Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison’s first major hit was Arkham Asylum, a Batman graphic novel whose dense symbolism included, among other things, the Tower card and the Great Dragon.
This particular lunatic claimed he was the Biblical Anti-Christ and promised to return to Gotham one day, on the eve of the battle of Armageddon. -Grant Morrison, Batman
This suits Crowley’s larger signification, but is tangental in the extreme, relying on Dīs Pater’s later conflation with the more traditionally bestial Orcus, who provided the roots for the French ogre and Italian orco, from which Tolkien’s orcs and the ensuing high fantasy trope emerged. More abstractly, however, the presence of a fire-breathing mouth implies a dragon, and Morrison’s association of the figure with primal chaos cements this tidily, suggesting again a flaw at the heart of things.
Morrison states that the dragon is opposed by reason, represented by the spear. Within the lore of DC Comics, then, this would imply Batman, the world’s greatest detective. Unsurprisingly, however, things are not that simple given Morrison’s conception of Batman. In the gallery at the end of the book that serves as a cast of characters, Batman is given a brief, anxious narration: “Criminals. Criminals are a terror. Hearts of the night. I must disguise my. Terror. Criminals are Cowardly. Superstitious terrible omen. A cowardly lot. My disguise must strike terror. I must be black. Terrible. Criminals are. Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. I must be a creature. I must be a creature of the night. Mommy’s dead. Daddy’s dead. Brucie’s dead. I shall become a bat”. This invocation of “creature” makes it clear that Batman is not some dispassionate force of reason who can combat the Great Dragon within the Tower, but rather a force of the Dragon. The clear implication—which Morrison pays off—is that Batman is only ever confronting himself as he battles his way through the Asylum.
It is worth stressing that this is not all a bunch of mystic interpretation being imposed onto the text. Arkham Asylum makes active and extremely literal use of these symbols in accordance with their occult implications. The aforementioned passage in which Amadeus Arkham’s journals transition from talking about the Dark Tower to the Dragon plays out as narration overlaid with Batman encountering Killer Croc, a relatively recent addition to Batman’s rogue’s gallery created by Gerry Conway in 1983, with “And face the Dragon within” appearing in a half-page panel of Killer Croc. The Dragon easily gets the better of Batman, hurling him out a window. McKean draws this with clear resemblances to the Pamela Coleman Smith rendition of the card—a tall panel in which Batman crashes out of an upper spire of the Asylum, lightning crashing behind him. Batman falls, then catches himself, pulling himself up to find a statue of Saint Michael defeating Satan.
This, of course, is the event described in Revelation when the “great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his head,” provoking a “war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” The statue is one of the settings of the scene in which Michael wields a spear, which Batman breaks off the statue, taking it back to defeat Killer Croc. Morrison spins out further mythic imagery in this sequence, Arkham’s journal alluding to Christ’s crucifixion and Odin’s nine night ordeal before being gifted the ruins by another, altogether more liminal figure who found herself dead at a different iteration of the Tree; Odin, crucially, was also pierced by spears as he suffered. This narration coincides with Batman being himself wounded in the fight, pierced by his own spear.
This fight serves as the final trial before Batman can enter the secret heart of the asylum, where the insane Dr. Cavendish, who has found and read Amadeus Arkham’s journals, learning that the mysterious beast that plagued both Amadeus and his mother was a bat, which Cavendish not unreasonably associates with Batman, but which Arkham pointedly associates with the Dragon, describing himself as “the dragon’s bride, the son of the widow. Leather wings enfold me.” This entire scene with Arkham and his mother, meanwhile, connects not only to the wider symbolism Morrison is working but also to the larger narrative of Revelation, where the conflict between the Dragon and Michael is provoked when “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” attempts to protect her newborn child from the Dragon, which wishes to devour it, fleeing to the wilderness and hiding for “a thousand two hundred and threescore days” whilst the war in heaven unfolds. Taken within the larger post-Milton Christian tradition in which the war in heaven between Michael and Satan takes place prior to the creation as opposed to at the end of days, there is even the same sense of retroactive causality implicit in Batman haunting Arkham’s mother almost a century prior.
Morrison has gone back and forth on precisely whether or not they expected the reader to actually get all of this. Interviewing in 1995, they suggested they had thought the comic would work this transparently, noting that as they originally imagined the comic it would be “done by someone like Brian Bolland, and my vision was of it being ultra-real to the point of being painful.” In a 1988 interview, meanwhile, they suggested that both Bernie Wrightson (who they dismissed as “good in 1972 but I don’t think he could handle it now”) and Bill Sienkiewicz were approached about it before it was given to McKean. These both seem more likely than Bolland, who, in February 1987 when the project was pitched, would have still been hard at work on the much delayed Batman: The Killing Joke. Regardless, it’s clear that Morrison initially envisioned a very different approach to the storytelling, with the project only lurching toward abstraction when McKean was brought on board.
In the wake of people not understanding this sort of deep symbolism, meanwhile, they declared that they “shouldn’t have expected more from the type of audience that I knew would be buying it. But at the time I was still drunk with the idea that people were interested 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, So there are very few people who are actually gong to pick up on the fact that Killer Croc going through the window is a Jungian symbol. And you can’t expect people to pick that stuff up.” The cynical disdain for their readership evinced by this quote, however, had tempered by the time of the 15th anniversary edition a decade or so later, where they noted rather more diplomatically that they “believe that people respond emotionally to deep mythical patterns whether or not they actually recognize or ‘understand’ them as such.” All the same, it is clear—indeed outright explicit in the script—that the mystical elements of the book were deliberate, and that the book was supposed to be as semiotically dense as it was.
Morrison’s surprise that readers did not get what they were doing with Arkham Asylum led, five months later, to a second attempt at writing Batman, this time in the pages of the freshly launched Legends of the Dark Knight, which featured rotating creative teams tackling self-contained Batman stories. After an initial five-issue arc by Denny O’Neil, Morrison took over the book for a five-issue arc entitled Gothic with art by The Dark Knight Returns inker Klaus Janson—a superstar team of figures from two of the best-selling Batman projects in recent memory. Morrison approached this in part as an opportunity for redemption, using it as an opportunity “to show people that I could just write a straight thing as well.”
Morrison is selling themself slightly short here, as they tacitly admit when they say that “the only interesting thing about that was that I was trying to do it like an 18th-century gothic novel, and it used a lot of those plot devices and images.” This is not nothing, and in point of fact Gothic was a conceptually rich work with homages to Faustus, Don Giovanni, The Monk, and more modern texts like Fritz Lang’s M. But it is also true that, in visible contrast to Arkham Asylum, Gothic was a fairly straightforward story whose pleasures came in the form of an exciting yarn instead of in how dazzling its philosophical context was.
Befitting its gothic status, this plot offered a steady slide from a seemingly mundane plot about a murder picking off Gotham City gang leaders into a ghost story featuring a centuries old child-murderer who made a pact with the Devil. This fits with the classically gothic’s notion of the supernatural, where it sits not, as the supernatural often does in superhero comics, as an appealing and easily graspable element of the universe, but at a mysterious and terrifying remove, threatening to undermine the stability of the world. And Morrison bolsters this by stripping way almost all of the trappings of Batman from the story—no other superheroes appear or are referenced, nor does any of Batman’s often outlandish rogues gallery. With the fantastic elements of the DC universe pushed to the sidelines, Gothic can operate in a space in which the gradual intrusion of the supernatural feels meaningful.
This also allowed Gothic to trade effectively in one of the core aesthetic concepts of the gothic, which is the sense of the repressed and buried making its return. Gothic is full of hidden and forgotten things coming back; the child murderer hunting the gang leaders was nominally killed by them decades before, Batman discovers the dark secrets of his childhood school, and the entire mystery turns out to center on a sunken Austrian cathedral. But unlike Arkham Asylum these buried secrets do not point towards any larger psychological truths. Morrison plays at mythic significance a little bit by having Bruce’s father rescuing him from the abusive school (where the headmaster, tidily, turns out to have also been the semi-immortal child murderer) be the event immediately preceding their fatal trip to the movies, but this is frankly one of the book’s weaker moments—a hackneyed and overreaching effort to give the story significance that it simply doesn’t need. Where Gothic works—which is most of its five issues—it works because it takes an interesting set of tropes and ideas and uses them well. Where Arkham Asylum saw two up and coming creators trying desperately to impress, Gothic, despite coming only a few months later, sees two established stars operating with quiet confidence in their abilities.
None of which is to say that Gothic is without intellectual rigor. Morrison includes a section where Batman contemplates the sacred geometry of the Austrian cathedral (which Gotham’s soon to reopen cathedral is a near-exact duplicate of), musing on the supposed etymological connection between “gothic” and the Greek “goetic,” referring to magic, but most often associated with the list of demons compiled in The Lesser Key of Solomon while explaining to Alfred how the ogive served to direct all stresses upwards such that “the cathedral becomes a transmitter, aimed towards God.” But these occult musings are simply flavor, as opposed to the underlying structure of the comic, and are carefully rendered to be accessible and understandable as opposed to simply expecting the audience to pick up on the spiritual implications of gothic architecture.
Similar concerns were meant to have animated Arkham Asylum. Morrison’s script set up an extended metaphor based around the figure of the vesica piscis. Translated literally as “fish bladder,” this is the geometric shape formed by the intersection of two equal-sized circles positioned such that each one’s center lies on the perimeter of the other. [continued