Once again we’re extending the boundaries of ‘surrealism’ so that I can write about a graphic novel i’m particularly fond of. Sorry about that. But I can say that it revolves around madness, ideas of the self, of the occult, chaos and one particularly famous fictional asylum. I am of course talking about ‘Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth’ by Grant Morrison (‘Star Blazer’ 1979-’87, ‘Zenith’ 1987-2000) and Dave Mckean (‘Cages’ 1998, ‘A Small Book of Black and White Lies’ 1995.)
The graphic novel has been an unprecedented success since it’s release in 1989. By 2004, the editor Karen Berger reported that it had sold close to half a million copies, making it the best selling graphic novel of all time, in terms of original superhero comics. It is also widely accepted to be one of the most influential of all time as well. You may be wondering why I’m still talking about this. But this book is one of my favourite of all time, why? Because it’s weird.
Obviously it’s a graphic novel, so the story is told through a unique relationship between the artwork and the text, between Mckean and Morrison. For those not familiar with the book, ‘Arkham Asylum’ is set in the Batman universe, where the Joker has taken the entire of The Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane hostage. He states that he’ll only relent if Batman comes in and plays his game. Really this is the crux the whole thing spins around. Joker’s game is that Batman has to engage in a sinister game of hide and seek in one of the most twisted worlds in modern literature. We follow two trails. We follow Batman exploring the asylum, coming into contact with crazed antagonists from previous works but also exploring himself – the key idea that Batman himself may be the ‘crazy’ one. We also follow the autobiography of Amadeus Arkham, the creator of the asylum, and his spiralling collapse in madness. Or rather, his towering ascension to it. Both forks of the story rely on a fundamental question, what is sanity? Or rather, how do we define it?
Morrison’s writing is very much concerned with this, throwing huge swathes of philosophical references and psychological analyses at the reader. Granted, this is kind of overwhelming and maybe a little pretentious – but it still gets to me when I read it. The canonical references are there to be subsumed. When Amadeus references Euclid (“I pity the poor shades confined to the Euclidean prison that is sanity”) in his final moments, the art of Mckean pulls it under with the image of Amadeus knelt on the hard ground, surrounded by scrawling, spiralling notes spilt from his unkempt mind. Instead the Book relies on references to the occult as the standing order of the text. For these are the symbols of mankind’s belief, a plane of thought that is not ground by any kind of definition of explanation. Even the title (“A Serious House on a Serious Earth’) comes from the Phillip Larkin poem ‘Church Going’ which arguably undermines the idea of total religious worship, and instead suggests a more convoluted, awkward relationship with the divine. Both Morrison’s writing and Mckeans artwork form a bond that dismantles typical methods of explanation and instead try to show us as readers that sanity is not so easily defined, and nor should it be. That instead, that loss of self into an inexplicably illogical realm of thought is part of what makes us human.
“I am what madness has made me. Whole.”
And really this is where surrealism comes in. Right off the bat, the rejection of conventional modes of thought and explanation is a key idea of surrealism. But also the way the two authors explore this through references to the occult and a sustained use of otherworldly symbols utterly defies reality, but more importantly, convention. Take the classic Batman antagonist, ‘Two-face’.
In many Batman novels, Two-face is portrayed both as headstrong, all-American District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the half and half anarchist sporting heavy weaponry and a bold white and black suit. In this however he’s weedy, small, appears weak. It’s the first thing you notice about him and this is down to Mckeans artwork. His art is transient, sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s actually going on but that works perfectly for this text. Our view is as distorted as the characters of the story. Batman himself appears non-human, mostly defined by the pointing cowl and sweeping cape. But like I was saying, Two-face appears notably different. He still has half of his face burnt to symbolise his split personality disorder, but he’s anxious, broken even. It transpires that to ‘cure’ him and give him back the ability to make decisions that aren’t formed in dual terms, they’ve taken away his coin. Now in previous Batman comics Two-face uses the coin to make important decisions, sometimes it’s because he believes that the only justice in the world is chance, other times it’s just because one half of his personality is a violent psychopath and the other is a melancholy outcast of society (his origin story as Two-face differing quite heavily in different works.) In Arkham however, the doctors have replaced his coin with a Tarot card pack which he now uses to make decisions. Of course though, there are 78 cards in the average Tarot deck (although there’s no such thing as an ‘official’ deck’) – which leaves Two-face in a quivering mess, who wets himself because he can’t decide whether or not to go to the toilet. The reader is surprised to see this, the former criminal now appears pathetic, even Batman states that they’ve “effectively destroyed the man’s personality”. Again we see madness as a key element of personality, of the self. Without it, many of the characters are left as empty shells of themselves. Mckeans artwork at this section once more portrays an unclear collage of symbolic references, to the tower card as a symbol of self discovery or to the moon as the symbol of initiation and rebirth. There are plenty others that, to be honest, I still don’t understand. We see madness here as something necessary to these characters. Although we might not immediately relate to this, the surreal nature of their personalities make you question =, rather than identify. The moment where you ask if maybe you have something that’s repressed, defies explanation and that if you were to peer deep into it you might change forever. I appreciate i’m being dramatic but you get the point.
Another example includes Batman’s confrontation with the Mad Hatter, a paedophile who is obsessed with Lewis Carroll’s classic ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’. He claims things such as “Arkham is a looking glass” or …
“The Apparent disorder of the universe is simply a higher order, an implicate order beyond our comprehension.”
Both ideas seem utterly surreal. The idea that chaotic, or non-sensical representation is simply a different order. It’s not so much anti-realism in the sense of denying reality, but rather in a way that sees it differently. The Hatter says all this surrounded by plumes of smoke reminiscent of the Hookah pipe caterpillar in Carroll story. The whole physical place of Arkham embodies descent into madness, but really a rejection of typical order or convention. Even Batman is seen to loose his own sense of self. You get the impression it’s like all the inmates are ghosts conjured by the personified asylum itself to address Batman’s trauma, and his disturbed way of dealing with it. Indeed, the most pointed note we get from the Amadeus story is that the loss of his mind after the death of his wife and daughter by a serial killer he treated acted not only as a release of his true personality but as something that would forever define the asylum he set up. Arkham asylum. What has previously just been a convenient dumping ground for Batman’s villains now becomes a psychological dumping ground, where one’s repression are uprooted – and can never be buried again.
I suppose the greatest embodiment of this is the Joker. And really it would be hard to talk about Batman without talking about the Joker. I don’t want to talk about this too much because it’s more the book in question i’m interested in, but the relationship of the two characters in general and in this text symbolises this conflict between utter anarchy and total order. Release and repression. Joker, in a way, symbolises the spirit of Arkham, a release of all psychological demons until madness itself becomes one’s personality. The doctor Ruth Adams in the book claims his condition to be ‘super-sanity’ – which seems a really interesting concept. Super-sane seems the best way of describing how this text portrays those who both repress the illogical and embrace it. In Arkham, the Joker reinvents himself every day, whereas Batman clings to a single definable identity. Joker symbolises this higher plane of surreal understanding, whereas Batman chooses to return and reclaim conventional, ‘Euclidean’ definitions of sanity. Mckean portrays the Jokers form as lucid but not in the same way as Batman. Instead his curves, his edges are jagged and his whole presence in constantly frantic – perhaps showing a personality relying too much on madness. The reader is provided with examples of someone is too insane, and too sane. The original script for the text even includes a whole section with the Joker in high heels (which is obviously not anything dramatically new or a symbol of madness in any way) but shows instead how much he is free of the restraints of typical, conventional order – also shown in just how uncomfortable Batman is when Joker slaps his ass. But that’s a whole other article in itself.
Finally I just want to touch again on some particular pieces of artwork that, I believe, solidify the surreal tone of this work. One scene that really struck me was when Amadeus finds his murdered wife and daughter. His daughter’s head is stuffed into a dolls house and we see her smiling face staring out of it in one the most disturbing images of the whole piece – Amadeus saying “I look at the dolls house, and the dolls house looks back at me.” Not only do the panels on this page split off into images of the cuckoo clock and the severed head of his daughter but it’s pitched on this background of red lace. Every image, as well as this, feels full. It feels like the kind of thing you could unpick for hours. It’s following this that Amadeus puts on his mother’s wedding dress and kneels at the “nursery abattoir”. Part of why I love the text is for sections like this, we get an inside view of the scrapping of logic. It’s not about drowning your demons but releasing them, talking to them, embracing them. We can also see this towards the end, when Two-face casts out his deck of cards quoting the end sequence of ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ – “Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards.” We see Two-face casting out the forced sanity of the outside world and embracing the spirit of Arkham, the spirit of the surreal. We see both the symbolic occult of the Tarot cards but also the creation of new symbols in the return of his scarred coin. This seems appropriate as, like surrealism, this plane of thought seem limitless. Human belief can be limitless. The ending section of art and text as well echoes this, as we get what is essentially a ‘psychological mug shot’ of each of the characters, reading some text reflecting their personalities and a square of art that forms a painting of who they are.Batman’s is of course a bat, with the text reading in a typewriter format – it’s determined, driven. Whereas Joker’s is shambolic, chaotic and lists random events and acts (e.g. “write letters in dead languages – to people you’ve never met!”) Other examples include Clay-face’s which appears messy with pieces of skin and a shape instrument. It reflects his obsession with physicality, repulsion and a subversion of body image (it’s also notable that Clay-face in this context is often seen to represent my people’s reaction to the paranoia surrounding AIDS in the 80s, as well as the prejudice against gay individuals during that time.) His form is one of charred, melting skin which oozes and appears, well, clay like.
The last piece of art I want to mention is ‘The feats of fools’ piece. Covering two pages, this entire scene is just pure chaos and unreasoning. We see the Joker heralding a parody of the last supper filled with criminals and mental patients. The other part of the page is covered with swirling motifs and symbols born by Mckean’s classic style. To be honest I needed to look at the original script to see what was going on here (even though it differs slightly as Morrison was asked to make the scene rely more on inference rather than exposing all the images overtly) but you can tell certain things. For example we see a man with a crows head assaulting someone else, a woman being attacked by what look like demons, a creature hanging upside down holding a chandelier above a dead security guard and a number of patients cuddling dementedly amongst cakes and tea – it’s also quite reminiscent of the Mad Hatters tea party. It appears blasphemous, it appears unreal. We also see numerous quotes littered around the page like the arc of a broken mind. We see numerous quotes from or regarding the 1963 play by Peter Weiss, ‘Marat-Sade’; (sorry I had to shorten the title) -like “Dead in a bath”, “dictator of the rats” and “Charlotte Corday! Charlotte Corday! Charlotte Corday!”. We also see “Some say God is an insect” from the film ‘WUSA’ and “A boy’s best friend is his mother – an obvious reference to ‘Psycho’. The whole thing is a true assault on one’s perception, I’ve lost count of how long I spent staring at this piece and really it’s the ultimate summary of Amadeus’ legacy. The surrealist view of the world that makes no sense in conventional means but makes it’s own sense. The most interesting thing to consider though it’s that in making it’s own new surrealist order, it can often reveal things about the previous order that it would never have seen on it’s own. Arkham, after all, is a looking glass.
So it’s not out-right surrealism but it deals with themes familiar to any surrealist. Questions of how we define normality (or in this case – sanity) and how transcending conventional order can be a release. Overall it gives the impression that both perceptive modes have the flaws, and that too much of either can destroy you. You can’t be the Joker but you also can’t be the Batman. Its a romp through a truly disturbing, surreal and demented environment, governed not by rationality and reason but by symbols, repressed urges, insanity and human belief in all it’s dark forms – and what the power of that belief is. I would implore you to read this, copies can be quite expensive but it’s still to this day one of my favourite books of all time. It sums up perfectly the darker motives of a surrealist, to undermine order and to release those irrational thoughts that are buried so very deep in our spirits.