It's possibly the most pretentious graphic novel (i.e. expensive comic book) of all time. It has a reputation for deliberate inscrutability, hamfisted symbolism, or absolute vacancy, depending on who you listen to. So of course I bought it twice.
This Wednesday I picked up the softcover Fifteenth Anniversary Edition of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum. My Watchmen is falling into tatters and my V for Vendetta is right behind it. Understanding Comics is fading fast around the spine and even Maus isn't looking so hot. My old copy of Arkham Asylum would look untouched if it weren't for the sun damage along the spine, a sign of how long I let it linger on an ill-placed bookshelf back at my parents' house.
But the anniversary edition (and a strange anniversary it is--15? I suppose they were hoping lightning would strike twice and they'd catch some fat Batman Begins sales) includes a full script with Morrison's annotations. I've been itching to revisit Arkham Asylum for a while now, driven by a suspicion that it isn't as bad as the conventional wisdom says. Not a great story, certainly, especially by Morrison's subsequent standards (it predates Doom Patrol and a good chunk of Animal Man), but not nearly as awful as collective memory and my own would have me believe. I've been wondering how much of its reputation is truly deserved and how much was just part of the Nostalgic Nineties' unpleasant reactionary stance against the truly groundbreaking comics of the late 1980s. With a look at Morrison's original script, this edition seemed the best chance to find out.
The new annotations are sparse but the script itself is already annotated, providing a thorough and often fascinating account of the comic's mythological underpinnings. The Christian and Tarot symbols were always apparent--how could they not be, when the comic opens with a handful of bloody nails, a plan of a cathedral, "THE PASSION PLAY AS IT IS PLAYED TO-DAY" and a giant chi?--but Morrison's asides reveal a surprising consistency and depth to allusions that come across, on the page, as superficial stabs at meaning. (This is after all a glossy prestige-format comic that casts our hyperviolent vigilante as that most hackneyed of literary symbols, the Christ figure. ) Morrison's notes don't necessarily reveal any new meanings but they do cast the old ones more sympathetically, teasing out connections between the psychoanalytic, religious, and shamanic images that make them all seem less arbitrary, less imposed and more discovered.
Meanwhile his more recent annotations restore deleted scenes, explain allusions, and toss out the occasional snide little gem like the following:
Robin appeared in a few scenes at the beginning [...] Dave McKean, however, felt that he had already compromised his artistic integrity sufficiently by drawing Batman and refused point blank to bend over for the Boy Wonder--so after one brave but ridiculous attempt to put him in a trench coat, I wisely removed him from the script.
I can't help but read a shifting of blame into that--he was too snooty to do a straight-up Batman story, not me. Other comments call to mind the 1995 Comics Journal interview (#176) in which Morrison said he had imagined Arkham Asylum would be illustrated "by someone like Brian Bolland" who could provide a super-real rendering of the horrific interiors. Instead, Morrison complained, he and Dave McKean generated clashing symbologies of art and script that repelled interpretation.
While Bolland's clean lines would seem dissonant in this project (as Will Brooker observes in his book Batman Unmasked), the script carries a couple of points in Morrison's favor. Many of his descriptions call for a representational clarity and, especially, a depth of field that McKean chooses not to bring to the page. Some are mere whimsies like the Mad Hatter's room:
Imagine now that you can hear Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" begin to play here and continue throughout this scene. We're in a big room that's littered with all sorts of curious stuff. (A tip of the hat here to the Batman tradition of giant props.) [...] A liquid slide projector fills the room with psychedelic swirls and whorls of marbled colour. Sweet, cloying drifts of smoke fill the room. It looks most of all like a 1967 nightclub--a hallucinogenic paradise.
Actually, this calls to mind Bolland's complaint (read in some glossy comics fanzine many years ago--forgive me, I think it was Comics Scene) that Alan Moore didn't give him any fun Dick Sprang scenery to draw in A Killing Joke. Maybe he would have been ideal for Arkham Asylum.
Anyway, some of the excised descriptions are simply little pieces of color like the above, far more imaginative and entertaining than the blank swirls of paint that open and close every scene in McKean's final product. Others indicate important plot points: a bit of body language sets up Drs. Cavendish and Adams's sudden reappearance at the finale. It's a fair point that maybe Morrison shouldn't have expected his artist to include every item in his overstuffed descriptions (although a more conventionally representational artist probably would have, and McKean did have almost twice as many pages as Morrison thumbnailed out for him--the thumbnails, by the way, are also included in the package). It's an even fairer point that Morrison perhaps shouldn't have compressed so much of the story's dramatic logic into the background, leaving only the symbolic logic for readers to puzzle through in the action and dialogue. But the script illustrates in no uncertain terms that Morrison envisioned a much more realistically detailed, deep-focused artwork that would paint a much more harrowing picture of the asylum.
Really, McKean's greatest sin may be that the book just isn't all that terrifying. Except for one hazy "Feast of Fools" scene in which the cavorting inmates are covered over by gigantic icons, and the occasional background character decorated in clown make-up, the lunatics don't seem to be up to much of anything. Contrast that with Morrison and Jill Thompson's treatment of a similar scenario in "120 Days of Sodom," or even this Doom-like detail from Morrison's Arkham script: "There is a cryptic splash of blood across the reception desk, a discarded gun." McKean's utter abandonment of depth of field and physical verisimilitude annihilates such external environments, placing the action almost entirely in Batman's head. That's part of Morrison's scheme, but without the corresponding external world the internal turmoils just don't seem as threatening.
And Morrison wants us to know it. The anniversary volume seems dedicated to reclaiming his contributions, and his only. We get to read his original script, his subsequent annotations, his reflections on the comic's reception. ("I found out later that the script had been passed around a group of comics professionals who allegedly shit themselves laughing at my high-falutin' pop psych panel descriptions. Who's laughing now, @$$hole?" The modest lettering sadly not my invention.) We get to see his layouts, complete with trenchcoated Robin and transvestite Joker. (Not an image that we needed in the already gay-panicked atmosphere of the eighties; Frank Miller's lipstick-wearing mass murderer was quite enough. Warner Brothers may have mandated the change for insipid reasons but I can't say I regret the end result.) Morrison is all over this edition, while McKean is nowhere to be found. The result is another shifting of blame--more subtle than that old TCJ interview but to the same point.
That interview also showed a tendency to blame the readers that would resurface years later in Morrison's comments about Seaguy. On Arkham, he said, "I was still drunk with the idea that people were interested in comics that were full of fantastic layers of symbolism. And obviously most people don't even have the education to pick up on the most basic things." That idea resurfaces in the annotations to the Fifteenth Anniversary Edition, too, only it's less accusatory and joined to a curious argument from quantity: "Much of this subtextual material was lost on the casual reader but that didn't seem to stop us from shifting mega-amounts of copies." He concedes that Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson weren't stopping them either.
When Morrison isn't reminding us that he didn't get the art or the readers he wanted, he's explaining his contributions with the wisdom, the prescience that can only come of hindsight:
The repressed, armoured, uncertain and sexually frozen man in ARKHAM ASYLUM was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven, and borderline psychopathic.
Again, this appraisal of Batman's sexuality applies only to the "damaged" version of the character presented within these pages. I prefer to think of him now as Neal Adams drew him--the hairy-chested globetrotting love god of the '70s stories.
Right on! I don't know if the critique or the purging of Batman's "negative elements" were quite as preplanned as Morrison would have us believe, but there's no question that his subsequent takes on the character have been more enjoyable than any other writer's.
Whether it's reclaiming the most successful, most derided graphic novel in DC history or just Morrison's unsullied artistic vision, the Arkham Asylum Fifteenth Anniversary Edition doesn't quite pull it off. There are some scenes, like the intolerable four-page sequence in which Batman jams a shard of glass through his hand because the psychologist made him think of his mother, that no amount of handwringing can excuse. Not even with the revelation that it was originally followed by a scene in which Batman locks himself in his room and makes a Pink Floyd mixtape for Silver St. Cloud. No, I can only wish: instead the script lectures on about Christ symbols and the Vescica Piscis and the Mad Men of Gotham, quite fascinating stuff actually but nothing that ever wends its way into the plot, while the modern annotations pretend the scene is plausible as written ("This simple scene was intended to show Batman pricking his palm with glass to shock himself out of Joker-induced trauma...") and put everything on McKean.
The script establishes that McKean does destroy a lot of the story's already shaky narrative clarity, but let's not forget that he also contributes moments of great emotion and beauty: the pearls, the lace, and the child's drawing that float over the word-association scene, for example, found nowhere in Morrison's more literalistic blocking. Arkham Asylum has always been a beautifully designed book. (I should add that the colors in the new edition are more vivid than ever.) McKean's artwork is a part of its considerable success but, just as undeniably, a part of its often insufferable pretensions.
Even if the story had received its ideal artist--a demented Bolland or a McKean more interested in narrative and mise en scene--it's still driven too much by its overt gestures at symbolism. But Morrison's working notes show that he's well aware of how symbolism best works in comics, incarnated into humanoid forms that can then happily beat up on each other. The more concrete the incarnation, the less overt and, therefore, the more potent the symbol. (His comments on the Clayface scene are especially good in this regard.) The script and annotations offer a tantalizing glimpse at an Arkham Asylum that might have been, poorer in appearance but richer in meaning, or at least not so damned obvious about it. The Fifteenth Anniversary Edition is a revealing look at the graphic novel everybody is ashamed of, but I'm man enough to admit it:
Well, I always thought the gallery at the end was pretty cool, anyway.