An Electric Surge of Pure Testosterone (Book Three, Part Fifteen: Arkham Asylum, Arkham Asylum)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Morrison hypothesized a psychologicl collapse for Batman that was implicitly tied to the nature of the asylum itself.
Adams’s drawings of the impossibly glamorous Talia locked in passionate clinches with a shirtless, hairy-chested Batman brought an electric surge of pure testosterone back to Bruce Wayne that seemed a direct and full-throated riposte to Dr. Wertham’s indictment.-Grant Morrison, Supergods
This is not, obviously, true for strictly causal reasons: it is not that Amadeus Arkham went mad because of a bat spirit and the murder of his family and became a serial killer and thus caused Frank Miller to have a massive commercial success with a darker and more violent version of Batman. Rather, it is a symbolic link—an implicit order that at once emerges from and causes the structure of Arkham Asylum.
This is a lot of weight to put upon a plot that Morrison expanded from a third of a page of text banged out by Len Wein for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe in 1985 in order to give the asylum a vague origin story and history where it had previously not had anything like that. Instead, as with many eventually core concepts in DC Comics, Arkham Asylum established itself as a slow accretion of incidental details. Its first appearance came in Batman #258, published in 1974, in a story written by Denny O’Neil. A fairly straightforward Two-Face story, Arkham serves as little more than the prison from which Two-Face is broken out of to start the plot. The Joker makes a brief cameo there as well, asking Two-Face to let him out and being refused because Two-Face’s coin comes up scarred side down. (In this regard, the scene serves as a quick refresher on a character who hadn’t appeared in three years.) On this first appearance Arkham is called Arkham Hospital, and is described as “a New England institution called a hospital—a polite name for an asylum which houses the criminally insane.”
The New England location—and the fact that Batman #258 was a Julius Schwartz-edited issue—points clearly to the origin of the phrase, namely the works of H.P. Lovecraft, who used the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts as a setting in several of hist stories, beginning with “The Picture in the House” in 1920. The asylum’s second appearance two issues later even specified its location in “Arkham, New England,” and Detective Comics #477 in 1978 saw Len Wein change its name to Arkham Sanitarium, as described in Lovecraft’s 1933 “The Thing on the Doorstep.” None of this was to say that 1970s Batman comics were part of the Cthulhu mythos—it was not as though Batman took a turn towards cosmic horror, or indeed even that the comics were taking a turn towards any sort of darker horror. This was just fannishness—an entertaining attempt to work in some horror fiction references.
Positioning Arkham in New England, however, posed a problem for its growing status as the home of all Batman villains not actively marauding across Gotham City given the simultaneous growing consensus that Gotham was located in New Jersey—that all of its supervillains would be sent to a single asylum two states away simply didn’t wash. And so Arkham was quietly moved closer to Gotham so that, in 1980, it was described as “deep in the suburbs of Gotham City,” where it would remain. This line came in a two-issue arc in Batman #326 and #327, also by Len Wein, that served as the first major engagement with Arkham as anything more than the location Batman comics traveled to when they needed to show a Batman villain in prison. In the first part Batman and Commissioner Gordon discover that a number of criminals who should be locked up in Arkham are actually on the streets of Gotham, despite the warden’s insistence that nothing is amiss. Batman thus goes into Arkham undercover in order to investigate, where it turns out that the warden has been replaced by deep cut Batman villain Professor Milo. What follows is a slightly downplayed version of Arkham, devoid of any major villains—Batman spends a page walking around noting how Joker and Two-Face are both supposedly dead, and the only established villain seen inside the asylum is Maxie Zeus, another deep cut villain, although Batman ends up stealing a costume off of the Joker’s target practice dummy. Instead the asylum is populated by cliche stock characters—people who think they’re Napoleon and Joan of Arc. The result of this is a certain defanging of the idea—as though Arkham is simultaneously functioning as a generic asylum setting and as the holding location for Batman villains, but not both at the same time.
(Wein’s story ends with Professor Milo accidentally dosed with his own insanity gas and being imprisoned at Arkham; Morrison wryly picks up from this, having Milo still be stuck in Arkham despite having recovered, sadly unable to convince anyone he’s sane, although this in practice amounts to a brief appearance and a section in the back of the book.)
Arkham appeared a few more times across the 1980s, though never with as much detail as Wein’s arc, such that the only other major piece of development prior to Morrison getting their hands on it came in the aforementioned Who’s Who entry. This entry introduced Amadeus Arkham, giving an origin for the name that isn’t just “it’s in Lovecraft’s Miskatonic valley.” The Who’s Who entry offers the broad outline of the backstory Morrison employs; Arkham’s mother is said to have struggled with mental illness, “Mad Dog” Hawkins is present and has killed his family, and it’s implied that Arkham killed him in retaliation. (“It is to Dr. Arkham’s everlasting credit that he treated Hawkins with great concern and compassion, right up to Hawkins’ accidental electrocution two months after his incarceration.” The detail of Arkham being incarcerated after killing his stockbroker is also nodded to by Arkham Asylum, although as Morrison notes in the 15th Anniversary edition, “Arkham’s madness was described as a result of the Stock Market crash of 1929. It occurred to me that having one’s wife and daughter slaughtered by a man named ‘Mad Dog’ might have been sufficient cause for a nervous breakdown, so I decided to explore and expand on the life of this thoraway character.”
The unfortunate life of Amadeus Arkham was also among the elements that made it into Batman: Arkham Asylum, the 2009 video game based, albeit extremely loosely, on Morrison’s graphic novel. The game did not originate as an adaption per se; Rocksteady, the studio behind it, reached the idea through practical concerns: for their first effort at a standalone Batman game they wanted a setting that was relatively confined so as to keep things simple. Arkham Asylum was an obvious choice: an iconic location in which a solid mass of Batman villains could naturally be found. Once that decision had been taken, as plot writer Paul Dini puts it, “everyone involved took another look at Grant Morrison’s graphic novel,.” And the basic situation or the game—Batman stuck in an Arkham Asylum that’s been overrun by villains led by the Joker—is the same as Morrison’s comic.
At the end of the day, however, this is more or less the only similarity to speak of. The game features some of the same villains as the comic—the Joker, obviously, along with Killer Croc and Scarecrow. But it excludes others with prominent roles—Two-Face, Maxie Zeus, and Mad Hatter are all absent, while Clayface appears only in a small cameo—while creating sizeable roles for Poison Ivy, the Riddler, Zsasz, Harley Quinn, and Bane, the latter three of which had not even been created as of 1989. But framing it in these terms misses the forest for the trees. Arkham Asylum was a densely thematic and symbolism-laden work defined by a starkly abstract visual style. None of this was likely to translate well to a video game, where, as Dini puts it, “there’s not a lot of time for the same amount of character development that a writer usually has in a TV episode.” (Dini was primarily known for his work on the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series and its successor shows, as opposed to for comics.) Video game plots tend towards straightforwardness, not least because the plot has to be something that can regularly break off for action sequences.
So while the game has a plot about the Joker taking over Arkham Asylum (reimagined as an island off of Gotham to give it a little bit of scope while still being wholly contained) and developing chemical weapons to turn into a beefed up super-Joker akin to Bane, the real focus of the game is on its play mechanics, which is to say in trying to simulate the act of being Batman. In practice this breaks down to a mix of melee combat and stealth missions with some very rudimentary adventure gaming elements thrown in to check off the “world’s greatest detective” box. These were mostly fun, although the end result suggests that an awful lot of being Batman is running back and forth across a room trying to find the damn door.
Even the history of Amadeus Arkham, which was adapted into the game as twenty-four part story revealed when the player finds a series of plaques hidden throughout the game, quickly drifts away from a retelling of Wein and Morrison’s story; about halfway through it begins to be obvious that the story is narrated not by someone from decades ago but by someone currently at the asylum, with veiled references to Killer Croc and Poison Ivy. The end revelation, found only after tracking down twenty-four of the often obscurely placed tablets, reveals that the narrative is actually written by Quincy Sharp, the current asylum warden, a reveal that simply exists to foreshadow the sequel game. Indeed the game had two sequels as well as a prequel, which was unsurprising given the overwhelmingly good reviews and high sales. Indeed, it quadrupled the lifetime sales of Arkham Asylum within three weeks of its release. Where Arkham Asylum’s reputation is, charitably, contested, the game and larger series is a clear populist classic, and is in practice the bulk of the comic’s cultural legacy. Morrison, for their part, is content with this legacy, boasting that the comic “inspired the most successful superhero video game ever” amidst a list of other signs of the book’s triumph in Supergods.
The core of the connection between Amadeus Arkham’s madness and Batman’s ordeal, on a thematic level at least, rests in one of the elements of their script that McKean opted not to include in the comic, namely the portrayal of Batman as neurotically repressed. Morrison explains this in one of their lengthy asides in the script, saying that “Batman doesn’t like women, women are weak, women leave you when you need them the most, women can’t be trusted, women will always let you down. That’s the way Batman thinks. I remember an interesting scene in a mid-’70’s Batman—he’s seen at the end of the story adding a photograph, (of Talia or Catwoman or somebody.), to a line of similar photographs of all the great ‘loves’ of his life. As he does this, he moans to Robin about losing all the women he cares about and how he’s cursed to love only women on the wrong side of the law or something similarly dreary. I couldn’t help imagining Batman in love with a row of glossy photographs that never woke up looking like shit or complained about whose turn it was to wash the dishes… He could happily fantasise over these photographs without them ever contradicting him, betraying him or telling him to stop acting like an asshole. Despite all the Talia stories and the Silver St. Cloud stuff, my own feeling is that, given the traumatic events of is youth and the way he currently lives his life, Batman would be quite incapable of sustaining any kind of relationship with a woman.” This image of a sexually repressed Batman tied closely to Amadeus Arkham, whose two central traumas—his mother’s madness and the deaths of his family—are both rooted firmly in his relationships with women, a point reiterated in a flashback sequence in which Arkham talks about his paralyzing fear in a funhouse upon encountering the Tunnel of Love (a story rooted, apparently, in Morrison’s own childhood).
Given this intended thematic root in the comic it is striking how few female characters actually appear within it. [continued]
July 16, 2021 @ 9:51 am
“…DC canonically takes Morrison’s side.” Well I just laughed like an Arkham inmate while sat in the middle of a reasonably busy (by post-Covid UK standards) coffee shop. Well played.