John Pistelli's Reviews > Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Batman by Grant Morrison
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

liked it
bookshelves: comics, twentieth-century

Somewhere around the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century, writers and artists--at the conjunction of science and the occult--began to suspect a deep psychic structure to all human experience, a structure formalized in world myth, then being analyzed synoptically for the first time by anthropologists and psychologists. Many literary works of the time are characterized by what T. S. Eliot, speaking of Ulysses, baptized the "mythic method": this method entails presenting an ostensibly contemporary or realistic narrative which is built on an infrastructure of myth, like Joyce's evocation of Homer, or Eliot's own rewriting for the sterility of modern London the old dying-god vegetation ritual in The Waste Land, or Yeats's summoning of the Celtic gods to colonial/post-colonial Ireland. This would eventually be systematized in literary theory via myth criticism and would then trickle down into the high schools so that every student (of my generation, anyway) could pick out a Christ/scapegoat figure in a seemingly realistic novel at twenty paces.

Now I have a taste for such thinking myself--a taste no doubt formed by my very, very early reading of Arkham Asylum. I read it when it came out, at the age of about seven, and tonight I re-read it on a whim, in the edition that includes Morrison's script, which, like Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, elaborates the story's mythic substructure in the hero's purgative journey into darkness to re-unite with the harmfully outward-projected anima. (Thus, the whole story takes place in Batman's mind.)

Reading this as an adult, though, I find the psychoanalytic symbolism forced, blunt, presented with hardly any mitigating or "naturalizing" context. As Edmund Wilson famously noted, Joyce and Eliot blended symbolism (the mythic/occult material) with naturalism (gritty/comic portraits of everyday urban life), wanting to bring their metaphysics down to earth fully as much as they intended to elevate the quotidian. These early forays into the mythic method have a saving irony necessary for psychic balance. But Batman and his supporting cast are already quasi-mythic, or what passes for the mythic in a commodity culture, so Morrison's script comes off, it seems to me, as a melodramatic and perhaps excessively nasty myth-critical gloss on a pop-culture icon rather than a drama/narrative edifying in its own right. (I did not find it excessively nasty when I was seven--we get more sensitive as we get older!)

As for McKean's art: at first I was tempted to complain, upon perusing Morrison's script, that the pictures are often too murky and uneven to really make out what is going on story-wise. But on reflection, McKean's favoring of mixed-media pictorial spectacle over comics storytelling narrative is what saves this book; there are images here that have lived with me for most of my life and have probably shaped my sensibility deeply--those, generally, that have least to do with Batman, such as Arkham's mother at the beginning, and the images of the house in moonlight, the men in lace wedding gowns, the Arkhams at home in their modernist pastoral, Michael defeating the dragon.

On the topic of this last image: the book's plot bends toward the redemption of the saving archangel figure, the restoration of his reason by his incorporation of his shadow. These are values I support, ultimately, but the overall style of the book, its general visual gloom, its '80s-fashionable nihilism, work against the main point, turning the piece as a whole into a kind of performative contradiction: all we see in Arkham Asylum is the shadow (unless reason is imaged by Morrison's overly involuted symbolic scheme itself!).

I guess I am only saying that this is no Waste Land, which should perhaps not be a surprise, but that the comparison suggests itself is a testament to Morrison's ambition at least. His later work, All-Star Superman, is a less flashy but perhaps more profound and consistent--and relaxed--effort in a similar direction (with allowances made for the differences between Batman and Superman). I would class this an interesting failure, also a period piece, but mind-blowing enough for a kid, if wholly inappropriate for said kid. I will say in closing that I may never have fallen in love with Eliot and Joyce had I not read this in my formative years, so that makes it a book of personal value for me.
2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Batman.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 17, 2014 – Shelved as: comics
November 17, 2014 – Shelved
November 17, 2014 – Shelved as: twentieth-century

No comments have been added yet.