I got the 15th anniversary edition of the classic graphic novel for a present, so I’d better say I like it! I’m not, generally, much of a DC fan – having preferred Marvel if it’s a choice between the two. Batman is one of the few, honourable, exceptions to that general rule and Arkham Asylum is one of those ‘must haves’ when it comes to Batman mythology.
The lunatics have taken over the asylum and want Batman in there with them. As well as the Joker and other madmen a few of the doctors have remained behind and the ‘ghost’ of Amadeus Arkham is at work through his long-lasting influence upon the asylum that carries his name, his own madness reaching down the years to exert its own influence upon the doctors and inmates many years later.
The setup is really a foil to examine Batman’s psychology through the mirror of the villains he puts away and to show that he’s not actually that much different to those that he foils, it’s just that Batman’s transformation an obsession is one that (arguably) is positive for society, a desire for order, where his enemies are chaotic and dangerous to the status quo.
Exploring the asylum and its inmates, talking with the remaining doctors, we follow along as we explore Batman’s psyche. This has been done before – and since – but this stands out as a particularly good example of that, perhaps now hackneyed, story.
Some of Morrison’s familiar obsessions are present here though his reinvention schtick is somewhat held in check. Magic is present though, something that – despite the DC background – doesn’t sit particularly well in Batman for me, a comic which I generally prefer when it’s on a grittier level. Of course, it’s not made clear either way in this whether the magic is truly working or whether it’s just the oppressive and insane atmosphere of the place working upon people. Of course, you could argue that that is magic anyway, of a sort.
The art is by Dave McKean who is an artist I greatly admire. He approaches this work less like a comic book and more as if each page is a collage or individual painting. This can be a little confusing and muddies the narrative a little here and there which makes reading the book a little bit of an ordeal. This is alright, given the nature of the work but it is tipped over the edge, occasionally into annoyance, by the choice of font when The Joker is speaking, a font which can be virtually indecipherable. Thematically appropriate perhaps, but unnecessarily hard work.
A hard book to read, due in most part – legitimately – to the subject matter and the denser, more intellectual approach to the characters. In some part however, it’s due to the presentation of the work and it’s not a book I’d read to relax and let my brain turn off for a while.
After fifteen years it loses a little bit of its edge as a lot of similar things have been done since. If you can cast your mind back fifteen years and appreciate the book as a cultural artefact of that time however, it doesn’t lose so much of its effectiveness and it’s still very much an essential part of any Batman library.
I can’t help feeling this would have been better – and easier to read – as an ‘Absolute Edition’.
On the Plus Side
- Essential classic.
- Perhaps the definitive delving into Batman’s psyche.
- Interesting takes on classic Batman villains.
On the Minus Side
- Hard to read.
- Indecipherable Joker font.
- Somewhat a product of its time.