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.
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 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. He considers himself both man and woman and bids Batman to eat of his body and drink his blood... or maybe he means the result of loosing control of his sphincters due to the electroshocks.
- 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.
- April Fools' Plot: The story takes place on April Fools' Day.
- Bedlam House: Arkham at its finest, folks. And by finest, we mean "most pants-crappingly scary".
- 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..."
- 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.
- 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.
- Climax Boss: Killer Croc.
- 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 story is essentially this. The story is about Batman coming to peace with his personal demons and progressing from a sexually stagnant, fragile manchild to a true hero of Gotham.
- 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, he isn't the main antagonist. 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. Dr. Cavendish wears a bridal gown during the climax. Finally, the Joker a more downplayed case as he is seen wearing high heels. Although, in the original script, Joker was supposed to dress similar to Madonna in her "Open up your heart" music video.
- 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 blond 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.
- 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 with a pencil through her eyes.
- Foe Romance Subtext/Homoerotic Subtext: Part of Morrison's interpretation of Batman. Joker, sensing Batman's fragile state of mind and repressed sexuality, deliberately fucks with him, the most memorable part being when he slaps Batman's ass.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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 . 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.
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Killer Croc.
- Insult Backfire:Batman: Take your filthy hands off me!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.
- 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 humanity will always need a place like that...
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reality Warper: Doctor Destiny gets portrayed this way here, although he's actually less scary than in The Sandman.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?
- Sanity Has Advantages: But not as many as you'd hope.
- Secret Identity Apathy: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.
- The last words of the comic:
- Dr. Ruth Adams shares a name with the female scientist co-star of This Island Earth.
- 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.
- Small Reference Pools: We have Carl Jung, Alice in Wonderland, Psycho, The Bible, Aleister Crowley, Tarot Motifs, quantum mechanics, and much, much more.
- 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.
- 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 several months later.
- 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...
- 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.
- 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.
- Weird Moon: Two-Face has decided it's 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.