Batman: Arkham Asylum – Grant Morrison & Dave McKean

I have a lovely copy of Arkham Asylum. It’s a softcover 15th anniversary edition, with beautiful glossy pages and a section at the back that includes the full script plus annotations by the author. The experience of leafing through those slippery, deeply-inked pages had me totally encapsulated in Grant Morrison’s eerie, mad world.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I opened up Asylum. I knew it would be a different experience from the other Batman graphic novels. I’d flipped through it a few times and got a general idea of the jigsaw, shadowy, gloomy art style. I’d heard that this book was a boundary-pushing, spine-chilling venture into the hitherto black-box psyche of Batman…and a must-read for any budding Batman fan.

The story has a fabulous premise. The Joker has overrun Arkham Asylum and is holding the staff hostage. In exchange for their release, he has one demand: Batman must descend into Arkham Asylum and encounter its inmates. The Joker, of course, has an arsenal of mind-games ready to riddle our poor, well-intentioned protagonist. Batman’s quiet fear? That he will feel more at home inside the asylum than anywhere else.

As soon as Batman walks through the doors of that terrible mansion, the book transports you into a sealed, different, crazy world. It’s a world of shifting shapes and grotesque faces. Batman encounters the Joker, Two-Face, Clayface, Scarecrow and other inmates who mutter and lunge and wander in dark corridors. The artwork and font choice conjure up a truly creepy atmosphere, but also make the book a visually difficult read. You really have to hunt if you want to notice the carefully placed details. Or read it twice.

Morrison doesn’t hide the fact that he has intentionally included loads of symbolism and layers to his story. In fact, in his appendix, he remembers how his original script “had been passed around a group of comic professionals who allegedly shit themselves laughing at my high falutin’ pop psych panel descriptions.” Too bad his high falutin’ book went on to be a cult hit.

But yup. Heaps of inserted symbolism, from the Anubis at the door of the mansion, to the wild dining-table scene that is reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. A superficial reading of the book (as mine was) will skim over these layers. It’s up to you how far you want to delve into Morrison’s mad creation. That’s one of the beauties of this work, I suppose.

The narrative of Amadeus Arkham, founder of Arkham Asylum, a haunting and horrifying voice out of a journal, fell nicely in parallel. To be honest, I felt that the degree of gore was in certain places gratuitous. Others might argue that the violence is an essential part of Amadeus’s story.

Arkham Asylum is certainly an interesting take on Batman’s darker motivations and ventures into unexplored territory. It turned Bruce Wayne into the more complex superhero we are perhaps familiar with today.

I haven’t really compared my edition to other editions of Arkham Asylum, but I say if you’re after a more in-depth exploration of Morrison’s thematic intentions, then go for this edition if only for the annotated script.




    1. It is a fantastic edition :) Dave McKean also illustrated Violent Cases (story by Neil Gaiman), which is a short, darkly fascinating graphic novel. He’s worked with Gaiman on a few other things, including covers for the Sandman comics. McKean also authored a graphic novel series called Cages.


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