Why So Serious, House?
Let’s get something straight right away: Grant Morrison is a modern comics master. He’s a writer known for deconstructing comics and comic book characters, then re-scultping them in a fashion which honors their tradition while simultaneously transfiguring them into something wholly unique.
This “Morrison Brand”, if you will, bears the fruit of labors begun long ago. The most recent examples (and their remarkable, excellent, effectiveness) are displayed in his run on Batman comics, Action Comics (the re-boot in DC’s New 52) and his astonishing tale of multiple universes, DC’s Multiverse. But Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, published in 1989, was his first well-known stab at the Morrison Brand. The graphic novel is on must-read lists to this day. It has blown the roof off of the concept of comics, and Batman. What comics can be, the stories they can tell, and, most importantly, how they are told, much of those realizations started with Morrison’s Arkham Asylum.
Apparently, Morrison drew inspiration from Frank Miller’s Year One (1987), the blueprints of which can be seen in many aspects of Christopher Nolan’s film Batman Begins (2005). Now, we’re not talking inspiration in terms of the work itself, but the idea behind Year One; which was essentially reinventing Batman. See, for many years–largely the 1960’s–Batman and much of DC comics in general had been “campy.” Corny. Cheesy. Call it what you like. Campy Batman can be enjoyed in his own right, I believe, but beginning in the late ‘70’s with Dennis O’Neal and continuing into the ‘80’s with other writers progressed the concept of Serious Batman. Or the Dark Knight. The tortured, lonely soul waging a futile war on crime against all odds.
Miller’s Year One retells Batman’s origin in this vein, and takes the concept to its gritty, realistic (and brilliant) logical endpoint. Miller’s Batman is brutal, calculating, and dark dark dark. Miller’s Batman is also Miller’s take on the hero, and no one had seen anything quite like it before (save in the preceding year’s Dark Knight Returns, also by Miller). So, when Grant Morrison’s inspiration came not necessarily from what Year One did with Batman (though Morrison’s Batman in Asylum is dark and serious), but more from what could be done with Batman. Morrison gives his take. And, like most of Morrison’s work, it is bizarre, beautiful, and boundary pushing.
At least, it definitely was in 1989.
I’d hyped this book. Well, half was me hyping it cause I like Morrison, half was the internet. Like I said, this book’s been on must-read graphic novel lists for a long time. When the time finally came, I went in expecting to be blown away. Or absorbed and entertained. But I think time is this book’s harshest critic. And honestly, I kept asking myself if I’m the only one acknowledging that.
The beauty of comics and graphic novels exists in the marriage of art and prose. However, Asylum is essentially the Dave Mckean show. Now, I don’t know the extent of Morrison’s direction to Mckean, but even if he pointed to each panel and dictated, “draw this in exactly the way I’m telling you, Dave,” Asylum is still the Mckean show.
And that’s because you can not help but notice the art, dissect it, ruminate over its strengths and/or weaknesses, on every single page. I personally have mixed feelings on abstract art in comic, and Asylum does nothing to change that. Some sequences are breathtaking, beautiful, and wholly original. Some are steeped in thematic layering. Others don’t quite fit Batman or his world, and at their worst, are muddied or confounding in execution.
There is a lot going on, a lot to decipher. Which is an invigorating challenge in some respects, that often is unique to abstract art. Yet art is also used to move the plot forward in comics, and this is where abstract or experimental art can sometimes fail in this medium. What would normally be one or a few straightforward panels of Batman walking down a hallway becomes a muddied, blurry vision of… something. Still hard to decipher, but without any thematic weight or substance worth contemplating. It takes you out of the story–straps you to a grappling hook and zips you right up and away.
Morrison doesn’t really help the matter. While his strengths definitely lie in high concept and theme, I wouldn’t say his dialogue or prose is weak by any means. But boy does Asylum have some clunky stuff going on. The book is heavy on exposition, and exposition that doesn’t necessarily elevate Mckean’s more confusing panels.
We’re told what’s going on, how Batman is feeling. I don’t want to be told how Batman is feeling. I’d like to see it, on his face, in his posture. But Mckean’s art can’t quite do that. I’m not sure if Morrison’s heavy handed prose was due to him being a younger writer, or compensating for co-creating a tale depicted in the abstract.
The dialogue doesn’t fare much better. While serviceable enough, I found myself wondering, often: would Batman really say that? Would anyone really say that?
The story itself is straightforward enough. Though there’s a lot of set-up for Batman to finally get into Arkham, the structural material is built upon Batman hunting down his rogues gallery until he finally unravels the mystery and tracks down the true villain responsible for unleashing Gotham’s worst in the asylum. While not a bad story by any means, and perhaps fresh for its time, the true mastermind’s comprises a monologue that would make even Scooby-Doo roll his eyes. What should be a powerful epiphany is instead a touch contrived, even goofy.
Grant Morrison is a legend. He’s wowed me many times over, I love his work and continue to read and admire his output. His back-catalogue is outstanding as well; Animal Man, JLA, New X-Men, all are quality runs by Morrison. There’s more I’ve yet to delve into, and I look forward to doing so. However, I will say Morrison’s strengths of upturning expectations, or creating mind-bending, high concept stories, are emphasized and put to greater effect with more traditional art. In this way, the focus remains on what Morrison is showing us, and not the artwork itself. In fact, most of his work is paired with “traditional” artists.
Dave Mckean composes some absolutely mesmerizing pieces. But the effectiveness of his work in Asylum really depends on the reader’s feelings on abstract comic art. In my experience, there are different levels of experimentation exercised by different artists, and this complements stories written largely depending on context. Asylum is supposed to break down Batman’s psyche–reflect and refract it in the warped minds of his rogues gallery–hance Mckean’s style. It just doesn’t always work in the way I wish it would.
Batman is our central character, of course. And while it can be argued this book is as much about the rogues and their operating capacity on the way Batman thinks, Batman is represented without his usual characteristics to better serve Morrison’s story. In absence of any new redeeming or root-worthy qualities (even flawed qualities), we have a strange Batman that floats from encounter to encounter without any attachment to the reader. This truly is a different Batman by Morrison than even Morrison’s excellent future Batman tales.
The rogues have their moments, some more intriguing and thought provoking than others. Notable among the newer characters is Amadeus Arkham, whose story should be twisting, engrossing,and tragic, but ultimately winds up contrived and underwhelming.
This poignant moment with Two-Face really hits hard, and reveals the best of what Asylum can be.
A brutal battle with Killer Croc again aligns Mckean and Morrison in a sequence nothing short of breathtaking.
Is it Worth It?
Maybe. Time is the real critic of Asylum. Batman’s fear of becoming a villain, of going mad, is something we’ve seen done by many writers and artists in many different ways. In 1989, this was perhaps fresh. It’s difficult not to compare this type of story to all the comics, tv, and movies that have come since and played upon this theme to greater effect. But even read in context, ignoring the fact this Batman story is almost thirty years old, Morrison is still a bit clunky here. The concept is fun, and allows for a different type of exploration and confrontation between Batman and his rogues, but Batman’s insecurity is so surface-level, so blunt, that immersion dissolves into thesis project. Asylum is “literary,” but the best works of literature work on multiple levels. Story and characters one one side, themes, symbolism, allegory, etc. on the other. Asylum functions fully on the latter end up the spectrum, while coming up short on the former.
There’s a great story lurking in Asylum, and its one of those books that should be experienced at least once. Maybe twice if you’re looking to dissect it. Enjoyment really comes from expectations. If you go into this one for the reasons you typically read a Batman book, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. Batman isn’t himself. Mckean’s work, while intriguing, does more to serve the tale Morrison’s telling than serve Batman. Which isn’t a bad thing, but is sometimes a distracting thing.
If you don’t let Morrison and Mckean’s shortcomings distract from the psychological story they’re telling, you’ll find some diamonds in the rough. In other words know what you’re getting into, forgive the flaws, enjoy the moments of brilliance, and form you own opinion. As far as navigating the hype, just don’t take the house so serious.
All images © Grant Morrison and Dave Mckean. Arkham Asylum (1989) published by DC comics. Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.