Grant Morrison, Architecture, and Mythology: Arkham Asylum
– Alex Boney
If thereās one thing Grant Morrison will never be accused of, itās a lack of ambition. Morrison didnāt 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), āThe storyās 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.ā Arkham Asylum is not an action/adventure story. In fact, itās not much of a story at all. But it remains one of the most thoughtful and provocative psychological examinations of superheroes Iāve ever read.
Thanks to Dave McKeanās artwork (a blend of paint, photography, and collage), itās 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 offāboth literally (financially) and figuratively, given his immediate reputation boost following the bookās 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 bookāand one to which he has recently returned in his Batman runāis the idea of the Jokerās āsuper-sanity.ā When Batman enters the Asylum and begins to learn whatās going on, psychotherapist Ruth Adams tells him how the doctors have been diagnosing and treating the mental illnesses of many of the institutionās patients. After an interesting reading of Harvey Dentās condition, Adams tells Batman that Jokerās 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 Mooreās Batman: The Killing Joke), Morrison flips the idea that Joker is insane on its head.Ā 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 weāve 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-Foolsā 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, itās 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 Batmanās villains are just darker or more perverse aspects of himselfāan 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 Hatterās āand we are youā 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. Weāll get to Morrisonās 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 textāwho is performing, who is reading, and who is being challenged.
After all, we are being challenged from beginning to end in this story. Weāre not just being challenged to catch all the references; weāre 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. Batmanās psychological torment echoes backward in time to haunt Arkhamās mother, just as the Jokerās maniacal laughter takes hold of Arkham himself as he descends slowly into madness.
Arkham Asylum is also challenging because it openlyāeven aggressivelyātakes on the subject of multiple forms of repression. This isnāt 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 Iāve 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 Jokerās 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 Batmanās 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. Morrisonās 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 didnāt 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 couldnāt 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 Dentās closing moment of benevolence was satisfying on some level, but it was also ridiculous. But myths arenāt realistic or literalistic, and the absolute un-reality of a story set on April Foolsā Day and filled with reversals moves Arkham Asylum firmly in mythological territory. In myths, the plots of stories arenāt 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 arenāt just expected; theyāre 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 Batmanāall of us. When Dent asks at the end of the book āWho cares for you,ā heās 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 heās 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 toāand expected more fromāhis readers. But I donāt think this is a bad thing. People who hate Morrisonās 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 Iāll find something new every time. To me, thatās what literature should be about. Morrison closes his script introduction in the 15th Anniversary Edition with the following paragraph: āI found out later that the script had been passed around a group of comics professionals who allegedly shit themselves laughing at my high-falutinā pop psych panel descriptions. Whoās laughing now, @$$hole?ā Okay, I guess that line kind of makes him a pretentious prick. But it also makes me like him even more.
UP NEXT:Ā Batman: Gothic