Sometimes... sometimes I think the Asylum is a head. We're inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it's your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass... and we are you.
— The Mad Hatter
A 1989 Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrisonat his crackiest and beautifully, creepily illustrated by Dave Mc Kean.Amadeus Arkham ended up living the remainder of his life in the asylum he founded, after losing a battle with his own private mental illness which started at childhood and was fueled by the murder of his wife and daughter. Many years later, the inmates have taken over (as opposed to just getting out like usual) and threaten to kill the staff unless Batman comes. As they plan to exact revenge, Batman runs into the depths of the asylum. What follows is a surrealist, heavily atmospheric sequence of symbols based on everything from The Bible and Egyptian mythology to Jungian and Freudian psychology.More recent editions come with a full script, which is a huge help in understanding what the hell is going on.The video game Batman: Arkham Asylum also takes many cues from the graphic novel (along with Batman: The Animated Series).The title is taken from Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".
It is hinted that Amadeus Arkham's parents sexually abused him, specifically in the "Tunnel of Love" imagery from his childhood dreams, and the way his face is situated in said image.
Not only Amadeus's parents, it's implied Amadeus Arkham and his wife sexually abused their daughter, Harriet. This is backed up by the drawing she did of her parents, which if you look closely also appears to be external female genitalia.
A God Am I: Maxie Zeus, to rather disturbing effect.
All Psychology Is Freudian: And Jungian. Batman and Arkham are both fucked up because of their parents, and there's a lot of vaginas.
All There in the Script: The only way to really understand the sheer amount of symbolism and imagery stuffed in this story is by buying the 15th Anniversary Edition, which includes the annotated script. It explains the use of some images, some of the stuff that was cut out, and (not to diss Mr McKean or anything) helps to clarify what's happening in some of the more abstractly illustrated scenes.
Like, for instance, one little inscription that's scratched into the doorway of Maxie Zeus' electroshock chamber in Greek, which is significant to the scene, and it translates to "Discover thyself." Again, the artwork is very loosely defined (and in some cases bypasses the original script).
Character Development: The whole point of the plot is Batman overcoming his own personal demons and issues to become a true hero. Grant Morrison notes in the annotated script that the ending is meant to symbolize Batman's transformation from a hurt little boy obsessing over the death of his parents to the brilliant detective hero of Morrison's Batman epic. Essentially it's the death of one interpretation and the birth of another.
Deconstruction: Oh yeah. Batman's rigid and stoic demenor is just his way of covering his severe emotional issues and sexual repression, Mad Hatter's love of blond little girls is taken to Lolicon levels, and Maxie Zeus is a weak skeletal man with delusions of granduer.
Clayface is most certainly supposed to represent AIDS.
The bearded, white-clad, beatific-expression-wearing Amadeus Arkham's last words following his years-long effort to scratch a binding spell into his cell with his fingernails: "Finished. It's finished."
In the part where Amadeus Arkham describes his carnival nightmares, the "Tunnel of Love" is meant to remind you of a woman's genitals.
Hollywood Psychology: The brilliant idea that The Joker reinvents himself every day because he finds reality so overwhelming, so that he might be a harmless prankster one moment and a homicidal maniac the next, which amongst other things reconciles the wildly different versions of the character that have appeared since the 40's. The problem is the doctors call this "Super Sanity" and imply that perhaps he is perfectly sensible to live this way, maybe more so than the rest, and that this "Super Sanity" is unprecedented. Apart from not knowing what sanity means, the doctors are actually describing a very much precedented condition, namely dissociation or a psychotic break from reality, albeit an extreme case. Maybe justified/subverted since the doctors are obviously quacks, but the term has become popular in the Joker's fandom.
It's 20 years later, but in his Batman and Robin series Morrison has Joker admit to the new Robin, Damian Wayne, that he isn't really crazy ("just different sane") and affirms Damian's accusations that he really isn't as crazy as he lets everyone think he is, confirming that these doctors are not meant to be taken seriously and The Joker is supposed to be nothing more than a sophisticated Manipulative Bastard and an evil, murdering psychopath. Again, this is 20 years later, so its not exactly the best authority on the subject, even if it is the same author.
I'm a Humanitarian: Arkham eats his dead wife and daughter following their deaths. If you look carefully in the scenes directly after Arkham discovers his dead family, you can see he has some blood around his mouth and beard. An early version of the script had more explicit.
Impaled Palm: Batman does it to himself with a shard of glass.
Joker: What's the matter? Have I touched a nerve? How is the Boy Wonder? Started shaving yet?
Batman: Filthy degenerate!
Joker: Flattery will get you nowhere.
It Will Never Catch On: In one of the anniversary paperbacks, Grant Morrison recalls how an early version of the script was passed around for people to look at. Most of them thought the psychological horror and heavy symbolism was not only a failure, but the dumbest Batman story ever. They all laughed their asses off, and in the paperback, Morrison asks them Who's Laughing Now?.
Lolicon: Morrison ran with the idea of the Mad Hatter having a taste for young blonde girls.
Mental Time Travel and Stable Time Loop: According to Morrison's script, the madness of the asylum's inmates echoed back through time which drove Mrs. Arkham (and, later, her son Amadeus) insane. But Batman's anger and confusion is what drove the two Arkhams over the edge, which leads Amadeus to write about the Bat, so Cavandish would set the events of the comic in motion which caused the Arkhams to go insane. All because Dr. Destiny's dream-based reality-warping powers had allowed the Asylum to turn into a nightmare landscape where the veil of time was thin to begin with. And that only happened because the inmates had taken over, and that only happened because Batman had in his anger and confusion put them in there to begin with. Finally, Cavendish finishes Arkham's spell, which is intended to exorcise the mad demon that infests the asylum, but because it's April Fool's day, everything works backward and he instead is the one to send it back in time and infest the asylum in the first place.
Mommy Issues: Both Batman and Arkham have metric truckloads of them.
Only Sane Man: Professor Milo. Prior to the story, he'd been incarcerated in Arkham after accidentally being exposed to his insanity gas, but by the time of the novel it's worn off. This is generally played for (grim) laughs.
"I don't know how many times I have to say this. I am sane. I am perfectly and completely sane. I shouldn't be in here at all. There's been a terrible mistake."
Painting the Medium: Every character gets a different style of speech bubble. For example, Batman's is black with white lettering; Maxie gets blue with a Greek font... Joker's lines don't have speech bubbles containing them (but did have a deranged red color) and Clayface's were... just plain weird.
While probably unintentional, Maxie Zeus talking about how he's a god in blue speech bubbles brought someone else to mind.
This can lead to difficulty in reading some dialogue, especially with the Joker's jagged-red font.
Joker: He seems so frail in that wheelchair but all he has to do is look at you and you stop being real. He does so want to look at you, darling.
Run the Gauntlet: The inmates force Batman to at least confront, and sometimes actually fight, several classic Bat villains.
Joker: Time to begin the evening's entertainment, I think. If you're feeling up to it. Batman: Up to what? Joker: A nice little game of hide and seek. You have one hour, sweetheart, and there's no way out of the building. One hour before all your friends come looking for you. [...] They all want to see you, so why don't you just run along now?
Take That: In the 15th Anniversary edition, in the beginning of the script, Morrison writes that the script was passed around to many others before the project was completed, and that they all laughed at his attempts to integrate serious psychological symbols into a comic. Look at him now, "@$$holes!".
Tarot Motifs: Several, The Tower and The Moon in particular.
The Cameo: Lots of classic Batman villains make background cameos, like Black Mask and Tweedledee & Tweedledum, some in a blink-and-you'll-miss-them kind of way. Then there's Scarecrow, whose presence takes up several panels, but does little more than walk from one end a the corridor to the other end.
The Unfought: Lots and lots. Batman only fights Killer Croc, and assaults both Clayface and Dr. Destiny. But the rest of the rogue gallery goes completely unfought - Joker, Two Face, Black Mask, Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus, Scarecrow...
Too Kinky to Torture: Maxie Zeus has become addicted to electroshock therapy, seen hooked up to what can only be described as a non-lethal electric chair when Batman encounters him.
Maybe 'addicted' is not the right word. He describes himself as a martyr, like Attis and Jesus; and he is supposed to be the lord of lightning. Maybe he just grins and bears it.
Viewers Are Geniuses: You'll get much more out of it if you have some knowledge of psychological symbolism. If not...
Multiple re-reads are practically mandatory as well.
It also has the problem that, while the art is wonderful, it often does a poor job of actually portraying the events of the scene and at many points has omitted important symbolic details for the sake of maintaining its distinctive style. Reading the script, even without annotations, reveals a lot.
World of Symbolism: Morrison's script was chock full of pop psychology, Tarot, Egyptology, medieval Christian mythology, and more. McKean's creepy-ass surreal artwork just takes Morrison's three-layers-deep mythology and turns it into swirling horror. Morrison didn't mind.