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.



Batman: Year One – The Batman Book to Begin All Batman Books

I am very much a newcomer to Batman.

I read The Killing Joke a while ago, which I expected to enjoy, being the brainchild of the wickedly unpredictable Alan Moore–and enjoy it I did. Then I bought four hardcover Batman books, which are sitting on my shelf: Killing Joke, Year One, Arkham Asylum, and The Dark Knight Returns. The big four. The must-reads.

I was pumped. I attempted Dark Knight Returns, and got confused, and stopped.

The entire Batman comic universe is undoubtedly daunting to the uninitiated (i.e., me and all of us who were unfortunately born after the great age of pulp paper comics). There are just so many characters and so many story arcs. If you Google which Batman graphic novel to read, you get a list of twenty-five books. (Refer here for the advice of someone much better informed than myself.)

Then, in one glorious hour, I read Year One.

I can’t think of a better way to kick off your tour of the Batman universe. It’s the tale of how Bruce Wayne came to be Batman (Batman Begins is based loosely off it…loosely I say); how Jim Gordon, through sheer willpower and a sense of honour, rose through the ranks of a corrupt police squad; and how Batman and Gordon’s friendship begins.

The art style is simple but deeply evocative, bold and gritty. Purples and reds and blues. Thick swooping line art. It’s perhaps not the most amazing artwork I’ve seen, but David Mazzucchelli captures what I think can only be described as the spirit of the work–urgent, straightforward, emotional. The beginning of something big.

Frank Miller (Sin City, 300, Dark Knight Returns) introduces a number of key side characters, including the tragically noble Harvey Dent, Catwoman and mafia mobster Carmine “The Roman” Falcone. The two main plot arcs, however, are Bruce Wayne’s deeply personal quest for an effective method to rid Gotham City of corruption, and Gordon’s struggle to do the right thing in the face of unscrupulous and often ruthless law-enforcers.

I found Gordon’s story by far the most compelling. The storytelling is just beautiful; in a superhero action graphic novel, Miller makes you feel.

An animated film adaptation of Year One was released in 2011. It’s definitely worth watching, as well. It’s only about an hour long and is very faithful to the text and the atmosphere of the original graphic novel. It’s like reading the book all over again, but with moving pictures. The pace is quick and the characters develop quickly with the use of interior monologue. Also, you get to see Gordon being an astonishingly hulking bad-ass good-cop. Interestingly, it features the voices of Eliza Dushku as Selina Kyle, and Grey DeLisle (also known as Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender) as Barbara Gordon.