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Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth (Original)
Arkham Asylum:
A Serious House on Serious Earth
Publication Information
Published 1989 (Original)
2004 (15th Anniversary Edition)
Executive Editor Jenette Khan
Cover Artist(s) Dave McKean
Writer(s) Grant Morrison
Inker(s) Dave McKean
Letterer(s) Gaspar Saladino
Editor(s) Karen Berger
Art Young
Alternate Covers
Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious Earth (15th Anniversary Edition)
Dave McKean


Previous Issue
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Gallery of Images · Main Discussion

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean. It was originally published in the United States in both hardcover and softcover editions by DC Comics in 1989. The subtitle is taken from line 55 of the poem "Church Going", by Philip Larkin.

SynopsisEdit

The story begins with a prologue that consists of several excerpts from the journal of Amadeus Arkham, the original founder of Arkham Asylum. Amadeus states that after his father had passed away, the house in which he and his ill mother resided in seemed like an entire world to him, and he himself felt like an insignificant ghost who was scarcely aware of anything beyond its walls. One night, however, he caught a glimpse of "the world on the dark side", when he brings his mother's dinner, only for the old lady to respond "I've eaten" several times, as several beetles fall out of her mouth. It was only years later, Amadeus goes on to say, that he understood the beetle was a symbol of rebirth - in that very moment, his mother's mind had been "reborn" into another world full of magic, terror, and symbols, and she had been trying to protect herself from something that only made sense to her.

After this prologue, the story cuts to Batman and Commissioner Gordon, inside the police department on April Fool's Day. Gordon informs Batman that early that morning, the inmates of Arkham Asylum had staged a riot and taken control of the building, holding the staff hostage. All day long, the city had to fulfill their demands, but by now, they only have one request left - they demand that Batman visit inside the asylum. Subsequently, Batman receives a call from The Joker, and demands to know what he wants, to which Joker cheerfully responds that he wants to see Batman where he belongs. When Batman brings up the subject of refusal, The Joker stabs a member of Arkham's staff in the eye with a pencil. He tells Batman that he has half an hour to arrive at the asylum, and also for him to bring a white stick. Gordon attempts to dissuade Batman from visiting the asylum alone, offering to send in a SWAT team with him, but Batman refuses, stating that this is something he must do himself. He goes on to share his insecurities with Gordon, telling him that he fears The Joker is right - that he does indeed belong in the asylum.

The story is then interrupted by another excerpt from Amadeus' journal, this one detailing his mother's fate - she had slit her own throat with a razor. Amadeus, an adult by now, returns to the house for the first time in twelve years, and decides to dedicate his life to fighting the madness that made his mother commit suicide. That night, Amadeus sleeps fitfully, and the next morning, he returns to Metropolis, where he had been working at a psychiatric hospital for some time now. Upon his return, he is met with a patient by the name of Martin "Mad Dog" Hawkins, a murderer transferred from the local penitentiary. Amadeus' session with his Hawkins is is deeply unsettling to the doctor, as Martin's justifications for his actions - the murders, the mutilations of his victims, the self-inflicted cuts on his arms - are clearly that of a mentally disturbed man.

Horrified at the prospect of many more like Hawkins - men whose only crime is mental illness, trapped in a system where they cannot hope to be cured - Amadeus tells his wife Constance and his daughter Harriet that they are going to move to Gotham, and he will convert his mother's house into a place to help the mentally ill. That very night, Amadeus dreams of being a child once more, and being trapped within the hall of mirrors at a carnival fun house. He is frozen with fear - he sees men in the mirrors, and before him is the Tunnel of Love. Finally, his father comes, and he begs his father to not go any further. Instead, the two leave the hall of mirrors, going back the way they had came, and at this very moment, Amadeus wakes up in a cold sweat.

Meanwhile, in the "real world", Batman has finally arrived at Arkham Asylum. He is greeted at the front door by The Joker, who makes a few flirtatious, mocking statements at him, releases the hostages as promised, and gleefully reveals that he had not stabbed anyone with a pencil at all - it had been an April Fool's joke. Joker then makes a couple more mock sexual advances, and leads Batman into the depths of the asylum, where a host of madmen hold a "feast of fools". A man whom The Joker refers to as "Charlie" objects to all of the madness, to which The Joker responds by making sexual advances toward him instead, finishing up with a thinly-veiled threat. Batman, seeing a woman approaching them, demands to know why there are still members of the Arkham staff inside. The woman responds, introducing herself as Doctor Ruth Adams, a psychotherapist, and states that they had chosen to stay behind. The man whom Joker had been threatening is revealed to be Doctor Charlie Cavendish, the current administrator of the asylum, who exclaims that he will not "leave the asylum in the hands of madmen".

The Joker then saunters over to mock Two-Face, who has just urinated himself. Two-Face "apologizes" stating that he has so many options that he often does not have enough time to decide. Batman, seeing the cards that Two-Face is fumbling with, questions Doctor Adams as to what is happening, to which Adams responds that they are attempting to cure him - by replacing his coin with a die, and then a pack of tarot cards, giving him seventy-eight options. She goes on to say that they intend to hook him up to an I-Ching, allowing him to make decisions not solely in black and white, but Batman expresses doubts about the "treatment" stating that they have effectively destroyed Harvey's mind. The Dark Knight then comments on Arkham's dismal interior, stating that the building is not exactly a conductive place toward mental health. The conversation between Batman and Doctor Adams then shifts to discussing The Joker's mental state, which Adams believes to be not insanity, but instead a form of "super-sanity" that renders him incapable of coping with the new information that flows into his mind each and every day. As a result, he can, on any given day, be either a mischievous trickster or a psychopathic killer.

Their conversation is interrupted by The Joker, who decides to administer a Rorschach Test to Batman, who flatly states that he sees nothing in the inkblots. Undeterred, The Joker has Doctor Adams give Batman a Word Association Test, to which the doctor reluctantly complies when the Dark Knight states that he is not afraid. Once again, the story is interrupted by by an excerpt from Amadeus' journal, this time of him quoting several passages of The Bible:

"Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon fought and his angels."

"And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called The Devil, and Satan, with deceiveth the whole world"

Amadeus concludes that just as Michael subdued the Great Dragon, he is destined to subdue the house, which represents his subconscious mind. He vows to himself that he will open the locked doors of the house, a metaphor for discovering the secrets locked away within his subconscious, and will see to it that the archangel that is reason will triumph over the dragon that is irrationality. Amadeus' daughter, meanwhile, is plagued by nightmares, which Amadeus blames on the Lewis Caroll books she keeps reading. One night, he finds a Joker playing card by her bed, and believes that one of the men converting the house into an asylum dropped it.

The Word Association Test between Doctor Adams and Batman commences, and its effects on the Dark Knight are negative - the test only serves to remind him of his parents' murder. Unable to take anymore, Batman demands that Doctor Adams stop the test, much to The Joker's delight.

Another excerpt from Amadeus' journal then begins, skipping several months ahead to Christmas. Amadeus, who has just recently returned to the house, is delighted to see the progress that the workmen are making in converting it into a psychiatric hospital, and even more delighted when he sees an aquarium installed into the house, full of Japanese Clownfish. Amadeus goes on to say that the fish intrigue him, as when a dominant female of the species dies, a male will change sex and take her place. The fish inexplicably remind Amadeus of Poisson D' Avril, a French counterpart to the American "April Fool". Before he can ponder this any further, however, he receives a phone call, telling him that Hawkins had escaped from the Metropolis Penitentiary and asking for his advice. Amadeus is bothered very little by this, replies that Hawkins is "very dangerous", and promptly ends the call. Amadeus then focuses his attention on Harriet, stating that she is "enchanted" by the Swiss Cuckoo Clock he had brought to the house. He is relieved, hoping that the clock will stop Harriet's nightmares, but then goes on to remind himself that all intelligent children are plagued by nightmares. He professes fatherly love for Harriet, citing her as intelligent and beautiful, and states that he wishes she would never grow up.

In the asylum, The Joker arranges for a bit of "evening entertainment" for Batman: a twisted game of hide-and-seek where he "hides" and the other inmates - Doctor Destiny, Scarecrow, Clayface, Killer Croc, etc. - "seek" him. Joker gives Batman an hour to "hide", and when Batman refuses, begins telling a rather black-humored joke that culminates in him shooting a guard. He then presses the gun to Doctor Adams' temple, prompting Batman to do as Joker tells him. As he runs along the corridors of the asylum, Batman is inadvertently reminded of an incident in his youth - he had made a scene in the theater where they watched Bambi, and his mother had been terribly embarrassed, telling him that if he did not begin acting like a man, they would "leave him right here". This flashback is suddenly merged with that of his parents' murder, as in that moment, in a way, his parents had fulfilled their mock threat of "leaving him". Back in the foyer of the asylum, meanwhile, the inmates have gotten bored, and demand to go after Batman. The Joker at first refuses, stating that only ten minutes have passed, and one of the inmates asks Two-Face's opinion on the matter. Two-Face merely speaks about how the moon resembles his coin so much, to which the inmate stalks away in frustration about how "you're all insane!". The Joker finally relents, telling the inmates "We'll pretend it's been an hour".

On April Fool's Day of 1921, Amadeus returns home like any other day, only to find the front door open. Inside, he finds his Constance and Harriet chopped into pieces, and in Harriet's case, brutally violated. Nearby on the floor, Amadeus find the signature "MAD DOG". Amadeus wonders where Harriet's head is, only to find that, as he stares into the doll house, her head is staring back at him through the windows of the house ("I look at the damn house. And. The. House. Looks. At. Me.")

In the asylum, meanwhile, Batman encounters Clayface, a naked man whose skin is literally wasting away. Clayface pathetically proclaims that "my skin is sick", and attempts to touch Batman in order to infect him, but Batman dives away from him and breaks his leg. Next, he encounters the wheelchair-bound Doctor Destiny, who is still capable of inflicting telepathic torture on anyone who makes eye contact with him. Destiny calls for Clayface to push his wheelchair, but instead, Batman gives the chair a brutal kick that sends it and its occupant crashing down a flight of stairs. Batman then encounters Scarecrow, who stays silent but is making threatening motions with a pitchfork. The Dark Knight hurries away, and finds himself face-to-face with The Mad Hatter and several mirrors. The Hatter shares his view on order and chaos with Batman, believing that what mankind believes to be "chaos" is merely a higher power instilling an order that they cannot understand. Hatter goes on to state that his fascination with children stems from the fact that "they are each order out of chaos... or is it the other way around?" and finishes the "conversation" with his view on Arkham Asylum itself, which he (sometimes) believes to be the product, a looking glass, of someone's mind - perhaps that of Batman himself.

In November of 1921, the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane opens, and one of Amadeus' first patients is "Mad Dog" Hawkins. During their sessions, Hawkins gleefully confesses to his crime, calling Amadeus' daughter "a whore", but in spite of it all, Amadeus continues to treat him as a patient. On April Fool's Day of 1922, the anniversary of his wife and daughter's murder, however, Amadeus straps Hawkins to the electroshock machine and kills him. The incident is covered up as an accident, and by now, Amadeus' descent into madness is nearly complete - he feels very little of any emotion at Hawkins' murder, and tapes up the mirror in his study to drown out the sound of laughter that plagues the house. Afterward, Amadeus takes to an odd routine, patrolling the house/asylum every morning from 3 A.M. to 4 A.M., and often writing in his journal to make sure that it is kept up-to-date. By now, Amadeus acknowledges that he has no control over his actions anymore - his routine, his entire body - has become a mere plaything of the madness that infests the asylum.

Batman encounters Maxie Zeus inside the present-day asylum, a man with electric wires plugged into various parts of his body. Maxie demonstrates almost sexual pleasure from being shocked, and, as always, believes that he is the Greek god Zeus. He attempts to "share" his power with Batman, who promptly leaves in disgust and horror.

Back in 1922, Amadeus's friends, concerned, take him to an opera to soothe his nerves. Amadeus is shocked at how ignorant they are of his splintering psyche, and one night, ingests a hallucinogenic mushroom to get to the core of his insanity. For the first forty minutes, there is nothing, but abruptly, Amadeus sees the fish in his aquarium forming the symbol of Pisces. Amadeus connects Pisces with The Moon card in the tarot deck's major arcana - a symbol of death and rebirth, of trial and initiation. From this point on, Amadeus' journal excerpts are intertwined with Batman's actions in present day, forming a twisted form of narration.

"I have been shown the path. I must follow where it leads. Like Parsifal, I must confront the unreason that threatens me. I must go alone into the dark tower. Without a backward glance. And face the dragon within."

Batman's actions mirror Amadeus' narration; he finds a trail of blood on the floor, and follows it up to the asylum's highest tower. There, he encounters Killer Croc, his own personal "dragon".

"I have only one fear. What if I am not strong enough to defeat it? What then? The drug takes hold. I feel small and afraid. Perhaps I've done the wrong thing. Somewhere, not far away, the dragon hauls its terrible weight through the corridors of the asylum. I am borne up on a wave of perfect terror."

Batman and Killer Croc do battle, with the reptilian criminal easily gaining the upper hand. He grabs the Dark Knight with both hands and hoists him high into the air, holding him above his head like a trophy.

"And the world explodes. There is nothing to hold onto. No anchor. Panic-stricken, I flee. I run blindly into the madhouse. And I cannot even pray. For I have no God."

Killer Croc tosses Batman through the tower's window, onto the roof of the asylum below. The Dark Knight is barely able to save himself by grabbing onto a ledge protruding from the roof. Batman hoists himself onto the roof and sees a statue of an angel on it, a spear in his hand. As lightning flashes behind him, The Dark Knight reaches out and takes the spear.

"Doors open and close, applauding my flight. Keyholes bleed. A choir of sexually maimed children sings my name over and over again. Arkham. Arkham. Arkham."

As Killer Croc walks away from the scene, a shadow suddenly appears in one of the windows.

"I'm falling. Oh mother, what tree is this? What wounds are these? I am Attis on the pine. Christ on the cedar. Odin on the World-Ash."

Batman suddenly crashes through the window, spear in hand. He grapples with Croc and is flung onto the floor, but gets back up again. With all of his strength, Batman plunges the spear into Killer Croc's stomach. A shower of blood spurts out, but the Dark Knight holds fast, refusing to relent as he drives the spear in deeper and deeper.

"Hung on the windy tree for nine whole nights wounded with the spear. Dedicated to Odin. Myself to myself. I must see my reflection to prove I still exist. Outside I hear the dragon coming closer, closer. Desperately, I peel the tape from the mirror, breaking my fingernails, strip by strip. Until I stand revealed in the glass. And I stand in old familiar eyes. MOTHER!"

Finally, the spear is driven in so deep that the shaft breaks. Croc, pushed back to the window by the spear, falls through it and to the ground below.

Amadeus goes on to say that in that very instant, he had fainted. When he regained consciousness the next morning, he was confused - had he not confronted his fears - the dragon? Where was his reward? Meanwhile, in present day, Batman enters a secluded room in the tower, and comes face-to-face with Cavendish, holding a razor blade against Doctor Adams' throat. Batman deduces that it was Cavendish who had freed the inmates and allowed them to take over the asylum, and questions why he did it, to which Cavendish responds that he only did what needed to be done. He then directs Batman's attention to a book inside the room - Amadeus' journal - and tells him to read the page that he had marked for him.

The page that Batman reads picks up where Amadeus' "narration" left off, speaking of how, in an instant, Amadeus received his "reward" - the memory that he had suppressed all these years has finally been unlocked. One stormy night in 1920, back when Amadeus' mother was still alive, Amadeus saw, for the first time, what his mother saw - what she was trying to "protect" herself from by swallowing beetles - a great bat, looming over the two of them. Amadeus' mother is hysterical, begging Amadeus to not let "it" take her away, and Amadeus, no longer able to bear his mother's suffering, put her out of her misery by slitting her throat with a razor. Afterward, his mind suppressed the memory, making him think that his mother had committed suicide. Too late, Amadeus understands what his mind attempted to keep away from him - madness is in his blood; it is his birthright, his inheritance, his destiny. He vows that he will contain the demons that haunt the house and his mind - keep them locked up with bars, walls, and electrified fences. No one, after all, is more qualified than "the dragon's bride" himself.

Cavendish sneers at Batman, asking him if he now understands why he had allowed the inmates to run free. He believes that for years, Batman had been supplying the asylum with more and more madness, when it was barely able to hold back the insanity that it already held within - Batman himself is the "bat" who had been tormenting Amadeus' mother and drove Amadeus himself to insanity. Batman denies it, stating that he is "only a man", but Cavendish rejects the denial, claiming that he is the only one who sees Batman for who he is. Cavendish goes on to say that eventually, Amadeus himself was imprisoned within the hospital that he had founded, but he would not be stopped. Armed with knowledge from texts of magic and sorcery, Amadeus scratched a "binding spell" on the floor of his cell with his fingernails to keep "the bat" locked inside. This feat took years, and by the time he had finally finished, Amadeus died mere seconds later from the stress it had placed on him. In his last breaths, however, he reveals that he had finally come to appreciate madness, the thing that had made him "Whole. Complete. And free at last." As he dies, Amadeus states that "I'm home. Where I belong."

Despite it all, Cavendish believes that what Amadeus had done had not been enough. Two years ago, he had found the journal, and states that it is his destiny to finish what Amadeus had started, and entrap "the bat" once and for all. To do so, he had released the inmates as a way of luring Batman to the asylum. Batman, disgusted, states that Cavendish needs help, a statement that causes Cavendish to lunge at him in fury, roaring that Batman is the one who really needs help. As the two are grappling on the floor, Doctor Adams sees the razor that Cavendish had been threatening her with, discarded on the floor, and in a moment of pure instinct, uses it to cut Cavendish's throat. As Cavendish drops dead, the two slowly make their way out of the tower. Along the way, Batman requests Two-Face's coin, with Doctor Adams reluctantly hands over, but not before asking Batman "what are you?". The Dark Knight replies that he is "Stronger than them. Stronger than this place. I have to show them." Doctor Adams feebly proclaims his response to be insane, to which Batman merely states that Amadeus was right: madness makes a man complete.

Seizing an axe, Batman chops away the wall that separates him from the foyer, and walks inside, stating that the inmates are "all free". The Joker responds that they already know they are free, and asks Batman what he intends to do now: has he finally accepted his place amongst them, or would he like them to put him out of his misery? Batman suggests that Two-Face make the decision, and tosses him his coin. Two-Face flips the coin, and declares Batman free to go. Batman promptly leaves the asylum, and The Joker does not object. Instead, he mockingly tells Batman to enjoy himself in the "asylum" (the outside world), and that if it ever "gets too tough" for him out there, he would always have a place in Arkham. Two-Face, meanwhile, looks at the coin in his palm: it had landed scarred-side up, yet he had allowed Batman to go free. He then turns around, looking at the house of cards he had built from the tarot cards that Doctor Adams had given him, scornfully quotes a line from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards", and knocks the house of cards over, scattering them about.

CharacterizationsEdit

The graphic novel presents very different versions of several characters in the Batman universe. Examples include: Maxie Zeus, an electrified, emaciated figure with messianic delusions obsessed with electric shocks; Clayface (presumably Preston Payne), who is rapidly wasting away from lack of 'feeding'; Mad Hatter, whose obsession with Alice in Wonderland has pedophilic overtones, a facet of his that has since been adopted by contemporary writers; and Batman himself, who is driven close to the breaking point by the Asylum itself. Killer Croc was originally drawn as suffering deformities similar to those of Joseph Merrick, AKA the Elephant Man, although his final incarnation is that of a humanoid crocodile.

Conception and InfluencesEdit

In his annotations for the original script printed in the 15th Anniversary Edition (2004), Morrison remarks on several details behind the genesis of the work: "Len Wein... had written a few short and evocative paragraphs on the history of Arkham Asylum [in the DC WHO'S WHO series] and it was here I learned of poor Amadeus Arkham, the hospital's founder.... [Arkham]'s themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc. The intention was to create something that was more like a piece of music or an experimental film than a typical adventure comic book. I wanted to approach Batman from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere, as a response to the very literal, 'realistic', 'left brain' treatment of superheroes which was in vogue at the time, in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and others."

An additional reference to the work as a "response" to trends of the time is made in a later note: "The repressed, armored, uncertain and sexually frozen [Bat]man in Arkham Asylum was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven, and borderline psychopathic." He goes on to explain that this conception of the character is for this book alone, and that his other work involving Batman has cast him in a far different (and more positive) light.

Morrison explains, "the story is woven tightly around a small number of symbolic elements, which combine and recombine throughout, as if in a dream: the Moon, the Shadow, the mirror, the Tower, and the Mother's Son. The construction of the story was influenced by the architecture of a house-- the past and the tale of Amadeus Arkham forms the basement levels. Secret passages connect ideas and segments of the book. There are upper stories of unfolding symbol and metaphor. We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral. The journey through the book is like moving through the floors of the house itself. The house and the head are one."

Additionally, "Arkham" as a location dates back to the late 19th century/early 20th century writer of horror, H. P. Lovecraft.

Critical reaction and legacyEdit

Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics said that "Arkham Asylum is unlike any other Batman book you've ever read [and] one of the finest superhero books to ever grace a bookshelf." Goldstein ranked Arkham Asylum #4 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, behind The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One.

The graphic novel is briefly homaged in the film Batman Begins; on the film, Jonathan Crane (AKA Scarecrow)'s entrance to the asylum's cellar with Rachel Dawes mirrors the Joker's own entrance with Batman in the novel. Arkham Asylum was kind of passed on the set of its sequel, The Dark Knight, as well, although The Killing Joke was the material primarily used by Ledger, the actor who played The Joker.

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