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Tabula Rasa

Bat into Hell

by Steven Caldwell

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#7, 1991

"We're inside a huge head that dreams us all into being.
Perhaps it's your head, Batman.
Arkham is a looking glass.
And we are you."
          The Mad Hatter

Dreams, mirrors, reflections, nightmares.

Lewis Carroll has a lot to answer for. His fanciful and playfully vicious stories have been the inspiration for literally hundreds of others works, from movies to music and art. In Arkham Asylum Grant Morrison and Dave McKean show their debt to the Father of Nonsense.

However, Arkham Asylum is no mere nonsensical adventure. The story, like the Asylum itself, is no Wonderland of the imagi-nation. It is a distressing and moody tale in keeping with the Dark Knight trend of modern Batman comics. In it we see Batman pass through one side of sanity to the other. We go along for the ride.

As the subtitle suggests, Arkham Asylum is a serious story, set in a very serious place. Batman is lured into the famous Arkham Asylum, the home for the criminally insane, where he finds that the inmates, led by the Joker, have seized control. Batman is openly worried about visiting the institution. He is afraid that when he gets there "It'll be just like coming home."

Whilst the inmates engage in a deadly game of hide and seek with Batman the story is interspersed with entries from the Journal of Amadeus Arkham -- the founder of the Asylum. It becomes apparent that there are strong parallels between Amadeus and Batman as their fears become intertwined and indistin-guishable from each other.

Like the persistent tolling of the clock in Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass, time plays an important role in Arkham Asylum. The date is April Fools Day (the punch-line of two very disturbing jokes) and Batman is given one hour to escape the inmates. For Amadeus, the unsettled psychiatrist, time becomes irrelevant as his purpose consumes him.

Time serves as a constraining force which both Amadeus in the past and the inmates in the present rebel against. Madness, the Joker says, can't be measured "with rods and wheels and clocks..." It is interesting to note that it is a cuckoo clock that signifies Amadeus' plunge into insanity.

Constraint and freedom are important issues raised in both the Alice stories and Arkham Asylum. The mad people that Alice confronts behave in abnormal ways but use the rules of language. This is most obvious in The Jabberwocky poem in which many of the words are nonsense, but the correct pattern of English language is imitated.

In Arkham Asylum the very building is a cage. The row upon row of barred windows, the dark corridors and Amadeus' terrible secret are all concerned with binding and restraining evil. Dave McKean uses skilful framing of images to intensify the meaning. For example, Batman is nearly almost always framed by light and doorways, the effect being that he is portrayed as a dark intrusion.

Mirrors are a symbol of containment and reflections of a darker side. In the Alice tales beyond the Looking Glass is a world of opposites, reversed logic and frustration, but overall there remains the rigid rules of chess. In Arkham Asylum Amadeus, haunted by the evil of his childhood mirror people, tries to lock them away by taping over the mirror. Eventually the tape is removed and the creatures locked within Amadeus' mind are released to torment him and fill the house. Batman, seeing his own personal demons reflected in the looking glass, solves the problem by destroying it. The mental scars left by the death of his parents prove too painful to deal with, so to shock himself out of painful reminisces he mutilates himself. The mental scar becomes a physical one which is much easier to deal with.

The bond between Amadeus and Batman goes beyond their individual behaviour and extends to what happens around them. History repeats itself. The past suggests the future. Batman's battle with Killer Croc is narrated by entries from Amadeus' Journal, written nearly a century before. The clown fish that Amadeus is given are indicative of the Joker and the Tarot which play an important role in Batman's time.

One wonders if Lewis Carroll would approve of Arkham Asylum. His stories, though fanciful and amusing, are nevertheless educational. They are still read to instruct both children and university students in grammar. Essentially they were intended to be fun. Arkham Asylum is not 'fun', but it is fascinating and disturbing in the same way a roadside accident is eerily compelling. Like so many modern horror tales, Arkham Asylum perverts our childhood memories and images of pleasure. A gun wielding clown will always be more psychologically terrifying then a chainsaw maniac. A paediophilic Mad Hatter is nastier then a peeling zombie. The most terrifying and horrific image, though, lies in the reflection of our own darkest side. That is Arkham Asylum's message.

"Have you looked in the mirror lately?"


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