Arkham Asylum

Sometimes comics surprise me, plain and simple.

I’ve read a rash of, shall we say, standard comics lately, and then all of a sudden out of left field comes this little number.  So different, so absorbing, that I finished it quickly last night before going to bed.

(I also finished it quickly because it’s signed by none other than Grant Morrison himself, and I had no intention of traipsing around with this prized possession in my bag.  Pretty sure I’d have to go jump off a cliff if anything happened to this book.)

This comic, unlike others I’ve been reading lately, makes use of every possible stylistic device to further the story.  As the title suggests, it is set entirely in Arkham Asylum, flipping between the past and the present as the building’s history is revealed.  In the past, Amadeus Arkham founded the asylum after a series of disturbing events, events which strained his own sanity.  In the present, Batman is summoned to Arkham by the crazed inmates, who have taken over and demanded his presence.

The premise  alone is more than enough to carry the story, but the brilliance here lies in how every detail was fine-tuned to create a sense of insanity.  The artwork is rough, with no fine lines or details; rather, the images are blurred, with only the faces of crazed inmates and calm nurses to focus on.  The story switches between narrators, from Amadeus to Batman, and yet it’s written so well that often one person’s narration is being used to tell the story of both characters.  Hell, even the typeface used for each character is unique, creating an obvious distinction between viewers and giving hints as to the speakers’ personalities.

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Basically, it’s a fantastically written and designed comic.  If these images don’t make you question your own sanity, I don’t know what will.  The story is perfectly crafted, drawing the reader into the insanity that fills its pages, making it completely absorbing.

Beyond the styling, it was also a well-paced story, with small details that strengthen the overall comic.  It was especially moving when Joker, being the crazed character he is, twisted the knife in the wound and had the nerve to ask Batman about Robin:

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He really has no limits, and while this was a brief one-panel aside within the comic, it was perfectly done.  It helped tie an otherwise stand-alone story into the broader Batman universe.

I was especially impressed with the literary references peppering this comic, specifically numerous homages to Lewis Carrroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  This seems to be a popular motif for Batman comics, with references to this story having appeared in a handful of comics already.  It’s a reference that fits the story beautifully, and that is handled so craftily as to be clear without seeming overdone.

As the story comes to a close, Batman escapes the labyrinthine halls of Arkham , after a flip of Two-Face’s coin deems that he is to be released.  As he leaves, the story focuses on the villains left behind, and at one moment we see Two-Face himself, holding the coin that decided Batman’s fate:

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As it turns out, the coin decided that Batman was to die, but Two-Face lied and let him go free.  After this reveal, we see Two-Face addressing the reader directly, with the simple yet loaded question, “Who cares for you?”

These few brief panels are incredibly powerful, and speak to Morrison’s genius as a writer.  He is a whiz at subtextual storytelling, hinting at deeper meanings within his stories without spelling it out for his readers.  Why would Two-Face let Batman go?  Why would this man who has been deemed psychotic by the Arkham staff go against his own M.O. and defy the coin’s judgement?  Does he view Batman as a protector, despite their being hated adversaries?  The fact that these panels can generate these and so many more questions proves that Morrison has redefined the form of comic storytelling, branching out into unknown territory with a skill that seems incomparable.

This is one of the first comics on “the shelf” that, after reading, I immediately wanted to go back and read again.  There were so many details that I’m sure I’ve missed something, and multiple readings would only enhance my understanding of the overall story.  I’ve read a few other Grant Morrison comics before, and I knew enough to recognize that he’s well respected in the comic community.  Still, after reading this comic I can fully understand why he’s considered one of the best.

I have Morrison’s  Animal Man Omnibus coming up soon on “the shelf.”  If the storytelling there is even half as good as within the pages of Arkham Asylum, I have a feeling I’ll be devouring it in one sitting.

-Jess

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