Following up The Cult, which is a weird book filled with weird art, with Arkham Asylum is not a good recipe for enjoying Arkham Asylum. I find myself now two books deep into a bunch of "weird art" here, so I'll return to Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth in the future, when my palette is a bit more "cleansed" or whatever. Just a note to get us started.
Anyway, Arkham Asylum is considered one of the greatest Batman books of all time. It's the best-selling graphic novel that DC Comics has ever released, apparently. This is surprising is because you'd think DC's best-selling book would be something that feels a little more representative of Batman as a whole, while this book is decidedly abstract in its presentation of Batman as a being and standalone character, and filled with nuance that requires deep digging to fully understand -- to me, it doesn't seem like a casual "walk into the store and pick this bad boy up for a quick read" type of book. Let's dig into the plot of Arkham Asylum a bit first.
Batman is hanging out with our pal and my personal hero Commissioner Gordon, and the Joker is on the phone via conference call or something. Yes, the Joker is just waiting on hold to talk to Batman. Usually he delivers messages via something cool like blood-stained playing cards or a caravan of exploded, flaming minivans in the shape of a laughing face or whatever, but this time he's happy to wait on hold. Okay. The Joker informs Batman that the inmates have taken control of Arkham Asylum and are holding the guards and doctors hostage there. They demand for Batman to come hang out with them if he wants everyone to live. Alrighty. Batman says yes I'm on my way now, see you soon, thank you for the invite.
He shows up and we are launched into this very psychological storyline. We actually don't even have to wait for the Arkham doors to open before Batman starts to get inside his own head. While sitting with Gordon, in response to Gordon's statement that he'd understand if Batman was afraid to go into Arkham with the inmates loose, Batman says, "Batman’s not afraid of anything. It’s me. I’m afraid. 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."
Daaaaaaaaaaaaamn, bruh. So, I admit, I eat this stuff up. One of the reasons I really liked Blind Justice was because it explored the differences between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and the relationship between these "two characters." That book presented that relationship in a fairly straightforward way that still got your gears grinding, if you know what I mean. From the get-go here I was pretty into the idea of this story (leaving the fact that the Joker was waiting on hold to the side). Bruce Wayne speaking as himself while wearing the Batman costume about how he's afraid, but Batman isn't afraid, is top-notch thinkery for a Batman storyline and this is exactly why I am here. The story is written by Grant Morrison, a celebrated comic book writer, and he seems up to the task of deep-diving into Batman's head.
My problems with this book start to stack up once Batman enters the asylum. Arkham Asylum is split into two completely separate storylines that converge, in a way, as they progress. One storyline follows Batman in the asylum, making his way through dimly lit halls and facing members of his rogues gallery throughout. Really, truly, completely built for a video game, which was later made. The second storyline is all about Amadeus Arkham, the man who founded Arkham Asylum. Our lifelong pal Amadeus had a really shitty childhood, and his storyline traces his path into adulthood and details the founding of the asylum that still bears his family's name.
On the Batman side of things, he meets the Joker when he walks in the door and finds him to be holding hostage one of the doctors who works there. She plays a game of word association with Batman, who breaks down remarkably quickly after associating nearly every word she throws at him with the murder of his parents. The Joker, who is a mean bully, laughs at him. In the corner, Two-Face is playing with tarot cards because they offer more options than a two-sided coin. The tarot cards take too long to decide anything, so Two-Face literally craps in his own pants while he was using them to figure out whether he should go to the bathroom. Things are going great here!
This first scene in the asylum is great for one interaction between Batman and the Joker, though. They look at a Rorschach test, and the Joker says he sees a zillion different insane things that no normal person would see in the ink splatter. Batman just sees a bat. The doctor explains this by describing the Joker as an agent of chaos, someone who finds no meaning in any specific item, someone who is happy to live randomly and to his own pleasure -- "That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day." On the other hand, Batman is singularly driven. He finds great meaning in images and personifies symbols, like the bat he modeled his persona after, and seeks justice and peace at all times.
Batman is then set loose in the asylum, under the premise of hide-and-seek, I guess. The inmates are going to go looking for him after an hour passes, but they do it after like five seconds. He encounters several of the villains he helped lock inside Arkham and arrives back at the beginning quite wounded, winded and mentally drained. There is a lot of subtle imagery here that pairs Batman's storyline with Amadeus Arkham's plot. Artist Dave McKean is a true pro, and it's easy to see why the art in this book is considered so classic -- it looks to be all painted, and it's done beautifully. My qualms with it are fully personal preference, and I also struggled with Gaspar Saladino’s lettering in terms of readability.
This is a book I'll return to in the future, without a doubt. I believe the storyline is one you can learn more about on subsequent readings, and the ending of this one is kinda forgettable to me in retrospect -- I'm writing this blog only two weeks after reading it, and it's already foggy in my mind. So, more to come on this one, I suppose.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is available on Amazon in physical format. It's also on Comixology if you wanna go digital. Clicking on and purchasing from Amazon links on this blog provides a small kickback to the author.