Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I haven't read Batman: Arkham Asylum in twenty years, at least. But I wish I could talk to that earlier Andrew Wheeler, who read it soon after publication in 1989, because I desperately want to know.

Did I realize the plot made no sense back then, or was I distracted by the fancy package and the semi-profundities?

In retrospect, this set the tone for a lot of writer Grant Morrison's later work: portentous superhero operas, with characters emoting in high style, skating by on charm and flash and eye-candy to distract from the fact that the moments of the story don't entirely track and that sensible human beings would never actually act in these ways.

(Ah! But you say that long-underwear characters aren't sensible human beings! They're deeply damaged psychological cripples, heroically rising above their problems to fight for love and justice and the pure joy of punching people in the face. And I say to you: phooey. That is the worst kind of special pleading, and you should be ashamed to use it.)

Yes, the set-up is fine. The lunatics break out and take over the asylum, sure. Batman agrees to go in alone because they have hostages, definitely.

Batman stands there and chats with Joker for twenty-plus pages, like the awkward guy at a cocktail party? Um, no. Batman has been many things for many eras, but he's never been talky. And even less the person who gets talked to for an extended period, which is what Morrison does with him here.

(Batman does word-association with a not-really-a-hostage doctor? Oy, that's even worse.)

Yes, it's reasonably good psycho-babble, if your eyes are better than mine and can decipher the heroically mangled lettering of Gaspar Saladino for Joker's speeches without squinting under your glasses and turning the book closer to the light repeatedly. But if you want Batman to listen to psycho-babble, you have to tie him down first. Batman is a character of action: he's only really himself when he's using that ridiculously large cape to swoop through the darkness to paste a thug in the kisser with a gauntleted fist. Standing politely and waiting for the crazy man to finish up his crazy talk is not really in his wheelhouse.

Eventually, Morrison gets Batman on the run through the asylum, chased by the various crazy people -- which is what we signed on for. And he dispatches each of them in a page or two, since the book is already half over -- Joker took up most of it with his grab-ass and chatter. And the end is the usual non-committal superhero stuff, where nothing changes because nothing can change, and all of the toys are carefully packed up so they can do exactly the same thing again as many times as DC can make money off it.

It's not bad. But it is pointless, and faintly silly. And the evidence that Batman may be as crazy as the inmates -- nudge nudge wink wink! -- is the fact that he thinks about bats and his dead parents all of the time, which isn't precisely a stunning revelation.

(Oh, yeah: and, in a parallel story,  ol' Arkham, the guy who founded the asylum goes nuts either because a maniac murdered his family or because the house makes everyone crazy. If the latter, using it to house people already crazy seems like an even better idea -- what's it going to do to them?)

Dave McKean's pages are still amazing, though my aforementioned aging eyes sometimes found them murkier than preferable. His book design has a few elements that are looking more strongly 1989 than we all expected at the time, but that's life. The art is the major draw at this point -- moody, atmospheric, stunning, unique.

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