Batman Saga 0: Arkham Asylum

Last week saw the publication of Batman Incorporated 2, marking the end of seven years of Grant Morrison’s Batman writing. So naturally I bought it and commenced re-reading eleven volumes of the best comics. And I thought it was about time I blog about this thing, so let’s blog Batman! I am not going to do a post for every single volume, but instead on discrete elements in the narrative — that is, post 1 will likely be on both Batman and Son and The Black Glove, while post 2 will be on Batman RIP. However, this first post is actually #0, because it is a prologue of sorts, on Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

I’m doing a post on Arkham Asylum first because, at various points, Morrison has said that when he was asked to write Batman he “thought he’d said all he had to say” about Batman in Arkham Asylum and that his Batman story about Damian Wayne would be less than a year’s work. That clearly worked out for him. So I wanted to start with the prologue of the narrative, so to speak. Note that this doesn’t mean we’re tackling every Batman narrative Morrison wrote. He worked on JLA for a while, and even wrote Batman: Gothic as well as probably other things I don’t know about.

History lesson: When the Vertigo editor Karen Berger went to England to meet all those crazy writers in the 80s that were doing weird shit and get them on board, she met Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison in nearly the same week. Gaiman had dragged Dave McKean along to pitch a collaborative effort; Morrison was alone, pitching Animal Man and Arkham Asylum. Once Berger saw Morrison’s original script, she was certain McKean was the guy to draw it (as it turns out, he was also the man to photograph, collage, paint, and splatter it). And as you probably know, I’m mostly a words-driven guy when I read, though I obviously love comic visuals or I wouldn’t bother reading them. But McKean’s art is as intrinsic to what Arkham Asylum became that we needed to take this aside to point it out. The art is insane, mixing everything but traditional comic book illustration together. Batman appears as sketches, as blurred outlines, and often as an angry, toothed mouth emerging from the darkness to counterpoint the Joker’s bright skin and enormous, jagged grin. Commissioner Gordon’s rare appearance is as a sketch, almost unreal, highlighting the sense of reality being only the asylum, only where the crazy people are. At the end, Joker tells Batman to have fun “out there” in the asylum, and to come back whenever he wants. Joker doesn’t even try to escape.

I’m ahead of myself at least a little bit. The comic mixes narrative elements like art styles: there is a fairly traditional Batman story hidden in there, where he scurries around the asylum, taking people out as they go, finding the “mastermind” behind the whole affair, and winning an epic battle against Killer Croc.  But we almost don’t notice. Batman responding badly to a word-assocation game; the mad flasbhacks of Amadeus Arkham, crazy founder of the asylum that bears his (actually his mother’s) name; the magical references that take on greater — and ultimately lesser — meaning as the narrative goes on, these are the things we notice most as we read. I spent a long time when I re-read the book staring at the two-page spread where all the inmates are allowed their single panel to rant and rave, with quabalistic symbols and Egyptian emblems floating above their words and their dark panels, hinting at some kind of order to their states of mind. And Arkham, after all, knew Aleister Crowley, revised his childhood with his adult knowledge of psychology and symbolism, insisting his mother was not quite mad, but simply trying to protect herself when she started eating beetles (beetles are symbols of protection and rebirth you see).

I point this out because, as I said, this comic is prologue of sorts. Magical symbolism is one of the things Morrison likes to do, as a writer, and the struggle between Batman and Joker is prefigured in magical terms in both Arkham Asylum and RIP. Though in this one magic appears to lose, in the end. Two-Face stops using his tarot cards; Arkham went mad and Batman doesn’t, even as the narrative finally snaps into focus, in the last act, and Batman’s journey begins to directly mirror Arkham’s.

The idea, of course, is that Batman may be crazy. Arkham Asylum was published in 1989, in the wake of Dark Knight Returns and just before the first Tim Burton Batman movie (in fact, apparently the Joker was supposed to be entirely in drag, and they wouldn’t let Morrison and McKean do it because they thought Jack Nicholson would be offended. No one asked him, of course, and I think I’ve read that he likes this version of the Joker — it’s not like his version wasn’t weird as fuck). The Joker certainly believes so, and forces Batman to undergo some psychoanalysis, all for the sake of April Fools’. One of the psychiatrists still in the asylum says the Joker believes himself the Lord of Misrule, because, to him, the world doesn’t make any sense because he can’t seem to pick and choose what input he receives — this is the first version of Morrison’s interpretation that the Joker effectively has no personality, changing his psyche entirely each time the world changes its input, keeping only his role as the clown to help him deal with constant changes. This, too, reappears in the Batman comics we’ll be talking about soon, from Batman and Son forward.

But what about this comic? It’s been written about so much I feel that I can’t add too much, other than to point out, as I did above, that the magical symbolism is in a peculiar tension. The magic appears to work, to some degree: the correct tarot cards continue to appear throughout the narrative, with The Moon appearing in one of the final panels, mirroring the entrance to Arkham Asylum itself (the entrance does so intentionally here, as Arkham studied the tarot himself). But Two-Face rejects the cards, which were supposed to give him the ability to make more than two decisions. Batman gives him his coin back, in fact, in what is, to me, the most opaque moment of the book.

The psychiatrist says that Batman is going to go back in and ruin all her work, which he apparently does, by returning Harvey’s coin, but why does he do it? He agrees to let them kill him if Harvey’s coin says to, and it doesn’t. Is Batman giving in to fate, “going with the flow” (a prhase the psychiatrist uses to describe the Joker)? Is he trusting to fate, or to Harvey to make a real decision no matter what the coin says (naturally we don’t see which face actually appears when he flips the coin). Batman does spend the entire narrative tense and afraid, freaking out when Clayface gets near him, not to attack, but in a desperate bit to touch another human being. He leaps out of the shadows and throws Doctor Destiny, wheelchair bound, down a flight of stairs, and appears to kill Killer Croc with an enormous stone spear wrested from a statue of Michael driving out the serpent (yes this is not subtlety I’m describing here).

Symbols aren’t really suppose to be subtle, not once you’re finished with them (you the reader). Maybe that’s it. Batman isn’t subtle (we knew that though), and he must work in the range of symbols, not sort them out like a psychiatrist. He goes into the world of the crazy, a voyager amid a sea of images, rather than standing aloof on the shore trying to direct traffic, so to speak. But he can also leave, as the others cannot. He opens and closes the door because he has defeated his own “demons” — in this night, in the comic we just read. Arkham actually takes a night to do so specifically, and fails in his quest. He is consumed by the things that pursue him, and in the end visualizes them as a bat, bringing the narrative around to Batman again. Batman becomes the thing that pursues, as he did in his origin story, instead of the pursued, as he begins Arkham Asylum.

And that’s all for now. Batman reappears as a wizard incarnate in later comics, opening and closing the door at will, studying Zen and other semi-mystical arts, even submitting to the ritual of death to simulate what it is like to die. Not to be a wizard, but to be everything, because he has to be ready for anything. He controls his own mind, while the Joker allows everything else to control it. And that’s the dichotymy, previewed in Arkham Asylum, that ultimately drove much of Morrison’s writing on Batman.


One thought on “Batman Saga 0: Arkham Asylum

  1. Pingback: Batman Saga 1: of Sons and Gloves | Wondrous Windows

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