Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Batman - Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth

When people ask me what should they read when they're first getting into Batman comics, I have a very elite list I give them. There are five collections that will show off the highlights of the Batman universe and mythos. Let me share that secret list with you now:

These five books will give you a wide berth of  Batman stores in a variety of styles. Yes, Frank Miller's on the list twice, but he really did create what serve as the bookends of Batman, and I'll visit those stories in a later post. Today, I want to talk about the first one of these I actually read - Arkham Asylum, and how it introduced me to two people whose careers I've followed religiously since.

It must have been 1990 or so, when I was branching out into more comics, having been hooked initially by Suicide Squad and jumping from there into Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men, and I was going to a comic book shop in Omaha called The Dragon's Lair, which is still there today, having opened a year before I was born, all the way back in 1975. The owner, whose name is Bob, had two loves: new customers and ping pong. He and the other guy who always working there (a tall gentleman whose name has been lost in the recesses of my youth) were always happy to introduce young and impressionable minds to new titles. They had opinions and were always willing to talk about what they did and didn't like, a trait I've found to be pretty common for people who work in comic book shops. I know I was chatty for the month or so I worked in one after college.

I remember asking what sort of titles were out there that were more mature that the sort of popcorn storytelling I saw in a lot of the books at that time. I had been drawn to X-Men because the issues weren't always "case of the week" style, wrap-it-up-in-one fiction that seemed to be pretty common, and the characters had motivations I could understand - wanting to fit in, wanted to belong, wanted to understand why you were different. So Bob handed me Arkham Asylum, although he warned me that it was kind of strong stuff. I was 13 or so. He was absolutely right. It was very strong stuff.

Arkham Asylum opens with the inmates of the titular institution having taken over and having taken hostages, threatening to kill them all unless Batman comes in and talks to them. For those of you who know nothing about Batman, Arkham is the home for the criminally insane, where the supervillains that Batman captures get locked away, with the slight chance of rehabilitation, but mostly to just remove them from society entirely. It usually doesn't take, but Batman has a strict moral code against killing, and sometime there's a glimmer of hope, such as Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, who is making progress in the book, and is no longer dependent on his coin to make decisions, having graduated up to using tarot cards to aid in his decision making.

Through the course of the book, Batman sees a large collection of his rogue's gallery, each with an axe to grind, as he attempts to put the entire asylum back into some state of order, which is easier said than done, as well as discover exactly how it was the inmates took over the nuthouse. Most of the good Batman stories have, at their heart, a mystery in them, and this one is no exception. The inmates clearly had a hand in getting control, and Batman is on the case.

This isn't to say Arkham Asylum is like most Batman stories, though, as the book is certainly more dreamlike than the usual fare, or even what was prevalent at the time. Grant Morrison, the writer, has said in interviews he approached this particular story more like a bit of experimental music. Morrison's written a lot of Batman over the years, and the depiction of the Caped Crusader in Arkham isn't like how he's depicted anywhere else. At the time he was writing Arkham, Dark Knight Returns was all the rage, and in that book, we see an aged Batman, long since retired, being called back into service, and the tone of the book is a little sci-fi, but mostly grounded and realistic. (Hell, Batman drives a tank in it...) Arkham, on the other hand, is all about emotion, attitude and style. It's very much focused on whether or not Batman deserves to be inside the asylum as much as any of the people he's put there. Is Batman crazy? Quite possibly. Is he making that crazy work for him, and for the citizens of Gotham? It certainly seems that way. Does the very presence of him in Gotham cause more psychotic criminals to spring up every day? That much isn't clear, but it certainly is a possibility, and one that's suggested by one of the characters in the book.

Morrison weaves a killer story, but one cannot talk about Arkham Asylum without talking about the genius that is Dave McKean. McKean's artwork is like nothing else in comics, a wild collection of illustrations, photographs, sketches and paintings. It wasn't like anything I'd ever seen in comics before - it was gorgeous but it almost resisted reading, like it wanted you to work for it. When you thought you might have gotten the hang of the flow of it, photographs would appear and completely shift gears on you. Because of this book, I went and tracked down everything I could of McKean's, which lead me to Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," among other things.

There's something wild and primal about Arkham Asylum, and I always have just a little bit of envy when I loan the trade paperback out, knowing someone's going to get to experience it for the first time. It's not where I generally start someone who's got no exposure to Batman, because the book depends on you knowing a little bit ahead of time. You don't have to know who Maxi Zeus or Killer Croc are, but if you aren't at least familiar with the Joker, Two Face and the Mad Hatter, it's a book to get to after you've gotten some of the fundamentals down.

As I said earlier, Morrison's written a bunch of other good-to-fantastic Batman stories since, ranging from Batman: Gothic to Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, although his best stuff is mostly in his JLA (that's Justice League of America for those of you not in the know) run where he can play Batman and Superman off of each other. But there isn't anything quite as striking as your first encounter with Arkham Asylum.

The subtitle "A Serious House On Serious Earth" can be taken as tongue-in-cheek (the Joker gooses Batman, for example) or as accurate (see some the particularly hardcore violence contained within), and maybe that's part of the point. This is a story that'll get inside your head and make itself known. Serious indeed....

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