Book Marx: Batman: Arkham Asylum

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It doesn’t work.

Grant Morrison takes a simple story – it would be difficult to find a Batman adventure with a more simplistic plot than “Arkham Asylum” – and manages to create a pretentious mess that consistently strives to be mythic and just as consistently fails miserably. It is an exercise in grandiosity, one that quickly grows tired, then annoying, then completely infuriating.

Dave McKean’s artistry is mesmerizing, with each page designed for maximum effect. Employing a variety of mediums, McKean creates a nightmarish world filled with dark impressions and haunting emotions. But his pictures rarely make much sense or accurately convey what’s happening. In fact, they don’t seem to serve any capacity whatsoever beyond looking beautiful.

Gaspar Saladino is charged with lettering the book. Perhaps emboldened by McKean’s impressionistic choices or Morrison’s pompous script, Saladino gives many of the characters their own unique style of speech. It would be an interesting experiment, but it leaves most of Joker’s dialogue unintelligible, and Batman’s black speech balloons often go unnoticed at first.

This is not a Batman story, or a graphic novel, or any legitimate form of storytelling known to man. It’s an excuse for Morrison to impress us with grand ideas that never gel and McKean to demonstrate just how brilliant and self-serving art can be. It’s the product of an incredibly talented group of people who are determined to show everyone what an incredibly talented group of people they are, even if all semblance of story, plot, characterization and comprehension must be sacrificed to do so.

I wanted to forget I was reading a story and get lost in Grant Morrison’s words and Dave McKean’s art. I wanted to be moved by Batman’s struggle to survive a psychological hell. I wanted to be frightened and intrigued by the Joker’s darkly funny madness. I wanted to see classic (and not-so-classic) Batman villains reinterpreted by a master writer and artist.

I wanted anything but this beautiful emptiness that demanded adulation without offering anything in return. Morrison quoted the Lewis Carroll classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in the beginning of the book, but “Arkham Asylum” reminded me of a different fairy tale entirely. As Sinéad O’Connor once sang, “They’ve got a severe case of the Emperor’s new clothes.” It looks so pretty and sounds so important, but in the end, there’s not a damn thing there.

It doesn’t work.

Arkham Asylum has always been a ridiculous premise anyway. The idea that psychotic super-villains would be imprisoned in a haunted house defies belief (even in a medium that asks us to accept flying aliens and Amazon warriors in a modern setting). In a world overrun by gods, it’s lazy and stupid to keep pretending that Gotham City wouldn’t have built a more appropriate facility to handle its demon seed, one that would also (hopefully) be able to keep its patients locked up.

When the Joker “forces” Batman to play a game of Hide and Seek, he says, “You have one hour, sweetheart, and there’s no way out of the building.” That is easily the funniest line in the book. It’s harder to get off a bicycle than it is to leave Arkham. A blind and deaf quadriplegic could escape Arkham Asylum with nothing but a shoelace, oak leaves and a borrowed copy of “Entertainment Weekly”.

Still, I’m willing to accept a lot for the sake of the story, and the house is the least of my problems with this book. In fact, I think Morrison creates a fascinating history for the asylum. Halfway through, he writes one of the creepiest and most frightening scenes I’ve ever read – “Almost idly, I wonder where her head is.” – and it’s easy to understand what made Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness so complete.

But even there, Morrison sabotages his own script. Is it really necessary to have a cuckoo clock go off as Amadeus discovers what’s happened to his family? I understand that Morrison abhors subtlety – as “foreshadowing”, Amadeus finds a Joker card lying on the floor outside the nursery and his mother is tormented by visions of a bat – but still, a cuckoo clock? Why not have Amadeus write “I’m going insane” on his forehead with a black magic marker? That way it wouldn’t be quite so obvious.

If the flashback sequences detailing Arkham Asylum’s creation are at least interesting (and they are, despite Morrison’s heavy-handed techniques), the main story is a dismal failure.

The premise, as I said earlier, is simple. The inmates have taken over Arkham Asylum and are holding the staff hostage. They will allow the hostages to go free if Batman will join them inside. It’s a pretty standard plot manipulation, one we’ve seen a hundred times in the movies and on television. But this doesn’t prevent Morrison from creating melodrama worse than Leonardo DiCaprio’s torturously long death scene in “Titanic”.  Before going in, Batman actually says, “I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates... it’ll be just like coming home.”

Got more whine to go with that cheese?

Once Batman enters the asylum and the hostages are freed, does he leave? Of course not. Is he unmasked? “Don’t be so predictable,” the Joker insists when the suggestion is made, “I want to go much deeper than that.” Is Batman killed by the group of super-villains who have taken control of Arkham? Are you kidding? This is a work of genius. Logic has no place here.

Morrison wants to create a psychological masterpiece. Which is why we get what is supposed to be an excruciating word association game with Batman that goes on for exactly five words. It’s why we get a flashback of Bruce Wayne’s mother berating her little boy for crying over Bambi’s mother getting killed – the woman actually shouts, “How dare you embarrass me that way, Bruce! It’s only a movie, for God’s sake!” And it’s why we get a scene where Batman picks up a piece of broken glass and stabs his hand for no apparent reason.

This is easily the most overblown, ridiculous excuse for drama I’ve ever seen. Nothing rings true or feels remotely honest. The Emperor is naked and the “insights” are anything but.

After 2,893 pages of buildup, Batman finally gets to fight his greatest enemies. Only he doesn’t fight them as much as he interacts with them. Kind of. Sometimes. And they’re not his greatest enemies. Hell, unless you’re a relatively knowledgeable Batman fan you won’t even recognize half of them (and Morrison makes no attempt to explain them at all – that would be too helpful). But at least there’s finally some action. Kind of.

A diseased Clayface tries to touch Batman, so Batman naturally breaks his leg. Before Doctor Destiny can spot him, Batman shoves the wheelchair-bound man down the steps. Scarecrow strolls down a nearby hallway dragging a pitchfork for effect, but since he doesn’t notice the suddenly preoccupied Batman, the villain keeps on a-walking and a-dragging. Batman runs into the Mad Hatter and Maxie Zeus. They both babble pretentiously, so he leaves.

So what have we learned so far? Batman crumbles if you ask him to respond to the word “father”, he’s a homophobic coward who likes pushing cripples down flights of stairs, and his mom’s a total bitch – she probably beat the hell out of little Bruce after he found out Old Yeller didn’t make it. Oh, and you can’t get that Maxie guy to shut up to save his life.

Eventually we get two pages of Batman fighting Killer Croc. Dave McKean tries his best to make it look artistic on many different levels, but it’s still possible to figure out that Batman is indeed fighting Killer Croc. Being the nice guy that he is, Croc helps Batman escape Arkham Asylum by throwing him through a window. It’s a sweet gesture, but does Batman take advantage of it? Of course not. The hostages have been freed and there’s absolutely no reason for Batman to go back inside, but he does anyway. This is a work of genius, damn it, and we’ve already established that logic isn’t necessary.

What a waste.

Dave McKean is amazingly talented. But for this particular project, he didn’t seem to comprehend the idea that pictures created for a comic book are useless – no matter how beautiful they might be – if they don’t help (and in many cases actually hurt) the flow of the story. If the script hadn’t been included as a bonus, I still wouldn’t know what was happening in many of the sequences, even though I’ve read the book three times in the last week.

As for Grant Morrison, I’m completely at a loss. As I said earlier, the background story is well-done and very provocative, even if he has a tendency to overdo things sometimes. But the Batman plot has no focus, no drive, and ultimately no meaning. Wanting to put the man through a psychological hell is a fascinating idea, but Morrison doesn’t come close to succeeding with this convoluted mess. For God’s sake, the fact that Batman sees a bat in a Rorschach card is meant to be a major revelation.

Grant Morrison states in his notes that it took a year for him to research the book and it “was written in one fevered month in 1987, generally late at night and after long periods of no sleep.... The only way I could approximate a genuinely deranged consciousness was via the use of matchsticks between the eyelids.” That’s certainly one approach to writing a Batman story, but I think “Arkham Asylum” would have benefited greatly from more sleep and less matchsticks. Because after all is said and done...

It doesn’t work.


Disclaimer: The preceding article was a commentary, not a review. If it had been a review, it would have been informative and well-written, with quotable phrases like “I laughed, I cried, I woke up in a bathtub filled with ice.” Instead, it’s an opinionated rant by a man who thinks the X3 trailer kicks major butt. If you agree with anything I’ve written, please send cash. If you don’t agree, please send money. But either way, please feel free to leave your own opinions on the Lowdown forum. Thanks!

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