Keeping hold of that old observation about perspective might help one navigate the hallucinatory maze thatTo the dragon, Saint George was a monster.
Keeping hold of that old observation about perspective might help one navigate the hallucinatory maze that is the heart of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Grant Morrison's harrowing work of power and insight. The narrative plunges us into a nightmarish asylum for the criminally insane that has literally been taken over by the inmates. Morrison makes unique use of the time-tested suggestion that they might be more sane than the rest of us.
The criminals who are holding the asylum staff hostage demand that Batman come in alone. Morrison sets the tone for his -- and our -- descent into darkness with a passage from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:
"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help it," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad, you're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
Batman darkens the tone. This is not the swashbuckling figure familiar from comic books and movies. Ordinarily, Batman cloaks himself in shadow to scare the bad guys. In this story, it seems more like Batman is lost in the dark, or maybe even hiding from something he sees in himself. It is unsettling.
Morrison's Batman confides to Commissioner Gordon: "Sometimes I ... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates, when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me, it'll be just like coming home."
That homecoming puts Batman on a compelling quest. He encounters The Riddler, Penguin and many other of his nemeses who are deadlier than they were in comic books long ago. Central to the story is Two-Face, a former district attorney made unbalanced by acid that scarred the good looks on one side of his face. Two-Face's lapses in and out of seeming rationality are dictated by the flip of a scarred silver dollar he carries with him. Where The Joker can be counted on to be vicious, Two-Face's reliance on chance makes him sometimes homicidal and other times merciful, depending on which side of the coin lands up.
Ultimately, Batman puts his fate into the hands of one of the villains he has imprisoned. It reflects the intricacies of a dizzying story that Batman's decision could be rational, or suicidal, or both. In real life we know that the mammoth media conglomerate that owns Batman will never allow him to be killed. But a strength of Morrison's storytelling is that it makes it seem at least possible that Batman might be tortured or worse.
An intertwined story unfolds in flashbacks. The asylum's founder, Dr. Arkham, witnesses unspeakable violence and is traumatized by it. There is a suggestion, familiar from countless works of horror fiction, that the horrible events have stamped a kind of psychic imprint on the asylum and left it haunted. The apparent truth is far more discomforting.
The illustrations in some graphic novels make everything explicit, depriving our imaginations of the freedom to conjure our own images. This diminishes their power in the way that Jaws is less scary when we see the shark.
Dave McKean's art in Batman: Arkham Asylum does no such thing. There is stunning variety in McKean's images and powerful subtlety as well. His dark, complex illustrations merely suggest, planting hints that engage our imaginations. They magnify the impact of Morrison's enthralling story.
That story is not for everyone. The book's full title is Batman: Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth and this is serious reading. Although not explicitly violent, it presents disturbing images and unsettling ideas that are best avoided by squeamish readers and kept away from younger ones.
The rest of us can come out of our own journey with Batman dazed and with our notions of human nature challenged. That's a lot for a book to accomplish. Morrison's does it memorably. ...more