Nov 4, 2011

REVIEW | Arkham Asylum | A Serious House on Serious Earth

Batman: Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition Cover.  Illustrated by Dave Mckean. 1989

It’s April Fool’s Day and the inmates of Arkham Asylum, lead by the Joker, have overrun Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, house for the criminally insane and have demanded Batman in exchange for hostages. The Caped Crusader in his most vulnerable state plunges into what would seem as his own personal hell, and is forced to endure the demented challenge set by his arch-enemies, all the while battling madness and his inner demons.

The year 1986, brought about some of the most groundbreaking works of graphic novel history including Alan Moore’s, Watchmen and the dark and brooding The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. In that same year came the idea of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House onSerious Earth and with it, the modern age of comics. The psychological horror graphic novel written and created by comic book superstar Grant Morrison and illustrated by renowned cover-artist Dave McKean, was picked up by DC comics and published 3 years later in 1989. The two transport you into the mad, mad world of the asylum and the tormented mind of the Dark Knight and in doing so recreate him in a sense.

Illustrated by Dave McKean. 1989

The book deservingly has a warning label, “suggested for mature readers”, due to disturbing and incredibly dark themes of the occult, black magic, insanity, violence, homosexuality, and the macabre. Arkham Asylum vividly paints a picture of madness with nightmarish intensity.  As a reaction to the very literal, “realistic” “left brain” treatment of superheroes which was in fashion at the time, in the aftermath of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and others, Morrison instead approached Batman from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere. Morrison explains:
“... the story is woven tightly around a small number of symbolic elements, which combine and recombine throughout, as if in a dream: the Moon, the Shadow, the Mirror, the Tower, and the Mother's Son. The construction of the story was influenced by the architecture of a house — the past and the tale of Amadeus Arkham forms the basement levels. Secret Passages connect ideas and segments of the book. There are upper stories of unfolding symbol and metaphor. We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abby and Chartres Cathedral. The journey through the book is like moving through the floors of the house itself. The house and the head are one.”
Dave McKean seems to be the master of mixed media as he combines painting, photography, drawing, sculpture and assemblage of odd objects that form together to build a powerful and dark visage for this haunting tale.  His style is consistent through-out the entire novel and the images are both beautiful and horrific, chaotic and balanced. McKean layers expressionistic, painted panels with drawings, fabrics, beads to create a dark world with dark textures. The way he handles the paint and the design of the panels are matchless compared to traditional comic book layouts. He pays little attention to the background and creates a twisted atmosphere in doing so. As you delve further into the story, you have no choice but to journey deeper into the brilliantly painted mouth of madness and succumb to the nightmare. Every facet of this novel seems to have been thought out immensely. Right down Gaspar Saladino’s distinct and unique lettering work by giving characters their own font and lending the Joker’s dialogue and ink-spattering manic intensity.   
"The Joker" painted by Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth. 1989

"Maxie Zeus" Panel from Arkham Asylum. Illustrated by Dave McKean. 1989

The novel portrays very different versions of several characters in the Batman Universe.   In the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum, there are notes on the original script and in it the Joker was originally going to be a transvestite complete with knee-high stockings and heels. Instead, in the final print, the Joker donned his usual trench coat and green hair but his face was incredibly distorted and demented and there were somewhat latent, homosexual overtones in his interaction with the Dark Knight. Also briefly, the use of a clown-fish in part of the story is used for the purpose of illustration the circus clown/joker imagery and their ability to change sex being another reference to shamanic transvestism theme which appears throughout. Other such fascinating renditions include: a Mad Hatter whose usual obsession with Alice in Wonderland has pedophilic overtones; Maxie Zeus, an emaciated, electrified figure with messianic delusions and obsessed with electric shocks; and the idea of Two-Face being weaned off his iconic, decision-making coin.

Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth original cover. Illustrated by Dave McKean. 1989

This work was revolutionary in the graphic novel genre as I said before “it brought about the modern age of comic books.” Arkham Asylum really seems to be a timeless work in the sense that the artwork and concept seemed to be ahead of the curve and incredibly sophisticated for the era in which it was first published. There has been dark themes in comic books before it, but how McKean and Morrison laid out the story, the art and how they re-worked the characters anew, is everything but ordinary and had never been seen before in traditional comics. “As the talents wanted to challenge what a comic could be in every possible way, new production, separation and printing obstacles had to be tested and overcome.” Karen Berger, Vice President and executive editor of Vertigo. The book is truly a work of art. From the hand-painted panels, to the stylized font for each character, to the hidden symbolism subtext that forces you to take a deeper look.  At the end of it all, at the final crescendo, you’re left questioning reason itself. Is Batman perhaps as unbalanced as his rogues? What is rationality? The work left me deeply disturbed and profoundly paranoid, which I feel was the exact intention of Morrison and McKean.

-Kealy Racca


  1. I had so much fun reading this review. The fact that Morrison and McKean were able to take graphic novels to the next level is truely astonishing. Especially after Moore and Miller had already taken comic books from " childish pastime" to a serious piece of literature. A form of story telling that could critique social issues and the human psyche. Mckean and Morrison successfully built off these ideas to create something all their own. Great post, from comic book nerd to another.

    -Luke Cisneros

  2. I loved McKean's work on Sandman. I had no idea that this came before. You can definitely see the roots here of the groundbreaking work he would accomplish with Neil Gaiman.
    I've been trying to work my way through Grant Morrison's back catalog, and now this is on my radar. Thanks!

    -John Elmore

  3. This review has really inspired me to go get the novel now. I'm really pleased at the amount of attention to detail and analysis of the work, you really paid homage to graphic novels as a fine art.
    -Alyssa Moody