It’s no secret that the comic book faces an ongoing stigma. In the 1950’s, Superman and Batman were hidden under the bed sheets amongst Playboy. A super powered imagination was considered near pornographic to the staunch conventional adults of the era. Chalk the scarred reputation up to Fredric Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent” and the soon-to-be established writer restrictions AKA the Comics Code Authority. Heaven forbid Papa catch you viewing brightly colored spandex and flowing capes, what was then thought to inspire what every red-blooded Christian-American parent dreaded: latent homosexuality.
Occasionally comics actually do fit the billing of immature drivel. Throughout the vast and diverse archives of one of America’s genuine art forms, though it pains me to admit it, some really are nothing more than glorified wrestling matches. For decades the medium was socially chastised as having appeal only to an audience of immature or even mentally handicapped readers. While these days geek may be chic and the dork crowd can wear designer labels…comics weren’t in the headlines in those days. They were confiscated by brooding teachers and hidden away in desk prisons. Thank goodness for our nerd forefathers fighting the good fight during the Golden Age of comic fandom.
Fast forward to the 1980’s! We’re publicly shown via the “British Invasion,” through writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison, that the so-called lowly comic books of yore actually inspired true brilliance. Since superhero inception, we’ve been introduced to deeply underline religious parallels, moral motifs, and ethically empathetic power-fantasy themes. It may take keen eyes to notice what someone like dear ole’ Stan “The Man” Lee put in those 1960′s Silver Age subtexts, but they’re there.
Many comic readers struggle against the societal belief that comic books are juvenile. There are endless examples to counteract this misconception, but perhaps no better mainstream title than the Batman universe. I tune into the Bat-channel. So while the gamer world is reveling within dank and dilapidated environments of Arkham Asylum and City, how many are actually familiar with where it all derived from? It also happens to be my all-time favorite graphic novel. Holy acid trip, Batman! Brace yourself for some stuff the Scarecrow’s fear gas couldn’t even cook up – only Grant Morrison could!
“Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” is riddled with hidden symbolic subtexts that even the most overly analytical readers would perhaps miss. I get new interpretations of scenes with every subsequent re-reading. Always eccentric, Morrison gives us a setting that’s as much a personality in its own right as it is a haunting and Gothic location. With the inclusion of Harvey Two-face’s therapeutic exchange of his iconic double-headed coin for Tarot cards (effectively giving his dueling psyche seventy-eight options instead of his previously limiting fifty-fifty split) dark magic and the supernatural effectively establish a very macabre tone. Even famed and feared occultist Alistair Crowley makes a brief but memorable appearance.
The borderline expressionistic artwork can leave some readers disinterested. I say give the pseudo-noir ambiguity a chance. It stuns sensitive readers on a purely visceral level. The chaotic imagery perfectly mirrors the inner broken cog insanity around which the storyline revolves. It is literally a painted walk through the mouth of madness, emphasizing the collaborating relationship between illustrator and author.
“Arkham” is one of those rare novel-quality comics I use as an example when I battle against pulp prejudice and try to spread awareness. This is the perfect introduction for the most cynical of comic critics. It proves that the medium (much to the surprise of the ignorant) is filled with intellectual dialogues, allusions to world mythology, and psychological character development that ultimately derives from Jung’s archetypes. After reading, you’re left questioning the validity of reason itself and everything you once took for granted about reality has been turned upside-down. Batman seems as dangerous and deranged as his enemies, and the Joker’s disturbing conviction that the outside world is just as pathological as the world within the walls of Arkham begins to look valid. What is reality? “Arkham” leaves you deeply disturbed and profoundly paranoid…everything a great psychological horror story should do. And make no mistake, that’s what I’ll always categorize this nightmarish classic as: genius horror!
The comic book effectively has become a genre worthy of respect, albeit long overdue. The next time someone says “Pssh! Comic Books? Child’s stuff!” with eye rolling, 1950’s dated condescension…hand them “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” and watch them shut up faster than Joel Schumacher asked about Bat-nipples.
“Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”