The King Of The Twentieth Century (Book Three, Part Eighteen: A Serious House on a Serious Earth)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Released in the wake of the hit Tim Burton film, Grant Morrison scored a massive hit with Arkham Asylum.
Me? I’m the king of the Twentieth Century. I’m the bogeyman. The villain. -Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
But this was poison fruit. The truth was that Morrison’s success was not their own. Arkham Asylum sold because there was a Batman movie out. To the extent that its content was what drove sales it was the lush and immediately arresting design by Dave McKean that stood out—announcing itself thunderously the moment someone opened the book to a random page. Even the legendary Gaspar Saladino’s lettering—a vivid and expressionistic triumph of an oft-unheralded aspect of comics—would have made more of an immediate impression for most prospective customers than the fact that the book was by the author of Animal Man, a critically acclaimed midlist title. Morrison made the money, and of course their later projects would proclaim them the author of Arkham Asylum instead. But it was not Morrison’s work that ensured this success. Even Morrison admitted “I don’t think it would have sold so much if people had suspected what was in it.” Which gets at what is clearly the most painful aspect of it for them: the fact that for all its sales, it got an extraordinarily rocky reception. As they wryly but pointedly noted, out of sales that were by that point around 200,000, “199,000 people regretted it.”
Indeed, as Morrison has tartly and repeatedly noted, the published Arkham Asylum differed in key ways from the comic they had intended. But it is worth considering the precise nature of what Morrison was attempting. Arkham Asylum was to have been a tightly interconnected set of symbols reflecting and reiterating each other so that meanings evolved through repetition. An entirely fair way to summarize this—one Morrison was surely smart enough to realize at the time—was Watchmen only for Batman. This is clear even to the level of small details—the mirror image opening and closing images, for instance, or the sequence in which the vigilante superhero is shown a Rorschach blot (he sees a bat, unsurprisingly) and subjected to other obvious psychological twists. Indeed, in a case of Morrison expropriating even Watchmen’s flaws, the incident that drives Batman to where he must engage in his mirror-fueled bloodletting is a word association test that goes to wincingly obvious places of the sort that he would eventually criticize Moore for doing with Rorschach. (“Mother.” “Pearl.” “Handle.” “Revolver.” “Gun.” “Father.” “Father.” Death.”)
The comic’s debt to Moore becomes even clearer when one looks at Morrison’s account of its reception. “At the time,” they note, “I was still drunk with the idea that people were invested in comics that were full of fantastic layers of symbolism. And obviously most people don’t even have the education to pick up on the most basic things. Which is not to say that I’m particularly educated; I didn’t go to university or anything, but I just happen to read a lot. So I kind of assume that other people do. And they don’t.” The condescension of this, however, clearly masks a genuine sense of hurt—as they put it later in the same interview, “It just seemed to me that [Arkham Asylum] was the most perfect construction. And then when no one noticed it, and people said, ‘This is rubbish. I read it in five minutes,’ I was shattered.”
Indeed, Arkham Asylum seems to have figured as a decisive turn in Morrison’s relationship with Moore’s influence. In the wake of its critical and aesthetic failure they revised their sense of how comics should be, concluding that “when a book can only be understood by unlocking all its secrets, it seems like—well, why bother putting them in?” And it’s notable that many of their criticisms of Watchmen—its preening and self-satisfied narrator constantly “on hand to present his glittering structure for our approval and awe”—are just as easily complaints that can be levied against Arkham Asylum. For all that Morrison notes that the “overwhelmingly artificial quality of the narrative, which I found almost revolting at age twenty-five, is what fascinates me most about it now, oddly enough,” the truth is that at twenty-seven this aspect of it was precisely what they had tried to imitate.
It must be stressed, particularly because Morrison, in their defensiveness, tends to downplay this fact, that the reason they failed at their Watchmen imitation was not that comics readers are too stupid to appreciate densely formalist work; Moore would spend the decade that followed Arkham Asylum finding routine success with works so dense they made both Watchmen and Arkham Asylum look like breezy reads. Nor was it because Dave McKean refused to draw what was written, muddying the clarity of Morrison’s intent with a competing symbolic system. No—the reason Arkham Asylum failed as a Watchmen imitation was ultimately far simpler than that: Morrison fucked up.
There is simply no other way to describe the stubbornness involved in taking a script imagined for an artist like Brian Bolland and giving it, essentially unaltered, to Dave McKean. McKean is simply not an artist who can do something like Watchmen. Even if he had studiously included all of the diverse symbolism Morrison called for the comic would not have effectively communicated this symbolism for the simple reson that McKean’s art, while unquestionably brilliant, is light years away from the cool precision of Dave Gibbons, whose meticulous and clean line was essential to Watchmen working. When Moore wrote for more expressionist and stylized artists than Gibbons—as he did for Steve Bissette and John Totleben on Swamp Thing—he wrote very different sorts of stories than he did for an artist like Dave Gibbons. When he attempted formally complex issues such as “Rite of Spring” with them he leaned hard on captions and narration, a technique he would repeat working with Bill Sienkiewicz—an artist stylistically similar to McKean—on Brought to Light, making sure that the text was robust enough to tell the story on the occasions when the artist leaned further into style than clarity. What Morrison should have done upon being given an immensely talented artist who was nevertheless a poor fit for the story they wanted to tell was to rework the story into something that either made use of McKean’s moody abstraction or that accounted for it in its storytelling; instead they doubled down, asking for something they weren’t going to get. Eventually they learned their lesson—when Morrison collaborated with McKean again a few years later on “A Glass of Water,” a short story for Fast Forward, an anthology published under DC’s quasi-alternative imprint Piranha Press, they worked in a tight nine-panel grid with a near constant camera angle on a single character who narrated a story—a structure that played to McKean’s strengths, allowing him to be moody and abstract in ways that enhanced the story instead of fighting against it. But with Arkham Asylum they failed completely to write a script that played to any of their artist’s strengths, requiring McKean to ride roughshod over Morrison’s intentions in order to get a comic that worked at all.
Indeed, it is worth stressing just how strange and, by and large, flawed a document the Arkham Asylum script is. In a bizarre decision for a story as intricately constructed as Arkham Asylum was, Morrison specified neither panel divisions nor page divisions. Their script is instead formatted essentially like a screenplay, narrating the images that should occur in between precisely specified dialogue and occasional philosophical digressions. This pushes a huge amount of work onto the artist, requiring essentially that they have as clear a grasp of occult and Jungian symbolism as Morrison in order to pull it off, and rendering Morrison’s jokes about the overly complicated symbolism of, for instance, the glass stabbing scene decidedly unhelpful compared to, for instance, a clear set of instructions on how the artist should go about rendering this thing. And Morrison compounded their error with a detailed set of thumbnails for the comic. This was not simply a bad approach to working with McKean (who more or less completely ignored the thumbnails) but to any artist, penning them into the choices of having too little guidance or being micromanaged to an extent that even Moore’s most over-detailed scripts did not approach.
The result was that Arkham Asylum became, as Morrison describes the mad psychiatrist Cavendish at the end of the story, “an act of bad magic—in a misguided effort to exorcise the spirit of Arkham he has instead invoked the demonic Death Bat in its form as Batman. As we’ve seen all polarities go into reverse on All Fools Day, including those of magical intent.” Morrison had set themself up for this, their intentions woven half-heartedly, undone by their errors in construction, made vague, muddy, and unclear by the disjunct with the art. And then on top of that came the carnivalesque inversions of the magic itself, the confrontation with the subconscious. Morrison wanted to be famous? Very well; they would be. But in the same breath they would be pigeonholed, cursed forever to a reputation for weird, confusing, and impenetrable comics. As they put it, “basically what I expected was what actually came to pass, in that it boosted my name from being some vaguely interesting character from Scotland who wrote Animal Man, to being up among the major leagues, with the highest-selling graphic novel. More people knew who I was. But unfortunately more people knew me as some pretentious oaf.”
Nothing has only one cause. And yet much of what would follow for Morrison, for good or for ill, would stem in part from this. Before the age of thirty they had achieved all that they wanted; they were a rock star, famous and successful, able to pursue any number of projects. But just as the success of Watchmen proved a prison that Moore would spend much of the rest of his career plotting escapes from, so too was Arkham Asylum for Morrison. The asterisk upon their success implicit in hitting it big with a failed work, and worse a failed imitation of a man who, once the War had well and truly erupted into open conflict, described it as “Well it wasn’t much of a story, the story didn’t really resonate for me on any level, and the fact that it had got Dave’s beautiful sumptuous artwork appended to it, I said to Dave that it was like putting an exquisite golden frame—and I said your art is an exquisite golden frame, it is, it’s exquisite—it’s like putting that exquisite golden frame around a dog turd. I said it’s not gonna make the dog turd look any better. In fact the dog turd can make the exquisite golden frame look a bit—an attempt to polish a turd. It’s like, the artwork, if it’s not in service to something which has depth, it can be the most gorgeous stuff in the world, and the more gorgeous it is, the sillier it will look. Because you’ll be thinking: ‘Someone expended all this effort and created all this beauty on this story’. It’s like the gap between the story and the art is vast”—an attack almost tailor made to eat at Morrison, who could surely have expected Moore, of anyone, to see what they’d been doing.
And so Morrison saw, for the first time, the sting in the trap; the curse that underlay their role. They were the upstart—the challenger, forever stuck in the orbit of their rival. Never again would they imitate Moore so blatantly unless in direct and explicit conversation with him as in Pax Americana, but it was no matter; they were doomed to be a Moore imitator now, forever to be defined by the comparison they had been foolish enough to invoke in their rise. This was not a curse that would be visited upon Neil Gaiman, Moore’s more authorized successor who would ultimately step out from his shadow, nor upon those writers who came to the by then well-defined role of British comics savant: Ellis, Gillen, even Morrison’s own bastard offspring Millar. It did not even stick to the rest of the coterie of writers who came up with Morrison like Peter Milligan and Garth Ennis. No; it was Morrison who had tried to seize the fire of heaven, to twist the magics with which Moore had averted nuclear armageddon into an attempt to get famous and sell Batman comics, and so who found themself cast in a role that, much like being the artist on Arkham Asylum, could only ever be misplayed. The cruelty of this was significant, although, as the six figure royalty check made clear, so were the benefits. But that cruelty was the only cruelty that could ever have emerged out of a plunge into the lunar realms of the Shadow—the most perfectly just prison that could ever be constructed: Morrison got exactly what they wanted, whether they wanted it or not. [continued]
August 14, 2021 @ 2:54 pm
So I was one of the 199,000. I bought this as an eager young person at the comic book shop in 1989, and… meh. I’d spent a fair amount of money (it was the hardback) on something that just /wasn’t that great/.
Here’s a metric: I’ve re-read Morrison’s Doom Patrol several times over the years. Animal Man too — I just re-read it again a couple of months ago, to follow along with your posts here. All-Star Superman and Morrison’s Justice League Stories are on the list of comfort reads for when I want a really good, unironic superhero story. I’ll re-read We3 every few years just to marvel at the craft.
But I don’t think I’ve re-read Arkham Asylum in 30 years now. It’s just… not that great.
Okay, what’s wrong with it? Besides the issues you’ve already pointed out, of course.
1) It’s a disjointed story that’s trying to do at least three different thing at once — a Batman adventure, a symbolic exploration of his psyche, a more general meditation on psychiatry and superheroes, and a backstory for Arkham Asylum. These don’t necessarily work well together.
1) (a) And layering the whole thing with symbolism drawn from Tarot doesn’t actually join the disparate threads together; it just just adds another layer of confusion. I mean… why Tarot? “Batman + insane asylum + Tarot” isn’t a natural or obvious combination. Perhaps it could be made to work, but… I don’t think it works here. Symbolism has to be in service to something; otherwise it’s just the author being clever at us. (Moore will show signs of this in From Hell and Promethea, though not as badly as Morrison does here.)
2) The story’s Big Idea — Batman facing the madmen of Arkham as externalized versions of his own inner demons and trauma — is, in the light of day, kind of melodramatic and silly. Of course, superhero comics are built around stuff that is melodramatic and silly! But it requires a deft hand to pull it off without being either pompous or ridiculous, and a deft hand is not at work here. Morrison — brilliant as he was and is — was still a journeyman, and sometimes he fell flat.
3) At the end of the day, it’s just another Batman story. The sun comes up and the status quo is restored. Moore at least gave us an origin story for the Joker and — not deliberately, but it stuck — a long-term change to Barbara Gordon. Morrison might try to argue after the fact that this was a “ritual” transforming 1980s Batman into omnicompetent 21st century Batman, but… well, it’s been 30 years, but I don’t recall that jumping out from the text. It takes place beside or outside of DC continuity, and that’s not actually a good thing.
Thinking back, the one positive thing I remember from the book was the attempt to shift Two-Face to using a die, and then to cards. That was a really clever idea, and deserved more than a few panels.
Finally, Moore’s commentary is kinda true — it’s just not that great a story, and wrapping it in Dave McKean’s art makes thing worse, not better. At the same time, there’s a nastiness to it that is kinda depressing. By the time Moore said that, he was surely very familiar with how an artist’s vision could vary from the writer’s! He could have chosen to be charitable, and didn’t. Ah well, Morrison was being publicly snotty to him, so we can hardly blame him for hitting back. Still.