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Batman: Arkham Asylum is a graphic novel by Grant Morrison (writer) and Dave McKean (art) and was first published in 1989. This is one of the more acclaimed of the Batman graphic novels for its somewhat avant-garde and impressionistic approach but it will not be for everyone and those expecting a traditional Batman story with spandex clad fisticuffs and a square jawed hero who is completely sure of himself will probably come away disappointed. The book is deliberately dreamlike and strange and a reaction to the gritty and realistic (as far as comics are ever very realistic) eighties reinventions of Batman by Frank Miller in particular. The story has Arkham Asylum (the spooky gothic institution that houses the insane criminals of Gotham City) being apparently taken over by the nutty patients who live there. Commissioner Gordon alerts Batman to this worrying development and tells him that, furthermore, the super villain patients have declared that if Batman does not go to Arkham and meet with them in person they will kill the staff members they are now holding hostage. In order to hasten Batman's arrivel, the most notorious inmate "The Joker" kills one of the guards and then prepares a challenge for when the Dark Knight arrives. Batman will have one hour in the labyrinthine dark and shadowy asylum to escape before one of his rogues gallery is sent to hunt him down. But Joker cuts down this time frame under pressure from the other villains in the institution and Batman soon starts to have encounters with some of his most famous and disturbing old foes. More than that though, he starts to question his own sanity and feel as if he is partly responsible for Arkham. He has been feeding them dark souls down the years afterall and his own schizophrenic nature and psychosis could be interpreted as being every bit as bizarre as the colourful and deranged characters he is constantly catching and sending to Arkham.
The story also includes a parallel origin of Arkham and the history of the asylum's founder - Amadeus Arkham. Amadeus Arkham ended up as a very mad and dangerous patient in his own asylum and we will learn all about his dark history. Batman: Arkham Asylum is unavoidably pretentious at the best of times but an interesting attempt to do something slightly different with the famous hero and present both him and some of the more famous characters in the Batman universe in a different light. We are used to seeing Batman as a very driven and focused character, a dominant one. Here he is stripped of those qualities and rather confused and frozen. Trapped in Arkham and forced to question the nature of himself and his enemies. He dresses up as a giant freakish bat and haunts the night, clambering over rooftops and roaming through alleyways. He's not exactly the picture of sanity himself is he? The book is very surreal and seems to take a lot of inspiration from Alice in Wonderland. It's very allegorical and symbolic and Batman is like a fuzzy never quite distinct shadow who floats through the aslyum as nightmarish depictions of some of the villains flit in and out of the story. The book is designed to look as if we are witnessing a strange bizarre dream and the art is very trippy and off kilter in a fashion that tends to divide readers. You'll either admire it or find it off-putting. The bonkers pastel style of McKean takes some getting used to but once you do settle in the atmosphere and weird aura of the story you do start to appreciate it more and more as you progress through the comic. One thing that the artist does well here I think is to give us a very startling and scary depiction The Joker. He draws him in a very manic and horror funfair way and the Joker art here was a big inspiration to Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger when they made the film The Dark Knight. The Joker's smudged makeup and altogether ghoulish appearance.
There is a fair amount of Jungian psychology, metaphor and symbolism in the story and I did like the way the symbol of the bat was used in the backstory in particular. There is a bit of Norman Bates in here too I think. It doesn't feel terribly and completely out of the ordinary to delve into the relationship between Batman and his crazed enemies - see how alike they are and what qualities they (but might have to hold in check in the case of Batman) - but Arkham Asylum is always interesting and sometimes captivating with the strange but glossy art that is like a nightmare or dream that always remains slightly ephemeral. What the style does do is give one the impression that we are witness the wispy frazzled fragments of a story and don't quite have everything at our recall, just in the way that dreams are remembered as fleeting fragments of things that you can never quite seem to piece together or fully remember. This is an effective approach and the artistic style makes perfect sense for this. The story is tightly woven and it is impressive the way that Arkham becomes like a character in the story. It is depicted as being like a huge cathedral or abbey inside. Almost anachronistic and a place steeped in madness where almost anyone would struggle to retain their sanity even if they had any in the first place. Batman's fear - encouraged by the wily Joker - is that Arkham might be his true home. Perhaps he belongs in there with all the other lost souls. I feel like I've seen this type of thing done many times with Batman (I remember a DC Batman Annual that was almost identical) but one would presume that it was slightly more fresh back in 1989 when the comic made its first appearance.
You get encounters with a few of the other rogues in the roster of Batman villains here although none are of the traditional swinging from alleyways, gas bombs, and punch outs. The depiction of Two-Face is excellent. He has been given a tarot deck and dice by one of the therapists in order to show him that he doesn't need his coin (which when flipped decides if he is going to be nice or nasty). Two-Face though is now more insane and troubled than ever and can't even make the most basic decision for himself. If he had to choose the cereal in the supermarket he would honestly be there for weeks just staring at the Weetabix and Coco Pops. There are encounters with Clayface and Killer Croc (which is one of the more violent ones) and Batman also meets a very disturbed incarnation of the Mad Hatter. Morrison gives the Hatter's obsession with Alice in Wonderland a dark and modern twist. While you are sometimes in danger of submerging into the stylistic gloom and and sinking and sometimes yearn for Batman to snap out of it and just karate kick or punch someone in the face or something I did like the backstory they provide for the founder of the asylum and Dr Charles Cavendish (Arkham's administrator and one of the hostages) is used in a pivotal and interesting way in the story. All of the major characters (including Two Face) are given memorable lines and panels at key moments. There is some grisly imagery in the book and its more surreal and dense approach makes it unsuitable for younger readers but if you are a fan of Batman and looking for something slightly different then this is certainly worth a look. It isn't an insubstantial read in terms of pages but I did find myself wishing it had been a little longer though and a bit more fleshed out in parts. These quibbles aside this is a striking and interesting comic. At the time of writing you can buy Batman: Arkham Asylum for about ten pounds.
I have always been a fan of graphic novels, and often follow the lesser known characters just as much as the more prominent ones. Something that has always remained a bit of a mystery is the history of various characters. On the Marvel side of the fence, characters such as Spiderman are being constantly reinvented with ever emerging secrets and plot developments making the character much darker and appealing. On The DC side of things, Superman and co seem to be emerging with more plot threads that make the character a bit more exciting than the much examined common origins we are used to.
On a similar note, the origins and history of Batman have been rather obtuse in their descriptions. Those familiar with the caped crusader will be aware of his parents' death when he was young, and the wealth he inherited that allows him to galavant around with the costume on and a seemingly limitless amount of resources to design and make the funky costumes, vehicles, gadgets and secret rooms he seems to have.
Yet one thing that has remained a mystery to me has always been the man behind the mask. I don't mean Bruce Wayne, the multi billionaire FACE behind the mask: I mean the inner man, the psyche of the character who dons the mask. Here, Grant Morrison's script and Dave Mckean's artwork combine with power to give us a dual graphic novel that focuses on this mental psychology aspect of the character, focusing on Arkham Aslyum, which houses the criminally insane.
The story contained within this volume spreads over nearly 200 pages. 130 or so features the graphic novel itself, and there's the added bonus of having the remainder with original script, footnotes, artist's sketches and a final word. The story itself is twofold. We open with some impressive sketchwork which introduces us to Amadeus Arkham, the founder of the Asylum, and it takes us through his tale of family woes which lead up to his family mansion being turned into the Asylum we are more familiar with in the modern day tellings of Batman.
Alongside this runs an interesting angle on Batman, which involves him entering an overrun Arkham in return for the release of the Asylum's staff, held captive by his nemeses, led by The Joker. As he enters, The Joker wants to play a game of hide and seek with him. He hides, his enemies seek him. As this element of the story progresses, a number of these foes are drawn into the tale, even if they aren't as visually prominent as these two main adversaries. Two-Face is perhaps the most used other than The Joker, as his line is most significant to the outcome, but it is in examining the effects that the Asylum has on Batman himself that we come to realise that his biggest enemy is himself, and his inner being.
It's a fascinating study of psychology, really, and although some readers have dismissed this as being too much engendered in the 'real' world to really encapsulate the true nature of the 'Bat' we have come to know and love, I still find it sheer brilliance. I have never really given all that much thought to a storyline focusing on how his mind ticks. For me, I have probably focused more on the do gooder within without exploring the whys and wherefores that this should inevitably bring up.
Perhaps this is as a result of just how commercialised Batman has become as a franchise. Exposure on TV has been adapted to conform with viewing figures in the TV series, and then with the feature films it has tried to appeal to a wider audience with a very easy to watch and almost 'fun' atmosphere being attempted. Here, in this graphic novel, there is no ease at all, in either tale, and this is mainly due to the artwork.
Dave McKean's contemporary illustrations have a degree of flair and skill to them that is rarely present in mainstream characters' presentations, and it's really refreshing to see a bit of difference with a common character. Heavy ink and watercolours show the age of this graphic novel, and it's nice to see something relatively untouched by the ever present computer generated imagery that we usually get nowadays. Released in 1989, it fast became the biggest selling graphic novel of all time, surpassing even Frank Miller's genius Watchmen, which I absolutely love.
There's such a huge contrast in the artwork of the two biggies though. Watchmen is full of tiny little events going on behind the main focal point of each frame, promoting a story in the pictures itself with intricacies that are clear to the initial glance. McKean's art, though, is anything but easy to the eye, and it takes a lot of effort to make out the shapes, actions, and even on occasion the words here in Arkham Asylum. McKean has thought of everything. Strokes cover strokes, slight hints of colour make all the differences, and each character has their own written style.
The colours themselves are rather dull and morose when you first look at them. There are lots of browns and greys, and rarely do you actually get a snippet of colour. However, when you do, it's mainly from the Joker, with bright reds and greens really making him stand out among everything else going on. With the Batman thread of the graphic novel, it really makes a point of contrasting the hero and the villain, putting them in a conversational aspect before sending Batman off to chase his enemies as well as his own demons. With the Amadeus Arkham thread, it reads more like a diary entry, and this is what I found more interesting. I hadn't really had any experience of realising how the Asylum came about, and it was ultimately riveting to find out the history. This doesn't mean it took over from the Batman thread, as this was an intense psychological intrusion to a dark hero, but the Amadeus thread was more of a revelation for me.
The script is good with this, don't get me wrong, and it's great to see just how the words flow and develop into the story, but it's really McKean's artwork that nails it for me. It's so intense and inviting, with subtleties that you really have to search for to recognise, and what is great about this 15th Anniversary Edition is that you also get the original script and some footnotes with it at the end. Seeing this script gives an insight into how Morrison wanted things to look on the page, the plot developments that needed to happen through the visuals, accompanying his script. McKean's managed to bring some excellence with his brushwork, and it's really interesting to see how a lot of the artwork comes about from a scriptwriting origin.
It's good to see the intricacies included in it all, and I was just as enthralled reading the script as I was reading the actual visual graphic novel itself. The presentation was brilliant, as was the tale itself. I initially thought I was going to be disappointed with such a visually different graphic novel than I was used to, but I was riveted. I have no fault with this. Excellent script and artwork, and I'm thoroughly glad I went for it. It comes in at £10.99 retail price, which I consider to be a really good price for such a great graphic novel: no wonder its sales were so impressive! Recommended.
Probably the most bizarre of all the Batman graphic novels, Arkham Asylum is a brutal in-your-face acid trip of a comic book that has split fans over the generations into two camps; thopse who love this and those who are seriously disturbed by this or do not understand it and thus have come to hate it! I sit firmly in the first camp. Yes, it is different; yes, it is often hard to read and yes, it is not the most original of storylines...but the way it is executed makes this stand out head and shoulders over anything else Batman related!
Commissioner Gordan calls Batman with an urgent message; unless The Dark Knight comes to the Aslyum then the inmates will kill all the staff! Lead by The Joker, these inmates include a who's who of Batman enemies and villans and not one of them is the full biscuit. Knowing he has little choice, Batman enters the mental hospital and begins a journey into the deepest, darkest pits of hell!
With a dual storyline and elaborate graphics that twist and warp your mind from the glossy shiny pages, Arkham Asylum is a novel not easily forgotten once experienced. Telling not just Batman's journey through the gates but the back-story behind the creation of Arkham is an ambitious undertaking, especially in such a wild and erratic style, but it is one that works brilliantly. There are many who will be put off by the graphics but that would be a mistake as this is without question the most imaginative and unique Batman novel you will ever read!
If you like your graphic novels more conventional then you should probably avoid this! If you want a head-f*** of a comic book however, then this will delight, shock and inspire you!
Batman has never been this surreal or this trippy and this is just as important a novel to the Batman universe as was The Dark Knight Returns, albeit for different reasons!
Prepare to have your mind blown away as, with Batman, you descend into the mind of a mad-man.....
Where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons "Watchmen" was a true triumph of substance and depth over style, "Arkham Asylum: A Serious Place on A Serious Earth" is the other way around, style over substance.
It isn't all too dissappointing though, inside there are two stories, told at the same time and referencing each other. The main one is obviously Batman. It's April First and the Joker has managed to take over Arkham and turn it over to the criminals, taking several hostages. His demands are simple, Batman comes in for a game and the hostages go free. The game is hide and seek, with Batman hiding, and all his locked up foes seeking. While the plot appears simple but classic no frills action, it actually has relatively deep aspects examining Batmans own state of mind when compared to the inmates. Many favourite criminals make an appearance: Two-Face, the Mad Hatter, Killer Croc and several others. Almost every key characters speech is shown uniquely and it does give a certain style to the whole thing.
The second story is by and far the more interesting of the two, and helps to paint a more detailed history of the famous asylums lore. Following excerpts from Amadeus Arkhams diarys it shows the motivation behind the facilities creation, and the great man himselfs fall to being one of its patients. This is a great bit of history, even though it isn't totally essential it does help make Gotham that step closer to being made real.
Morrisons script is well written overall, though does tend to jump around between the two plots, often slowing down the action. Also the references forward and back can be quite subtle as I didn't spot them first reading through.
The real star of the show is Dave McKean, the artist, this is some truely mad stuff. Combining traditional comic methods, painting, photography, and mixed medums its truely jaw dropping in its execution, and taking into account computers weren't used at that point either its even more impressive. That said, some of it can be hard to make out, especially the very very dark pages, and other bits, just plain hard to understand what it means. Also in this vein is the lettering. I've mentioned how key characters have signiature text styles, but even some of these (most notably the Jokers) can be harder to read.
In the current version available (the 15th anniversary edition) included at the back is the original script along with additional notes, the original storyboards and short statements from both McKean and Morrison on what they were trying to do with the comic and how they did things and why the book came about in the first place amongst topics covered. While these are readable and interesting to see, I personally haven't sat through them (it was a late night read I think).
This book is short, two maybe three sessions to read, though more than likely just one for most folk.
This is a good book, with unique visual style and a small piece of history to help flesh out some of Gothams world. Although I can see how it could disappoint: the apparently thin plot involving Batman, the hard to understand (yet still stunning) visuals and generally the sheer volume of hype around it could be overwhemling for some.
If you really like Batman, you probably already have this, if your getting into Batman or graphic novels there are probably easier places to start. If your looking for something new and unique that you haven't seen before, this could be the next good purchase for you.
Book Series: Batman