Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts on Batman: Arkham Asylum

The Comic Geek Speak guys do a monthly discussion called Book of the Month Club. They choose, on a rotating schedule, a DC, a Marvel, an international, and an "other" book, and these are some of the most fun episodes for me, and the ones that I often find myself contributing a lot to in the forums. Last month, they did Arkham Asylum, the classic Batman graphic novel from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. You can check the episode out here.

It really was one of the best discussions I've enjoyed from these guys. And it really made me think about this book in a new way. The ideas I've got swirling around are still coalescing, and I'd like to write something a bit more about this book at a later date. But for now, you can check out my initial thoughts on the book after the image. And please, add your own thoughts. We can only examine a book through our own personal experiences and learnings. I welcome other points of view and appreciate what I can learn from others, which is exactly what I got from this particular book of the month club discussion.

- This characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne is different from the typical Batman comic. He is scared to go into Arkham, and this is something I cannot remember having read in any Batman book before (though possibly Knightfall looked at this). I can see what Morrison is saying here

– and he makes sure we get it when Batman tells Jim Gordon that he’s afraid the Joker might be correct in believing Batman belongs in Arkham with the inmates – but I have a slight problem with his quavering voice while speaking to Joker on the phone: “And . . . and what if I say no?” because, as I read this, he’s speaking in front of the rest of the police officers there. I don’t believe Batman would let his guard down in front of beat cops. But that’s a minor nitpick.

(I don’t think I would have considered this a few years ago when reading Arkham Asylum. I’m a big Grant Morrison fan and love new, fresh takes on old characters. But Matt’s rants about Batman’s characterization on the show has informed, a bit, my re-reading of this book)

- That said, I found it very interesting that he spoke of Batman in the 3rd person when discussing entering Arkham. "Batman's not afraid. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that Joker might be right." I also felt this was more in character because he and Jim had stepped away to a place more private, and the relationship that has been developed between these two is so close that it makes sense. They both trust one another implicitly and Bruce would be able to confide in Jim, one of his very few friends.

- This Joker is as crazy as any we have seen in the regular comics, but he is also more terrifying than ever. I think a lot of that has to do with McKean's evocative artwork. (That scene after the two-page spread showing us the inside of Arkham, where Joker puts Charlie in his place, is disturbing, see panel 4 of that page)

- I like how Morrison explains away all the disparate characterizations of the Joker through the psychotherapist's, Ruth Adams’s, diagnosis that the Joker may have gone beyond sanity and insanity, to a point where he has no personality at all.

- As the psychotherapist says, it may be a "new modification of human perception. More suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century. . . . the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he's receiving . . . He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow. . . . some days he's a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day."

- The Joker card Amadeus Arkham finds in the flashback is obviously symbolic of the insanity that resides in that house, and will always reside in that house, like some force of nature.

- The ease with which the word association breaks down Batman is intriguing, but, again, seems to go against his nature, his character. What is it about this night, in this house, that is causing his emotions to be so close to the surface? Is there anything causing it, or is it just a completely different take by Morrison?

- the juxtaposition of Batman running to hide in Arkham with his reminiscences of going to the movies with his parents, and of being rebuked by his mother after Bambi and then having her taken away from him after Zorro really accentuates the fractured psyche of Bruce Wayne/Batman. If he were to let go of his war against crime, he could easily become a madman, lost within the confines of his own broken mind.

- The way McKean draws the Joker in close-up - with those tiny pupils and the sea of red surrounding his eyes - is just creepy, disturbing in a manner the Joker's never been before.

- The house of cards built with Two-Face's new decision-making device (Dr. Adams having moved Two-Face from his coin, to a 6-sided die, to this deck of taro cards with 78 possibilities for making a decision) is a visual symbol of what has happened to his psyche (how fragile it is) and foreshadows what will happen to his rehabilitation (it will fall/fail)

- Arkham's discovery of his wife's and daughter's bodies is devastating, and this is accentuated by the artwork, awash in red. Also, the fact that it occurs on April 1, enhances the connection between this past narrative and the present, while also accentuating the thread of madness carried throughout the history of this house.

- Arkham taping over the mirror in his study to do away with the laughter he hears in the empty cells of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum is very telling and relates to Batman's run-in with the Mad Hatter, while more importantly symbolizing the very real fear of being "at home" in the asylum that Batman/Bruce Wayne has.

- the manner in which Dave McKean draws all of these villains goes against any rendition of them before, and allows he and Morrison to create something completely different with this book. It's refreshing, if morbid.

- The confrontation between Batman and Killer Croc, overwritten by the excerpts from Arkham's journal, just heightens the futility of Batman's war on crime. He can never win, because there will always be more of them than him, and because, given the right set of circumstances, he could become one of them just as easily as they all did.

- One could argue that Morrison almost overplays his authorial hand – it can certainly be argued whether he overwrites these scenes, I’d be interested in others’ thoughts

– with the parallels between Arkham and Bruce Wayne - particularly the tragedy of their close relationships between their mothers being taken away a too early a time.

- The bat pursuing Arkham's mother is yet another thread that passes through the history of this house. In 1920 Elizabeth Arkham, in her madness, was pursued by the apparition of a bat, while in the present, all of the really crazy inmates have been pursued by Batman for years.

- When Batman says, "I . . I'm just a man," is that an image of Jesus in the background? If so, it accentuates the reality that he is not just a man, as Jesus was not just a man.

- Batman being taken by Dr. Cavendish is the symbolic lowpoint of Batman’s journey in this book, right before his redemption, which begins:

- When Batman realizes that his madness is his drive to keep fighting against these madmen, and it is that drive, that madness, that makes him strong, and makes him who he is. Madness drives the Batman.

- And Harvey Dent's final decision is the one true decision he's been able to make for years. Somehow, he made a conscious choice not to follow what the coin said. But this breakthrough can't last. Why?

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