exchange for freedom. Batman ignores him, choosing to surpass his human limitations without the God/Olympian/Christ-imitator’s exchange. Clayface stumbles around the halls, a putrid mass of decaying flesh, looking to taint all around him. Batman pushes him aside, refusing to be corrupted and poisoned. The Mad Hatter is a thief of childhood innocence, mirroring the innocence Bruce lost when his parents were murdered, the innocence he’s tried reclaiming or reinstating in Gotham ever since that night.

The villains aren’t perfect opposites of our hero, but they each represent some small antithesis. Godhood vs. humanity. Corruption vs. incorruptibility. Loss of innocence vs. innocence reclaimed.

Maxie trying to lighten the current situation

Maxie trying to lighten the current situation

From a narrative standpoint, even if you strip away Batman’s connection to each of his rogues, Morrison’s re-imagining of several villains is fascinating. The Joker is an eerie, wraith-like phantom drifting in and out of the pages, toying with Batman and berating him with terms of endearment; a doctor posits the Clown Prince of Crime possesses a kind of “super sanity” which impacts the way he views reality.

Two-Face is given a pack of cards instead of his trademark scarred coin, and the concept of having fifty-two choices instead of two overwhelms Harvey instead of weaning him off the coin. Killer Croc is presented as this formidable mass of muscle and bulk, a figurative dragon Batman must slay and perhaps the villain’s most imposing presence in my mind, aside from his appearance in the Arkham Asylum video game.

These descriptions and dimensions allow Morrison to toy with the depth and concept of each villain, as I discussed above. It’s difficult distinguishing one main personality trait or characteristic that Morrison assigns each antagonist (that is to say, it isn’t like Morrison is trying to figuratively ascribe one of the Seven Deadly Sins to each villain, for example), but he works to make them unique and imbue Batman's antagonists with some type of psychological/philosophical concept. You remember Croc for how physically imposing he is, Two-Face for breaking under the weight of his potential choices, Clayface for how eerily putrescent he is.

Harvey goes by "Fifty-Two-Face" now

Harvey goes by "Fifty-Two-Face" now

Arkham's Arc

Alongside this central narrative, Morrison weaves in the history of Arkham’s founder, Amadeus. His tale is meant to serve as the antithesis of Batman’s—as the Dark Knight moves deeper and deeper into the asylum and confronts all challenges to his sanity, Amadeus breaks under the weight of his own darkness.

At one point in the novel, Batman stabs a shard of glass through his hand, a way of finding reality through the pain in the midst of madness. Amadeus just drifts farther and farther; his attempts to rehabilitate a criminal fail when that same criminal escapes a penitentiary and hunts Amadeus’ family. Amadeus returns the favor by treating the criminal to electroshock therapy until the man burns to death.

“Legacy,” you could call it. Morrison pulls no punches by draping Amadeus’ legacy in black, making no bones about the fact that the institution Amadeus originally set up to rehabilitate criminals is, during most of the graphic novel, run by the same inmates Arkham Asylum intended to cure. And Batman is thrust deep into this darkness, subjected to its depths; unlike Arkham, he finds a light in the madness and violence.

Darkness, evil, tragedy worm their way through the lives of Amadeus, Batman, and the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery… but how they choose to respond to those shadows, through acceptance or resistance, defines the decisions they make and the people they become.

Arkham can find no asylum here

Arkham can find no asylum here

Masters of the Dark Arts

Through all this, Morrison’s words and themes are foundationally reliant on Dave McKean’s illustrations. McKean provides dark, shadowy visuals through a painted medium; his work is incredibly atmospheric, to the point where it feels like he’s creating impressions instead of a fully realized environment. His figures and settings are defined well enough but sit at the edge of interpretation, allowing the reader to fill in the remaining details.

His Batman is a solitary shadow, sweeping through the story; his Asylum is rooms and hallways of darkness and secrets, almost begging the reader to stare a little farther into the yawning abyss; some of his villains are completely unrecognizable from previous or typical forms—as stated earlier, Maxie Zeus is represented as a godlike figure of lighting, more Dr. Manhattan than human; Clayface is a diseased, shambling, bipedal corpse; the Mad Hatter evokes Alice in Wonderland imagery, wrapped in smoke.

Where other artists would imbue their worlds with concrete imagery and details for the reader to suss out, McKean feels more at home in the obscure and opaque. It’s not that you’re unable to figure out what’s happening or that distinguishing characters from the setting is difficult; it’s that you’re asked to concentrate on the details McKean does provide and mentally fill in the spaces. The horror imagined by watching Scarecrow shambling down a hallway and staring at Batman through dark holes is a more frightening experience than if you saw his eyes or if he were allowed to speak.

This scarecrow terrifies more than the birds

This scarecrow terrifies more than the birds

Credit should also be given to Gaspar Saladino for his lettering. Characters each speak distinctly, providing further characterization. Batman’s speech bubbles invert the traditional bubble coloring—black with white wording, outlined in white rings—giving the Dark Knight a unique voice that perhaps fits the tone of his grim demeanor. Maxie Zeus’ speech bubbles are electric blue, lettering constructed in a Greek style to reflect his own background and self-proclaimed godhood. Clayface’s bubbles are more splotch-like than circular, colored oozing green, similar to his ragged, dripping flesh.

Perhaps most interesting is the Joker’s dialogue. His words are written in red, akin to blood, and not defined by speech bubbles at all. His dialogue is scrawled along panels, altering in size and resisting any sort of conformity or direction. The Joker’s mindset is described by a doctor as a kind of “Tourette’s Syndrome,” where the villain recreates his persona almost daily. It makes sense that his words carry a similar concept, characterized by dialogue tumbling out of his mouth, unwilling to conform to the standard method through which speech is conveyed in the graphic medium.

Always something to joke about with this guy

Always something to joke about with this guy

Through voice and imagery, Morrison and McKean both carry this dark tale along. I cannot consider it my favorite Batman story of all time, simply because I struggled to grasp the deeper notions Morrison imbues the narrative with. Regardless, I appreciate Morrison’s characterization, how Batman is pitted, physically and psychologically against his foes, how the Dark Knight must weigh himself against them, how Amadeus’ story serves as the antithesis of Bruce’s tale.

A Serious House on Serious Earth is as deep as it is dark, and should I give it a second read someday, I hope to understand more deeply this yawning cavern.

© 2022 Nathan Kiehn

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