In this blog I’ll be looking at Grant Morrison & Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth – the subtitle coming from Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going and instantly setting up one of the major themes in the story, that of Christian iconography and lore in relation to Batman’s journey. Throughout this entry I will explore this theme along with a number of ways in which Morrison and McKean evoke a sense of experiencing the psyche and the connection (and usually thin line) between imagination and reality, madness and sanity, salvation and destruction. To examine these aspects I’ll be focussing (perhaps quite obviously) on Morrison’s writing, McKean’s artwork and the relationship between the two.
Let’s begin by discussing the format and style of Arkham Asylum in terms of the comics medium. As Morrison himself has stated, the book was intended to be intentionally provocative as a reaction to the rise of what he terms ‘coffee table graphic novels’ – more sturdy and literary prints of books by the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Morrison describe how he and McKean wanted this book to be in a larger-than-standard format with glossy pages that would be able to break from the expectations of a ‘graphic novel’ while also enabling him and McKean to present a more European-influenced style of comic; based much more in emotions, perception and imagination than the spate of realistic comics rising to prominence (such as those by Miller and Moore). Morrison wanted this to be a comic that was not about a realistic journey to some end but instead was about a journey into the psyche – using Batman and Arkhams’ trials in the story as a conduit, a pair of psyche-everymen of sorts.
It is not just through Morrison’s writing and storytelling that the reader is taken on a journey of the psyche, but also in McKean striking and visceral artwork. In ‘Guilt and Unconscious in Arkham Asylum’, Professor Lucy Rollin stated that through McKean’s art we do not merely see a depiction of the unconscious but instead we experience it. We experience it through McKean’s use of colour, especially his over-saturation of colour, which overwhelmingly floods the scenes and complex grouping of images. The technique of over-saturation has been stated by some scientific researchers to be more effective in provoking emotional response than using specific colours. This idea of over-saturation is enhanced in this work by the specific use of large, glossy pages, enabling the colour saturation to be taken to levels not usually seen in comics and so prompting an unprecedented (even emotional) response from readers.
Colours are also used to make a definition between the ‘real’, outside world and the internal world of imagination – seen in the use of black and white for the sane, real conversation between Batman and Gordon, and the striking use of colours (usually dark shades) when Batman enters the asylum (or mind as we will come to see it).
Beyond this use of colours, McKean’s style of layering images over each other in a fracturing way lends itself strongly to the representation of memory, thought and imagination as fleeting, contradictory and fragmented – this technique also presents time in a non-linear way in relation to memory and thought. McKean then further enhances this almost overwhelming confrontation of colour and imagery through using photographs and real-world materials (nails, lace and so on) lending this visceral representation of the psyche as also having a scrapbook or notebook feeling – giving the whole experience an obscure feeling of personality and intimacy. In his book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield refers to this layering as ‘Page-as-Object’ – specifically relating to separating out aspects of the page as individual objects, these are then placed in levels of layers creating an impression on the reader of each layer’s (perhaps unspecific) relationship to each other. This then builds an autobiographical, but also opaque, nature to the images and their importance – similar to the nature of memories and feelings. The apex of McKean utilising this layering as a representation of the psyche, is the double-page spread of the Joker (p.30-31), which uses a bombardment of colours, images and words (in the form of half-phrases and semi-ideas) to impress upon the reader the contrasting and diverse nature of the psyche.
McKean uses also use another specific layering technique for much of the story (usually on the pages relating to Amadeus) of layering a full, esoteric picture behind long vertical panels which progress the storyline (as seen in the jarring clock and cogs in the page to the left). Rollin sees this as a furthering of the fractured, dream-like nature of the psyche in which we only get glimpses of a whole. Morrison himself though has a very interesting take on McKean’s use of this technique which will take me on to the next aspect I am going to discuss. Morrison says that the up-and-down style of the panels, the layering of the images, is like church windows – slits allowing us a glimpse into a sanctuary, or asylum if you prefer. I’d take this further and say they are also like stained glass windows bombarding the viewer with fractured pictures: full of colour and esoteric imagery. Morrison then has neatly taken me on to the next area of Arkham Asylum I’m going to discuss – Christian iconography and its relation to the story.
As discussed at the start of this entry, the subtitle of the story alludes to church going. This relation with the church is quickly confirmed when on page 5 (before the story begins proper) we are presented with an image of some kind of book cover, nails and a symbol of a cross – the book is titled ‘The Passion Play’, relating to the plays that deal with Jesus’ trials and death.
This image clearly indicates to the reader that this story is to be a journey of trials and tribulations resulting in death and rebirth. Once Batman starts his journey down into the asylum (reflecting a descent into his psyche) he is confronted with the death of his parents (especially his mother, which we will look at). In response to being confronted with this event he cuts into the middle of his palm with a large piece of glass. The indication being the creation Batman’s very own stigmata, which (if it had not been picked up on by the reader through McKean’s art) is confirmed in Batman crying ‘Jesus!’ as he does this (p.52).
So a clear link between Batman and Jesus is established. This link is then reinforced throughout the story, framing Batman’s journey as a set of trials and tribulations which lead to destruction and rebirth (this is especially important when viewed against Amadeus Arkham’s story arc). Finally, when Dr Cavendish suggests that Batman is the reason that Amadeus went insane and implies that he is also responsible for all the madness in Arkham Asylum, Batman’s response could be Jesus’: ‘I…I’m just a man’ (p.94).
Again, if the reader had missed the implication of the words, McKean cooperatively comes in with a partially indistinct image of Christ beside Batman. Prof. Rollin also discusses a number of the visual and verbal references to Jesus (such as the cedar-tree reference later on in the story) but for some reason skips over the symbolic sacrifice contained in Batman stabbing himself in the hand – something which seems important when considered against the duality and juxtaposition of Batman and Amadeus throughout the story.
There are many other references to Jesus’ trials and journey but I will look at these in conjunction with the psychologically referential aspects of this story. These aspects rely heavily on the Jungian concept of duality and the way in which the psychological aspects of this story are interwoven in a duality with the religious implications – just as the story arcs of Batman and Amadeus are interwoven. Rollin covers in commendable detail the psychological aspects of the story – although not discussing the duality of psychology and religion represented in the story – mainly suggesting the work of Melanie Klein but also the influence of Jung (in relation to psychotherapy and it’s need to destroy the psyche to rebuild it). Also, in Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, Grant Morrison states in reference to his portrayal of psychology and the psyche that he was influenced by the works of Carl Jung and the occultist Aleister Crowley (both of whom appear in the story itself), along with the surrealism of Jan Švankmajer, and the concepts of reality of Antonin Artaud.
Before we look at the use of duality in the story, it should be said that the role of the mother (a standard in the field of psychology) is also used heavily to tie in duality, psychology, religion and the journey of self. Both Batman and Amadeus feel guilt about the death of their mother but it is in their reactions to, and results of, their mothers’ deaths that we are given a strong idea of the psychological implication of this story. We see the importance of the mother in repeated images, words and the marrying of the two. When Amadeus’ family are killed his response is to put on his mother’s wedding dress and kneel in the blood of his family.
The image presented to us on this page (p.60) also has strong religious overtones with a church-like window prominent in the image of Amadeus in the wedding dress kneeling, showing the linking between religion and psychology created by Morrison and McKean – this is dually linked with the religious iconography of the stigmata represented with Batman’s mother’s death.
For Batman the Joker plays an important role in the psychological aspect of his journey as he takes on the role of both psychologist and mother (p.29-49) which sends Batman on his journey into his psyche. Amadeus on the other hand has no one to direct him on a journey into his psyche and the differences in results are stark. Amadeus’ mother is mentally ill and as a result Amadeus relationship with her is fractured and engrained with guilt even before she is killed. Whereas Batman seems to have had a good relationship with his mother but feels guilty about his role in her death – she scolds him just before she dies and her last sentence to a young Batman is ambiguous as to its meaning (p.50, shown below), with the implication being the child Batman ultimately blames himself for his mother’s demise.
Here then the two different strands of a similar situation are shown which are then linked in the duality of how the trails of the two men culminate.
The scenes (p.78–93) in which both men reaching the end of their individual journeys show the culmination of the strands of duality, psychology and religion in the story. These scenes are firstly significant in the way that it is the first time that the stories of Batman and Amadeus overlap through the technique of Amadeus’ narration running from the images of his story into the images of Batman’s. There are a number of religious indicators throughout these scenes too but we will focus on one aspect – the use of the concept of the devil and Jesus overcoming his temptation. On p. 40 Amadeus describes the fall of Satan, referring to him as ‘the Great Dragon’, this becomes incredibly significant in the overlapping scenes being discussed as Amadeus’ narration is of him confronting the dragon, while the images are of Batman fighting Croc (receiving more Christ-like wounds in the process).
As the fight progresses the reader begins to see that the ‘devil’ Amadeus is fighting is a psychological and metaphorical one – that of his mother and her place in his mind – whereas Batman’s ‘devil’ is the tangible Croc that can be defeated through conviction.
Here then we see the diverging influences of the mother on the two men – Amadeus’ guilt and descent into destruction is a result of his inability to relate to or save his mother; yet Batman’s guilt of inability about his mother’s death is instead the thing that gives him the power to overcome his demons and be reborn (or resurrected) as a saviour.
This is cemented in the image of Batman defeating Croc with a text box of Amadeus crying out “MOTHER!” (p.129). Amadeus cannot slay his demon as Batman has and we see Amadeus is consumed by his devil and kills his mother, thinking to save her. Amadeus’ devil being represented in the image of a bat also seems to allude to the idea that in this story Batman is the embodiment of conquering guilt and fear, while Amadeus is the representation of being consumed by guilt and fear.
These men are two sides of the same coin, or a reflection in a mirror, they are the duality of man personified. This is confirmed on the final two pages when Two-Face returns to his coin and knocks down the tower of tarot cards, conveying to the reader the confusion and opaque nature of the psyche, and of personality, which masks the simplicity of duality.
The role of Two-Face and the Joker (as Batman’s ‘other’ and through the representation of him and Batman as two sides of Amadeus) within the ideas of duality are also massively important and influential in this story – embodying the concept of the thin line and definite connection between aspects of human psyche such as madness and sanity, good and evil.
Throughout this blog I have hopefully shown the way in which Morrison and McKean intricately link together aspects of the human psyche with numerous psychological ideas and religious iconography (especially in relation to the trails, death and rebirth of Christ). Ultimately this was intended as a discussion of the ways in which irregular forms of art and narrative, along with the tangible form of the comic itself, have been used to present an immersive and effect representation of the psyche and a journey through it.
Hopefully this has been an enjoyable journey and one which has added to your enjoyment of Morrison and McKean seminal work, or maybe enticed you to go and grab a copy to search for yourself!
- My review of Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison (jongordon84.wordpress.com)
- Halloween Picks: “Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth” (comicsauthority.com)
- Batman R.I.P.: An Exercise in Deconstructing Batman by Grant Morrison (lineofflow.wordpress.com)
- Beautiful, Violent Cases (nerdybutflirty.com)