Sunday, 23 February 2014

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth Review (Grant Morrison, Dave McKean)


Based solely upon his 2006-2013 run, Grant Morrison might be the greatest Batman writer of all time. But he wasn’t always so brilliant as his first Batman book, the mega-selling Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, shows. 

The inmates have overrun the asylum and are holding civilians hostage. With Joker running free with a knife, Batman goes into the asylum to stop him and enters a nightmarish netherworld. Meanwhile, the troubled life of the asylum’s founder, Amadeus Arkham, is explored. 

The story is one long rambling mess, which is part of Morrison’s intent. It’s designed to be dream-like and to read like a song and therefore, as a comic, it’s difficult to follow or really understand. I get the impression the symbolism of the tarot is important but the book didn’t make me interested enough to want to pursue a deeper understanding of it. Batman’s characterisation is a bit off too – how was he beaten by a deranged doctor!? 

Some readers might scoff that Morrison’s comics are always like this with his drug use, but he actually wrote this before he began using drugs and alcohol – he writes in his afterword that he stayed up for hours on end to achieve the altered state of consciousness he wanted before sitting down to write. So it’s official: with or without drugs, Morrison writes weird comics! Hear that, poseur artists, you don’t need vice to produce art! 

Dave McKean’s artwork matches Morrison’s bizarre story well but it still looks a bit too avant-garde for a comic. McKean’s best known for being The Sandman’s cover artist and his art is well suited to that format. But for page after page of interior art? It’s just headache-inducing! And when he does draw distinguishable figures, they look like poor Simon Bisley facsimiles. 

I liked Morrison’s idea to have the Arkham doctors try weaning Harvey Dent off of the two-sided coin and onto the I Ching. It seemed like an original and viable means of treatment for Two-Face. But other ideas like the Joker calling the outside world the asylum and the world inside Arkham the real world was just corny, and the Amadeus Arkham storyline just read like a poor man’s Psycho. Morrison’s comics usually have more substance to them but Arkham Asylum is all surface texture with few great ideas. 

Arkham Asylum is a visually interesting book but it looks and reads like an art student’s project, ie. a pretentious mish-mash of nonsense, than a good comic. I definitely wouldn’t rank it among Batman’s classics! If you want to read Morrison’s best Batman books, start with Batman and Son and go forwards from there.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Anniversary Edition

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