New To You Comics #120: Checking Into `Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth’

by Tom Smithyman

We’ve taken several weeks off because of some other commitments (my fault entirely!), but we’re back now with one of the seminal Batman graphic novels of the last 30-plus years – Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. While I often am drawn to some of the more independent titles, I have a serious weakness for most things Batman. That meshes well with Tony Thornley’s love of capes, laser guns and swords.

It’s hard (impossible really) for me to think that this book came out in 1989. I’m pretty sure I picked it up in college which, for me, started in the middle of that year. That’s right, I have an original first edition – WITH a Joke drawing courtesy of a very kind Dave McKean, who did the amazing artwork for this book. More on that in a few.

Writer extraordinaire Grant Morrison crafted the story, which has the inmates literally taking over the asylum. Batman must endure a special kind of hell as he confronts most of his rogues’ gallery, from Killer Croc to the Mad Hatter – even Maxie Zeus. A side story (or is it really the main story) tells the origins of the asylum through the tragic tale of Amadeus Arkham.   

Tom Smithyman: Tony, you’re a superhero guy, but you’ve never read this book? Tell me how that’s possible??? More importantly, what did you think of it?

Tony Thornley: I got into comics in the early 90s. My first pull was GI Joe, and shortly before the original Joe run ended, I started reading the 90s classic Superboy. I dabbled in Batman a little, but it was a little too grim for me (remember, this would be right around Knightfall). So it wasn’t until the last four or five years that I sat down and said “Oh, this Batman guy? I kinda like him!”

Tom: Let’s start with the writing. It’s hard not to love Morrison’s work. But this is certainly not your typical Batman story. It’s crazy dark, particularly when you get into the meat of Amadeus’ backstory. It slowly builds and that smacks you upside the head. 

This story came out not long after the death of Jason Todd and Barbara Gordon’s paralyzation at the hands of the Joker. Knightfall was just a few years off. At that time, there was a lot of exploration of Batman’s psyche. Many of the books from that period treated Batman as just as crazy as the villains, only on the side of law and order. You can certainly see elements of that here.

What’s your take on Morrison’s writing and the approach they took?

Tony: I seldom dislike a Morrison story, but early Morrison can be really dated. Overall, I really liked this. At moments though, there was dialogue that was cringey at best, problematic at worst (a few moments of some extremely ableist language in particular). This was published in the late 80sthough, and Morrison has grown so much.

I think their voice for Batman is a little rough (he reminds me of Christian Bale’s “swear to me!”) but it is their first Batman story. Their Joker and Harvey Dent are both fantastic, and the Amadeus Arkham portion of the story is extremely well done. An unethical doctor being taken apart by their hubris is always a bit of a satisfying story, and I always love when Morrison dives into the secret history of Gotham.

Tom: Let’s get to the artwork. There have been a few times when reading comics where I just had no idea what I was looking at. I think that happened to me when I first saw Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as well as Alex Ross’ work in Marvels. That artwork just isn’t what you’re used to seeing in a comic book. I hadn’t seen any of McKean’s work on The Sandman covers, so it was the first time I had ever experienced his interpretations of the characters I know so well.

I mean, has there ever been a scarier version of these characters? Just take the Joker. I know the silver and bronze age artists I’ve spoken with prefer a classic Joker with that V-shaped head. I think McKean does that here, but so much more. How do you look at those insane bloodshot eyes, the crazy green hair and the long emerald fingernails and not go crazy yourself? 

And I could go on. In fact, we could do a whole column just on the artwork – from the mixed media that McKean uses when exploring Amadeus’ descent into madness to Maxie Zeus’ blue and white electricity arcing off him. Were you as blown away as I was by it?

Tony: Oh yeah, I think if there were one reason alone to check out this book, it’s McKean. I really liked how he shifts gradually as Batman descends further into the Asylum. It starts only slightly abstract, but the more weird everything gets around Batman, the more impressionistic the art got.

I agree with you about the Joker. He’s fantastic. But I really liked one of the smaller parts of the book – Harvey Dent. He makes Harvey so handsome, but the Two-Face side still feels so human. Harvey’s big moment at the end of the OGN is so incredibly satisfying because McKean conveys his growth and relief so perfectly on the page.

Oh and that fight between Batman and Killer Croc looked so damn cool.

Tom: You know, one of my many faults as a review is to overlook the lettering. Most letting in today’s comics is done digitally, and while I know it’s an art unto itself, I usually feel that if I’m noticing the letters, it’s because something is wrong. But this is very much a different case. Gaspar Saladino did what I consider to be the best lettering job ever with this book. While many of the characters have standard word bubbles. Batman’s are reversed with white letters on a black background. Then, of course, Joker’s blood red words can’t be contained by bubbles. The font is different – dare I say crazy. It’s a great touch that adds to the creepiness factor. 

Tony: You say that about the Joker’s letters. I liked the lettering work a lot outside of the Joker. Batman’s white on black balloons are very distinct and I enjoyed the different font uses for each inmate. Joker’s letters made a great impression, but they were so hard to read on digital though. I think Saladino could have done the same thing with an unusual bubble and made it way more readable. But then, it might be a difference between print and digital, and digital comics weren’t even a twinkle in the eye of the industry when this was published.

Tom: Like I said, we could spend lots and lots of time discussing this one. But I’ve had the opportunity to read it a hundred times over the past 30-plus years. As a first-time reader, what was your overall impression?.

Tony: Fantastic book, dated in places, but the positives outweigh those negatives. Exactly the sort of story we do the column for!

Tom: Awesome. We’re going to try to get back to a regular cadence of this column, so what have you chosen for next time?

Tony: We’re going to go all ages with Jeff Smith’s Bone volume 1!

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth is available from DC Comics. 


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