For some reason, as of late, I have been craving damn good stories in the Batman universe. I have been wanting to read a title that would, not only satisfy this craving, but simultaneously blow my fucking mind. I want to be left with this amazing feeling deep inside of my chest that just fills me with a great sense of awe. While what I desire can be considered to be rather random and slightly unreasonable, I did come across a standalone comic book that finally quelled the beastly thirst I had somehow acquired. Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth written by the exceptionally talented Grant Morrison is this devilish little treat.
After finishing the book, I looked up some reviews for this on the bibliophilic social site, GoodReads, and discovered that many people ended up hating it. The reasons for their unpleasantness are as follows:
- “…a fucking mess. The painted artwork was appalling, the storyline was incoherent, the dialogue barely legible, and most importantly, the portrayal of Batman was all wrong.”
- “Batman acts completely out of character… the book seems to meander until it becomes a random mélange of images with little relation to one another.”
- “I hated how Batman is portrayed. Bruce Wayne, man who is mentally and physically trained to perfection…becomes poor victim in this wannabe horror.”
There are many, many more comments like these. I strongly believe that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and if you don’t like something then you just don’t fucking like it. But… I’m rather disinclined to acquiesce the rationale behind many of such opinions, which is my right. What I find to be most hilarious about such reviews is that they simply don’t like Batman’s portrayal because Batman is perfection that cannot do wrong, or be imperfect. But… You see the inherent issue with this belief is that Batman is a human being and his imperfections are precisely why he is such an excellent hero. Please, allow me to explain.
Yes, the portrayal of Batman is vastly different than what folks may be used to, but that’s the whole bloody point. We always see the rodent-clad billionaire as a man who has a plan with mental fortitude that is unyielding in the face of his self-inflicted heroism. Some spandex and a caped mask later, he goes out there and kicks ass to protect his city, however. Shall we examine this behaviour for a moment?
Bruce Wayne’s parents were mugged and murdered in cold blood before his very eyes when he was simply a child. That kind of tragedy, that kind of event can severely traumatize a human being—billionaire or penniless—especially a kid. Through a myriad of events succeeding that horrible night, Batman is eventually born. A man who goes out into the shadows to fight the filthy pieces of shit in his city so he can drastically minimize (and hopefully eradicate entirely) any more chances of other children having to become orphaned. He doesn’t want anyone else to feel the agony, rage, and loneliness that he felt when his parents were shot before him. He also realizes that the police just aren’t enough at solving the problems on their own. I applaud his resolve and I applaud him for fighting his fears to go out there and make a difference in the ways that works best for him. Yet… his parents died… in front of his goddamn eyes… when he was a wee little lad. That shit will fuck up anyone.
We see very little comics that thoroughly explore the demons that Bruce Wayne struggles with. Just because he does what he does, just because he’s a beefy, ass-kicking vigilante does not make him immune from insanity, or imperfection. Terrifying thoughts and nightmares are constantly with Bruce Wayne. These apparitions of his psyche are the things that keep him going night after night, shaping him into said vigilante, but they are also the roaches that eat away at his sanity, making him constantly question: what makes him so different than the masked bastards he takes down? The Joker originally posed such a query and it’s marvelous. What this comic book does is provide us with a perspective of the inner struggles Batman has with himself quite possibly every single day of his existence.
- Is he truly doing the right thing?
- Is all of this to protect the city, or to protect his own grief?
- Why is Batman “sane” when the villains he fights stem from the same coin?
- Is he fighting crime, or fighting the acceptance of the losses he’s accumulated?
- What is the bloody point of it all?
So, hell fucking yes, the portrayal of good ol’ Brucey Wayne is really different and at times difficult to absorb, but it’s not a “mess” and it’s quite far from being “all-wrong.”
In addition to exploring Batman’s intricate battle with insanity, I also absolutely loved how Morrison conducts this analysis. While our vigilante infiltrates Arkham Asylum to get a handle on the chaotic situation that’s unfolding, the audience is also introduced to the origins of the sanitarium. Running side by side of current events, we receive a narrated telling of how Amadeus Arkham became inspired to establish the asylum; the tragedies that befell his family, as well as the inevitable madness that enveloped him in the process. These two stories are written parallel to one another, and intelligently illustrate motifs in both Bruce Wayne and Amadeus that are eerie and frighteningly similar.
I understand how this could confuse a reader. While Amadeus is speaking about his life and his loss, Batman’s thoughts invade these scenes with corresponding inner dialogue. As these two individuals speak, I felt that they were communicating to one another, sharing their analogous lives in an attempt to sort everything out: the whys, the hows, etc. But, we also have The Joker’s interchange as well, which is immensely darker and more twisted. As I read this, I felt that Batman’s discourse mimicked Amadeus’s desire to do good, while The Joker’s words exhibited the indisputable immorality that began to plague him. The entire exchange is wholeheartedly psychological and inventive. The strife of “honourable” intentions for the sole purpose of doing good, or for being used as a veil to hide the true desire for vengeance is beautifully rendered.
Another facet that made me devour this is how similar it is to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. For anyone who has read that book, the at-times subtle references should be a delightful throwback. Taking key elements of madness from that olden tale, Morrison weaves it into his novel developing an accomplished and gratifying homage that is profoundly introspective.
The second issue a lot of people had with Batman: Arkham Asylum was the artwork. While it is extremely unique, I simply cannot comprehend how it is appalling! Dave McKean has most-certainly outdone himself with his magnificent portrayal of the story behind the madness, as well as the madness itself. It took my breath away on more than one occasion, gave me chills on others, and created a captivating, macabre atmosphere for the psyche. In no fucking shape or form is the art “appalling.” It combines a pencil sketch base with almost painting-like aesthetic to create something that is uncomfortable, and brilliantly complimentary to the dark and gothic content of the tale.
A vast majority of the scenery is presented in silhouettes and shadows, but once again, that’s the fricking, frolicking point as it’s a reflection, a representation of diving into the darkest depths of human subconscious to explore the madness within the mind; taking you to places that are dripping with fear and apprehension. It’s all heavily laced symbolism that is contemplative and provocative. Stunning.
Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth is an exquisite masterpiece that will be shelved on the golden shelf of favourites, at least for me. It is everything that a deep, psychologically frightening, and contemplative piece of literature should be.