Arkham Asylum is a reaction to the hyper-realistic treatment comic book creators were giving superheroes during the graphic novel boom of the 1980s. Landmark stories like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had shown the grittier side of the superhero, the human side, the side in the midst of an existential crisis. With his own ambitious Batman project, Grant Morrison set out to make something different, something that would be more like a piece of experimental art than a conventional superhero story. Morrison’s incorporation of Jungian psychology, the occult, surrealist and expressionist art concepts and quantum, combined with Dave McKean’s demented, gorgeously dark art, make Arkham Asylum a landmark comic, an assault on 1980s grit that transcends its era. It remains a timeless, dreamy maelstrom of a book. Every time you read it you get lost inside, and every time it seems to pull you closer to a place you can’t return from.
The book’s subtitle comes from “Church Going,” a poem by the legendary English writer Philip Larkin that’s essentially about reflecting on a religious house. Morrison’s Arkham is not a church, but for Batman it becomes a place of self-reflection, a place of introspective hell, a physical manifestation of the dark night of the soul for the dark knight.
Arkham isn’t heavy on plot, but the basics are as follows: The Joker has banded the criminals in Arkham together to take the asylum’s employees hostage. They demand only one thing: that Batman come in and meet with them. Once inside, the Joker decides on a game for The Dark Knight: he has one hour to escape, or every criminal in Arkham will descend on him. The trouble is, the Joker’s never been known to play by the rules, and the gauntlet of supervillains begins earlier than expected.
Each of the villains that roam Arkham’s halls is recognizable, but often only by name. Morrison warps each of them into a psychologically mutilated version of their classical selves. As part of therapy to release him from his trademark coin, Two-Face is now unable to make even the simplest of decisions. Maxie Zeus is addicted to the electroshock treatment administered to him, and believes he’s a messiah. The Mad Hatter is so obsessed with Alice in Wonderland that he’s devolved into a pedophile, and the Joker is more violent than ever.
Like opening the doors in his own mind, Batman must walk through each of these obstacles in turn. As he does, Morrison reveals the history of the asylum and its tormented founder, Amadeus Arkham. These stories intertwine in dark, wondrous ways, mingling into one deeply affecting comic book experience.
Arkham Asylum is a good book the first time around, but to really understand why it’s so vital to the history of comics now, you have to read it twice, or three times. You can read the thing ten times and never quite grasp just how complex it is. Everything links symbolically, thematically or visually to something else. Everything is dense with meaning, and yet it works completely as a surface experience, thanks in no small part to McKean’s powerfully surreal art. Arkham Asylum is required reading for any comics nut, and it’s also the book you should put into the hands of anyone who doesn’t understand just how good this kind of storytelling can get.