Monday, January 11, 2016

Retro Review: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Some literature excels in developing characters; some excels at developing locales or settings. The DC Universe is tremendously rich in characters – its landscape is most meaningfully defined in terms of characters – but relatively impoverished in well-developed places. A notable exception is Arkham Asylum, home to many of Batman's villains when they're not on the loose. It may surprise some fans to learn that Arkham was not introduced until 1974, and was first given a detailed backstory not in a story but rather in an encyclopedia article entry in 1985's Who's Who in the DC Universe (a title that, again, reinforces the emphasis on characters over places).

Denny O'Neil created Arkham and Len Wein gave it an origin, but Grant Morrison's 1989 work Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth made Arkham a place to remember. AA (as I'll abbreviate the name of the graphic novel here, to distinguish it from the place) redefined more than just one building on the outskirts of Gotham City. AA may be thought of as the last of several impactful graphic novels of the Eighties, but also the first significant work in Morrison's long history in writing Batman. But to a reader picking it up new, AA did not relate to a past or a future so much as it was squarely part of a Batman renaissance in progress, the great year of Batman 1989, when the Batman film starring Michael Keaton ruled the box office and a new series, Legends of the Dark Knight, debuted in the stores. Significant as it is for its place in this larger web of Batman works, AA is complex enough when considered alone, and many of its references, starting with the title, are owed to mythology and literature outside of the superhero genre, although the many references to Lewis Carroll, Parsifal, mythology, and religion perhaps operate more as decoration than they contribute to the structure. The title itself, borrowing from a poem by Philip Larkin, compares Arkham Asylum to a church. AA's impact, however, may have gone beyond the world of Batman and graphic novels to influence the zeitgeist of the early Nineties.

AA tells two stories; we know at the beginning that they are related in that they occur in the same place, although decades apart. There are, moreover, many curious parallels between the insane ravings written down by a man in the past and the specific experiences of Batman on a night seven decades after Amadeus wrote in his journal. It is only near the end when we learn that the past and present stories are very tightly related, and wonder if they might be related in a deeper way still. The main story, set in the present, shows Batman entering Arkham in response to an inmate riot, and getting more than he bargained for. The background plot, which runs from 1901 to 1929, and centered in 1921, is something different than a superhero story, and can appeal to readers who prefer, instead, mystery and horror. The Batman story itself also diverges markedly from the pre-existing norms of the superhero genre, and is something else, more psychological, and if it does not provide an actual account of human psychology, that leaves AA in good company with other "psychological" films and books.

The bare facts of the story, where another writer might focus but Morrison did not, is that the present administrator at Arkham, Charles Cavendish, goes mad and, informed by the journal of his predecessor, Amadeus Arkham, who also went mad, releases the inmates as part of a plan to kill Batman. Cavendish's guilt, however, is a secret until the book's final pages, the solution of a mystery that is teased very lightly near the beginning (i.e., when Jim Gordon announces that the Arkham inmates have taken over – "We don't know how" – and when Joker says that Killer Croc, too, was freed from his unique confinement).

But the reader begins the present-tense story confronted not so much with a mystery as with a simple, compelling scenario: The inmates, led by the Joker, have taken over Arkham; they want Batman to come to them, and they have hostages they can torture and kill if he doesn't comply. Another writer might imbue Batman with the ability not to choose, to storm Arkham like a commando, freeing all the hostages, re-caging all the inmates and achieving total victory. That would have been a conventional superhero story, but a much less interesting one than the one AA tells. Instead, Batman reluctantly surrenders to the inmates and submitting to their games, before finding the opportunity to use his skills to evade several of the most serious dangers in the Asylum. Eventually, Batman is confronted by Cavendish, who sees Batman as the cause of all the madness that Arkham confines, and therefore an evil that must be eliminated. Another Arkham doctor, Ruth Adams, kills Cavendish, and Batman goes on a brief, ambiguous rampage before he himself proposes the final game of the evening, for his life to be decided by a single coin toss by Two Face. Dent tosses the coin and announces that Batman is free to go, but we later learn that the result actually called for Batman's death and that Dent announced the opposite choice of his own free will.

Told concurrently with that present-tense plot, in narration that switches from scene to scene, page to page, and sometimes juxtaposed within a single panel, is the story of Amadeus Arkham, how his personal studies, his personal tragedies, and his personal madness all aligned to make him both the creator of Arkham Asylum and later an inmate. The story of Amadeus Arkham is profoundly disturbing, completely beyond the bounds of superhero comics as they existed only a few years earlier, but some ground had been broken in this regard, by Alan Moore and others, so Morrison's story, which would have been unthinkable in 1983, was merely shocking in 1989. The conclusion of the past-tense plot was that Amadeus Arkham fell victim to (perhaps hereditary) madness, and loses his mind after having already lost everything else.

While Batman is confined to the trap that is the physical Arkham Asylum, the reader should sense another trap in the past-tense plot, which is that it has long since ended, and Batman is therefore powerless to do what superheroes do and create a happy ending. From the outset, it is impossible that AA could allow a traditional superhero story's ending in the past-tense plot, and the reader must sense early on that the genre is being broken and turned into something new and full of horror.

There are no taboos holding back the horrors of the past-tense plot. Early on, we learn of Amadeus' mother's madness in a disgusting image that shows insects falling out of her mouth. The worst of it, though, concerns "Mad Dog" Hawkins, who was a victim of abuse, and gives the world plenty of abuse back, culminating in the murders and apparent rapes of Amadeus' wife and daughter. In presenting Mad Dog Hawkins and his crimes, Morrison tapped into a fascination with serial killers that was growing in popular culture at the time. A search on Google Books reveals that the phrase "serial killer" was almost unheard of in 1984, but grew rapidly in occurrence over the next dozen years. Morrison's depiction of Mad Dog Hawkins and his mutilation of victims and need to cut himself "just to feel something" was ahead of the curve in depicting such characters and perhaps played a significant role in the phenomenon, which surged in the mainstream with the film The Silence of the Lambs two years later. Morrison also gives nods to a much earlier forerunner, Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, reproducing one frame of the movie in the art, and having Amadeus Arkham, like Norman Bates, sit alone in his madness while wearing his mother's dress.

Hawkins eventually impacts the plot – and arguably, culture as a whole – by escaping –, which Amadeus tragically chooses to ignore – and slaughtering Amadeus Arkham's wife and daughter. Amadeus' journal narrates it horrifically: "I see my wife first. My dear Constance. Her body is in pieces. Harriet lies nearby, indescribably violated. Almost idly, I wonder where her head is. And then I look at the doll's house. And the doll's house. Looks. At. Me." AA shows families and children as victims many times, including the fact that Mad Dog Hawkins was sexually abused by his own father, and this carries over to established DC characters via the sexual interest that the Mad Hatter shows in "little blonde girls." A year later, Morrison's second major Batman story, "Gothic," opens with a man learning that his wife and daughter were being forced into making pornography. Amadeus Arkham turns the violence within families back a generation as well, killing his mother as – in his mind – an act of mercy, saving her from her fears and madness. If the medium's use of shock and horror which increased suddenly in the Eighties is to be seen as excessive, AA is one of the stories where that excess was pioneered.

A narrative device that Morrison uses to heighten the impact of the story's excesses is to use language that implies that a character's emotional reaction to an event is muted when it should have been shock. Mad Dog cuts himself "just to feel something." Amadeus looks for his daughter's head "almost idly" and tells his mother, "Don't be afraid" right before he kills her. Ruth Adams interrupts another of her own thoughts with, "Oh, Christ. I just killed someone."  The casual reactions are jarring in contrast with the horrific events unfolding. Years later, Morrison used the same device in JLA #17, when Prometheus tells Kyle Rayner, "I should shoot you right now, purely out of mercy. There. I just did." Elsewhere, in arguably the story's darkest comment, Two Face says that the Moon is a coin tossed by God, and because it landed scarred-side up, he created the world.

The association between families and violence is not, to say the least, new to the Batman mythos, but is at the very core. Morrison takes the origin that was established in Detective Comics #33 and renders it in blood and guts and psychological shock, with Batman breaking down when a word association game forces him to reveal to the Joker how traumatized he was by his parents' murders. As Alan Moore had done in the immediately preceding years, Morrison brought a new level of shock and horror to DC's superhero lineup. Also like Moore, Morrison had Batman as the DC flagship figure closest to the center of the spectacle – Batman as the star of Morrison's work, and a guest of far greater repute than the star of Moore's Swamp Thing. Batman is a natural choice for this, as a figure of darkness as opposed to, say, Green Lantern or The Flash. But Morrison went far further than either the traditional legends or Moore's uses of Batman, by marking the hero as a fundamentally tragic figure, not only in his origins or his milieu, but in his character. Early on, Batman says, "I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me [that Batman belongs in the madhouse]. Sometimes I… question the rationality of my actions. And 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." The notion that Batman is damaged psychologically is reinforced throughout the story, perhaps most emphatically in the closing psychological sketch of Batman, a one-page internal monologue which is placed in the middle of those for Arkham's inmates, and whose final words read, "Mommy's dead. Daddy's dead. Brucie's dead. I shall become a bat."

This vision of Batman as a fundamentally wounded figure is very different from the Batman that Morrison wrote two decades later, a man who is relentlessly strong in body and mind even in response to physical and psychological attack while in captivity. In 2006-2010, Morrison portrayed a Batman who could eventually escape from any trap, and could endlessly summon greater and greater resources in response to absolutely any crisis. In 1989, Morrison showed us a Batman who was, at least in principle, fragile, and who not only could be broken, but was willing to tell Jim Gordon that he feared that. And the horrible murder and abuse afflicting families in the story included the Waynes. "Brucie's dead" is a line that could only come from Bruce/Batman himself, and the use of a diminutive to describe himself is just as jarring as the thesis that Bruce Wayne died in spirit on the night that his parents died physically, but he was still, for a time, childlike enough to call himself "Brucie" as he reflected upon his trauma.

While Morrison's vision of Batman changed considerably from AA to his run on Batman, the Morrisonian vision of the Joker is firm on one idea: That the Joker's wide range in characterization over the years – from a "bad" but funny clown to a terrifying psychotic murderer – should be interpreted in a metatextual way as the changes taking place in the mind of an insane – or "super sane" criminal. In AA, Ruth Adams gives us this vision of the Joker for the first time: "…some days he's a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer." It next appeared 17 years later in 52 #30, with Dick Grayson narrating, "The Joker gave up being a murderer for a while and there was just this crazy, brilliant clown running around." This is developed further in Morrison's prose issue, Batman #663, "The Clown at Midnight," with Batman explaining to Harley Quinn, "He's changed again. You know how he changes every few years. You wrote the book, Doctor Quinzel. He has no real personality, remember, only a series of 'superpersonas.'" Then a flashback in 2008's Batman #682 shows an apprehended Joker with a twisted smile telling Batman, "…you look tired, Batman. Like I say, sometimes the fun just has to end. And I'm thinking… practical jokes next time around." Alfred, narrating in the present, comments: "At that time, no one had devoted serious study to the Joker's flamboyant pathology. Batman was, customarily, ahead of the curve, as they say." And then Batman, in the past, says of the Joker, "He keeps coming back… different. I think he recreates himself constantly. Like some kind of super-MPD. We need to make sure he's carefully monitored in case his original… his original persona resurfaces." Four times, Morrison delivered the same assessment of the Joker's changing characterization, although he perhaps contradicts himself on whether it was Harleen Quinzel or Batman who first diagnosed this. What is perhaps most interesting about this is that one of Morrison's high concepts for his run on Batman was that every era in Batman's past "happened," that the changes in the published feature should be interpreted as changes that took place in just one fictional world for various reasons that make sense in that fictional world, and this idea was introduced back in AA. Though his vision of Batman changed considerably from 1989 to 2005, Morrison's use of the metatextual narrative device that every past era of Batman happened to one and the same character was there in Morrison's Batman stories from the beginning.

In comparison with Morrison's later works, perhaps the most important aspect of AA is something so subtle that many readers may put the work down without having noticed it: The plot is built around a time loop. Morrison used time travel in the purely science fiction sense to create a causal loop in time in many of his later works, such as Seven Soldiers, Final Crisis, and Return of Bruce Wayne. The time loop in AA is more subtle and mysterious: Amadeus Arkham's mother has, circa 1920, a terrifying vision of a monstrous bat; perhaps the vision drives her mad, or perhaps her madness produces the vision. At the time she experiences the vision of the bat, it is seemingly a hallucination, but it proves to be prophetic, as Batman becomes a terrifying bat figure several decades later. Her fear of "the Bat" indirectly impacts Batman's entire career, leading to the creation of Arkham Asylum, and to Cavendish deciding that he has to trap and/or kill Batman. Did the existence of Batman in the present create Mrs. Arkham's vision in the past? Morrison leaves that, characteristically, as a mystery. There is neither science fiction nor time machines in the story that could explain it, but references to Aleister Crowley and "that other world… of magic and terror" suggest a supernatural link between Batman in the present and Mrs. Arkham's visions in the past. It could, then again, be explained as madness combined with coincidence. Morrison shows no eagerness to resolve the mystery. We would be naive to dismiss it as coincidence but reaching too far to consider it definitively attributed to magic.

The style in which Morrison approaches that mystery is evocative of his later Batman works. A year later, in 1990, his story "Gothic" also hints of supernatural evil in a case concerning Gotham in general and Batman quite personally. The supernatural basis of the story is rejected by one character, entertained as a possibility by Batman, and kept ambiguous until a final reveal. Almost two decades later, Morrison teased at a supernatural basis to the master villain, Doctor Hurt, who was attacking Batman. Supernatural powers connected to Doctor Hurt were shown an alternate future story and hinted at in other places. Batman, R.I.P. was written as "the story of how Batman cheats the Devil" but Morrison devotedly keeps the fact of the matter ambiguous before eventually, in another series, linking Doctor Hurt to Darkseid.

In AA, Morrison first suggests a link between Mrs. Arkham's vision and Batman's reality with a pair of juxtaposed panels in which we see Mrs. Arkham make a bat-like shadow figure with her hands, right before the bat signal is seen in present-day Gotham. This juxtaposition should be seen as evocative by the reader, but may be seen as a mere device employed by the writer, as when Alan Moore couples a phrase spoken by one character with similar action taking place in a juxtaposed narrative. But in AA, the words joining those two connected visuals are "magic and terror," suggesting a causal connection. Elsewhere in the story, other suggestions of prophecy come true, with Amadeus noting a joker card that is found in the house, and Harriet Arkham's bad dreams preceding her nightmarish death at the hands of Mad Dog Hawkins.

If we accept the supernatural link, then we have a time loop in which Batman in at least some way inspires himself, which can be seen as either tragic or grandiose, in which he is both a victim and a figure so important that many others lives as mere supporting characters in a drama where he is the star. Of course, on a metatextual level, that is entirely the case.

Arkham Asylum belongs to many worlds. It is the last great graphic novel of the Eighties, an early contributor to a growing cultural fascination with serial killers, a pioneering instance of psychological and literary devices in superhero comics, a painfully dark and disturbing work, an early major work by artist Dave McKean, and an early forebear to Morrison's long run on Batman that began seventeen years later. It is worthy of consideration in all of these ways, and belonging to so many worlds, it is something of an oddity in each of them. At the time, it promised big things to come, from Morrison personally, and in the genre more generally. Now, we can look back on a quarter century of work since then and appreciate the many directions that has taken, with Arkham Asylum having hinted at much that was to come just as Mrs. Arkham's terrifying vision foretold, in her world, of the coming of Batman. 


  1. I love the way you break it down, Rikdad. Great analysis. You definitely noticed some things I never considered before, ie Time Loop, and now I want to go back and take AA off the shelf again for another read.
    I love this comic, and have a signed copy from Grant Morrison. It was one of the books I read in college that got me seriously back into comics.
    What is your take on the ending though? Does Batman let the Doctor go free? That never sat right with me, so I like to assume the authorities were able to take control after Batman left. What do you think?

  2. Thanks, Jonny. I think the reader is likely, in most cases, to have the sense that something funny is being implied about the reality of her vision, but the similarity to time loops in Morrison's later works is something I haven't seen anyone mention before.

    That's great that you got an autographed copy. Were you present when he signed it?

    I'm not sure what your question about the Doctor is asking – Doctor Cavendish is killed by Doctor Adams. But Batman tells the inmates that they're free to go. Then the Joker says that he knew that all along, and none of them actually leave. Yes, I assume that nobody actually escapes, and that the authorities take control, but it's an intriguing question as to whether Batman was willing to let any of the inmates escape. The idea seems completely contrary to his mission, so how do we explain it?

    Was that the idea of your question, or have I gotten the idea wrong?

    1. That was the idea of my question, thanks Rikdad!
      And yes, I was lucky enough to meet Grant Morrison at a signing way back around 2006 (just prior to his now famous run on Batman). I distinctly remember telling him that The Joker is my favorite character, and he smiled and told me to keep an eye out for The Joker in his run because he would be making him "scary again", and would be following up on themes he introduced with the character back in AA. :)

  3. I'm not sure how to interpret Batman's declaration that the inmates were free to go. None of them did. If they had, the police were waiting anyway, so perhaps it was a hollow gesture, daring them to escape only to be brought right back inside. So perhaps he was simply reminding them that any effort to challenge him would inevitably result in failure.

    That's great that you got the heads-up from Morrison about his plans for the Joker. Here we are nearly 10 years after the run started, and all of those plans have played out. Reading AA, I find it interesting to see where it has all gone, and hoping that it will be followed up still more, if not by Morrison, then by some other writer.