Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

What’s this then?:  Now that’s a good question.  Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a comic written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean.  It is about Batman dealing with a breakout at the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where his foes traditionally go after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Batman’s journey is echoed with the story of how the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham went mad.  The work is filled to bursting with symbols and deeply strange, so the more one tries to describe it the harder it seems to do so — much like a dream.  Between Morrison’s script which owes huge debts to C.G. Jung and (God help me, here he comes again:) Aleister Crowley, and McKean’s surreal art and disorienting panel layouts the effect is something like a fever dream put on paper.  In fact, last night I considered rereading it before bed, but thumbing through it and feeling a bit feverish myself I decided I didn’t have the guts for it (I gave it a quick reread by the light of day instead).   The book was, so the cover tells me, the best selling graphic novel of all time as of 2004.  For a book this weird and creepy that has to a be a fluke (and probably relates to its being a Batman book released shortly after Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s Batman).

Well s’it any good?:  You’re just full of trick questions today, huh?  I certainly loved the book after my first reading, but Grant really plays into the hands of anyone interested in psychoanalysis or the occult (i.e. me).  Stepping back for a moment, do I think it’s that good?  I’m not so sure.  The one word to some it all up might be maximalist.  Morrison’s script (printed in the 2004 edition) contains elements of symbolism that Dave McKean was not even able to include, when so much was already there.  The story is filled fit to burst with reference to the Shadow or the Tarot or Psycho or anything else.  It is, perhaps, a little overwrought.  McKean restrains some of Morrison’s more ham-handed moments but then makes the art more vague, impressionistic, and surreal.  Another artist might have rendered Morrison’s weird story with realist art, to help us understand the weirdness.  Or McKean could have made a normal script spookier by illustrating it his way.  But instead, the team layers weird on weird.  McKean’s panel layouts can be a little chaotic (intentionally so, I think), and Morrison’s script jumps in setting a great deal.  The combination of the two can make things a bit hard to follow sometimes.  I never read the comic without reading the script, so I’m not sure, actually, how it stands on its own.  I tend to think that the struggle to understand enhances the irrational, nightmarish quality of the piece, but I could see how very rational people, or people who like linear narrative would loathe this book.  I will say that as a piece of horror, it succeeds.  It relies a bit on gross-outs and some shocks of a fairly extreme sort (Morrison notes in his script that the 80’s DC Who’s Who book indicated that Amadeus Arkham’s wife and daughter were murdered.  He later went mad when the stock market crashed in ’29.  Morrison tends to think the former would be quite enough and goes to quite great lengths -perhaps more than is necessary- to convince us so), but again the sheer mystical-dreamlike illogic off the piece is what drives the horror.

What’s the best bit?:  Batman plays a word association game with an Arkham psychiatrist, which leads him to have a flashback to his parents’ murder.  The marquee on a theater the Wayne family is leaving reads “Bambi.”  That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Anything else?:  This is a young Grant Morrison, and try as he might he’s still in the shadow off Alan Moore.  The idea off building up meaning through shifting connection of recurring symbols, the idea that events in one time echo in other times (but mostly in the same place), and the use off one character’s captions to reflect on what’s going on with another character, and of course the interest in magic are all Moore staples that occur in this book.  Morrsion gives at least one direct “take that!” to Watchmen in his script, but also drops a reference to Watchmen‘s use off the phrase “the abyss gazes also.”  I think, despite what Morrison may tell you, he’s got a soft spot for crazy old Moore.  Morrison’s psychologically vulnerable Batman is also an attack on Frank Miller’s hypermasculine, highly violent, ultraconservative Batman.  Morrsion does not contradict himself on this point, I suspect because he genuinely does not like Frank Miller (but then I might just be reading myself into things).

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Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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