Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
–Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

In 1989, when the British invasion of comic book writers was well underway, Grant Morrison was tasked to write a 64 page one-shot that grew into the graphic novel, Batman: Arkham Asylum. He was already making his mark, spinning imaginative stories around B-level characters (Animal Man, Doom Patrol) before going on to write a host of other great comic book runs, (DC One Million, JLA, X-Men, All-Star Superman). Before I come off as a complete fanboy, he was also prone to some truly odd ball runs ( I’m still puzzling my way through Invisibles and WE3).

Batman: Arkham Asylum is more a horror comic detailing the dark history of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, this “triumph of reason over the irrational.” is where the psychologically disturbed villains that Batman faces (from the Joker to Two-Face) are consigned to between escapes. It almost has the feeling of a Lovecraftian world (one that the word “Arkham” tends to conjure), though this is equally due to Dave McKean’s (Sandman) mix of photography and painting that creates the Gothic home of the insane. In fact, this is the definitive Arkham story.

“Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.” –Joker

Led by the Joker (the clown prince of psychosis), the inmates have taken over the asylum and have blackmailed Batman into joining them within its walls. Fighting against his own psyche, Batman must jump through their hoops, elude them, and rescue the hostages – all against the backdrop of the story of Dr. Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder. The story is one of a legacy of hate and madness that explores the conceit that a finer line than we feel comfortable with separates the sane from the mad. The madness seems to be contagious as such close proximity to the insane has had an effect on some of the doctors.

“I realized that she was simply trying to protect herself from something in the only way that made sense to her … mother had been born again, into that other world. A world of fathomless signs and portents. Of magic and terror. And mysterious symbols.” –Dr. Amadeus Arkham

Madness is often associated with paradigm shifts, a change in how we see the world. Experiencing such a shift, living through it, can be quite traumatic – moreso than we might guess at first. We become invested in our worldview; often defining ourselves through them (as much as they often define us). When those (mutual) definitions crumble, so goes our grounding, our sense of reality.

The kingdom of humanity is very much a kingdom of madness. Amadeus Arkham describes his predicament way: “Madness is born in the blood. It is my birthright. My inheritance. My destiny.” He is all too fully aware of the fact that we live in a cycle of death–one of (the lie of) self-sufficiency, fear, doubt, anxiety, broken relationships–with our minds, as one of the doctors described the Joker, filled with “thoughts guided by chaos.” We have this mix of feelings going on within us. This vague confusion and longing, what Augustine called the God-sized hole within each of us. Since we have to fill this void with something, we search and even invent ideas, personas, or things to fill this inner dissatisfaction. And yet, we can’t escape the ache of emptiness.

“I run blindly through the madhouse. And I cannot even pray for I have no God.” –Amadeus Arkham

These can lead to what the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, called dark nights of the soul. And it can be tough finding your way out of them. Not every painful experience falls into that specific category. It refers to something more than simple misfortune, but we can learn much about getting through stormy times by learning about getting through those dark nights.

Overall, the process looks something like this:
-we feel that God is absent and inactive; He’s gone and we’re alone.
-we’ve come to the end of our ability to be in control.
-the familiar (spiritual) practices that we had come to depend on, that usually comforted us, instead
seem hollow and ineffective
-BOOM! We hit a wall.
But it is the feeling that God is not at work, that He has abandoned us, and all of our cries
are going unanswered that causes us the greatest pain.

“I have been shown the path. I must follow where it leads.” –Amadeus Arkham

A lot of times we place our love and faith in the wrong things, or good things that aren’t
the best things – confusing our spiritual ideas with some distorted ideas of God. It’s tough to hold on to faith when all we hear is a deafening silence, yet that is exactly what we must do during such times. Sometimes the dark circumstances are the exact times that God uses to transform us. This is what Batman had to learn (a dark night for the Dark Knight).

Grant Morrison took a cliche (the inmates running the asylum) and spun a dark, satisfying tale from it. While it had become quite the fad to explore Batman as borderline psychotic–starting with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns–Morrison seriously explores the idea. In the final analysis, this was a solid, creepy story with art that matched the mood of the book – I just don’t think it was worth the price of admission (at least the first time around. The 15th year anniversary edition features a ton of extras that nearly doubles the original’s length and includes an annotated version of the original script). In Batman: Arkham Asylum’s examination of the horror of insanity, and our fear of our own detaching from reality, this is one of Grant Morrison’s more thought-provoking and haunting works.