Friday, February 8, 2013

Batman: Arkham Asylum (A Serious House on a Serious Earth) - Grant Morrison & Dave McKean

Arkham Asylum is a tough nut to crack.  On the one hand, it is a brilliant examination of mental illness and the violence that can flow from insanity.  On the other, it collapses under its own weight and fails to live up to its potential.  This may be so because it tries to cram as many Batman Villains (led by the Joker) as it can into one fairly concise story.  As the Joker explains, Batman is given one hour to escape from Arkham Asylum after he has entered by way of invitation:

"'Time to begin the evening's entertainment, I think.  If you're feeling up to it.'
'Up to what?'
'A nice little game of hide and seek.  You have one hour, sweetheart and there's no way out of the building.  One hour before all your friends come looking for you.  There's the Scarecrow and Clayface and Doctor Destiny, of course.  He seems so frail in that wheelchair but all he has to do is look at you and you stop being real.  He does so want to look at you darling.  Oh, and don't let's forget Croc.  He came up out of that damp, dark cellar this morning, dragging his chains behind him.  They all want to see you, so why don't you just run along now?'" (23-24)

Not mentioned by the Joker but included in this book are Maxie Zeus (who seems like a demented version of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen), Professor Milo, the Mad Hatter, Black Mask, and Two-Face.  And I must admit that, like The Long Halloween, the best parts of this book involve Harvey Dent.

I count 9 Batman Villains in The Long Halloween, and I thought that book felt was short at 370 pages.  This is even shorter (120 pages), includes 10 villains, and eschews page numbers that make for easy excerpt searching (though there are nice "extras" with the book that includes a black-and-white script of all the text, which will be referred to for this review) and it is necessary to say word or two about the drawing style.

The Long Halloween has fairly typical illustration for a Batman book, and I enjoyed it.  Arkham Asylum, by contrast, is probably the most shocking Batman book for its visual style.  Everything seems blurry and bloody and if the reader is on Amanita Mushrooms or something then they may be tempted to see things in the pictures that aren't really there (or maybe they are really there, and the artist, Dave McKean, has hidden them in such a way that the reader questions themselves).  One could imagine that this renders Arkham Asylum a triumph of the graphic novel form, and while this book is at times brilliant, one simply cannot say that the book is "highly recommended" if the second half of it collapses under the weight of its first half.

That is how I feel about this book in a nutshell.  The first half is wonderful, and the second half is a crazy collection of action, Tales of the Black Freighter-esque literature-within-literature, and a tidy ending that renders everything that came before almost meaningless.

There are good moments in the second half, such as the Clayface/Scarecrow/Mad Hatter triple threat that bombards Batman one-by-one at the height of the action, or the ending that involves a decision made by Two-Face, but Arkham Asylum would have benefited by extrapolating more background information on the "Rogue's Gallery."  Clayface and Destiny, for example, are quite interesting, but they are left behind shortly after their introduction, as are most of the other villains.  The result is a story that would be a perfect template for a theme park ride (much better than say, "The Dark Knight" at Six Flags) in a sort of reverse-Pirates-of-the-Carribean situation, but fails as a work of literature.  As a "comic book," it is all well and good, but the story is not unsettling in quite the same way as The Dark Knight Returns (or Red Son or Watchmen, for that matter).

I also don't think I am exaggerating the level of sophistication that went into its production:

"The subtitle was taken from Philip Larkin's poem 'Church Going.'  The story's themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung and Crowley, its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc.  The intention was to create something that was more like a piece of music or an experimental film than a typical comic adventure book.  I wanted to approach Batman from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere, as a response to 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." (preface to script)

Will you enjoy Arkham Asylum if you like Batman comic books in general?  Probably.  Is it as good as The Killing Joke?  Not by a long-shot.  That was a shorter story, dense and concisely-packed into a neat package.  However, I wouldn't buy The Killing Joke (in hardcover at least) because of its length.  You can read it in one sitting at Barnes & Noble.  The same goes for Arkham Asylum and I bought it off Amazon.

If you are interested in horror or the macabre, this actually might be your favorite Batman book.  But I am personally more interested in comedy and drama and imaginative excess.  This book has moments of dark humor and a dramatic moment or two--and it certainly shows some imagination in the telling of Dr. Arkham's back story--which is probably the strongest element of the book.  And it even pays reference to Batman's often debated homosexuality, when the Joker squeezes Batman's butt and then says, "What's the matter?  Have I touched a nerve?  How is the Boy Wonder?  Started shaving yet?" (14)

But unfortunately it is just not enough.  In short, it opens up like a bat out of a hell (terrible cliche and pun, I know, but accurate) and then whimpers its way through its second half.  Just when all the fun is supposed to begin, the reader might ask themselves what all of the fuss is about this book.

Regardless, I didn't consider reading this book a waste of time--I would just not want to drum up any unrealistic expectations of its greatness.

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