GutterGeek Column: ARKHAM ASYLUM

Posted by on October 30th, 2010 at 11:41 PM

Grant Morrison, Architecture, and Mythology: Arkham Asylum

– Alex Boney

If there’s one thing Grant Morrison will never be accused of, it’s a lack of ambition. Morrison didn’t approach his first major American comics work, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, timidly. As he notes in his introduction to the original script for Arkham Asylum (reprinted in the 15th Anniversary Edition of the book), “The story’s themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung and Crowley, its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Swankmajer, the Brothers Qual, etc.” Arkham Asylum is not an action/adventure story. In fact, it’s not much of a story at all. But it remains one of the most thoughtful and provocative psychological examinations of superheroes I’ve ever read.

Thanks to Dave McKean’s artwork (a blend of paint, photography, and collage), it’s also incredibly beautiful and terrifying to look at. Morrison approached his work with superheroes seriously from the very beginning, trusting that his readers were not stupid. He trusted his readers to either meet him on his field or learn more about the ideas that had influenced him. And it paid off—both literally (financially) and figuratively, given his immediate reputation boost following the book’s publication.

Arkham Asylum may be dense, difficult, and heavy with allusion, but it also makes a hell of a lot of sense. One of the most useful contributions that Morrison made to the Batman mythos in this book—and one to which he has recently returned in his Batman run—is the idea of the Joker’s “super-sanity.” When Batman enters the Asylum and begins to learn what’s going on, psychotherapist Ruth Adams tells him how the doctors have been diagnosing and treating the mental illnesses of many of the institution’s patients. After an interesting reading of Harvey Dent’s condition, Adams tells Batman that Joker’s case is a more complicated one:

Rather than just saying the Joker is insane (which had been the assumption for decades) or suggesting that he had been traumatized to the point of breaking (as in Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke), Morrison flips the idea that Joker is insane on its head.  The inversion of sanity and insanity is actually one of many thematic inversions in Arkham Asylum. The books alternates between inversion and mirroring in an attempt to complicate many of the binary absolutes and oppositions we’ve come to expect from superhero books. Madness becomes sanity, male becomes female, and rationality becomes chaos at various times throughout the book. Morrison uses visual cues such as clown fish and cross-dressing to mark these inversions, but the most obvious signal that things are off-kilter is that the story takes place on April 1st (All-Fools’ Day). The Joker and the other inmates have not chosen this day by accident. They pull him in, subject him to immediate psychological torment, and set him loose in the Asylum. Every encounter Batman has after this point is a form of dark mirroring. For the Joker, it’s all a giant prank. But the process is incredibly serious and damaging for Batman. By the time he reaches the Mad Hatter, the inversions that guide the text are cemented:

Actually, that last panel is interesting for several reasons. The obvious interpretation is that Batman’s villains are just darker or more perverse aspects of himself—an accusation that has been made for years about heroes and their rogues galleries. (Would supervillains even exist if superheroes did not exist first?) But the perspective of that last panel places us (the readers/viewers) looking over the shoulder of Batman, and the Mad Hatter’s “and we are you” might well be directed at all of us. This possibility points at another major device Morrison would go on to use frequently in his career: metatextuality. We’ll get to Morrison’s most obvious use of metatextuality (breaking the fourth wall) when we hit Animal Man in a couple weeks, but the Mad Hatter scene should at least make us stop and think about who is in control of this text—who is performing, who is reading, and who is being challenged.

After all, we are being challenged from beginning to end in this story. We’re not just being challenged to catch all the references; we’re also being challenged to put together the pieces of the parallel narratives of Batman and Amadeus Arkham. The stories take place in two different temporal planes, but these planes intersect frequently in the time loop that Morrison has created. Batman’s psychological torment echoes backward in time to haunt Arkham’s mother, just as the Joker’s maniacal laughter takes hold of Arkham himself as he descends slowly into madness.

Arkham Asylum is also challenging because it openly—even aggressively—takes on the subject of multiple forms of repression. This isn’t a comfortable book to read. Batman slips out of his hyper-rational mode when, during a game of word association, he confronts the event that made him what he is: the deaths of his parents. He has to jab a shard of glass through his hand to shock him out of the resulting anguished stupor. But Morrison also takes on sexual repression in this book. I first bought and read Arkham Asylum when I was 14 years old, and I’ve got to be honest: the sexual innuendo creeped me the hell out. At a time when my teenage hormones were raging and I had no idea how to direct them, the crossdressing, tunnel-of-love-as-obvious-vagina, and Joker’s weird sexual language left me really baffled.

There are hundreds of creepy images in this book, but the one that terrified me most was the one in which Joker grabs Batman’s ass and tells him to loosen up.

When I was 14, I had no idea about the homoerotic subtext of Batman that Fredric Wertham wrote about in Seduction of the Innocent. Morrison’s having Joker take on effeminate characteristics in order to engage in a pseudo-seduction of the highly repressed Batman was just strange and disturbing to me, though I can see now that the repression didn’t just belong to Batman. Morrison contorts and confounds expectations throughout this book, and confronting new possibilities and new realities is often incredibly unnerving.

Another problem I had when I first read the book in 1989 was the deep mythological (un)realities of the story. When I was younger (at least when I was a teenager), I was more literalistic. When a level of realism was established, I expected it to continue at least for the duration of the text. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how Batman could continue to function (after he stabbed his own hand) and survive (after he impaled his side in his battle with Croc) until the end of the story.

The fact that he walked away after Harvey Dent’s closing moment of benevolence was satisfying on some level, but it was also ridiculous. But myths aren’t realistic or literalistic, and the absolute un-reality of a story set on April Fools’ Day and filled with reversals moves Arkham Asylum firmly in mythological territory. In myths, the plots of stories aren’t as important as the themes and the moral structures they examine. Plot is not non-essential. But in mythology, plot is ostensibly a vessel used to deliver themes, symbols, patterns, and revelations. Myths are external stories that help us explain internal truths and realities about ourselves as humans. Exaggeration and superhuman intervention aren’t just expected; they’re essential. Arkham Asylum is a book that uses familiar characters in unfamiliar ways to dig deeper into the human mind and reveal truths about the psychological forces and neuroses that guide us. Not just Batman—all of us. When Dent asks at the end of the book “Who cares for you,” he’s looking through a house of stacked Tarot cards directly at us. The question works on multiple narrative levels, just as the questions (and answers) of any good myth should. When he knocks the cards down, they come flying directly at us and we become implicated in the lessons that have been learned on this day.

One of the most common accusations against Grant Morrison is that he’s a pretentious prick who cares more about showing what he knows than telling a good story. The people who say this tend not to like to work when they read. Beginning with his first major work, Morrison was willing to offer more to—and expected more from—his readers. But I don’t think this is a bad thing. People who hate Morrison’s work are also highly likely to hate the works of James Joyce, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. Those guys just make it too damned hard. But those guys also make figuring out the puzzles and allusions worthwhile. Putting puzzles together and making connections can be rewarding, and multiple layers of meaning make a text worth revisiting. Arkham Asylum is a book I enjoy returning to because I know I’ll find something new every time. To me, that’s what literature should be about. Morrison closes his script introduction in the 15th Anniversary Edition with the following paragraph: “I found out later that the script had been passed around a group of comics professionals who allegedly shit themselves laughing at my high-falutin’ pop psych panel descriptions. Who’s laughing now, @$$hole?” Okay, I guess that line kind of makes him a pretentious prick. But it also makes me like him even more.


UP NEXT:  Batman: Gothic

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5 Responses to “GutterGeek Column: ARKHAM ASYLUM”

  1. keithcsmith says:

    Is it just me or does no one else remember Grant Morrison’s work on Doom Patrol?

  2. Alex Boney says:

    I remember Doom Patrol well and still love it. But it was heading quickly toward a Vertigo book by the time Morrison finished that first story arc. By the time Danny the Street and Flex Mentallo were introduced, we were really not in DC territory anymore. I really think Doom Patrol should be read in the context of his Vertigo work more than in the context of his DC work. I caved on Animal Man because there are lots of capes in the beginning and Morrison brought the character back into the DCU proper in 52.

  3. pallas says:

    “One of the most common accusations against Grant Morrison is that he’s a pretentious prick who cares more about showing what he knows than telling a good story.”

    Not an accusation I’d make, but I’d make the accusation that he’s becoming tedious as heck.

    He’s done the “Superheroes are the modern mythology!” so much at this point that’s he’s just become banal.

  4. Excellent column, Alex. Sounds like you came across Arkham Asylum at the same age as me. On top of that, it was my first english language comic I purchased (being from Belgium I was used to dutch translations of regular superhero titles). Needless to say that it blew my mind. Many emotions you describe from your first reading resonated in the same way with me.

  5. Alex Boney says:

    pallas: In what way is he becoming tedious? The projects of Final Crisis and Morrison’s Batman run really seem to offer different things. Is it just the large and sprawling structures that are bugging you? If so, I can see that. Focused, concise stories would be nice once in a while. That’s part of what I’m enjoying about reading Morrison’s early work.

    Bart: Thanks much! Wow…Arkham was your first English language comic book? You didn’t start with the easy stuff, did you? I’m glad I’m not alone in how I read the book the first time. There’s something to be said for cultural (and cross-cultural) resonance. I think part of that has to do with the mythological and psychological patterns Morrison was playing with in the book.

    But our ages being the same probably also had a lot to do with it. I was also reading Denny O’Neil’s The Question and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow runs at the same time, they resonated with me in similar ways. As a result, those books remain two of my favorites to this day. (The Question is my all-time favorite series.) Have you read either of those?