Thursday, 20 October 2011

Review: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison & David McKean

Arkham Asylum is an example of the comic book as work of art. A quick glance at the detailed script at the back of this book (included in newer editions as a bonus extra) reveals the layers of symbolic resonance and forethought that has been gone into its creation. Arkham Asylum is not a narrative-driven work. Expect no greatly plotted superhero adventure or crime caper here. Instead, this is a literary descent into imagination, nightmare and the subconscious. It moves downwards, sideways and in, reaching towards something felt rather than understood.

Arkham Asylum has the same kind of poetic density as T. S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland', and yes, that might be considered an indulgence. But that's entirely missing the point. Here the Joker is a primordial, Jungian archetype, and so is the Bat. Therein lies the revelation at the heart of the graphic novel: both are aspects of the complex, conflicted human mind, and both are relevant (correction: absolutely important) to the human imagination. Batman is the Ego, kept in check by the disciplined, idealistic Superego, but threaded through with the dark desires of the Id, represented here by the chthonic, chaotic Joker himself. Just as the Joker is part of Batman, Batman is that part of the human psyche against which the Joker must define himself.

The medium for storytelling here is not one of plot and time, in the linear sense of most comics. The medium here is the image as space: the image that opens itself up to interpretation like a Rorschach test, that encourages penetration by the reader. The reading experience is one of exploration, with the reader as active participant puzzling out the meaning of the story in his or her hands. This is not passive entertainment.

If you like the films of Michael Bay, you can probably leave this. If you like Guillermo del Torro's Spanish-language films, this might be the book for you. But be warned: this is not a straightforward story of heroes and villains, with bold primary colours and a Caped Crusader who fights for a clear-cut concept of good.

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