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COMIC REVIEW & RETROSPECTIVE -- BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLYM
Author: Andy Luckett
Thursday, January 12, 2006

As a character, The Batman has been fortunate enough to interest a great many creative minds in the course of his almost 67-year career. As a result, the hallowed pantheon of great Batman stories (ala YEAR ONE, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and THE LONG HALLOWEEN) is fundamentally deeper and longer reaching than almost any other comic character. One of the stories frequently mentioned in conjunction with the above list is Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s ARKHAM ASYLUM published in 1989 by DC Comics with a “Mature Audiences Only” label.

It’s easy to see, in looking back, why DC would choose both the time and creative team that they did for this project. Batman was an extremely viable property, still riding high on the one-two punch of TDKR and Y1 within the last few years. As well, 1988-89 was rife with the excitement and speculation surrounding the pre-production of Tim Burton’s upcoming Batman film. Further setting the stage was the resounding success of Alan Moore’s brilliant run on SWAMP THING, the first such Mature Readers experiment which had paid of for the DC brass and prompted the creation of the Vertigo line of adult oriented books. Since the company had found such a British literary jewel in Moore, perhaps they could bottle lightning once more with another European wunderkind, Grant Morrison, as well as a prolific fan favorite designer who had had success with Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean. The stage was set, and the time was certainly right for a piece this influential to come upon the scene, even though it’s doubtful anyone knew how much of an impact it would come to make, across how wide of an expanse.

Needless to say, the success of the book was phenomenal, cementing both the reputations of Morrison, who to that point had only worked with DC on his admittedly brilliant Animal Man work, and Dave McKean, who proved his unique style of mixed media could work on a mainstream character like The Batman. Morrison was smart, taking a deal from DC Comics which netted him a dollar per book sold, which topped out at about $300,000 just from the first couple of printings.*

Beyond the financial arena, the novel was praised by critics for its use of deep, symbolic themes and symbiosis of art and prose. It is unquestionable that AA has influenced almost every Batman work that has come since it was published. For evidence, just look at the complex treatment of the villains, not only in the comics but especially the Bruce Timm animated Batman animated series. We can clearly see AA’s legacy today, but how has the work itself held up as a contained story? Are its ideas still fresh? Does it still provide that feeling of being in uncharted territory?

To a fair degree, yes. The points made are still valid and carry weight and emotion, such as The Batman’s questioning of the effectiveness of his mission, and principally the idea (which was later well-explored in the two Burton films) of Batman being an opposite number; the other side of the same coin, to many of his villains. Morrison’s words and McKean’s images still get that across quite well. For example, witness The Joker’s many digressions to Batman “belonging” in Arkham, as well as the same idea presented, in different ways, by Clayface, The Mad Hatter, and Maxie Zeus. Even the quote from Alice in Wonderland that opens the book, the “You wouldn’t have come here if you weren’t mad” exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, reinforces this idea. And if you’re looking for evidence of this concept in other, subsequent Batman stories, go re-watch the end of BATMAN ’89, the whole Joker/Batman “I made you. But you made me first” dialogue, and then tell me that AA didn’t have and influence on Batman in other media. That idea was first really defined, to its essence, by Morrison and McKean.

Having said that, there are some ideas in AA that, while well reinforced, don’t work as well as others, or haven’t stood the test of time. For instance, one of the most interesting ideas which has never been elaborated on anywhere else (at least to my knowledge) is a comparison formed between The Batman’s story line and that of Amadeus Arkham, the long-dead founder of the Asylum. In flashback we see Amadeus vowing that no one will suffer from the same insanity his mother underwent; much the same as young Bruce Wayne’s solemn vow on the graves of his parents that he would rid his city of crime. Both characters ask themselves parallel questions, in flashback and the present: Am I as bad as those I treat/fight? Am I slowly becoming like them? If I am, will I be able to pull away? This makes for an interesting subtext, but at the end, Batman reinforces his beliefs while Arkham is swallowed by his, and the comparison is lost. Perhaps that finality, or perhaps the obscurity of Amadeus Arkham as a character, is why no other writer has deemed to write about him again.

The book, for all its invention and depth, does have a few relatively minor flaws, in my opinion, beyond the above. For one thing, it is definitely a Mature Readers story, as some concepts presented within can be shocking. The Joker is presented as not only a sadist and a masochist, but also as what I would call “sexually amorphous” meaning that he seems to be attracted to anyone and anything. Two-Face is almost paralyzed in word and deed by lack of concrete choices, giving a strong character a much weaker demeanor. Maxie Zeus, Clayface, and The Mad Hatter all make psychosexual inferences to The Batman, some involving children. Quite a few mentions are made of sexually assaulted/maimed women and children, to the point that I thought at times was a little much. To explain, I understand the use and purpose of these elements in the story, and they are very realistic. But for my own taste, having grown up and exposed to these characters all my life, seeing them so adult is a bit disconcerting. However, I enjoy the story and the ideas it presents, as well as the art. All I mean to say is that parts of it shock me and are a bit uncomfortable.

I need to speak about the art at this point because it deserves praise and recognition. Dave McKean is quite an artist, very free form. It seems that he uses whatever combination of media to achieve the effect that he wants, and some of these effects are really striking. One thing that I find particularly interesting is that all the iconic characters are presented not in concrete physically realistic forms, but rather in totemistic portrayals that emphasize their personality. The Batman is presented as a bat-shaped shadow, a creature made of darkness. Even his thought balloons are black with white lettering, to reveal the persona he presents to the criminal element. His nemesis The Joker is always shown as a chaotic mass of shifting, bright color, a wave of green hair, flowing as if underwater; a blob of white skin; slashes of bright read lips and reddened eyes. The effect is chaos incarnate. And because the colors are always seemingly shifting, you never really get a fix on The Joker, which is really creepy in a great way. But I think one of my favorite pieces in the book is the introduction of Maxie Zeus. Up to that point, we’ve been following Batman through the madhouse, meeting nightmarish, ghostly figures. We first see Maxie as a blue lightning creature, a mix between the electric Superman and The Hulk’s villain Xxaxx. But then we see his body hooked up to an apparatus, which is represented by found objects, like coils and wire on a board. After so much murk, to see something from reality is striking and provides an effective contrast. Excellent work.

I was pleased to get the chance to go back and really study ARKHAM ASYLUM again after so long. I found it to be a work that promotes feeling- sometimes shock, sometimes wonder, sometimes disgust, or intrigue, or nostalgia, or any of a baker’s dozen more of emotions. I think it stands as a still-powerful and provocative work that is made, like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s WATCHMEN, to be read and re-read to reveal new meaning and fodder for debate. Be prepared for some questionable material, sure; but not anything any reasonable adult or older teenager can’t handle. ARKHAM ASYLUM still stands with the best Batman stories, and can still genuinely reward its reader.

(* Fact found on Wikipedia.com, under ARKHAM ASYLYM listing.)

Andy Luckett is a contributor to BATMAN IN COMICS for BATMAN ON FILM. Luckett is a nearly-graduated Graphic Design student from Roanoke, Virginia. He enjoys both movies and comics, especially a skillful mixing of the two. His favorite all-time film is PREDETOR. He hopes one day to be a mix of artist, writer, and filmmaker

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