Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

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Dave McKean's cover to the Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth hardcover edition
Dave McKean's cover to the Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth hardcover edition

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean. It was originally published in the United States, in both hardcover and softcover editions, by DC Comics in 1989. The subtitle is taken from line 55 of the poem "Church Going", by Philip Larkin.


[edit] Background

The book was one of DC Comics first original graphic novels to feature Batman and when released in 1989, it sold so well it quickly became DC's best selling original graphic novel, a title it held for many years.

The book is notable for both McKean's typical blend of painting, collage, and ink drawings and Morrison's exploration of various mystic ideas, including the symbiosis between Batman and the criminals he captured and recaptured. Various threads of symbolism used by Morrison include the works of Lewis Carroll, the Christian Mystery Plays, the psychology of Carl Jung and the works of Joseph Campbell.

The book was highly praised by critics and fans alike and proved not only artistically lucrative for Morrison but financially lucrative as well. Morrison secured a deal with DC Comics to earn one dollar per copy sold of the book, netting almost $300,000 from the initial sales. A special 15th anniversary edition was released by DC in 2004 which included extra material such as Morrison's original script with annotations and thumbnail sketches.

[edit] Plot

The story opens with a flashback sequence featuring Amadeus Arkham, the architect and first administrator of Arkham Asylum, detailing Arkham's renovation of the family manor into an asylum, following the death of his mother Elizabeth and his subsequent inheritance of the property, and also his subsequent descent into madness.

On April 1st, Commissioner Gordon informs Batman that the patients of Arkham Asylum have rioted and taken over the building, and will murder the staff who are trapped inside unless Batman agrees to meet with them. Among the hostages are a young woman named Pearl, who works in the kitchens; the current Administrator, Dr. Cavendish; and Dr. Ruth Adams, a therapist who had been working with Two-Face to cure his obsession with duality, and his need to use a coin to make decisions; she weans him off the coin and onto a die, then to a deck of Tarot cards, increasing the possible outcomes from two to six, and then from six to seventy eight, in the hopes of eventually giving him a fully functional judgmental system; however, Two-Face ends up incapable of making simple decisions such as going to the bathroom.

Another hostage is a middle-aged security guard, whom the Joker kills in order to spur on Batman to obey his wishes. After the murder the Joker proclaims, 'Oh what a senseless waste of human life!', a line from a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese does the same to an annoying Cheese Salesman.

Lured in by the villains led by Joker, (stated by Morrison in the 15th Anniversary edition to have been originally scripted to wear a Madonna-style pointed brassiere but toned down to just high heels and green painted nails and a lavender overcoat) and Black Mask, Batman is forced into a game of Hide and Seek, and told he has one hour to make his way through the maze-like corridors and find a way out before his old foes are sent to find him. In fact, impatience among the villains leads The Joker to let the others out early, saying "Let's just pretend it's been an hour".

In a nightmarish and surreal journey through the asylum Batman encounters various villains (interpreted in incarnations differing wildly from their standard canon existences), including Maxie Zeus (an electrified, emaciated figure with a messianic complex and an obsession with electric shocks), Clayface (a rotting being of filth and disease), the Mad Hatter (a more drug-centered incarnation with pedophilic overtones in his fascination with Alice in Wonderland) and Killer Croc (deformed and having an appearance that echoes the Elephant Man). Batman fights his way through both Arkham Asylum, and his own subconscious mind (each villain is a reflection of an aspect of Batman's psyche), until he reaches a secret room high in the towers of the Asylum - a room left unchanged from the days when the property served as Amadeus Arkham's childhood home.

Inside, Dr. Cavendish is found dressed in a bridal gown and holding a straight razor to Dr. Adams' throat. He is revealed to have been the one to orchestrate the riots, and when questioned "Why?" by Batman, he prompts him to read a passage marked out in the journals of Amadeus Arkham, a secret diary that was locked away inside this room since before Amadeus went mad.

The hidden room turns out to have been Elizabeth Arkham's bedchamber, the room she had been confined to for most of her son's life, through ill-health and insanity. For many years she suffered delusions that she was being tormented by a supernatural creature, and would call to her son to protect her. Unable to understand what she saw, Amadeus had to endure the torment for many years. One day, however, he finally sees what his mother saw - a great bat, a spectre of death. Taking a pearl-handled straight razor from his pockets, he cuts his mother's throat to free her from her suffering. He then blocks out the memory of killing his mother, and attributes her death to suicide. He forgets until the murder of his wife and daughter at the hands of a patient (Martin "Mad Dog" Hawkins) he formerly treated at the Metropolis psychiatric hospital.

A page from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.
A page from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

Recalling his earlier actions, Amadeus puts on his mother's wedding dress and takes out the pearl-handled razor. Kneeling in the blood of his family he vows to bind the evil spirit of "The Bat", which he believes inhabits the house, through ritual and sorcery. In the original script it is implied that he eats the remains of his family during this process. He continues his mission even after he is incarcerated in the Asylum himself; he scratches the words of the binding spell into the walls and floor of his cell with his fingernails until the day he dies. He does so, singing 'The Star Spangled Banner'.

Discovering Amadeus Arkham's journals, the razor and the dress, Cavendish begins to believe himself to be the one destined to continue Arkham's work, and on April 1st (the date Arkham's family was murdered and he swore his oath) he lures Batman to the Asylum. Accusing him of feeding the evil of the house by bringing it more insane souls, Cavendish believes Batman to be "The Bat" himself. Grappling with Batman, Cavendish drops the razor, and it is picked up by Dr. Adams. Reacting instinctively, she slashes it across Cavendish's throat, killing him.

However, although Cavendish is dead, Batman and Dr. Adams still must find a way to escape Arkham. Batman returns Two-Face's coin back from Dr. Adams, stating that it should be up to Two-Face to decide his fate. Two-Face flips the coin and declares Batman free. Later, however, it can be seen that Two-Face lied about the coin toss. The dollar came up scratched. He chose to let Batman go.

[edit] The ending

The ending has three interpretations.

The first (and intended) interpretation is given by Grant Morrison in the 15th anniversary edition of the book. He explains that since the book takes place on April Fools day, all logic is reversed. This would mean that in Two-Face's mind, the meanings of the sides of his coin would have reversed.

The second interpretation is a lot darker. Before Two-Face tosses the coin, he says "Clean side up, he goes free. Scarred side up, he dies here. Okay?" The result in this case shows that Two-Face is keeping to his word and the outcome of the coin, but more importantly, it implies that Batman will one day go crazy and end up in Arkham Asylum, eventually dying of old age. Two-Face's reaction afterwards could be that of despair, believing that fate has declared Batman to be a false idol, and that all hope is gone. [citation needed]

The third interpretation is more positive. Two-Face lies about the coin toss in order to save Batman, a friend to Harvey Dent, but this is only because Two-Face learnt about choice from the therapy that was administered to him by Dr. Ruth Adams. Two-face's reaction could be fear expressed towards the notion of free choice, or more importantly, the fear of losing his hold over Harvey Dent's mind, hence his hatred towards the tarot cards. Hope is a motif that reoccurs in the Batman stories.Other examples include the end of "The long halloween" ("I believe in Gotham city") and the ending of the 1989 Batman film, with the chiming of Bells coming from a newly built Gotham Cathederal, which was previously the derelict setting of the showdown with the Joker. [citation needed]

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