Have You Read?: ‘Asylum’ aims far beyond the funny books
June 24, 2008
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” 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 be here.”
– Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
Recommended Stories For You
Frank Miller helped revitalize the comic book industry in the late 1980s with what is widely considered to be his masterpiece, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.” The creator of such works as “Sin City” and “300,” Miller took the Batman mythos and made it his own.
In “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller portrays an aging Bruce Wayne who has not donned his costume in 10 years but decides to come out of his self-imposed retirement to rescue the citizens from the hell on Earth that Gotham City has become. By reinventing the character (without destroying the core elements of the original) and introducing adult themes to his storyline, Frank Miller managed to remove the campy stigma attached to Batman by the 1960s television series.
Suddenly, comic books became more accessible to mainstream audiences, as well as sparking the interest of die-hard fans. Batman once again was known as the serious character that Bob Kane intended him to be when he first introduced him in 1939.
The success of “The Dark Knight Returns” opened the way for “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore, another intense, one-shot story that changed the DC universe forever by giving the Joker character a back story, as well as showing the shooting and paralyzing of Batgirl. Both books served as inspirations for Tim Burton’s 1989 film “Batman” as well as the new “The Dark Knight,” due out next month.
Also in 1989, DC Comics released “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” to critical acclaim. Almost 20 years later, it remains the best-selling original graphic novel in the entire comics industry. Written by then-newcomer Grant Morrison, “Arkham Asylum” was yet another breakthrough in comics, exploring themes inspired by Jungian psychology, Lewis Carroll and quantum physics. The creepy, surreal tone is perfected by the artwork of Dave McKean, probably best-known now for his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, creator of the award-winning “Sandman” series.
“Arkham Asylum” features two parallel storylines. In the first, the Joker calls Batman to the infamous madhouse on April Fools’ Day. The inmates have taken over the asylum, and they believe that the man who put them there belongs inside as well. Batman is invited to participate in a twisted game of hide-and-seek where deadly foes lurk around every corner. As Batman makes his way through the house, he is confronted by his own inner demons, forcing him to examine his motivations behind donning the mask and cape in the first place. Is he irrevocably damaged after witnessing the death of his parents, or is it his “madness” that makes him a hero?
Intertwined with Batman’s plight through “Arkham Asylum” is the story of Amadeus Arkham himself, founder of the institution that bears his name, told through the pages of his diary. Scarred by his own mother’s madness and eventual suicide, and skeptical of a penal system that incarcerates without seeking the cause of its inmates’ devious behaviors, he decides to turn his childhood home into a facility dedicated to the treatment of the mentally ill. After his family is murdered by the very inmate who inspired this choice, Arkham slowly descends into madness, embracing his insanity as destiny and eventually dying as a patient in his own hospital.
Both stories collide and play off each other, with the same motifs recurring throughout. Illustrator McKean’s mastery of mixed media is what really makes this book stand out from anything else that was released at the time, turning what originally was conceived as a 64-page story into 128 pages of gorgeous, hand-painted panels that bring this demented tale to life.
“Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” is not your typical superhero fare. It is not Adam West in gray tights BIFF-BAM-POWing his way through a house full of deranged lunatics with the Boy Wonder at his side. It is not Jack Nicholson as the Joker in a purple suit. Christian Bale got closer to this tone in “Batman Begins,” and I’m really hoping that the next film installment gets even darker and delves more into the psychological aspects of this seemingly timeless character. In the meantime, I’ll stick with the graphic novels.
– Lydia Chagolla is an avid reader who enjoys sharing her reviews with the community.