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October 07, 2005


Greg Morrow

Thank you.

I read AA once, when it came out. I splurged on the hardback, because, hell, this was DC in the late 1980s and I was still drunk on their Second Golden Age (the hangover was a bitch).

The parts I understood seemed either trivial or arbitrary; the parts I didn't understand seemed pretentious claptrap.

Ultimately, I felt like I had mostly wasted my money. I never seriously tried to access the work again.

I'm glad you reviewed the new version.

Mark Fossen

I remember liking it when it came out. But I was ....what .. 20 years old, aspiring to a life in the theatre. Both my coffee and turtlenecks were black, and my chain smokes unfiltered. At that point, art that confused me ... well, that must mean it's *good*, right? Pretension equaled quality.

I'd love to try it again now. But while my wallet protests, I can just pretend I read it, and that I was as insightful as you were.


Thanks, guys.


Ah, very nice work.

I guess simply having Morrison's script on hand is 'commentary' enough, but I still felt that Morrison's annotations were awfully sparse - I sort of wanted more.

It's really interesting how Morrison and McKean's impressions of the project's evolution differ. In his revent interview with The Onion AV Club ( http://avclub.com/content/node/41034/1/2 ), McKean basically takes the credit for pushing Morrison's script further into symbolism and literary allusion - indeed, he claims Morrison was "keen" to rewrite the script to his suggestions, as it was initially a more standard superhero work. Of course, McKean makes no bones about how he finds Batman and Robin to be utterly stupid in many respects.

Basically, I get the feeling that McKean would have rather illustrated something like The Mystery Play, though I frankly don't think that turned out any better for lack of superheroics (have you read it? it's really quite surprisingly similar in structure to Arkham, a flawed hero's journey through a strange land, with lots of overbaked biblical symbols and characters standing around and declaring things while smeary symbols circle around)...


Oh yes, I've read The Mystery Play and I liked your write-up on it a while back. The similarities to Arkham Asylum are so pronounced that I wonder if all parties involved weren't trying to recreate the formula for success--only without Batman or the mega-hit movie to boost its sales. It seems rather romantic if they thought the telegraphed symbology and murky art would do it alone.

I need to read that Ng Suat Tong review you mentioned, the one that identifies all the symbology; I wonder if it would redeem the piece the way Morrison's script partially does Arkham.

The McKean take is interesting; I wonder what he would make of Morrison all but blaming the thing on him. I confess, I started to read that interview but didn't make it through to the final page; I think the parallel Gaiman one wore me out. (That man is too precious too stomach.) The script does bear out his account, since it's obviously a post-McKean draft (Robin is already gone)--I could believe that Morrison really did dial up the symbology in collaboration with him.

Of course, while McKean displays a charming obliviousness to the book's troubled reception, his disdain for the very concept of Batman and Robin suggests he was absolutely the wrong person to tap for the art. Call it another point for Brian Bolland.

Greg Morrow

What would AA have been like if Dave Gibbons had drawn it? He's like Bolland, but possibly even more so--Bolland's figures are nearly mythic despite his (fairly stiff) photorealism, but Gibbons' figures are more earthly and make his artwork even more grounded in mundanity.

Would the contrast have improved the impact of the heightened level of symbolism in the project, or would it have robbed the symbolism of its stength?

I think either Gibbons or Bolland would certainly have made the work more palatable to lowbrows like me, and then, like Watchmen, the work would have also rewarded more careful examination. As it was, McKean's heightened visual symbolism provided a heightened barrier for entry just in the first place.

It would be a wildly interesting experiment to have different artists tackle the same script, wouldn't it? I'd pay for it.


Gibbons would have been terrific; Bolland just seems too poised, too pretty for a narrative this unsettling.

I think the contrast would have heightened the symbolism, actually; Morrison's notes play right into my hobby-horse about comics and symbolism but they make it clear that he regards the characters as already symbolic in all their garish four-color glory. Hell, his thumbnails put Clayface in his garish Len Wein/Marshall Rogers costume while his script talks about him as "an avatar of pestilence and infection." That contrast might have been too much; I don't object to McKean's decision to strip Clayface naked and cover him in lesions as it brings the embodied meaning further to the surface. But more often his art adds an intrusive filter of expressionism or abstraction; it's clear that he killed the Maxie Zeus scene by drowning it in a formless cobalt wash. As written in the script it's far creepier, but the creepiness is dependent on its blocking. A more grounded artwork would have better conveyed that horror.

You can almost see your experiment played out in the anniversary edition with Morrison's thumbnails. His Batman in particular looks like a Neal Adams influence, possibly an Irv Novick; I have no doubt that underneath his cape and cowl there beats the heart of a hairy-chested love god.

Iron Lungfish

I think Morrison protests a little too much in saying his "Arkham" Batman was meant to somehow refute the dark psychopathic Batman of the 80s, especially when it in the end, all "Arkham Asylum" does is give us another dark, psychopathic Batman. That he's giving himself glass stigmatas instead of rolling around in a Bat-tank doesn't take away from the fact that this Batman is presented as being just as insane as his enemies, as belonging in the asylum, and being capable of murder. The whole "I was really railing against the 80s dark-and-crazy stuff, honest" reeks of the kind of desperate apologism-in-hindsight of a guy who tried to do the dark-and-crazy Batman thing and just did it very badly. Now he gets to claim the book is the exact opposite of what it appears to be, while also giving a good kick to the kind of 80s-style gtittiness that's gone out of vogue among fashionable writers.

I haven't read Morrison's original script - if I'm not buying "Watchmen" twice, I'm sure not buying "Arkham Asylum" twice - but I can't imagine how it would work better with a realistic artist. Nothing really happens in that book: Batman goes in, runs around being crazy, and runs out again, and in the meantime we have several set pieces which work or fail to work to varying degrees. It's a venue for reheating one of the most overcooked cliches in comics while not even bothering to attach it to a plot. At least McKean's style gives some visual flair to the thing to add some flesh to what's otherwise a rather shallow and skeletal story. The more realism you have, the more you're just left with Morrison's story, which frankly is kind of crap.


"I think Morrison protests a little too much in saying his "Arkham" Batman was meant to somehow refute the dark psychopathic Batman of the 80s..."

I agree. It was playing up to the dark psychopathic caricature (and to the public's ideas of what a "mature" comic was supposed to look and read like) that moved all those copies. On the other hand, his script makes a somewhat better case that the experience in Arkham is meant to purge Batman of some of his own hang-ups. The script wants to have it both ways--and why not? It's only his subsequent comments that deny the book's indebtedness to the 1980s Miller-and-Moore model Batman.

"I haven't read Morrison's original script [...] but I can't imagine how it would work better with a realistic artist."

Perhaps you should take the word of those who have read the original script, then.

You would be amazed at how much of the scripted blocking, setting, and even key plot points get left out in McKean's artwork. McKean's photocollages add life to some fairly vapid scenes like the word association, and the overall production design is stunning, but he probably takes away more than he adds.


In hemi-demi-semi-defense of AA, I will say that when I was 17, I liked the part where the Joker, in response to some other inmates' demand that the Bat remove his mask so they can see his real face, replies, testily, "Don't be silly -- that *is* his real face," neatly circumventing one of the obvious confrontations and setting the Joker a cut or two above the tediousness of his fellow residents.

Iron Lungfish

"Perhaps you should take the word of those who have read the original script, then."

I'll defer to your take on it, since you've actually read the script - it's just that the basic premise of "lunatics take over asylum and do nothing with it, Batman breaks in, runs around and runs away" is such a limp fish that it's hard for me to imagine what would have rehabilitated it. If the plot itself is unimportant, then the story is being carried by imagery and mood, and while a different artist can carry these pretty far, the basic elements of "Arkham" - Christ and Freud symbolism - are so hoary and cliched that I have trouble imagining how a better-suited artist could've made them really work.

Not there aren't lots of typically Morrisonian neat ideas scattered throughout the story. I particularly like the concept of "rehabilitating" Two-Face by giving him artificial means of making more and more choices - first with the die, and then with the tarot - but completely incapacitating his ability to make any choice in the process. It's just that the pieces don't add up to much in the end.

Dave Intermittent

Is there another creator out there that so relentlessly manages his reputation as does Morrison? It seems he's constantly fighting a rear-guard action against cracks in his reputation; which is a sort of sad spectacle, really, since the bulk of his work speaks well enough for him that a few failures are nothing to worry about.

alex orzeck-byrnes

but dave mckean's art is beautiful!

certainly his interpretation of the script moves it away from grant morrison's conception of it, but mckean's visual aestheticism seems to me a reward in itself, despite its departure. so we got a mckean batman instead of a morrison batman, so what?

there seems to me a polarity: one pole is the experience of the comic book as primarily iconography and symbolism (which is to say a drawing of a man is meant to say "in the real world this world this would be a man" and grant morrison's more literary approach treats the comic this way, little paper dolls to be moved around in combination to form more complex visual sentences; the other pole is to approach the page aesthetically, which is to foreground the experience of the art--its visual/emotional impact--and not its grammatical function.

i love grant morrison's work as well, and certainly a closer collaboration that incorporated both sensibilities would be even better. (and probably add another hundred pages, but fantastic!)

but since we're apportioning blame, today i read a dialogue between mckean and barron storey today and it seems clear that morrison's approach was very hands-off (although we might take the comic script as a law itself this seems like a poor point of departure from the collaborative process with a collaborator as versatile and expansive as mckean).




"so we got a mckean batman instead of a morrison batman, so what?"

No--we get a series of pretty, frequently arresting but just as frequently incoherent McKean tableaux working at cross purposes to a Morrison script instead of a comic in which both story and art work in concert to achieve something neither could do independently.

I'm not sure there is a "McKean Batman," except in the most particular sense of figure drawing, so little interest does he display in the character.

Agreed that it's beautiful (at moments--some of the paint washes don't do much for me) but it isn't telling the story, any story, nearly as well as it could. Reading the working script (a script, I'll note again, clearly revised after McKean had joined the project and in response to some of his desires) has made it clear that McKean is better suited to collaborators like Gaiman, whose stories are no great shakes to begin with and who therefore benefit from all the visual digressions.


I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the artist who seems to me would've been most appropriate for this story -- Bill Sienkiewicz. He has all the artistic flourishes needed to create a rich, dark, unique vision akin to McKean's, but he also knows how to tell a straightforward story much better, and more in keeping with the writer's intent.

Andrew Hickey

Sienkiewicz knows how to work to authorial intent? Tell that to Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman, both of whom had to totally rework scripts that they gave him (the Elektra one and the piece in Endless Nights) because he gave back art that bore no resemblance to their original scripts...

alex orzeck-byrnes

i think that we're carrying the assumption that authorship in comics is the domain of the "writer". this seems like a mistake to me, inasmuch as the narrative is at least equally visual. professional visual artists (exceptional ones in the case of both sienkiewicz and mckean, both in terms of draftsmanship and the strength of their imagination) seems like not-terrible peeople to adjust the story to suit their capacities. the "writing" is done with words and pictures. in the case of the miller/sienkiewicz collaborations, i never recall hearing miller complain about the deviation from the script, it seems like they had a much happier organic chemistry than morrison/mckean, but correct me if i'm wrong.

alex orzeck-byrnes

i agree also that the clarity of mckean's storytelling in arkham is sometimes shaky, but i think clarity is not entirely his intent or content. i think he's intersted in creating atmosphere more than narrative transparency.

alex orzeck-byrnes

even though it may be a simple matter of differing tastes, i just want to suggest a different perspective regarding neil gaiman's strengths as an author (of comics): since the process in his case is inherently collaborative, is it a flaw to leave room for "visual digressions"? (on an unrelated note, i'm fairly sure that this "?" should go inside the endquote but i hate the way it looks.) i enjoy all of the work that he's done with mckean, although i haven't had much patience for his prose.

alex orzeck-byrnes

i'm also curious about why people think arkham asylum is pretentious. is it because of morrison's, uh, pretensions to literary complexity, his literary pretentions IN A BATMAN COMIC, or seeing painted art IN A BATMAN COMIC?

Andrew Hickey

The point is that McKean's storytelling changes actually leave out subtle things that would make the plot hold together better. I don't think that anyone dislikes the changes he made to, for example, the word association scene.
My comments on Sienkiewicz come from the interviews in the current Following Cerebus (which has fascinating interviews with a number of comic creators this issue, conducted by Dave Sim). Gaiman and Miller are both interviewed, but it's Gaiman who said it about Sienkiewicz (not in a negative way - he found it an interesting challenge:

Gaiman - Bill Sienkiewicz - for whom I had written a story in as loose a way as I could, having spoken to people over the years who had worked with Bill and knowing that what I would get back would be nothing like what I had written anyway - Bill's art came in last of all, and it was wonderful and strange and really, really cool, and nothing at all like what I'd written --

Sim - Who had warned you about that? Was it Frank who had told you about that with Elektra: Assasin?

Gaiman - Frank had told me about that with Elektra: Assassin and I think Andy Helfer had told me about it. A few people had mentioned things about it, but mostly Frank. And in fact, I told Frank about getting Bill's art in and laying it all down on the floor of the bedroom - because there was enough space there to walk along it - and then moving pages around [snip] And when I told Frank the story his jaw dropped and he said "You changed the pages around I never thought of doing that."

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