- Batman - Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
- Batman - The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
- Batman - The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
- Batman - Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean
- Batman - The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley
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.
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.
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....