I was having a lazy Saturday in need of some wrist-slitting, so I challenged myself to re-read Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth - the Grant Morrison/Dave McKean graphic novel that successfully exploded people's minds in 1989 (context: three years after The Dark Knight Returns, so perhaps ‘re-exploded’ is more accurate).
I've attempted an appropriately serious reading session of the comic for a long time - normally I make it about six pages into its labyrinthine construction before childishly admitting that it makes no sense and ooooooh, aren’t the pictures pretty!
On this Saturday, I came prepared with the ball of twine that is the Anniversary Edition - script and footnotes included. Incidentally, this marks the first time I've ever achieved any value from the bonus content in a graphic novel.
So, I’m now clear that the random gibberings of the Mad Hatter on page 22 were actually song lyrics/time travel/Morrison’s own words – and the vignette with Killer Croc was meant to represent St. George/the Hanged Man/a giant beetle – but all of these things – these layers upon layers of symbolism don’t actually add up to anything. There are parts a-plenty, but they never sum up. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean were intending to be Grant Morrison and Dave McKean (respectively), and that’s the full extent of that.
It isn't without merit - far from it - it is just that the frustrating quest to add "higher meaning" gets in the way of the reader simply enjoying an otherwise excellent comic.
Dave McKean’s artwork (always impressive) is phenomenal. If you ever need someone to illustrate an asylum, he’s your man, no doubt. He does a breathtaking job of incorporating the Morrison-briefed insanity into every panel. After reading the original script, the scale of McKean's task becomes clear – Morrison had incredibly complicated demands in his cinema-style outline. Another interesting note, that shouldn't be overlooked, is that Arkham Asylum is pre-digital - McKean did all of the work by hand.
Also, Morrison deserves credit for in his effort to portray an irrevocably damaged Batman. He crafted a terribly flawed Dark Knight that runs contrary to any other portrayal of the Dark Knight. Previously – and since – Batman has appeared lonely, arrogant and misogynistic – but often justified and always redeemed. In Arkham Asylum, there is no hope of redemption.
[Note: Alas, in other projects, Grant Morrison backed away from that particular edge. By the time he took over JLA a decade later, he chose to write Batman in a much more conventional fashion. The Dark Knight kicks ass, takes names and slaps out the occasional bit of witty repartee. Morrison’s JLA work** is nothing to be sniffed at, but he did have his teeth pulled.]
Overall, enjoy Arkham Asylum for the trees and not the forest. It is a beautiful book with a surprising and unique portrayal of one of the most complicated superheroes on the market. Just don’t, for the sake of your sanity and your Saturday, try to decipher the higher meaning.
*Misleading. It is actually the best selling graphic novel published as a graphic novel. As opposed to, say, Sandman, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, etc. etc., all of which were first published in issues. Arkham Asylum still sold (and continues to sell) a ludicrous number of copies though - no small achievement.
**Except for JLA: One Million. Seriously, what the hell was that?!