Debriefing #20: ‘Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth’

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Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Dave McKean
Letterer: Gaspar Saladino

After Joker takes over Arkham Asylum, Batman comes in for a visit unlike any other. As he tries to negotiate with the madman, the events in Amadeus Arkham’s life are recounted, what led him to make the asylum and his ultimate fate. As Batman ventures through the madhouse, he’s forced to confront his own past and his own sanity is brought to the brink as he faces the house of horrors.

Edgar: We’ve read and watched many sorts of stories about Batman since starting this project. Some have been dark, some have been epic, but never have we delved into something as sinister, as horror-themed as what Grant Morrison and his artists have in store with Arkham Asylum. Personally, I had never read anything comic like and I think I can say so even as someone who has not read as many comics and graphic novels as I wish I have. James, do you think Morrison’s attempts to really get into the psyche of the Batman lives up to the promise or where you left wishing you had gone a little more insane?

James: It’s certainly a different kind of take on both the Batman story and world. I think part of that has to do with the presentation, which we can get to later, but they are inseparable from the presentation of the world. I think this does do a great job of getting us into this idea of insanity because Batman does deal with a lot of mentally unstable people, and might be insane himself. This book reminds us that insanity doesn’t look coherent, so the book is really out there, can be deliberately confusing and hard to follow, at times, but I think it’s all in service to getting into the psyche of the characters and, on that level, it works for me. Do you agree?

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E: As a graphic novel this was totally new to me. Again, this is the perspective of someone who does not live and breath comics so maybe there are things out there that push the boundaries of the medium to the extent that Arkham Asylum does but for me this was, dare I say, borderline revolutionary. Just as an experience I mean, as a mood piece, as a piece of fiction in comic book form that can take me, my mind, my feelings and plant them into a world I was never comfortable with, that me my skin crawl at times. I like that you point out the visual aspect of the book and how confusing it is to follow. That’s true, there is so much imagery jam packed into the pages, the single frames as well as behind said frames. It’s actually a little intimidating during the first few pages. How did take in all that visual information, was it too much?

J: I should say that as someone who does read a decent amount of comics that this is very different than the norm. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that artist Dave McKean does a lot of work outside the comic book world and instead of doing the typical comic book concept of drawing, he uses a lot of different artistic techniques to put something together such as photography, pencil sketches, traditional painting and I think there might even be a bit of what you could call sculpting that he photographs. So those techniques make for something that is overwhelming and disjointed, and I think that’s the point. It’s too much to take in, it’s supposed to be disorienting and overwhelming and I find that fascinating because it is very atypical of most comic book art which is a lot more about having coherent, eye-pleasing imagery.

E: From the first page, I instantly realized that this was a Batman story for the big boys and girls, that I was going to have to put my big boy pants on if I was to follow along. I picked up the 15th anniversary edition which provides some behind the scenes information after the story and it does reference a bit of what you mentioned with respect to McKean’s talents and influences. It’s great stuff though you should put yourself in the proper mind set. Moving on, we don’t just have the story of Arkham’s inmates demanding that Batman become one of them but another story as well, told simultaneously, that being the history of the institution, particularly its inception by Amadeus Arkham. I’d like to know, first, what you thought of that plotline and, second, if for you it worked well alongside Batman’s tale.

J: I get how this subplot works in conjunction with the larger portrait of madness the book is drawing, but it doesn’t completely come together for me. It’s strange, because I think most of my problems with that plot thread have to do with the fact it starts off a bit too slow and I think breaks the pace of the early portions of the book, however, when you get more into him getting the mansion and the story with his wife and child, I think it comes together quite well and does a good job at mirroring Batman’s own origin with his traumatic past. So by the end, it works for me, I just found the beginning of it a bit tedious. What did you make of that subplot?

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E: I was ambivalent towards it as well. What I did enjoy was how it portrait the idea that the institution, even before it ever became the house for the criminally insane, was plagued by madness. The child version of Amadeus admits to feeling like a ghost in his own house, we get that unforgettable frame of his mother with the bugs crawling into her mouth…it’s very clear from the outset that the building (home/insane asylum) is essentially damned. That said, a bit like you, it took away from the momentum of what Batman was getting himself into. This is such a great Batman plot: the criminals sentenced to Arkham have taken over the facility and hold its employees hostage. They will only release them if the Caped Crusader joins them at his own peril. That’s fantastic and I was incredibly amped up for that plot but then we’d go back to Amadeus’ journal about how this and that would happen. One of my pet peeves about the backstory was how several analogous images were presented, like bats and I believe even a Joker card at one point, as if to say that the story of the Batman is meant to be. What was your reaction to those reveals?

J: Well, I think there is a sense of fatalism to the story that I found myself struggling with a bit. The story gives you this idea that the asylum is feeding off this madness and so the only way to end it is to go to the source of it all, which is Batman. I can see how the idea seems compelling, but especially in those final moments, I wasn’t sure to make of what the book was trying to say with those ideas or if Batman comes to any realization about them. I’m not quite sure that answers your question, I think I went off on an opposite tangent, maybe in the other direction. If you don’t mind me redirecting a bit, what did you make of the ending?

E: Hmm, it was a bit rushed I must admit. In a few frames we go from Amadeus finally realizing despite himself that he ‘is finally home’ as he is left to his own doing in a cell at the asylum, Batman somehow proposing to set all the criminals free to conjuring up the idea of Harvey Dent, who has a weird little subplot, to decide if Batman lives or dies. It was a lot of information to process at the very end and I had hoped that the book had taken a bit more time to allow those elements to breath. Also, are we to assume that Dent actually went against what the coin decided? Am I misreading that?

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J: Yes, I agree that the ending feels rushed. Most of the book has been more about mood and tone with bits of plot and backstory interspersed. The last couple of pages are content dense and it seems like the story could use a few more pages to wrap things up. I’m not sure what to make of the end. I think you could read it as Harvey regressing and giving up the old system of cards for the simplicity of the coin, or he could just be giving up using anything to make his own decisions. In any case, it feels like a really abrupt ending. Honestly, I think it’s one of the weakest elements of the book. Anything we haven’t discussed yet?

E: Oh, definitely. First of all, as a Batman fan, I’m ashamed that I haven’t the faintest idea who the heck the Zeus character is. Where did this guy come from? Are you familiar with him?

J: Actually, not really. It was one of those elements that made me raise my eyebrow. Morrison does have a thing for taking characters that aren’t used quite as often in DC stories and bringing them into his tale, so I wasn’t completely surprised to see a character I didn’t know about.

E: Yeah, kind of like with that little mutant guy Batman doesn’t want to touch. Like, whaaa?… Also, going back to the artwork, I think there is definitely something that needs to be addressed, that being the font in which the Joker’s dialogue is presented. His words are not encapsulated by bubbles but rather are out in the open in bright red with a font that is sometimes a little tricky to read. What did you make of that?

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J: I loved that. It does make it hard to read, but it felt like it felt like it fit the character really well. Joker doesn’t always fit into the bounds of expectations so having him not have a bubble window and let his text sprawl throughout the page fits his more erratic nature as a character. More chaotic and crazy. I do get that from a readability perspective it can be frustrating, but I like that it makes it somewhat of a struggle to understand the Joker, bringing us back to the madness thing. In addition to that, what did you think of the mood of the artwork?

E: There were panels that made me shit my pants, that’s what I thought of the mood of the artwork. Relatively speaking, as far as Batman stories go, this is quite provocative. Even Batman himself looks quite gaudy at times, with some very off-putting images where you can’t see his eyes, only his sharp teeth. I feel as though Dave McKean deserves perhaps more credit than Morrison for how well the book comes across in the end. I know Morrison is one of the greats and he’s earned that status, but McKean is what makes the book for me. It’s darnright oppressive at times, and while I don’t need that in every single Batman or Detective Comics book I pick up, every now and then it feels like. How about you?

J: McKean is definitely the star of this book. It’s a book you pick up for the art because it does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere of dread and horror that is magnificent. Batman is a darker character and universe that most superheroes, but this book does play up the horror aspect better than anything I’ve seen from a Batman story so far. I also love the tactile feel of the art. There’s a texture to it, almost like you could physically feel the art, if you understand what I’m saying. There was a depth to it as opposed to the more flat and popish style of most comic book art (which I do love). Anything else you wanted to discuss?

E: I only have two more questions, both of which are of course art related. First, do you have a favourite panel and which character was rendered in the most imaginative way?

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J: I’ll answer the second one first. Even though neither of us were familiar with Zeus, I really loved the way that character felt and looked. It fit McKean’s style really well in my opinion. It’s a small scene, but it left a big impression. As for favorite panel, there’s one that keeps popping in my mind of Amadeus Arkham when he talks about seeing his wife and child dead. There’s this one page spread where he’s just standing but there’s all sort of erratic dots and harsh lines around and through him and it’s just a striking image that I kept coming back to. There’s something about it I can’t put my finger on, but it’s a chilling image. What about you, what was your favorite character rending and panel?

E: I think I know what image you’re referring to and it is terribly freaky. I think my favourite image is, ironically enough, one that doesn’t even portray something in Gotham but rather something in Metropolis. It’s at the very start of the book when Amadeus writes about going back to Metropolis to work at the state psychiatric hospital and it’s this tall, gloomy art deco-y building shrouded in blackness. I mean, this book is so nightmarish and dark even Metropolis is feeling it! As for my favourite character render, I might have to go with Killer Croc. Maybe it’s because I just saw the new Godzilla movie but I loved how brilliant his eyes were and how massive he looked. The details about his skin were washed out, which gave him a look that was somewhat hard to define, but his size and face were brilliant. Anything left to say?

J: Arkham Asylum is a book I’d strongly recommend based on its art and for a more horrific take on Batman. Under scrutiny, I don’t think all the story elements work and the ending is a bit of a letdown. However, McKean’s art is just that good that I think that even people that might not be interested in Batman are going to have their socks knocked off by how astounding and provoking the imagery is in this book.

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