While Batman has covered many genres over the years, psychological horror is not a genre that you would usually associate with him. But that’s that what writer Grant Morisson and artist Dave McKean did in the eerie 1989 Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth.
In the 1980s, DC Comics were hiring writers and artists from the UK. This was spearheaded by legendary editor Karen Berger, and it uncovered creators such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and Dave Gibbons. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean were both part of what was dubbed the British Invasion and would go on to work on projects that would operate in the weird fringes of DC Comics’ catalogue.
Morrison would go on to start their run on Animal Man and Doom Patrol, while McKean would collaborate on projects with, at the time, a mostly unknown Neil Gaiman on Black Orchard and covers for Sandman. With Arkham Asylum, the pair would take Batman and combine it with the fringe sensibilities of their prior work.
Arkham Asylum is a psychological horror with a dual narratives.
In the present, Batman enters Arkham Asylum, the home of the criminally insane, after prisoners take hostages. There’s much reluctance in his decision as he fears that entering Arkham will be detrimental to his own sanity.
Batman’s narrative in many ways echos Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This is most obvious with the quotes from the novel bookending this graphic novel, but it goes much further than that. Batman setting foot into Arkham Asylum is the equivalent to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Arkham Asylum is like another world, albeit deprived of sanity, and there are plenty of odd characters ready to meet him.
Batman wanders through the Asylum, meeting different rogues in his gallery and confronting their issues. Some of these are quick encounters, but there are a few that Morrison takes the time to flesh out and explore.
Many creators have tried to give reason to Joker’s behaviour, with many different solutions offered depending on the type of antagonist the Clown Prince of Crime needed to be. Arkham Asylum allows Morrison to take different direction beyond the usual psychopath diagnosis and offers up a solution which accommodates every other diagnosis to also be valid.
With this diagnosis in mind, McKean paints a horrifying Joker. McKean gives him an elongated face, with a pointed chin, and mouth full of sharp, crooked, teeth. His eyes are bulging as if staring directly at you from the page. His horrific face is oftentimes given greater impact when used in conjunction with extreme close-ups. Some panels are completely filled with his face, forcing readers to look directly into the madness.
It’s the stuff of nightmares and I am sure it has created many sleepless nights for readers.
We’re also given a very different Two-Face. His treatment has left him a shell of the man that he once was. Morrison uses him an exploration of early treatments of mental illness which often did more harm than good.
The other narrative in this graphic novel is that of Amadeus Arkham, the founder of Arkham Asylum. Through entries in his personal journal, we’re given glimpses of his childhood, his transformation of the family home into the asylum in the 1920s, and eventual descent into madness.
You cannot discuss Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth without mentioning Dave McKean eerie art. McKean combines painting, photography, collage, and sculpture seamlessly to portray the horrors of Arkham Asylum and it’s inmates.
Arkham Asylum is an unpleasant place to be and a lot of that is thanks to McKean’s representation of it. We are used to seeing Batman use the shadows to his advantage but in this situation, McKean makes the shadows claustrophobic as Batman ventures into the unknown.
Gaspar Saladino does a fantastic job in complementing the madness through his lettering by giving each character a different style. Characters such as Batman have a conventional style, but many of the villains have lettering which
The Joker is the best example of the differential lettering present throughout the graphic novel. Saladino renders the dialogue without word balloons and uses a sharp and messy font that’s coloured in red. It really reflects the dangerous mental state of The Joker and only gets messier the more dangerous he appears to be.
While they’re a different set of challenges for the characters, the different streams do share the idea that Arkham Asylum is not simply a setting but also a character.
If you like the idea of psychological horror and are looking for a scare then this graphic novel should be at the top of your reading pile. Morisson’s journey into the minds of Batman’s rogues gallery will have you reassess what you know about these characters and look them in a frightful new light. But Arkham Asylum wouldn’t be half as scary if it were not for McKean’s eerie art. His marriage of different mediums drives home the insanity of the asylum while making it feel claustrophobic. Through their collaboration, the pair have crafted one of the scariest stories in Batman’s 80-year history.
How to Love Comics is celebrating Batman’s 80th anniversary all year long with a variety of articles which highlight the stories, characters, and more. Check them all out on the Batman 80 page.