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Comic Book / Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

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"You must admit it's hard to imagine this place being conducive to anyone's mental health."

"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 Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean.

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 the occult to Jungian and Freudian psychology.

The title is taken from Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".

While the events of the story are only considered canon by some writers, the backstory of Arkham Asylum and the Arkhams has been integrated into the mainstream DC Universe.

More recent editions come with a full script, which is a huge help in understanding what the hell is going on. The current release is the Deluxe 25th Anniversary edition.

The video game Batman: Arkham Asylum also takes many cues from the graphic novel (along with Batman: The Animated Series and Arkham Asylum: Living Hell).

This comic provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents:
    • 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 Constance 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.
    • The matter doesn't end there. It's also stated that "Mad Dog" Hawkins was sexually abused by his father as well, which contributed to his descent into insanity, leading him to rape and kill as many women he can, including Amadeus's wife and daughter.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Averted, mostly. Morrison wanted to write a Batman story based on Jungian psychology for a change, which emphasizes the idea that there are many parts of the psyche of which we are unaware. There's still some Freudian vibes, though - Batman and Arkham are both fucked up because of their parents, and there's a lot of vaginas as symbols.
  • 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).
  • Animal Motifs: Clown fish are featured in Amadeus' flashbacks. Morrison explains in the annotations that they signify both the viscica piscis, the relationship between the folk symbolism that fish share with the moon, the Joker (you know, clowns and all that) and crossdressing.
  • April Fools' Plot: The story takes place on April Fools' Day. This is shown with the Fake Kill Scare, where Joker pretends to gouge out a nurse's eye with a pencil. But when Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum, the nurse is completely unharmed, and Joker acts like it was an April Fools' prank.
  • Arc Symbol:
    • The Moon and towers, specially their meaning in Egyptian tarot, where they signify rebirth and facing your demons respectively. Doubles as Tarot Motifs.
    • The viscica piscis (The place where to super-imposed circles intersect). Arkham was build on top of one, Amadeus' spell to contain the Bat entity had the shape of one and then there's the clown fish mentioned in Animal Motifs.
  • Bedlam House: Arkham at its finest, folks. And by finest, we mean "most pants-crappingly scary". It's even implied to be some sort of Eldritch Location that deliberately messes with its patients' minds, in and of itself implied to be because Amadeus Arkham killed his mother Elizabeth there.
  • Beetle Maniac: Amadeus Arkham inherited his obsession with beetles from his mother, who ate them because of their mythological significance as a symbol of rebirth.
  • Body Horror:
    • Clayface, who looks like he's flaking apart. "Batman... my skin is sick..."
    • Much like in The Sandman (1989), Dr. Destiny had his original rational for his Skull for a Head (the JLA ridding him off the ability to dream shriveling up his face) extended to affecting his whole body, becoming an emaciated figure in a wheelchair. In their notes in collected editions, Morrison even notes they never bought that Dee would've only had a skull-looking face because of what happened.
  • Building of Adventure: Arkham Asylum is presented as this, forcing Batman to run through a gauntlet of horrors in order to save the hostages inside.
  • 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 of the corridor to the other end.
  • 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.
    • Two-Face ignores a flip of his coin, making a decision for himself for the first time. The coin comes up "bad heads", which meant that he should have killed Batman. But instead, Two-Face said that the Bat goes free, and so he did.
  • Climax Boss: Killer Croc is the last member of the Rogues' Gallery that Batman has to face at the top of the asylum. Batman gets thrown out a few windows, all while the narration of Amadeus Arkham describes a horrific vision he had of fighting against a dragon.
  • Colon Cancer: The full title seen on every edition is actually Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
  • The Comically Serious: The Batman here is intentionally depicted at his most humorless, as a commentary on his borderline psychotic 1980s incarnations.
  • Coming of Age Story: The late bloomer variant; in the comic, Batman is mentally a child as he's sexually repressed and possesses a cocktail of emotional issues. The arc of the story is breaking Batman's immaturity by forcing him to confront his childhood trauma so he can mentally reset as the caped crusader who will defend Gotham with his life.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover above is that of the 15th anniversary Updated Re-release, which suggests The Joker is the main villain. While Joker does show up as an antagonist, the Eldritch Location itself is more of the villain than the Joker is. The original 1989 cover instead has a very detailed drawing of a bat flying by Arkham Asylum.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: Amadeus dresses up in his mother's wedding dress after discovering the corpses of his wife and daughter. Also, Cavendish wears a bridal gown during the climax. Finally, the Joker (in a more downplayed case) as he is seen wearing high heels.
  • Creepy Dollhouse: Amadeus Arkham returns home to find an escaped mental patient has killed his wife and daughter. During the scene, Arkham focuses on his daughter's dollhouse, where he sees his daughter's head through one of the windows.
  • Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: Amadeus founded the Asylum to treat the mentally ill after his mother went insane and died. When one of his patients escapes and rapes and murders his wife and daughter, he goes off the rails himself and needs to become a patient in his own institution.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: While he's forced to Run the Gauntlet, Batman's "fights" against Clayface and Dr. Destiny are over very quickly. The former is taken out with a single kick to the leg, while the latter is in a wheelchair, prompting Batman to simply kick him down a set of stairs.
  • Darker and Edgier: This book takes a deep dive into the underlying psychology of Batman and his rogues, with all of the horror that entails. Arkham Asylum is treated as some sort of Eldritch Location that not only doesn't help its patients get better, but deliberately messes with their minds. There's multiple Slashed Throats and blood splatters depicted on-panel. And there's underlying hints of sexual abuse everywhere, including such abuse done to children (albeit only implied rather than shown).
  • Deconstruction: The comic dives into the psychological issues surrounding the mentalities of the Caped Crusader and his rogues' gallery. Batman's rigid and stoic demeanor is just his way of covering his severe emotional issues and sexual repression, Mad Hatter's love of blonde little girls is taken to outright pedophilia, and Maxie Zeus is a weak skeletal man with a huge messiah complex and who has developed an addiction to electroshock therapy.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • 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.
  • Deranged Animation: Minus the "animation" part since it's a comic, but the art style definitely revels in this and milks it for all the creepiness it's worth. Batman's cape is treated like wisps of smoke, the Joker's smile is depicted with stark red teeth and his eyes are bulging, and there's massive slabs of darkness puncutated with horrific images on every panel.
  • Eldritch Location: After being previously hinted, this version of Arkham is a focusing point for madness that expands in all directions of time, created by Gotham and the Bat. It even seems to create a Stable Time Loop involving the Arkham family and Elizabeth Arkham's death.
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy Is Torture:
    • Amadeus Arkham really does use the electroshock machine for torture and murder, subjecting Mad Dog Hawkins to "treatment" that slowly fries him alive as revenge for what Hawkins did to his wife and daughter. This being the 1920s and Arkham Asylum, it's dismissed as an unfortunate accident.
    • Maxie Zeus is subject to electroconvulsive, but doesn't find it torturous. In fact, it feeds into his delusions of being the god of lightning.
  • Eye Scream:
    • Joker creatively uses a nurse, a sharpened pencil, and one of her eyes to lure Batman to the asylum. And then when Batman gets there, it turns out he was kidding.
    • Then there's the Joker himself, since this version doesn't have eyelids.
  • Fake Kill Scare: This is how Joker provokes Batman into coming for him. Over the phone, he acts as though he's blinding a nurse neamed Pearl with a pencil through her eyes. When Batman gets there, Pearl is completely unharmed. Joker plays it off as an April Fools' Day prank
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Part of Morrison's interpretation of Batman. Joker, sensing Batman's fragile state of mind and repressed sexuality, deliberately messes with him. The Joker slaps Batman's ass and calls him things like "sweetie" and "darling" while making it clear that he's still very dangerous.
  • Freud Was Right: If you read Grant's notes, you'll find that a LOT of the scenes in this story have to do with Batman's screwed-up sexuality. And it was mostly based on Jungian psychology, an outgrowth of Freud's work. Even Lampshaded in the comic when Arkham goes to study with Jung in Europe.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Some of the characters are nude, Clayface is completely naked as he tries to touch Batman and Maxie Zeus appears to be naked but the dark environment covers his genitals. It's assumed he's naked because his electroshock therapy gear made him lose control of his sphincter, forcing him to defecate himself.
  • A God Am I: Maxie Zeus, to rather disturbing effect. He considers himself both man and woman and bids Batman to eat of his body and drink his blood... or maybe he's referencing the resulting product of losing control of his sphincter due to electroshocks.
  • Guilt by Association Gag: Prior to the story, Professor Milo was incarcerated in Arkham after accidentally being exposed to his insanity gas. By the time of the novel, it's worn off, but he's still locked up. This is generally played for (grim) laughs, as Milo repeatedly insists that he's sane and that there's been a terrible mistake. However, because the cops needed a patsy for the crimes around him, Milo has to suffer for it.
  • Hollywood Psychology: The 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. Amongst other things, this 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. The doctors are obviously quacks, but the term has become popular in the Joker's fandom.
  • I Gave My Word: Zigzagged with the Joker. When Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum early in the story, Batman tells Joker to release a hostage, as Joker promised he would. True to his word, the Joker does just that, letting his hostage go without a scratch. However, when the Joker gives Batman an hour to run the gauntlet through Arkham Asylum, he's talked into going after the Dark Knight after only ten minutes.
  • 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. He does this to snap himself out of a memory of his parents being killed by focusing on the pain.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Killer Croc ends up impaled at the end of the Climax Boss fightagainst him with Batman. Tellingly, Batman almost ends up the same way, but saves himself from a fall before he gets impaled on the fence of the asylum. All the while, narration from Amadeus Arkham narrates a dream he had where he fought a dragon, all of it matching what's happening in Batman's fight with Croc, including slaying the dragon.
  • Insult Backfire:
    Batman: Take your filthy hands off me!
    Joker: What's the matter? Have I touched a nerve? How is the Boy Wonder (Jason Todd)?note  Started shaving yet?
    Batman: Filthy degenerate!
    Joker: Flattery will get you nowhere.
  • Literary Allusion Title: That is line 65 from Phillip Larkin's poem "Church Going", that describes the fascination Larkin, an agnostic, feels for churches, recognizing that even when humanity will lose all faith in gods, it will always need churches as a place to reflect about life, death, marriage, etc... then you realize that the comic is about a Bedlam House, and it implies humanity will always need a place like that, too.
  • Madness-Induced Omnivore: Amadeus Arkham's mother Elizabeth suffered from mental illness for most of her life, and at one point when Amadeus brings her some food and asks her to eat it, she says "*mmf* Eaten. I've eaten. I've eaten." As she says this, she opens her mouth and beetles fall out onto the bed.
    Arkham: [narration] Many years later, when I became aware of the significance of the beetle as a symbol of rebirth, I realized that she was simply trying to protect herself from something, in the only way that made sense to her.
  • Mental Time Travel: 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 Cavendish 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 Fools' Day, everything works backward and he instead is the one to send it back in time and infest the asylum in the first place. So it's not just this, but it's also a Stable Time Loop.
  • Mercy Kill: Amadeus Arkham kills his mother with a knife to the throat while she was in a fit of madness. The way it was framed, it was treated as if he knew she'd never break free of her insanity, as she mentions a monster coming after her every night.
  • Mind Screw: If the Stable Time Loop aspects manage to make sense, the utterly surreal art and psychological horror are still more than enough to render the whole comic into a vehicle to screw with a reader's head.
  • Mommy Issues: Both Batman and Arkham have metric truckloads of them. Batman has to stab himself in the hand with a shard of glass to snap himself out of a flashback to his parents' murder, though he says "Mommy" right after it's over. As for Amadeus Arkham, he killed his mother as a Mercy Kill when she had gone completely insane.
  • 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."
  • P├Ždo Hunt: Mad Hatter is reinvented as a pedophile here. Also, Amadeus and his wife are hinted to have sexually abused their young daughter and Mad Dog definitely raped her.
  • 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.
  • Played for Horror: The comic takes many of the recurring villains, strips them of any kind of silliness, and plays their most notorious traits for horror. For example, Dr. Destiny is no longer a creepy but somewhat cartoonish man in a cloak and a skull face, but an emaciated, withered man trapped in a wheelchair; it's implied that he still possesses his terrifying dream powers as well. The Mad Hatter is hinted at being a pedophile, etc.
  • Psychological Horror: Arkham Asylum is not a pretty place. And the comic spares no expense in showing just how completely, irrevocably screwed up the place is, psychologically deconstructing everyone inside of it throughout the story, including Batman.
  • Psychosexual Horror: In this story, there are strong themes of sexuality and sexual abuse.
    • Amadeus Arkham's parents sexually abused him. In his adulthood, Amadeus and Constance, his wife, also sexually abused Harriet, their daughter. It's also stated that "Mad Dog" Hawkins was sexually abused by his father as well, which contributed to his descent into insanity, leading him to become a serial killer who targets women.
    • This version of Clayface is also based on AIDS, as represented by how he's naked, has his skin wasting away as a result of his disease, and how he wants to "share his disease" with Batman. This is directly referenced by Grant Morrison himself in his script notes.
      Grant Morrison: "Alert readers will perceive him as AIDS on two legs and realise that he represents the fear of what lies beyond the curtain in the Tunnel of Love. If we take all the encounters with villains as corresponding to various psychological states, then this one is Batman's fear of sexuality as something intrinsically unclean."
    • Batman is also a sexually repressed man who was mentally stunted after witnessing his parents' murder. According to Grant Morrison, this version of Batman is afraid of sex and commitment because he's ultimately afraid of being hurt and abandoned.
      Grant Morrison: "This Batman is a frightened, threatened boy who has made himself terrible at the cost of his own humanity. He is completely incapable of any kind of sexual relationship. He has made himself hard and domineering in order that he might never be hurt or abandoned again."
  • Reality Warper: Doctor Destiny gets portrayed this way here, although he's actually less scary than in The Sandman (1989).
    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.
  • Reference Overdosed: We have Carl Jung, Alice in Wonderland, Psycho, The Bible, Aleister Crowley, Tarot Motifs, quantum mechanics, and much, much more.
  • The Reveal: The killer of Amadeus Arkham's mother Elizabeth was Amadeus Arkham himself. He had surpressed the memory of it. But once he remembers it, this drives him into insanity. Also, the creature that had been haunting his mother every night was a gigantic bat.
  • 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?
  • Sanity Has Advantages: But not as many as you'd hope. As Batman put it, "Madness makes us who we are", as Amadeus Arkham put it. However, after killing his own mother, Amadeus went insane, and said that he found freedom in it.
  • Secret Identity Apathy: Black Mask says they should force Batman to unmask when he arrives at Arkham Asylum. The Joker counters by saying that the costume Batman's wearing, and by extension the cowl that he wears, is who Batman really is, and who's beneath the mask is irrelevant.
    Black Mask: I say we take off his mask. I want to see his real face.
    The Joker: Oh, don't be so predictable, for Christ's sake! That is his real face! And I want to go much deeper than that.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sinister Nudity:
    • Clayface is always naked, horribly emaciated, and compelled to spread his "disease", being essentially the Preston Payne incarnation of Clayface minus his usual protective exoskeleton. The sight of him advancing down the corridor and stripping the paint from the wall by touch alone is so horrific that even Batman is noticeably scared.
    • Maxie Zeus is encountered as a Naked Nutter bathed in electric-blue light, genitals in shadow, as he electrocutes a guard that he's been keeping hostage. For added horror and disgust, it's implied that the reason why he's nude is because the constant ECT has caused him to lose control of his bowels... and he's also collected his feces in an oak barrel and tries to offer it to Batman as a divine gift. Once again, Batman decides he'd rather not deal with any of this and hightails it out of there.
  • Slap Yourself Awake: Batman stabs his palm with a shard of glass to wake himself up from the disturbing experience of being psychoanalyzed by The Joker.
  • 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 their attempts to integrate serious psychological symbols into a comic. Look at them now, "@$$holes!".
  • Tarot Motifs: Several, The Tower and The Moon in particular.
  • Tranquil Fury: Amadeus Arkham enters this when he is charged with dealing with his family's killer, ultimately leading him to electrocute him to death a year after the event.
  • There Are No Therapists: Well there are therapists, just not good ones. The therapists in the Asylum are all hopelessly corrupt, just as insane as the inmates, scared out of their minds, or all three.
  • 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.
  • 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, and the Scarecrow are all seen by never attacked by Batman.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: You'll get much more out of it if you have some knowledge of psychological symbolism. If not, it's still a pretty scary and visually-distinct story with a lot of striking images and references to classic literature like Alice in Wonderland.
  • Weird Moon: Two-Face has decided the moon is a coin, scarred face up, which is why God had to create the world.
  • World of Symbolism: Morrison's script was chock full of pop psychology, Tarot, the occult, 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • While Amadeus and Constance possibly sexually abused their young daughter Harriet, Mad Dog definitely did before brutally murdering her.
    • The Mad Hatter calls young blonde girls "bitches" during a rant to Batman, implying that he's a pedophile.
  • Yellow Lightning, Blue Lightning: Maxie Zeus, as a result of his electroshock therapy and the stylized art, is entirely electric blue.