Published in October of 1989, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is Grant Morrison’s first attempt at a Batman graphic novel. What he brought to us is the one of the craziest, psychedelic Batman stories since Batman: Odyssey. We’ll be dealing with some very dark themes and extreme symbolism this time, so to lighten the mood I’ll be throwing in a Grant Morrison quote, “Superman is just this perfect human pop-culture distillation of a really basic idea. He’s a good guy. He loves us. He will not stop in defending us. How beautiful is that? He’s like a sci-fi Jesus.” Also because of all the previously mentioned symbolism and back story, this will be more of a summary than usual, with less play by-play of each scene.
We begin in the 1900s with Amadeus Arkham, who’s entire back story I will reveal here, as it is told throughout the whole novel ; Arkham’s mother was haunted by the specter of a bat, so he killed her with a pearl-handled razor to end her suffering. Amadeus opens up the Asylum so no one has to suffer like his mother did.Years later, Arkham’s wife and daughter are murdered by a serial killer. Arkham, after eating his dead family, vows to bind the bat, who he believes haunts the Asylum, using magic. Arkham goes insane and is locked up in the Asylum, where he writes the bat sealing spell until he dies.
In the present, April Fools Day, Commissioner Gordon calls Batman and tells him that the inmates have taken over Arkham Asylum, and want Batman to go in there with them. Batman arrives at the Asylum where we first see the horrifying Joker, made less horrifying by his homoerotic overtones and almost unreadable text. Joker starts to tell us about the villains we’ll be seeing in this issue: Two-Face, Clayface, Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus, Dr. Destiny and Killer Croc. He also has two hostages, Dr.Cavendish, the Admin, and Dr. Adams, a therapist. Adams therapy has seriously screwed with Two-Face’s already split judgement,by giving him a deck of tarot cards, opening up more than the previous 2 options he had with his scarred coin. However, these cards have left him unable to even make simple choices, like using the bathroom.
Joker proposes his plan to Batman: A game of hide and seek where Batman has an hour (Which Joker later changes to about 20 minutes) to escape Arkham Asylum while being chases by his rogues. Batman first encounters Clayface, who is described by Morrison as, “AIDS with two legs.” Clayface tries to grab Batman with his diseased touch, which supposedly represents Batman’s anti-sex ideas, so Batman breaks his leg in a brutal way. We see the looming figure of Scarecrow as he drags along a pitchfork and walks like a spaz through a hallway. Scarecrow here represents the human fear of a Scarecrow, making his short appearance more than just a small cameo.
Another short, but effective scene comes when Batman runs into Maxie Zeus, who is normally seen as this Godlike human, is now a feeble electrophilic with a messiah complex as he tries to offer Batman power. Batman runs away from him and into Dr.Destiny, who normally looks like Skeletor, is now an old man in a wheelchair. Batman just kicks him down the stairs, which is quite a funny idea. Batman’s final villain from his Rogues Gallery is Killer Croc, who doesn’t stray far from his normal comic form.
Killer Croc has the obvious upper hand in the fight, and tosses Batman outside the window. Batman grabs onto the spear of a statue of Micheal,the biblical angel, and climbs back inside the Asylum. He impales Croc, but the other end of the spear gets lodged in his side. During a tug-of-war struggle, Croc is thrown outside and the spear breaks off inside of Batman. Batman removes the spear and passes out from the pain. When he awakens he climbs into the towers of the Asylum and discovers the person who started the riot… Dr.Cavendish and he has a hostage… Dr. Adams!
Batman gives Two-Face his coin back and leaves his fate up to the coin. If it lands on the scarred side, Batman dies. He flips the coin and he tells Batman and Joker that it landed unscarred. As Batman leaves Joker tells him he’s always welcome in Arkham if he gets tired of “the asylum.” The final shot we see Two-Face with the coin in hand, revealing it landed scarred and that he let Batman go of his own free will.
With all that horrifying stuff out of the way, let’s get to the rating.
Plot: The origin of Arkham Asylum and Batman’s journey of discovering himself. The plot is very golden and one of the best ideas for a Batman story.
Characters: Most of the focus is on the villains,who have been changed mostly, and Arkham himself. Arkham’s life is horrifyingly depressing and the villains do a great job of being symbols of Batman’s psyche.
Action: The art makes most of the action hard to see, but what you do get is graphic. A broken leg, Batman shoving glass in his hand, spear impalement, and throat slashing are all here.
Art: Now the art is the negative part. It’s all painted art and it makes some scenes hard to figure out. Morrison himself said the art doesn’t fit, but I kinda enjoy it.
Ending: Harvey getting over his disorder, even if just once, is a heartwarming scene.
Final Thoughts: Grant Morrison is a very divisive writer. Reviews for this book alone told him to quit writing. I, however, have enjoyed all of his works that I’ve read: Final Crisis, Batman and Robin, and Animal Man. Arkham Asylum was a very good Batman story with some stuff holding back, mainly the art. The copy I read came with a script and that is a great read by itself. It discusses all the symbolism and cut stuff, while helping make the Joker’s words legible.
Rating: Full Price