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Arkham Asylum

A Serious House on Serious Earth

by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, DC comics. Reviewed by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#7, 1991

I'm not entirely sure why, but countries seem to specialise in their art-forms. America produces the best movies and the best novels, England produces the best television and Australia produces the best music. There are obviously exceptions, but that seems the general trend. What about comics? At a first glance it looks like America gets the Kewpie Doll, and refining out selection further, DC Comics [1]. But when you realise that names such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman and a host of lesser known ones like Alan Grant are all British, you can see a pattern emerging. Why this is so is debatable, though judging by their material I'd guess it's because they're all manic depressives, and therefore good at this sort of thing. The only truly manic depressive American I know is Stephen Donaldson.

This British domination means Doctor Who fans are especially lucky, because we can sometimes see the early work of the 'masters', for example Alan Moore (Watchmen, Killing Joke) had a Sontaran story in Doctor Who Weekly#25 and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) drew most of the early strips. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean are also British, and yes, Morrison did a DW story, appearing in DWM#127-129, The World Shapers. It's not a bad little story even, with the Sixth Doctor, Cybermen, Voords, Time Lords and the death of Jamie McCrimmon.

However, it's not quite up there with Arkham Asylum.

Arkham Asylum has long been the DC universe's little Hell on Earth. A lunatic asylum situated just outside Gotham City, it's walls have held some of the worst nightmares dreamt up by comic writers. The Joker is in almost permanent residence, as are many of Batman's others adversaries, but it extends further then that. In Neil Gaiman's beautiful Black Orchid (1989, also drawn by McKean) the heroine must literally brave the depths of the Asylum to confront Pamela Isley, (aka Poison Ivy), who claims that the only reason she hasn't been raped by the guards is that they are scared of her. It seems a place where the mad are dumped and forgotten, left to fester: 'the final refuge of the lost and the soul-dead. The little creature babbles on, and the darkness extends forever'. Even the name conjures up the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft (though what the precise nature of the copyright there is, I couldn't tell you. I know one person who bought this graphic novel expecting Lovecraft, and was disappointed).

I wasn't disappointed by Arkham Asylum. The time it is the Dark Knight himself who must journey into the depths as Grant Morrison takes a closer look at the Asylum then ever before, its inhabitants, its history, the profound tragedy of Dr. Amadeus Arkham, and the relationship between the darkness of Arkham, and the darkness of the Batman.

The first thing that strikes you is the artwork, a combination of paintings, photographs and line drawing in Dave McKean's gorgeous but seemingly-chaotic style (and impossible to replicate here). The Joker, already DC's best villain, is given new life with an almost demonic visage and a psychiatrists view of his personality (though the full impact was edited out by Warner Bros, concerned about the image of their movie, as were various other aspects of the graphic novel), and Two Face, who is given one of the most fascinating sub-plots of the piece, is similarly improved.

This is, deliberately, Batman as metaphor. An exercise in imagery, from Christian to pagan to Arthurian to Batman's own mythos and plain old horror. And while the juxtaposition of Batman saying "I...I'm just a man." with a illustration of Jesus Christ isn't subtle, in context it is skilfully done.

Comics are changing, have changed, in the same way that Dr. Who and other literature has been doing. Arkham Asylum is a part of that change, one of the more controversial parts perhaps, and not to everybodies taste, but I can only recommend it. As the saying goes, it's a good day for a Dark Knight.


[1] OK, I know that comic fandom seems almost evenly split between DC and Marvel people, and I'm simply a DC person (in more ways then one). However, the only serious Marvel comic I've ever enjoyed is the Voyager graphic novel, and that I don't count.


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