Wednesday, 10 September 2008

[41] Arkham Asylum, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean [Great Comics]

This is an attempt to write a piece on a comic book. I've never tried this before, so sorry if it is shaky, unpolished or uncertain. It's a tentative first entry in what might become a regular feature, called 'Great Comics'. We'll see. Tell me what you think.

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The summer is over. In the cinematic world, The Dark Knight is owning 2008. 6 weeks into its record-breaking run, it is still in the Top 5 box office draws in the USA and UK (and probably elsewhere). In light of this success, the usual speculation from various media outlets and online discussion forums occurs, as people wonder whether this enthusiasm for the cinematic Batman will translate into renewed growth for the Batman comic, or even the comics industry itself.

In a recent interview with IGN, regarding his work on both the Batman series and the Final Crisis crossover event, Grant Morrison tackled this issue, saying that --

'...the success of the Dark Knight, like the success of any superhero movie, doesn't affect the sales of the monthly comic one bit. We always sell more trades of stuff like The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum but numbers on the monthly issues don't really change when a film comes out.'

This is interesting, as Morrison is currently reinvigorating not only the Batman series, but the DC Universe as a whole. His work, a masterful compromise between established properties and creator-owned projects, has made him into an industry icon. Way back in the late-80s, when Morrison was in the process of graduating from his British period (when he wrote for 2000 AD) to the giddy heights of DC, he collaborated with artist-director-jazz-musician Dave McKean on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

It is interesting that this graphic novel is singled out as one of the best selling of Batman's back catalogue. On the one hand, the basic premise of the book is quite simple: various characters from Batman's Rogues Gallery successfully take over the titular institution. They have one request, that Caped Crusader himself take a stroll through Arkham's supposedly-haunted, certainly-haunting corridors. On the other, it is a frightening, compelling, brilliant, yet divisive work from two undeniably visionary minds. Possibly the closest to an 'avant-garde' Batman ever published.

In conjunction with the primary Batman storyline, Morrison provides a backstory for both the asylum and its founder, Amadeus Arkham. The asylum is a mainstay of Batman lore, but this is one of the first fully-fleshed attempts at an origin story. The focus flits between the two strands, allowing for enough parallels and reveals throughout. Morrison's genius and complexity is shown in the unique characterisations of the book's cast, and his attention to depth and detail.


Morrison cherry picks characters both familiar (The Joker, Two-Face) and relatively obscure (Doctor Destiny, Black Mask, Maxie Zeus), giving unique twists as appropriate, relating their issues and characteristics to psychological theory. By far the most substantial are the portrayals of The Joker and Harvey Dent, both receiving the best ideas in the book. With the former, Morrison introduces his idea of 'super-sanity', a multiple-personality disorder which results in the Joker re-creating himself to fit his surroundings and survival (a concept he still toys with in recent Batman issues such as #663 'The Clown At Midnight'). This idea is still in its nascent stages, and is little more than a superficial alibi to explain away all of the disparate, incompatible Jokers from the past, present and future. The Joker of Arkham Asylum is a sexual bully, a mind-game mastermind; traits cemented by a truly horrific, garishly unsettling makeover from McKean.





Equally, the book's portrayal of Harvey Dent is unconventional, and filled with pathos. Not the twisted avenger of other traditions, here he is a broken man ruled by obsessive-compulsive disorder, needing to consult his obsession before every task, even going to the bathroom. One of my favourite passages in the book involves Doctor Adams explaining her approach in reforming Dent --

'As a matter of fact, we've successfully tackled Harvey's obsession with duality. I'm sure you're familiar with this silver dollar - scarred on one side, unmarked on the other. He used to make all his decisions with this, as though it somehow represented the contradictory halves of his personality. What we did was wean him off the coin and onto a die. That gave him six decision options instead of the former two. He did so well with the die that we've been able to move him onto a pack of tarot cards. That's seventy-eight options open to him now, Batman. Next, we plan to introduce him to the I-Ching. Soon he'll have a completely functional judgemental facility that doesn't rely so much on black and white absolutes.'

Nevertheless, Dent plays an integral part in the book, especially at the end. One of the only 'reveals' contained in the narrative involves him, and is utterly effective and moving.





Morrison saw Arkham Asylum as a critique of, and alternative to the 'grim and gritty' absolutes as seen in Miller's Dark Knight comics - a tradition which still holds firm today. Nolan's Batman films, for all their style, production values and impact, are very simple on a thematic level (usually based on dualities or parallels). There is nothing wrong with that, but there is something commendable in Morrison's literate, poetic approach in this book, which is top-and-tailed by quotes from Lewis Carroll, whose subtitle ('A Serious House on Serious Earth') is taken from a poem by Philip Larkin. Morrison openly references disparate philosophical or theoretical works in the text - from Jung to Aleister Crowley. His suggested themes run the gamut from the intensely-psychological to the spiritual and scriptural. It is certainly a different beast.

The Batman of Arkham Asylum is not the grizzled, determined badass of The Dark Knight Returns, the realistic, babysteps-hero of Year One (both by Frank Miller) or the withdrawn detective of Loeb/Sale's The Long Halloween. Instead, Morrison writes and McKean paints a Batman who is neurotic and psychologically fragile - an ultimately weak misanthrope. This spin on the Batman character is quite unique and brilliant, although is sure to offend or upset some readers. In Arkham Asylum, Batman is cast as a shadowy, uncertain figure, far from the heroism of more traditional depictions. One notorious example is a four page sequence, where Batman is gripped by fear and trauma - of the asylum, of his parents' death, of harsh comments made by his mother to a young Bruce - and is driven to self-harm, pushing shards of glass through his hand, in order to cope. Furthermore, he is seen peeking through cracks in doorways, lurking in shadows (more hiding than stalking). He recoils in disgust at the disease-riddled Clayface, and pushes the wheelchair-bound Doctor Destiny down a flight of stairs. This oppressively dark, troubled take on Batman is unforgettable, and the art does well to render Morrison's world.



Dave McKean is probably best known for either his work with Neil Gaiman (mainly on the covers for Sandman, or their collaborations such as Mirrormask or The Wolves in the Walls) or his rock album covers (he's worked with musicians from Buckethead to Alice Cooper, Dream Theater to Fear Factory). His distinctive style is immediately recognisable, a nightmarish blend of photography, painting and digital manipulation; a multimedia answer to Bacon, Giger, Dali and German Expressionism. His art serves the book well in crafting a compelling, unforgettable atmosphere. His surrealist, impressionistic, sometimes gratuitous excesses are perfect for highlighting and exploiting the violence and trauma in Morrison's writing, as well as creating distinct personalities and themes for not only the parallel storylines, but for the individual characters as well (special mention must also go to Gaspar Saladino's superlative lettering work in this regard).

However, McKean's art is like too-sweet confection. While his ornate, busy style is very much suited for covers and exhibition work, it is not so successful in conveying narrative. The intricacies and depth of Morrison's script - it's intertextuality, themes, influences - are often overwhelmed by the sensory bombardment of the illustrations. Luckily for the astute reader, the 15th anniversary edition includes Morrison's final draft script in full as an appendix. It is more like a cross between a thesis and a film treatment with its various notes on the resonances and themes at play during any scene. A more rounded picture of Morrison's intentions for the book becomes clear. Indeed, for an extra, it is well-presented, with extra comments from an older Morrison, and a joy to read.

Arkham Asylum is a tricky customer. A love-it-or-hate-it slice of writing married to a love-it-or-hate-it style of artwork. Even though personal preferences may differ, it is an undeniably important work in the canon. Batman has rarely been this psychological, conceptual or purely artistic. It is a celebration of the comics medium, of the 'graphic novel', that such rich thematic content can be combined to equally rich visual content; that those typical tropes of the trade (action, suspense, mystery, even traditional narrative aspects) are forsaken in favour of depth and creativity of very different kinds. Indeed, it is unlike other Batman big-hitters, which offer (mostly) neat twists on Hollywood or Hard-Boiled storytelling (The Dark Knight, for all its quality, is still a Big Hollywood Blockbuster). To find an effective comparison for Arkham Asylum, you'd have to venture into the murky realms of 'art-house' cinema - it is a Lynch-Batman. It is quite alone in the vast collection of mainstream hero comics. I am still puzzled as to why it is so popular.





1 comment:

Ju said...

Agreed for the most part, though I'd have to disagree on your overall analysis of McKean's work serving the narrative. The visual richness of his work just means that Arkham's "replay value" is enhanced beyond that of even most graphic novels: every time you read it, you notice something different. It's never quite the same book twice in a row, and a good portion of the credit in this respect belongs to McKean's work more than Morrison's writing (don't get me wrong, Morrison is a great writer, but Arkham's story would actually be weaker and less compelling, in my mind, if it was an easier, more conventional "strictly narrative" read).

One example of this: McKean's use of type. While some readers might find it frustratingly difficult to decipher in the cases of some characters, the hand-lettered styles created a visual "sound" that just couldn't be achieved with a more conventional lettering approach.

Last Word: "Don't confuse legibility [visual or otherwise] for communication." - David Carson