Comic Book Review: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth
Updated: May 26, 2020
Truly, this is a special book.
Released in December 1989, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth ripped up a myriad of sale records and remains to this day the best-selling original Graphic Novel ever. 1989 was, of course, the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman was released in cinemas, sparking a fresh wave of Bat-mania. As such, much of the staggering success of this book can be linked to the perfect storm of its timing. Comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had only recently been published, ushering in the age of the “adult” comic. These engendered a degree of legitimacy rarely before afforded to comic books, lending Arkham Asylum the opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle, of sorts.
Of course, it wasn’t all in the timing. Arkham Asylum is, after all, one of the earliest mainstream works of a writer who has come to be synonymous with the very best, not to mention most successful, of superhero stories. Asylum was amongst the first pitches DC comics ever accepted from a then relatively unknown Glaswegian writer named Grant Morrison. A quarter of a Century since the release of Arkham Asylum and Morrison is one of the names in comic-dom. Dave Mckean was also fairly fresh to the medium but his stylised, game-changing and inventive art has gone on to feature in some of the very best comics, including Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
As such, it would be entirely remiss to underestimate how large a contribution the quality of the book, writing and art, made to the startling success it has gone on to enjoy. It is success which is richly deserved, as well as success that made both writer and artist rich.
Reading the book now, amongst the earliest observations is how surprising this staggering success is given the nature of the book. It’s far from a mainstream product, despite a plot that has a blockbusting premise. On April 1st, the inmates of Arkham Asylum, led by The Joker, have taken control of the famous facility. They have one final demand- that Batman come in and join them. Batman locked in Arkham Asylum with his deadliest enemies; in another book, this would be very different. You can almost imagine the various action set-pieces, the veritable who’s who of villains being taken down by The Dark Knight one by one in an action/adventure story. Heck, you can almost picture the Jim Lee art.
That’s pretty much what they did when they used this Graphic Novel as inspiration for the first of the now even more famous Arkham video games. A recipe for action, for Batman fighting his various villains in a confined space, for all sorts of mainstream thrills and spills. You could argue it’s a Batman movie waiting to happen.
Morrison’s tale, though, is instead an intense psychological journey, a nightmare. It’s a ghost story, a study of madness and obsession, of the fine line between sanity and mania. Symbolism and allusion take precedent over action and adventure in a story that haunts the reader, which lingers and lurks at the corners of the mind long after it has been put down. Reading Arkham Asylum is highly, highly recommended but, that being said; reading it during a storm late at night will most likely result in little to no sleep. It’s a terrifying book, not at all for the faint hearted. It borders on intolerably intense and powerful, a masterful combination of writing and art that gives this book such an affecting presence.
Morrison used Arkham Asylum to respond to what he called the “very literal, ‘realistic’, ‘left brain’ treatment of superheroes which was in vogue at the time, in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and others”. In order to do so, he goes with an approach “from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere”.
He conveys this through the employment of a fluid, ephemeral style that weaves between narrative strands, connecting and uniting them at various stages whilst also using them to allude and foreshadow each other. These strands consist of the present, with Batman and the Asylum, and the past, as we see the tragic, disturbing story of Amadeus Arkham, founder of the asylum. His descent into madness echoes the journey Batman himself takes, two logicians forced down the rabbit hole of the Asylum, a test of their will, their grip on reality, their very sanity. Will Batman crumble, as Amadeus did? This is A Serious House On Serious Earth’s central question.
In what has gone on to become a common occurrence in Morrison’s Batman writing, here the writer takes a pre-existing character history from an obscure, all but forgotten source and embellishes it, building upon it to fuel the thrust of his thematic and philosophical development.
Mckean’s painted, expressionistic art-work is an ideal partner for this story. It looks like no other comic because it is like no other comic. Rarely has The Joker looked so terrifying, The Batman so shadowy or the Asylum itself so intimidating.
Along with The Dark Knight Returns and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Arkham Asylum stands out as a take on Batman that doesn’t match my particular preference for depicting the Bruce Wayne character yet still features amongst my very favourite stories. The variety of Batman, of the stories he can work in, the interpretations of the character that are seemingly endless, is something to celebrate. It is integral to the lasting appeal of the character, of the very idea of Batman. Morrison himself talks about this in the script notes at the end of Arkham Asylum, as a matter of fact;
“I’d like to stress that the portrayal of Batman presented here is not definitive and not necessarily how I would write the character otherwise. The repressed, armoured, uncertain and sexually frozen man in Arkham Asylum was intended as a critique of the ‘80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychopathic. My own later portrayal of Batman in the JLA comic was one which emphasized the character’s sanity and dignity; in the end, I figured that anyone who had gone so far and had been so successful in his quest to avenge his parents’ death and to help people would have ended up pretty much straightened out. Bruce Wayne would only have become conflicted and mentally unstable if he had NOT put on his scary bat-suit and found the perfect outlet for his feelings of rage, guilt and revenge.”
It is this critique on the Batman that was so prevalent at the time that gives Arkham Asylum further importance as a moment in Bat-history. Morrison addresses the issue in this book before going on to craft a different take in mainstream DC continuity, via his legendary JLA run and then in his mega-run on the character proper, an epic in the truest sense of the word that ran over seven years of comic books. Asylum, then, can be seen as an epiphany, a moment of transition; the darkest part of the (k)night coming before the dawn. Here the nightmarish sensibilities take on even further significance, as Morrison himself notes;
“Batman has faced his own personal Abyss, integrated his psychological demons and emerged stronger and more sane from the other side of the looking glass. We can almost imagine a final, unseen page in which Bruce Wayne wakes up in his bed at 3pm, bruised, blinking and shaking his head… but feeling somehow cleansed and invigorated by this bizarre insight into his own drives. Having been through this reversal of all his normal valences, the ‘80s Batman, purified and purged of negative elements, is returned to Gotham City to become the super-confident, Zen warrior of my subsequent JLA stories”.
It has remained timely, too, given that the ‘80s-esque version of Batman he alludes to has in many ways begun to return under the pen of current Batman scribes such as Scott Snyder and Tom King, amongst others.
Ultimately, though, it isn’t enough to be an important Batman story. That’s a different list entirely. What gets Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth on to my favourites list, of what I consider the best Batman stories so far, is the quality. It’s an artistic achievement of immense scale, one of the greatest in the history of superhero fiction. It wears its artistic roots on its sleeve, proud badges of the ambition and skill the artists involved have. The subtitle is taken from a Phil Larkin poem. The opening Carroll quote is one of the many allusions made to the Alice In Wonderland author. It’s not just Carroll; various references litter the book; from literature and film and theatre, to Crowley, to Jung and Freud, to Kabbalistic symbology, numerology, to tarot and David Lynch and Anthony Perkins films to the Marat Sade and the Sex Pistols and Bambi and shamanic ritual.
It’s a breath-taking accomplishment and an engrossing, challenging and endlessly fascinating read.
Truly, no Bat-fans library is complete without it.