Previously in The Last War in Albion: Morrison’s take on Batman was of a sexually repressed character unable to have a relationship, and they seeded Arkham Asylum with a number of images reflecting this. Oddly, however, they made little use of female characters.
You sit with your sisters, beneath all creation. She who spins the thread of life. You are the queen of seers, all-seeing. Of what is. Of what must be. Of what must be concealed. -Kieron Gillen, The Wicked + The Divine
Aside from Arkham’s relations there is only remotely substantive woman in the story is the psychologist Ruth Adams, whose main role is to be endangered in the climax. (Batman’s reaction to her peril is the impetus for Morrison’s above quoted digression.) Perhaps most surprisingly absent are any of the major female Batman villains; Morrison’s asylum contains neither Poison Ivy nor does Catwoman (admittedly by this point no longer really a villain). Instead Morrison is more interested in the image of the “Mother’s Son,” also described as the “Widow’s Son,” a reference to the Masonic allegory of Hiram Abiff.
This is in many ways a significant oversight in the comic as Morrison conceived it; a diagnosis of Batman’s psycho-sexual dysfunction that resolves with neither the presence of any women nor any serious engagement with queerness—an omission that’s even more obvious when one considers Morrison’s original insistance that the Joker should appear in drag as Madonna, part of a theme that Morrison describes as “shamanic transvestism” but that in practice meant that Morrison intended to put more of a focus on a crassly transphobic view of gender fluidity as transgressive and forbidden than on the idea that a story about sexual repression might benefit from having some women in it. In this regard, it is perhaps fortunate that Warner Bros.’ anxiety about Jack Nicholson and Dave McKean’s shadowy and abstracted representation of Batman conspired to more or less eliminate the entire theme from the published comic. Regardless, the failure perhaps does much to explain why Morrison’s claimed purification of the 80s Batman into the version from their JLA run requires skipping over eight years of Batman comics that only doubled down on the elements Morrison was trying to critique.
The one piece of clear feminine imagery that made it through into the comic as published is the structure of Amadeus Arkham’s family, which Morrison explains at the outset “form a Classical Triad—his mother, the Hag aspect, his wife, the fertile mother, and his daughter, the virgin.” This division, more popularly listed in the reverse order as maiden, mother, and crone, refers to a specific interpretation of the figure of the triple goddess common in post-industrial neopaganism. This is not strictly speaking the origin of the idea—the ancient Greek Hecate was represented as a triple goddess, as was the Celtic Morrígan, and numerous other triumverates existed such as the Norns in the Norse and both the Moirai and and Erinyes in the Greek. William Blake, meanwhile, reworked a painting of Hecate into The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, depicting Enitharmon sheltering two other figures, their faces and identities hidden. (Asked who the figures were in a 2020 seance, Blake pointedly demurred, declaring it “neither my secret to know nor reveal.”)
In the late 19th century the scholar Jane Ellen Harrison, among the leaders of the revival of Greek mythological studies, conflated Hecate’s status as a lunar goddess with traditional representation of the Moirai in terms of the divisions of the moon and as women representing the span of one’s life, creating the first image of the triple goddess as a specifically lunar figure, part of her larger assertion of a historical matriarchal society, a likely influence on Crowley’s idea of the Aeon of Isis. The idea was further unpacked by Jung, who argued that the Greek triple goddesses were best understood as quartets with a male god. In the 1940s Robert Graves synthesized many of these ideas in his landmark The White Goddess, which treated the figure as an idealized muse that, of course, he had a degree of access to. Graves’s conclusions were widely disparaged in scholarly circles, but they had an outsized influence on the development of neopaganism, as did Marija Gimbutas, an archeologist who made her own versions of Harrison’s old claims about a lost matriarchal society, all of which combined to establish the triple goddess as a common figure in various Wiccan traditions.
Connected as it is to the maiden-mother-crone triptych, the triple goddess most often serves as an all-purpose figure of archetypal femininity, often in drably bioessentialist terms, especially in the Dianic Wiccan tradition, which fully embraces trans-exclusionary radical feminist beliefs about the essence of womanhood being sexual reproduction. But the figure of Hecate and the Fates at the root of much of this iconography ensures that the triple godess figure also retains a clear link to magic and the idea of the mysterious and secret. Blake’s Enitharmon serves as an effective illustration of the figure; she serves not only as a figure of pity and of poetic inspiration (thus connecting her explicitly to Catherine, Blake’s wife and collaborator), but as a goddess of magic and secrets, as tacitly represented in The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, where she is shown enduring a long night of the soul surrounded by strange and unearthly beasts. Within Blake’s larger cosmology, it is Enitharmon who serves as the figure at the threshold, gatekeeper of a luminous darkness from which visions of Eternity can emerge. (“I never said any of that,” stressed Blake, before hastily adding, “but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”)
Within Arkham Asylum this luminous darkness is represented in Morrison’s second major piece of Tarot symbolism within the comic, the Moon card. Morrison uses this image to bookend the comic; their opening image is “a shot of the moon, caught between two chimneys on the roof of the Arkham House as it was in 1901,” which they note is a visual mirror of the Moon card, quoting Crowley as one would expect. The final page, meanwhile, sees Two-Face knocking down the house of cards he built out of the Thoth deck, zooming in onto the Moon card. McKean opted to strengthen this, making the images literal bookends, each in stark monochrome atop the pages carrying the similarly bookending Lewis Carrol quotes, strengthening the sense of the Moon card as one of the defining symbols of the comic.
The Moon card differs in key ways from the moon as understood in many representations of the triple goddess, in that it is not associated with femininity. It is instead a card of mystery and uncertainty. Its traditional depiction by Pamela Colman Smith shows a moon shining above two towers and a surreal scene of two howling dogs and a lobster scuttling up from the water below. Waite offers a list of divinatory meanings reading “Hidden enemies, danger, calumny, darkness, terror, deception, occult forces, error,” a list scarcely better than the Tower. Discussing its more metaphysical properties, he offers a cryptic account of it as “life of the imagination apart from life of the spirit” before embarking upon a reverie about how “The intellectual light is a reflection and beyond it is the unknown mystery which it cannot shew forth. It illuminates our animal nature, types of which are represented below–the dog, the wolf and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower than the savage beast. It strives to attain manifestation, symbolized by crawling from the abyss of water to the land, but as a rule it sinks back whence it came. The face of the mind directs a calm gaze upon the unrest below; the dew of thought falls; the message is: Peace, be still; and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up a form.” This is uncharacteristically poetic for the usually plainspoken Waite, but this fits a card whose meaning involves a breakdown of the psychological into something strange and uncertain.
Crowley, as is his wont, goes further, describing the card as “the waning moon, the moon of witchcraft and abominable deeds. She is the poisoned darkness which is the condition of the rebirth of light,” slipping into almost Lovecraftian tones as he describes “the black towers of nameless mystery, of horror and of fear, All prejudice, all superstition, dead tradition and ancestral loathing all combine to darken her face before the eyes of men.” The imagery on the Thoth deck, meanwhile, sees Lady Freida Harris sticking unusually closely to the traditional imagery, though the deviations are significant. Most obviously, the two dogs exist in two forms, the lowly jackals and in higher forms as Anubis, while the lobster is replaced with a scarab beetle. Morrison, for their part, quotes Crowley at length in the opening of the script.
In the face of this ostentatious mystery it is perhaps useful to turn to Moore, who, in his genially explanatory Promethea situates the card in terms of “Man’s dark hour before the dawn. Auschwitz, Hiroshima, each blight, each tyranny obscures the light,” explaining the card as “man’s unconscious mind… his darker more unreasoning side.” Equally, however, a turn even further into the esoteric has merits; Crowley’s account, in particular, brings to mind Peter Grey’s incendiary magical manifesto Apocalyptic Witchcraft, where he proclaims that “Witchcraft is already dead as a hag, as barren as the moon, as contaminated as the tar sands. Yet Witchcraft is born again in this sacred despoiled landscape, and will be despised as an abomination by those who cannot navigate by the candlelight of guttering stars. Those who seek to escape the fates and furies will learn that they are inexorable. We celebrate this, wreathed in the afterglow with a half-life of a million million years.” Regardless of approach, this is a card of unnerving and potent magic.
Morrison’s selection of it to frame the book, then, marks off the magical space of Arkham Asylum as something more than the mere dreamlike fancy that the Lewis Carroll references and symbolism might suggest, marking the asylum off at once a space of unreality and of heightened reality—a place in which the nature of Batman can momentarily decohere. In this regard the stark abstraction of Dave McKean’s art serves as a validation of the comic’s unconscious impulses even as it muddied many of Morrison’s more conscious directions; a contradiction, of course, that is very much in keeping with the idea of the Moon.
Another framing, of course, is that the liminal and unconscious space the Moon represents is the realm in which one finds the Jungian Shadow, the dark second self that the ego must struggle to integrate. In this regard it invokes the Mad Hatter’s moment of putting the subtext squarely in the text by declaring, “Arkham is a looking glass, and we are you.” Indeed, it is worth noting that Lewis Carroll has Alice’s second adventure take place when she steps through a mirror into a world of reversals and counterintuitive logics. Note also the mirror’s relationship with water and with silver, both in turn associated with the moon; the mirror serves to create the space that the Moon represents.
The act of mirroring is, in many ways, the most basic unit-level of symbolism in Arkham Asylum. What is crucial about the mirror, from a mystical perspective, is precisely this: it doubles without duplicating. (c.f. Borges’s famous quote that “mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numer of men.”) It functions not simply by using symbols but by repeating them, drawing parallels between two points in the narrative and two concepts within the story.
The bookending of the story with Lewis Carroll quotes and representations of the Moon are illustrative. In both cases the image at the beginning and the image at the end are different. They are saying different things. In the case of the Lewis Carroll quotes, the meanings are almost precisely opposite; the first one marks a descent into madness, the second an emergence from it. The Moon images form a different relationship; the repetition of the image at the end of the book serves to explain (albeit not in a way that anyone who hadn’t figured out what the book was doing yet would be likely to understand) what the image of the Arkham chimneys was saying about the asylum. These pages serve as perhaps the most literal mirroring within the book, existing as they do with the spine of the book as a physical axis of reflection for the two.
A similar dynamic exists with countless other pieces of symbolism; the parallels between Killer Croc and the Great Dragon, for instance, work because the fight with Killer Croc is mirrored with the narration about the Dragon. Amadeus Arkham and Batman’s twin journeys through the asylum are similarly mirrored, and by extension so too are the events they experience. Amadeus Arkham’s decision after the murder of his family to don his mother’s bridal dress, meanwhile, parallels his earlier discussion about the hermaphroditic clown fish, which in turn parallels the (removed) depiction of the Joker as Madonna, an image that in turn would have mirrored back to Arkham’s mother.
The mirror itself, however, is mirrored within Arkham Asylum. [continued]