Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Dave McKean
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Heads up: I don’t think that this comic is all that good.
Yeah the art is lovely because Dave McKean is physically incapable of drawing something that doesn’t look make me go “ooooh!” and hold up the page close to my face so that I can drink in all the lovely detail and perfectly placed lines. And yeah the ideas are cool. Joker as “super sanity”; Two Face going from coins to a tarot cards; Clayface as a man made out of Clay or whatever. But you know: it’s all icing and no cake. I remember the first time I read it I got all excited at the build-up and then where I thought it was going to get all crazy and cool and surprising and whatever – it was just… I mean: what happens in the second half of the book? Batman runs around the asylum and punches some people or something? It totally slips my mind.
Grant Morrison has very good ideas. But Arkham Asylum makes me feel like he’d be better at writing for Trading Cards or doing the character intros for computer games…
But oops maybe it’s a little too predictable to get into the whole Grant Morrison yay or nay? thing again (altho ha – just to say: Arkham doesn’t seem to be a book that people bring up that much nowadays is it? Like: is it because his other Bat-books eclipsed them or what? In fact: is it even true to say that Arkham has waned in popularity in recent times? Or am I just not following the right people on twitter…?).
My suspicion is that Arkham is a comic that adds up to way less than the sum of it’s parts. Like I think I read or heard somewhere that it’s the best selling Batman book of all time (helped along no doubt by the fact it came out the same year as Batman): and yeah – obviously it’s easy to see why – it’s Batman but serious. Biff! Pow! Wham! Comics aren’t for kids anymore. Here’s The Mad Hatter as a pedophile! Oooh. So now you know we’re serious and whatever. And yeah: in the past talking about it at the Barbican Comic Forum once or twice I’d been greeted with an eye roll when I’ve admitted that Arkham leaves me cold and been given the whole “yeah well – maybe it’s just too deep for you? You know – it’s all very complicated and stuff.” Kinda like all those Twin Peaks fans sharing whatever the latest theory is about what it all means and etc when (what if?) maybe it’s all been designed just to give the appearance of meaning and symbolism – but without anything to actually decode. Words and images arranged to suggest something deeper without a deeper to go.
But actually maybe forget all that – because the question that swam into my head when I started to think about what to write here was: would it be possible to make Arkham today?
I mean: as much I’m like: this comic isn’t very good is it? I’ve got to admit that you know: at least it has personality. Like: it’s messy and a little incoherent in places and way less smart than it thinks it is. But hey – it’s heading out in someplace strange and new…. Like: would mainstream comics allow something so weird nowadays? Like the whole thing with the revolving conveyor belt of Star Wars directors feels very much like the new normal with studios and fans united in the mantra that “the property must be protected.” And – ha – obviously it’s all complicated because you know: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller seem like they’re actually interested in being interesting while going from Jurassic World Colin Trevorrow is a boring snooze-fest of a director who should only be allowed to direct traffic.
Or you know: maybe this is all in my head? Are there any crazy mainstream comics out there today (or you know: the last few years or so) that could be said to follow the same crazy path as Arkham? That aren’t afraid to get a little freaky? Or (actually) maybe the notion of “freaky” has changed? And maybe mainstream superhero comics nowadays are doing things that just weren’t possible in 1989?
Or hey: best yet – maybe you’re on the millions that just wants your Batman comics to always be the same with only minor variations – but nothing ever too radical or unpalatable?
Or maybe you just want to talk about how much you love Arkham Asylum the computer game?
You tell me.
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum
I recommend finding a copy of the fifteenth year anniversary copy of the book which has Morrison’s annotated script. AA isn’t going to be the best book ever, but I think that if the story that Morrison envisioned was put on paper then we would have had a better story. So I tend to blame DC editorial for getting cold feet that people were going to come out of seeing Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’, want to buy a book, buy this and then go absolutely off their choffing nut and so messing with the book rather than just cancelling it or holding it back so it wasn’t so sensitive. Instead they manage to mess it up completely. But on the other hand, do we really need a coprophilic Maxie Zeus? The book, at times, has the adolescent need to shock of Morrison’s earliest work, such as ‘The New Adventures of Hitler’ or the ending of ‘Dan Dare’.
I am another fan of the Dave McKean artwork, though someone should have told him the book needed a central gutter as a lot disappears in the centre between each of the pages, something which the 15th anniversary edition at least addresses.
I am amazed at DC’s audacity to want to sequel this though, and wonder exactly what Morrison’s going to do with that, but that’s a different thread…
Islington Comic Forum
Completely agree that Morrison’s script tells the story much better than the book itself (which is quite good in a Batman! Not for Kids anymore! kind of way) and hold McKean largely responsible for this. At the time the book came out he gave lots of interviews explaining what a stupid unbeleivable character Batman was, ‘the idea of a man who dresses up to fight crime as a bat because his parents were killed by criminals is compltely ludicrous!’ and such like. Which is a fair point in itself but all the best comics come from creators who are doing their work with conviction and have respect (if not necessarily affection) for the source material; Morrison (for all his faults) has that but McKean doesn’t and no amount of clever artistic technique can really make up for that.
This is why it’s more respected than loved although it’s probably a great, mind expanding read for teenagers who’ve just started to take an interest in psychology…
Barbican Comic Forum
I’m going to stick up for it.
Its very ’90s, isn’t it? I don’t think you can ignore the decade that thought it invented ultra violence. Or as Philip Larkin (almost) put it:
“Media violence began
In nineteen ninety-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the start of the “Crash” ban
And Marilyn Manson’s first LP.”
(I appreciate it came out 3 months shy of 1990).
One of the other excellent features of the 15th anniversary edition is Morrison’s annotations on how his script was actually interpreted. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit where Morrison wanted some more overt homoerotism between the Joker and Batman (where the Joker needles Batman for his suppressed sexuality), but Dave McKean simply refused to draw it. What a drag.
The fact that it was such a best-seller, and at least has pretensions to raise the genre (whilst respecting the source material), I think opened up a lot of doors for other creators to try and shake things up. I agree with Alan Moore’s sentiments about Watchmen being seen as an excuse to make all superheroes psychopaths or quasi-tyrants, and I’m sure AA kind of fits that. But Watchmen had the liberty of using its own created characters (because DC wouldn’t give Alan Moore the Charlton Comics cast he wanted). AA attempts to dig into Batman in a way that very few (if any) comics had done before. Yes, its very flawed in some of these ideas (and definitely in its execution). And yes, Alan Moore had much bigger aims with Watchmen than Morrison does with AA. I do think that AA gets written off too easily though – it made huge waves at the time for being so different and bold. The very simple premise (maybe Batman is as mad as the villains he fights?) is a wonderfully seductive idea, hence why they could use it as the basis for a very good console game…
I haven’t even mentioned the art, which obviously is bonkers and brilliant and challenges all your notions of what superhero comics should look like. Its sold 600k copies and requires a lot of patience to read. I’d say that’s an achievement in itself…
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I did not realise until I read Loz’s email that there was going to be an Arkham Asylum sequel. That’s amazing.
And the internet says it’s going to be Chris Burnham doing the art. Ha! I wonder how much money they offered to Dave McKean and how many times he turned it down…
More LOL: apparently it’s also going to take place in the “Batman #666 continuity.” So a sequel to a sequel (altho doesn’t all Morrison stuff all take place in the same universe or whatever anyway? Like All Star Superman is a sequel to DC One Million which follows on in his Action Comics and Final Crisis and etc and etc and so on forever?).
Does anyone here think a sequel will be good / readable?
Also: re: Malcolm’s it was a bestseller and sold 600k copies etc. I mean: at the risk of sounding like a super spoilsports – really? Is that the best that we can do / is that really an acceptable criteria of judgement? Like: I think I saw somewhere that at one point The Dark Knight was the top rated film of all time on IMDB.
Of. All. Time.
Like: think of all of the 1000s upon 1000s upon 1000s of films that have been made – from Citizen Kane to Solomon Kane and the most popular one of them all is that one where Christian Bale puts on that silly voice and says “WHERE IS HE?” a lot. And everyone sensible knows that Batman Returns is at least a thousand times more interesting etc.
And so in conclusion: how popular something is doesn’t really tell you anything more than how bad people’s taste is – no?
Barbican Comic Forum
Obviously this depends on how you rate ‘popular’, but imdb rankings are clearly not the same as people buying a book. If I’d said Goodreads rates AA as the best comic book ever then imdb might be a fair comparison. Maybe physical sales are just another metric to judge something’s popularity?
But of course :
I love Morrison’s Batman#666 stuff so the more we see of Damien Wayne the better. Also, Morrison has portrayed himself as an iconoclast for so long, so it’ll be nice to see him mess with his own work. One of the reviews I read for DK3 was that being so mental and problematic at least made it interesting. And in the land of modern superhero comics, where intellectual copyright is all, maybe the left-field barmy let’s-burn-it-all-down stuff is king?
Twitter / Improvised Comics
I remember buying this book in hardcover the day it came out (and hearing the Pogues & Kirksty McColl’s super-sweary Xmas hit playing in the shop, as memory serves – thinking about it again is a real nostalgia trip for me now). McKean and Morrison were both rising stars, and an unusual pairing, if only because McKean had worked exclusively with Neil Gaiman up until then, and Gaiman had a much more mellow, digestible energy to his writing than Morrison’s Smiths-n-Baudelaire-fuelled early stuff.
I had high expectations to see Dave McKean really let rip on Morrison’s high-energy stuff. His only previous colour outing, the highly forgettable Black Orchid, had been exceedingly bland. The sheer lushness of the visuals here notched up to the max (the drainpipes turning into blood vessels, the luminosity of the colours), and style of the layouts did indeed blow my mind at the time. I spent a lot of time poring over his techniques, trying to figure out how he’d done it all, that combination of photo-realism and sketchy simplicity.
Looking back on the art now (via google, I don’t have a copy of this book anymore), it’s very much early McKean – the semi-abstract influence of Lorenzo Mattotti hasn’t really kicked in, and the panel layouts show the strong influence of Sergio Toppi, all those exceedingly vertical panels and playing with negative space, and background/foreground. And there’s a heavy reliance on photorealism and exceedingly lush texture. Quick example of the “Toppi-esque” layouts:
That last panel especially, with the tiny figure of arkham seen through/below the cascades of hair… I can’t find a bigger picture of it. Classic Toppi. (If you’re not familiar with his work, folks, just google him now – “Sergio Toppi” – and come back in a couple of hours when you’re full! 🙂 )
Morrison had produced a couple of stage plays around the same time, with Oxygen House theatre – one based on Alice in Wonderland, the other about Aleister Crowley, both of which overlap with the imagery of this book. So it kind of felt like part of a bigger thing that wasn’t entirely rooted in the comics world.A few months after I’d bought this, and was still busy trying to pick all the technique to pieces, I confidently gave it to a non-comics reading friend, with a “see, this is how comics are stepping into the literary mainstream” flourish. And then spent a couple of hours explaining who Killer Croc, Scarecrow, etc. were, what the origins of Arkham Asylum were, and so on, and on, and on, until they gave up halfway through reading and we went off for a walk.
Morrison had high literary ambitions around this time, with his stage work, that Hitler story appearing in a mainstream scottish arts mag – before retreating deep into superhero-as-myth theory (it always felt like a retreat to me, anyway). But this poor old book was stuck halfway, requiring such in depth knowledge of the batman mythos, at the same time as trying to radically turn them upside down.
McKean was certainly keen to distance himself from any kind of “fanboy” comic culture, and claim the literary high end, right from the start (see the intro to Violent Cases, and the snook he cocks at his old art teacher who didn’t believe that comics were capable of much). I remember seeing the two of them (Morrison & McKean) at the Edinburgh festival on a rather uncomfortable “are comics literature?” sort of panel, with Morrison holding up Arkham Asylum as an example of breaking new ground, while McKean, who’d just put out the first issue or two of Cages, went on about how fed up he’d been drawing Batman.
The book Morrison did with Jon Muth (“Passion Play”?) was a much more successful foray into that broader world than Arkham Asylum was, from a purely artistic point of view, IMO, but it didn’t sell nearly as well, probably because it wasn’t using any established comics characters. And as for McKean, I think his best work’s in the “Pictures that Tick” anthologies, and the movie “Luna”. Neither are at their best here.
So, yeah, it’s a real Curate’s egg. I’m glad they tried it, and combined their very different energies. Better to see a bold experiment fail than something safe and boring happen, as they say. The art remains gorgeous – I could probably still pore over it for a happy hour or two – and there’s some sharp dialogue and glorious purple prose to be had (No other batman comic has Bruce Wayne summarising ‘The Golden Bough” so succinctly while being speared by a giant two-legged crocodile. Not that I know of, anyway.)
And I suspect it gave Dave McKean the financial freedom (or heavily contributed, anyway) to go off and plough his own furrow, which can only be a good thing – and a very distinctive furrow it’s been, on the whole.
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Anyone who has had the “pleasure” of my company in the past can likely extrapolate the main beats of the below already, don’t say I didn’t warn you:
Before this comic, no one had actively gone out and written a detailed, psychological debate that asked Batman and the reader to seriously investigate how insane Batman might be. Does he belong in Arkham? Is he just a facistic nightmare? Is there any redemption for the people he routinely beats to within an inch of their lives? It’s easy to take that for granted now that I can’t move for a “he’s crazy/he’s fascist/why doesn’t he kill the clown” discussion piece. It’s kind of given the novelty of that approach a “John Carter of Mars” effect in that alot of it’s impact has been neutered by every one building on the template it set. But then I think again, no ones actually gone and explored those ideas in a bolder and more interesting way than Morrison. How do you explore the precarious state of mental health in Batman’s world than by sending him on a desperate siege mission through the bowels of Arkham? Even the video games could only get close to psychological ideas by screaming “SCARECROW. FEAR GAS. OBVIOUS SYMBOLISM HALLUCINATION. GOLD STAR.”
Setting aside that, what makes it an entertaining read is the rigour of this approach carries on to the rest of the villains Batman mingles with during his Arkham soujourn. He casually invents the brilliant nightmare history of Arkham (a family of rich psychologists going crazy trying to fix the poor criminal scum of their city – that could be a novel in itself, instead it’s just a brilliant prophetic warning to the reader about a hero many are here to worship), he gives us a Joker that terrifies us not just through controlled menace but the tinge of “not normal” sexual activity, that back then would have fucked with a lot of conceptions and assumptions of the audience. Two Face’s attempt at recovery is brilliant, with the blend of tarot card decision making and that dash of hope at the end for the figure.
This book is a nearly 30 year old pop psychology essay and it still holds up. In no small part is that because Morrison worked out a brilliant pitch of a plot “Batman has to survive all his villains in the worst jail on earth that his anarchic nemesis has taken over” and married it to a bold, character obsessed approach. In 30 years, alot of the ideas have become pedestrian. Alot of that is due to people building on the ideas they set out.
Look at Sex and The City, what was once the paragon of feminist representation in mass western culture has now been recast as exploitative capitalist propaganda in the wake of Girls and Insecure (HBO you may pay me by paypal). Time makes fools of all our ideas. The only ones that survive are the Greek dramatists and that’s just because there are 5 people who bothered reading the wiki summaries and pretend they actually read the damn things.
But 30 years on, can you actually make a fool out of this Joker line:
“Enough madness? Enough? And how do you measure madness?”
How indeed do you measure madness in a world where a person on the internet used Sex and The City to prove the power of Grant Morrison?
OH AND THE ART. SERIOUSLY. ARE WE QUESTIONING THE MAD STUFF MCKEAN PULLED OFF ALL THOSE YEARS AGO. I MEAN GUYS, THERE’S A REASON I’M CAP LOCKING THIS. IN 1989, AS THE CHARACTER WAS TURNING INTO A MEGA BLOCKBUSTER, SOMEHOW THIS WAS PUBLISHED. IN 1989. IF THEY TRIED IT TODAY – IT WOULDN’T FUCKING HAPPEN. I MEAN HOLY BALLS. THERE HASN’T BEEN A SUPERHERO BOOK THAT LOOKS LIKE IT BEFORE OR SINCE. GUYS. GUYS. GUUUUUUUUUUYS. LOOK AT THIS:
(I made you look at Joker slapping Batman’s bum)
I don’t care if McKean did an Alan Moore and goes to the book festivals and says “It’s juvenile bullshit, stop enjoying that art I made you enjoy.”. It’s unique, it’s daring, it’s a revolutionary move no one has dared try to replicate before or after. He goes from surrealism to hyper surrealism, abstracted scratchings to photo collage. And the font too! Holy shit it’s so fucking expressive, a typeface built for a single story – that may just be the most romantic thing I ever write. In a world where DC Comics aesthetic is Jim Lee telling his staff “why are you not copying more of my work?”, this still feels new. It’s part of Grant Morrison’s charm, using whatever influence he has to bring in bold new visual identities that DC would never have dared touch – Frank Quitely needed Flex Mentallo and Frazer Irving had to be brought in through Batman and Robin.
(I feel bad about ragging on Jim Lee, he’s the one 90s artist that has really stood the test of time and he does amazing work, it’s just… There’s only so many times you can watch “Man getting hit by groin in football” without beginning to hate it.)
It’s easy enough to rag on it in 2017, but holy shit this was 1989. Even today – most of the medium, Big Two Publishers or not haven’t visually caught up with this. It’s still a blend of Jim Lee muscles, Jonathan Cape coffee table floral arrangements or titchy disposable indie stuff that even Gosh Comics keep in a corner.
Yeah – I still love this book – all the confusion, discomfort, thrills, shocks and awe it made me feel. It blew my brain apart and rewired it so I could actually process a much wider world.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I just don’t understand the whole “qualified praise” thing (or whatever you want to call it).
“Guys! Guys! This is really good! You know – if you compare it to the other thing that’s not good!”
“Yeah! You’ve really gotta try this! It’s really amazing!”
Erm. Ok… But yeah – but it’s not that good… Tastes kinda bland…
“But it’s the first thing that was this kind of bland.”
Yeah… but erm – it’s still kinda bland… I don’t think it’s erm actually that good…
“Oh yeah? Well… maybe you should compare it to this dogshit on the floor tho! I mean – isn’t it way better than the dogshit. I mean – come on! Would you rather eat the bland thing or the dogshit? Huh? Huh?”
Yeah sure: if you wanna get a little historian and give some context about something then that can be cool. But if it basically just amounts to: “oh yeah – well: this was kinda cool at the time.” Then well – just makes it sound like a fad. Like it was basically just flares or pogs or tamagotchis or whatever.
Like: good things are good forever – no?
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum
No, of course not. My Dad told me once how, as a teenager he liked The Beatles ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and liked how the young girl in the first half of the song is leaving her stifling family life and setting out alone. When he was a parent he liked the song but instead liked how the second half is all about the parents and how they are scared for their runaway daughter. Things can be good but it’s not necessarily a permanent thing.
The problem with a lot of Morrison is that while he might introduce you to something new at the time, such as Batman being as crazy as the inhabitants of Arkham Asylum or his villains being reflections of his own personality, but after that there’s not a huge amount to hold your interest over time. Where Alan Moore sometimes has the edge is something undefinable that keeps bringing you back, ‘Watchmen’ or ‘Promethea’ has more… depth? to it.