It’s often been said that early Grant Morrison shows more than a little indebtedness to the seminal comics-works of Alan Moore, for all that the two creators eventually expressed mutual animosity for one another. I can’t be sure that Morrison had read Moore’s KILLING JOKE before he wrote the 1989 ARKHAM ASYLUM. However, it seems pretty likely. Both graphic novels are not rousing adventure-stories like Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but psychological mind-games, in which the ongoing conflict of Batman and the Joker is used to comment on human concepts of sanity and madness. Still, even at this early juncture, the two authors diverge in their treatment of said concepts. Moore takes a “modernist” approach, reading a fantastic hero and his uncanny villain in the realistic roles of weary cop and mocking serial killer, or even "a superheroic version of the Sunshine Boys." By contrast, Morrison, sort of a de facto “post-modernist,” takes a minor element in the Batman mythos and expands on it to give new dimensions to the eternally repeating battle of bat and clown.
The element in question is the asylum of the novel’s title. Arkham, named for a mystery-haunted city in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, appeared in 1970s BATMAN comics, partially in response to DC’s decision regarding depictions of the Joker. For over twenty years, the character’s stone-killer roots had been set aside, and he became simply a menacing crook who delighted in pulling outrageous crimes. However, once the 1970s Joker started killing again, DC’s creators had to come up with some reason to explain why he was never executed for murder. The solution was to rule the Joker as incurably insane, and to sentence him to a newly-created insane asylum. Over the years other super-crooks who had never been motivated by anything but greed, such as Killer Croc and the Scarecrow, joined the Joker in Arkham, as did somewhat more logical inductees like Two-Face and the Mad Hatter. Long before Morrison’s opus, the asylum began to seem less like a place to cure madness than to nourish it and breed it anew. Presumably Arkham’s reputation as a sanctum of insanity led Morrison to align the mental hospital with Lewis Carroll’s ALICE books. Golden Age BATMAN books don’t support such a conflation. For every one story that features weird masterminds like Joker, Penguin, Mad Hatter and the equally Carrollesque Tweedledum and Tweedledee, there are probably twenty stories in which Batman and Robin successfully battle and defeat ordinary career criminals. But from the 1970s on, DC’s BATMAN books became predominant playgrounds for freakish fiends. Small wonder that Morrison prefaces ARKHAM ASYLUM with the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, in which the vanishing feline proclaims, “We’re all mad here.”
By way of expanding on the story of the Asylum, Morrison alternates two stories. One, taking place in modern times, concerns the Arkham inmates taking over the asylum, and Batman voluntarily entering its corridors alone for the purpose of releasing the captive staff. The other, taking place over the first twenty years of the 20th century, deals with Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder, whom I will henceforth designate as ‘Amadeus” to distinguish him from his creation. Amadeus—whose ironically chosen name means ‘love of God”—suffers a parental trauma seemingly designed to rival that of Bruce Wayne. Amadeus’ father dies in 1901, and for the next twenty years, prior to her suicide in 1920, his mother suffers a combination of madness and demonic possession. The founder’s story is related in journal-like captions, so that the reader can enjoy his scholarly comments when, for instance, he sees (or imagines) beetles coming out of his bed-ridden mother’s mouth, and Amadeus observes that mythically the beetle is “a symbol of rebirth.”
Despite a disquieting instinct that the family mansion may have become a literal gateway to “a world of fathomless signs and portents,” Amadeus seeks solace in the pursuit of psychology’s ability to heal mental defects. As a psychiatrist he encounters a mass murderer named Hawkins, who, by the law of the land, is confined to a penal institution despite the fact that he’s mentally ill. Amadeus, though blessed with a wife and a daughter, makes the unwise decision to dedicate his family’s possibly haunted home to the treatment of mental patients. The night that he makes this decision, he dreams that “the mirror people have escaped from the glass and come looking for me.”
Back in 1989, Batman is obliged to enter the mirror-world of the Asylum, and his host is of course the Joker, who informs the crimefighter that “you’re in the real world now.” Inside, Batman encounters many of his old opponents, though only Morrison’s dialogue identifies them, given that Dave McKean’s art constantly seeks to avoid depicting most of the characters with any clarity. The hero meets the hospital’s two captive administrators, Doctors Cavendish and Adams. Batman finds the two psychologists less than credible, since they insisted on staying when other hostages were released. In addition, Adams shows the hero how they’ve “cured” Two-Face of his duality obsession by altering his fixation into new channels that Batman finds less than desirable. Yet Adams seems almost an advocate of the Joker’s madness, rationalizing that it may be “a brilliant new modification of human perception, more suited to urban life at the end of the 20th century.”
Back in the 1920s, Amadeus begins to dramatize his struggle with the demons of insanity, thinking, “Just as the Archangel [Michael] subdued the Old Dragon, so shall I bend this house to my will.” Yet even years before the birth of the man called Joker, Amadeus encounters portents of his advent: a lost “joker’ card found on the premises of the mansion, a pair of clown-fish selected for his aquarium. But the next blow comes from outside the house, when the mad killer Hawkins escapes prison and somehow finds his way to the mansion. Thus, months before the building is dedicated to healing the mentally ill, a corrosive madman slaughters both the wife and daughter of Amadeus. Nevertheless, Amadeus opens his asylum on schedule, naming it in the honor of his dead mother, and when Hawkins is sent to Amadeus for mental healing, Amadeus contrives to “accidentally” kill the maniac with electroshock therapy. It’s not quite the same sort of vigilantism that Batman practices, but the parallel could not be more explicit.
Back at the modern-day Arkham, Batman is subjected to a gauntlet of attacking villains. Most of these scenes are nugatory, since McKean’s art is so niggardly with details, with the sole exception of Batman’s encounter with the Mad Hatter, who, quite naturally, is rendered after the fashion of Carroll’s most famed illustrator, John Tenniel. The nominal fight-scenes are less important than two discoveries the hero makes. One is that administrator Cavendish has gone as crazy as his inmates, having released them from their cells as a deluded experiment. The other is that Amadeus Arkham believed that the asylum was a trap for demons, and that only Amadeus’s use of magic managed to contain them, just as Batman contains evil in Gotham City. In the end, the only way Batman triumphs over the Joker is by getting Two-Face to resort to his “old madness” in place of his “new madness.”
Morrison works in many other symbolic references. Some, like various Tarot-images, enhance the reading experience. Others, like the revelation that Amadeus met both Carl Jung and Aleister Crowley, seem more like name-droppings. In ASYLUM Batman’s Morrison is nothing like the super-competent master thinker that he is his 1990s JUSTICE LEAGUE stories; he’s a lot like Moore’s Batman, beleaguered and uncertain. Yet unlike Moore, Morrison seems to place conviction in the Myth of Batman. While Moore’s Batman plays second-fiddle to the tragedy of the Joker’s descent into madness, Morrison depicts the entire order-versus-chaos formula of the Bat-books as two contending manifestations of madness. Though Two-Face gets the last line—reciting Alice's line “Who cares for you?”—Batman best encapsulates the story’s core when he says, “Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”