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Batman: Arkham Asylum

A dark and disturbing Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean.

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A riveting, disturbing tale of the Dark Knight's darkest night

  • Jun 1, 2012

To the dragon, Saint George was a monster.

Keeping hold of that old observation about perspective might help one navigate the hallucinatory maze that is the heart of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Grant Morrison's harrowing work that is one of the most powerful Batman stories in the character's more than 70 years. The narrative plunges us into a nightmarish asylum for the criminally insane that has literally been taken over by the inmates. Morrison makes unique use of the time-tested suggestion that they might be more sane than the rest of us.

The criminals who are holding the asylum staff hostage demand that Batman come in alone. Morrison sets the tone for his -- and our -- descent into darkness with a passage from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can't help it," said the Cat: "We're all mad here. I'm mad, you're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

Batman darkens the tone. This is not the swashbuckling figure familiar from comic books and movies. Ordinarily, Batman cloaks himself in shadow to scare the bad guys. In this story, it seems more like Batman is lost in the dark, or maybe even hiding from something he sees in himself. It is unsettling.

Morrison's Batman confides to Commissioner Gordon: "Sometimes I ... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates, when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me, it'll be just like coming home."

That homecoming puts Batman on a compelling quest. He encounters The Riddler, Penguin and many other of his nemeses who are deadlier than they were in comic books long ago. Central to the story is Two-Face, a former district attorney made unbalanced by acid that scarred the good looks on one side of his face. Two-Face's lapses in and out of seeming rationality are dictated by the flip of a scarred silver dollar he carries with him. Where The Joker can be counted on to be vicious, Two-Face's reliance on chance makes him sometimes homicidal and other times merciful, depending on which side of the coin lands up.

Ultimately, Batman puts his fate into the hands of one of the villains he has imprisoned. It reflects the intricacies of a dizzying story that Batman's decision could be rational, or suicidal, or both. In real life we know that the mammoth media conglomerate that owns Batman will never allow him to be killed, but a strength of Morrison's storytelling is that it makes it seem at least possible that Batman might suffer terrible harm.

An intertwined story unfolds in flashbacks. The asylum's founder, Dr. Arkham, witnesses unspeakable violence and is traumatized by it. There is a suggestion, familiar from countless works of horror fiction, that the horrible events have stamped a kind of psychic imprint on the asylum and left it haunted. The apparent truth is far more discomforting.

The illustrations in some graphic novels make everything explicit, depriving our imaginations of the freedom to conjure our own images. This diminishes their power in the way that Jaws is less scary when we see the shark.

Dave McKean's art in Batman: Arkham Asylum does no such thing. There is stunning variety in McKean's images and powerful subtlety as well. His dark, complex illustrations merely suggest, planting hints that engage our imaginations. They magnify the impact of Morrison's enthralling story.

That story rewards the reader but following it can take some effort. The text is sometimes presented in an unusual manner. When some of the inmates speak, their words are shown in odd typefaces or in different colors or in lines that don't read straight from left to right but that instead meander or swirl about. The effects powerfully suggest the inmates' derangements but they can take some getting used for those of us who are not similarly deranged.

This graphic novel is not for everyone. The book's full title is Batman: Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth and this is serious reading. Although not explicitly violent, it presents disturbing images and unsettling ideas that are best avoided by squeamish readers and kept away from younger ones.

The rest of us can come out of our own journey with Batman dazed and with our notions of human nature challenged. That's a lot for a book to accomplish. Morrison's does it memorably.
A riveting, disturbing tale of the Dark Knight's darkest night

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June 16, 2013
Well done!
June 02, 2012
A classic Batman tale indeed! Too bad Morrison couldn't follow up such brilliance in his later runs in the Batman books. I could not believe he wrote "Return of Bruce Wayne"
June 02, 2012
Yes, it is a shame that many of Morrison's subsequent Batman works don't come close to standing well on their one. In the shadow of this masterwork, they wither even more.
June 01, 2012
I like the excitement level generated and the graphic in the above.
June 02, 2012
Thank you. To decide whether the book might be for you it might also make sense to read Madpenguin's review. He's written a good one.
June 03, 2012
More Batman: Arkham Asylum (graphic... reviews
Quick Tip by . June 19, 2010
review by . March 26, 2009
First, there are two things anyone interested in purchasing or reading this title should know about it beforehand. One, that it is probably not for everyone's taste as it isn't your traditional Batman vs. the villain-of-the-week sort of story, but rather a darker, more disturbing kind of tale that focuses on a deep, complex exploration of madness, told alternately from three different points of view: that of Amadeus Arkham, founder of the asylum, that of Batman and his other persona, Bruce Wayne, …
review by . July 19, 2008
For any beginning comic reader, and even more so for anyone else, "Arkham Asylum" is essential. Claimed by DC to be the best-selling graphic novel of all time, "Arkham Asylum" is deep, psychological, terrifying, and as dark as any comic I've ever read. Grant Morrison writes with an explorative and bleak psychology reminescent of Alan Moore -- but Moore's own darkly contemplative and psychological Batman work, 1988's "Batman: The Killing Joke," was never this ghastly. Thanks to Dave McKean's beautiful …
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About this book


In this groundbreaking painted graphic novel, the inmates of Arkham Asylum have taken over Gotham's detention center for the criminally insane on April Fool's Day and demand Batman in exchange for their prisoners. Accepting their demented challenge, Batman is forced to live and endure the personal hells of the Joker, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Two-Face and many other of his sworn enemies in order to save the innocents and retake the prison. During his run through this absurd gauntlet, the Dark Knight Detective's own sanity is in jeopardy. This special anniversary edition hardcover also reproduces the original script with annotations by Morrison and editor Karen Berger.
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ISBN-10: 1401204244
ISBN-13: 978-1401204242
Editor: Karen Berger
Author: Grant Morrison, Dave McKean
Genre: Superheroes, Dark Fantasy, Comics & Graphic Novels
Publisher: DC Comics
Date Published: October 1989
Format: Graphic Novel
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