With the latest Batman movie hitting our cinema screens to much applause, many people (young and old) will no doubt be hunting down some of his adventures in the medium that gave birth to Batman, ie - the comic book. Comic purists will argue that the cinema bares little comparison when considering the meat served up by comic writers and artists over the years. Writers like Frank Miller have revolutionised the Caped Crusader with his radical beginning and end strories, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Whereas artists like Jim Lee or Lee Bermejo add a visual flavour which steals one's breath away with their work on Hush and Deathblow, respectively.
For me, Arkham Asylum is the perfect marriage of words and images. Grant Morrison (2000ad) takes on the theme of psychological deterioration and the symbolism of the Asylum and delivers a powerfully resonant work. It is assisted by the brilliant Dave McKean who provides illustrations, paintings and occasionally photography to forge a unforgettable canvas of dread and terror, his work will soon be seen in the animation film Mirrorball.
The story serves as a platform for Morrison to probe deeper into the psychological machinations of Batman and his colouful assemblage of villains. This is nothing new in exploring DC's second oldest crime-fighter, but it is in Morrison's approach that really impresses. Morrison looks at Two Face, The Scare-Crow, Killer Crock and, of course, the Joker (to name a few) within a real world perspective. The Scare-Crow becomes an isolationist, The Mad Hatter has insinuated paedophilic tendencies and Two Face is forever incontinent. In fact, Morrison is also making broad criticisms about modern therapy and the nature of institutionalisation. Two face has become disabled through having too much choice - hence, he cannot decide to use the toilet, his decision making process was until now locked into a heads-or-tails policy, but operative in that way. In contrast, The Joker functions as the monstous alpha-male of the institution, manically intimidating everyone and calling the shots. Having worked in a mental home, I found there were recognisable elements to the conflicting attitudes and behaviours presented here. The tag-line on this book reads: 'A serious house on serious earth' which gives a clue where the authour and artist are coming from.
In lesser hands this approach may have presented these characters in a watered down, liberalist apology of the criminal mind. This never happens and the poignant moments that do appear (ie -Two Face being given back his coin/freedom of choice) never undermine the sheer savagery and terror that is created by the oppressive environment and personalities. There is no doubt that this book falls into the stable of horror, there is little compromise in its dark content.
This is a Batman that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. This portrait of a man who dresses as a Bat is the most psychologically disturbed one I have read, a man constantly plagued by the grief of losing his parents. At one point Batman self-mutilates by shoving a shard of broken glass through his hand, the purpose: to try and erase the painful memory of his parents being shot and bring him back from the brink of insanity. Arkham asylum is a book with pitch black sensibilities, it certainly would be hard to place Robin in this story.
An intense story and script - in no small way assisted by the flash-backs to Amadeus Arkham looking after his insane mother and establishing the Asylum. All around him is insanity and misery, eventually he ends up in mental decline - there is feeling that his insanity is absorbed into the very brickwork of the asylum, so that in the climax we actually see Batman tearing away at the bricks and pipes (ie- flesh and arteries) of this disturbed edifice.
The art is beautiful and decaying. McKean is given complete freedom to demonstrate his visual skill, using imaginative collage as a backdrop to the narrative panels or he delivers huge full page paintings showing a small moth-like Batman entering the Gothic castle-like Asylum; or a close-up on The Joker's hideous smile, all bloodshot pin-prick eyes and wispy green hair. The Joker actually dominates the entire book, he is the most grotesque, horrifying representation of this infamous character. The Joker, here, makes Freddy Krueger pale by comparison. Even his jokes are disgustingly evil.
This book has recently been re-released in this special anniversary hard-back edition and ought to read by anyone who thinks the best Batman was Adam West. A very adult and shocking addition to the Batman library, mandatory for all fans. But certainly NOT FOR KIDS, otherwise nightmares will ensue.