Author: Grant Morrison
Illustrator: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics
This is my first graphic novel review, so I hope you will bear with me. For those who familiar with the title, I know what you are thinking — are you crazy? This is not the place to start. As far as Batman goes, it is so far from traditional that it might not even be canon.
Well, perhaps you are right, but alas — here is my review anyway.
I have always been drawn to Batman. Even with the earliest representations and quirky gadgets, there was always a dark side of Batman waiting to be unveiled. He was orphaned by a ruthless killer and finds his abode in the confines of a deep cave. He is covered with a mask, hiding his true identity from the world. He dresses in black and has an affinity toward bats. Despite his inner struggle, there is a will to do good — to make a positive mark on the world.
Arkham Asylum takes a different look at Batman than traditional comics. This is not a plot-based adventure story, but rather a psychological nightmare filled with symbolism. The novel begins with an introduction to the journal of Amadeus Arkham, the founder and later, a patient of Arkham Asylum — a mental facility for Gotham’s most deranged criminals.
The scene then shifts to the commissioner’s office, where Batman arrives to receive a telephone call from the Joker. There has been an uprising in the asylum and the patients have now taken control of the facility and are holding the workers hostage. The Joker has one last request — for Batman to come to the madhouse.
The Asylum houses the Joker, Two-Face, the Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Clayface, among others. Batman is not drawn into a battle of fists and bat-weapons, but a battle of the mind. The Joker lures Batman to rediscover his childhood trauma and confront his inner struggles.
Batman is not a superhero in this novel. He is merely the subject of a psychological horror. All of his deepest fears are manifested in the villains he faces. The artwork is disturbingly beautiful and the shadows and abstractness of the characters enhance the dream-like quality of the story.
One of the most intriguing characters is Two-Face. When he arrived at the hospital, he used a two-faced coin to make his decisions. The doctors took away his coin and gave him a six-sided die, then a deck of tarot cards to further broaden his available set of choices, but the therapeutic strategy left him incapable of even deciding to use the toilet to go to the bathroom. When Batman is confronted with Two-Face, he begins to wonder if his actions brought them to this level of insanity. The Mad Hatter Reveals that the asylum is Batman’s head and that the villains are him (figuratively, but did he create them literally in some way too?).
The Joker acts not as the antagonist, but as a discovery character. He leads Batman through the asylum on a journey to uncover the truth of his character. In a brilliant exchange, one of the characters tells the Joker, “I say we take off his mask. I want to see his real face.” The Joker replies, “Oh, don’t be so predictable, for Christ’s sake. That is his real face. And I want to go much deeper than that. I want him to know what it’s like to have sticky fingers pick through the dirty corners of his mind.”
The novel is dark and atypical of most Batman stories, but I found it to be a rewarding read. The subtle nature of the ending is satisfying, where Batman places his trust not on fortune, but on the demons confronting him. The imagery is graphic and Batman fittingly remains in the shadows throughout the novel. Not only does he remain masked, but his face is largely a silhouette in most of the panels. Even the lettering (particularly the Joker’s) contributes to the feel of the macabre madhouse.
Overall, I found this graphic novel to be a haunting, but beautiful portrait. Perhaps it went a bit far in places (likening Batman to Christ as he identifies himself as “just a man” and dwelling on Batman’s mommy issues). But I much prefer experimental works such as this to be overreaching than failing to go for it. Even though the images are gruesome, they must be absorbed to truly understand the story. This is not a novel to race through, but to be partaken slowly — one agonizing bite after the other.