Be sure to come back Wednesday for the launch of my biggest project since Neoreaction a Basilisk.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: A key part of the success of The Last War in Albion was Dave McKean, who broke out with Violent Cases, an autobiographical comic penned by Neil Gaiman. Well. Sort of autobiographical.
She fell down, a faint shadow wand’ring
In chaos and circling dark Urizen,
As the moon, anguish’d, circles the earth:
Hopeless! Abhorr’d! a death-shadow,
Unseen, unbodied, unknown,
The mother of Pestilence. -William Blake, The Book of Ahania
It’s a sort of folk memory version of what actually happened.” Gaiman compares the writing to the autobiographical comics of Eddie Campbell, particularly his Alec work, noting that “You couldn’t have had Violent Cases without Alec. What I learned from Eddie was the value of minute incidents in the building up of fraudulent biographical narrative. I wouldn’t say it was influenced by Eddie, but the only place in comics that Violent Cases plugs into from a story viewpoint is to Eddie. Which you don’t see because the visuals are Dave.” And this is extremely true. The narrative similarities to Campbell are existent, although Gaiman is clearly right to describe them as similarities rather than influences. But the comparison is not one anyone would make because the comic’s style is so obviously dominated by the utterly astonishing work that Dave McKean did for it.
As with Gaiman’s writing, there are clear precedents for McKean’s approach—his debt to Bill Sienkiewicz, in particular, is clear and something he freely admits to. But he also stresses a litany of other influences across multiple styles and media: surrealists like Max Ernst and Jan Švankmajer, comics artists as diverse as Winsor McCay, Bernie Wrightson, and Moebius, but also a bevy of other influences: Buster Keaton, Picasso, Degas, Bob Fosse, Stanley Kubrick, Jean Cocteau, Walter Sickert, Milton Glaser, and literally dozens more. The result of these influences, when applied to Violent Cases, is an art style that drifts freely from vivid realism to something fare more ambiguous, symbolic, and unsteady. This serves as a perfect match for the story being told, setting the comic in something that is not quite truth or fiction, not quite reality or representation, a place defined primarily by the uncertainties of memory. Gaiman may be the figure debuting in Violent Cases who went on to the most prominent career in comics (in part because McKean always maintained a broader career, doing album covers, advertisements, films, and art pieces, with comics and comics covers a prominent but still minor part of the whole), but in terms of the book the most ostentatious and obvious talent was McKean, and it was no surprise that it was him DC identified as the figure who was marketable right out of the gate. While Gaiman provided thoughtful and intelligent comics, these required a degree of investment to appreciate. A page of McKean’s art, meanwhile, could be put in front of someone and they would immediately see that this was a serious and major talent.
It is almost too obvious to point out that Violent Cases is in implicit conversation with psychoanalysis. The crass connections to draw would be Freudian ones, and it’s certainly possible to create a reading around phallic symbols (tommy guns, baseball bats), sexual anxiety (note that events come to a head at a female friend’s birthday party in which Gaiman hides within/behind a curtain, and the repeated use of flowers as a metaphor), and the threat of the patriarch (there is a surprising absence of maternal figures save for a glancing appearance of Gaiman’s grandmother). The result, however, would ultimately be an imposition upon the text—a claim of its real meaning that not only ignores Gaiman’s intentions and perspective but that actively argues that he does not understand the work he’s producing. This requires no small amount of violence to the actual story; given that the tension between what Gaiman-the-author and Gaiman-the-narrator are revealing is central to its function, declaring that Gaiman-the-author is just another unreliable narrator and that the critic knows the real story is phenomenally unsatisfying.
A better approach would be through the work of Carl Gustav Jung, if only because his underlying framework is more compatible with Gaiman’s. At the center of Jung’s theories are the notions of archetypes and the collective unconscious. These are complex and contested ideas that both evolved tremendously within Jung’s own thought and have been taken in numerous mutually contradictory directions by his followers. The core idea, however, is that there exists a well of images and tropes whose symbolism provides an underlying structure and grammar for human psychology. One of the many ways in which one can frame this is to suggest that people’s internal landscapes are formed in terms of narrative, and that archetypes provide the framework from which they construct those narratives. Jung elevates this to positively mystical levels, explaining that “the collective unconscious is anything but an incapsulated personal system; it is sheer objectivity, as wide as the world and open to all the world. There I am the object of every subject, in complete reversal of my ordinary consciousness, where I am always the subject that has an object. There I am utterly one with the world, so much a part of it that I forget all too easily who I really am. ‘Lost in oneself’ is a good way of describing this state. But this self is the world, if only a consciousness could see it. That is why we must know who we are.” This has many similarities with Gaiman, who throughout his career envisions stories in a way that is every bit as mystical, if not strictly speaking magical, as Moore and Morrison, reifying them in much the same way that Jung does and treating them as foundational elements of the self.
The key Jungian concept in understanding Violent Cases is the archetype of the child. This is true on obvious and self-evident levels, but also subtler ones; it is in the course of describing this archetype, for instance, that Jung remarks that “Contents of an archetypal character are manifestations of processes in the collective unconscious. Hence they do not refer to anything that is or has been conscious, but to something essentially unconscious. In the last analysis, therefore, it is impossible to say what they refer to,” as adept a description of how Violent Cases tells its story as has ever been formulated. Describing the archetype, Jung noted that one of its roles was to explore and represent the aspects of childhood that have been forgotten, while another is its representation of futurity—of the next generation that will exist when the old one dies. As Jung puts it, “both beginning and end, an initial and a terminal creature. The initial creature existed before man was, and the terminal creature will be when man is not. Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man. His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death. In this idea the all-embracing nature of psychic wholeness is expressed.” Violent Cases exists in the gap between these two extremes, positioning at its core a long legacy of brutal violence and an inverted murder mystery where the question is whether a murder has occurred in the first place.
Jung was also foundational to the symbolism of Arkham Asylum. Morrison framed their Batman/Christ vs Killer Croc/the Dragon conflict in these terms, noting in the script that this was “a mediaeval allegory which Jung interpreted as being symbolic of ‘an overcoming of the unconscious and, at the same time, of the attitude of the son who unconsciously hangs on his mother.’ Perfect for our purposes.” And in describing the book’s ending they concluded that “From a Jungian POV, [Batman’s] anima has vanquished his shadow. He has merged with his own myth—the Death Bat—and become part man, part numinous legend.” And the structure of the book as Morrison lays it out in the script is clearly rooted in psychoanalysis. Morrison’s script stresses that “The portrayal of Batman here and throughout is quite important—his posture reveals a man constantly on the defensive, constantly expecting attack from some quarter. His body is a fortress of flesh, bulwarked against the ravages of a merciless world. Consequently, he stands perfectly straight to the point of stiffness. We can imagine im walking with his buttocks clenched. His is the posture of an obsessive, anal personality. This Batman is a frightened, threatened boy who has made himself terrible at the cost of his own humanity. He is completely incapable of any kind of sexual relationship.” In spite of Morrison’s insistence, however, McKean departed from this instruction, instead choosing “to render Batman more impressionistically as a hunched, ambiguous figure.” Nevertheless, it’s clearly the intended arc of the comic, connecting with a number of decisions such as Morrison’s desire to have the Joker cross-dressing, their portrayal of Clayface as a representation of AIDS, and the psychosexual dynamics of Amadeus Arkham’s mental collapse.
Central to this is the idea of the shadow, which in Jung constitutes “a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” Elsewhere, Jung clarifies that this shadow self consists “not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism.” In this, Jung is drawing on imagery previously codified by Blake, whose vision of the divided man contained an aspect called the shadow, representing the restraint and suppression of desire. He describes this in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, asserting, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling. / And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.” And indeed his ultimate proposal—the eponymous marriage of heaven and hell—has much in common with Jung’s proposed reconciliation of the ego and the shadow. In Morrison’s approach, then, Batman’s confrontation with the asylum and (de/a)scent into its depths served as a symbolic ritual to move past what Morrison saw as the “violent, drive, and borderline psychopathic” treatment of the character that dominated the 1980s.
But Morrison’s use of Jung goes beyond the psychosexual dynamics at the heart of Batman’s ascension. The book’s basic structure of combining and recombining symbols has a clear resemblance to Jung’s idea of archetypes and their infinitely complex iteration and interplay. Indeed, all of the symbols on Morrison’s list of key thematic components of Arkham Asylum are ones that appear within Jung’s various studies of archetypes. The basic structure and narrative logic of the book comes, in other words, from Jung’s work.
This, however, is augmented by other theories. Morrison’s magical beliefs are obviously one of these, but a crucial element in how Morrison intended the various archetypes to bind together into a coherent work came from the physicist David Bohm. Bohm also came up in Animal Man where Morrison had their fiction-suited alter-ego muse about Bohm as he walks along the canal trying to come up with an idea for a comic in issue #14, watching the rain striking the canal and narrating, “interference patterns of concentric circles like bomb impact diagrams. Ike telepathic powers in comics. Like the cup and ring marks on megalithic stones. Like patterns on a holographic plate. The symbol of David Bohm’s implicate order theory. A vision of a vast, interconnected universe where every part contains the whole. Where the universe is a mirror reflecting itself.” It comes up again five issues later, during the peyote trip sequence, when Hightower explains the theory to Animal Man as the idea “that reality is unfolded out of a higher state—the implicate order. The implicate order is a vast sea of potential… it… when you talked about heaven, I think you really meant the implicate. Our culture has lost sight of this higher reality. So-called primitive peoples knew better. The aborigines called int the Dreamtime. The Yaqui Indians knew it as the Nagual. It’s the primal reality, if you like. All our dreams of ideal worlds are just attempts to describe that infinite possibility. And everything in the universe is connected, you see. From atoms to galaxies. We’re all responsible. Every decision we make affects the future of the whole universe.” These, however, were later invocations—Animal Man #14 came out just four months before Arkham Asylum, and therefore long after the script had been completed. Arkham Asylum marked Morrison’s first engagement with Bohm’s work, and while it was largely implicit within the finished product, this was an entirely fitting way to engage with the concept. [continued]