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Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

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Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Cover of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Publication information
PublisherDC Comics
Publication dateOctober 1989
Main character(s)Batman
Amadeus Arkham
Creative team
Created byGrant Morrison
Dave McKean
Written byGrant Morrison
Artist(s)Dave McKean
Letterer(s)Gaspar Saladino
Collected editions
ComicISBN 093028948X
15th Anniversary EditionISBN 1401204244
25th Anniversary EditionISBN 1401251250
2019 Absolute EditionISBN 1401294200

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (often shortened to Batman: Arkham Asylum) is a Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean. It was originally published in the United States in both hardcover and softcover editions by DC Comics in 1989. The subtitle is taken from the last stanza of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going", which reads:

"A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round."

The graphic novel was the first Batman story to be written by Morrison before becoming a regular writer in future Batman titles. Inspired by previous works like The Dark Knight Returns, Morrison conceived the story to be their own different approach to the character, using heavy symbolical references and the deconstruction of many iconic Batman villains. The story follows the vigilante Batman, who is called upon to quell a maddening riot taking place in the infamous Arkham Asylum, a psychiatric hospital housing the most dangerous supervillains in Gotham City. Inside, Batman confronts many of his enduring rogues gallery, such as the Joker, Two-Face, and Killer Croc, many of them having changed since he last saw them. As Batman ventures deeper, he discovers the origin of how the asylum was established, the history of its builder Amadeus Arkham, and the supernatural and psychological mystery that has been haunting the area.

Upon its release, the graphic novel garnered commercial and wide critical acclaim and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, and one of the best works of Grant Morrison's career, with Morrison's storytelling, narrative and Dave McKean's artistic style, the more mature, unique, psychologically-driven and horror-oriented take on the Batman mythos and the distinctiveness from other conventional superhero works.[1] The graphic novel would later become the definitive story of Arkham Asylum, a critical part of the Batman mythos. The critically acclaimed, similarly titled video game Batman: Arkham Asylum, the first game in the Batman: Arkham series, was partially influenced by the graphic novel.[2]

Conception and influences[edit]

The graphic novel was writer Grant Morrison's first work on Batman, and Morrison would later note that the story was intended to be the start of their own Batman saga.[3] Line 55 of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going" was used as a subtitle.[4] In their original script printed in both the 15th Anniversary (2005) and 25th Anniversary (2014) editions, Morrison remarks on several details behind the genesis of the work:

Len Wein ... had written a few short and evocative paragraphs on the history of Arkham Asylum [in the DC Who's Who series] and it was here I learned of poor Amadeus Arkham, the hospital's founder ... [Arkham]'s themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc. The intention was to create something that was more like a piece of music or an experimental film than a typical adventure comic book. I wanted to approach Batman from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere, as a response to the very literal, 'realistic', 'left brain' treatment of superheroes which was in vogue at the time, in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and others.[5]

An additional reference to the work as a "response" to trends of the time is made in a later note: "The repressed, armored, uncertain and sexually frozen [Bat]man in Arkham Asylum was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven, and borderline psychopathic".[4] Morrison goes on to explain that their symbolic conception of the character is for this book alone, and that their other work involving Batman has cast him in a far different light.[6] They explain,

The construction of the story was influenced by the architecture of a house — the past and the tale of Amadeus Arkham forms the basement levels. Secret passages connect ideas and segments of the book. There are upper stories of unfolding symbol and metaphor. We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral. The journey through the book is like moving through the floors of the house itself. The house and the head are one.[6]

Grant Morrison, writer of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.

During an interview with Alex Carr, Morrison stated that Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns was a huge influence during their development of the story. Morrison liked what Miller did with the Batman, creating a whole new different character who was a more driven and obsessed vigilante, and Morrison wanted to make his own "different" take on the Batman comics. Morrison also added that they tried to stay away from the original hardboiled pulp influence of the Batman and those seen in American cinema adaptations, but instead use more themes and style from European cinema.[7]

Morrison admitted that they preferred Brian Bolland to have been the novel's artist,[8] complementing that McKean's art doesn't have "the most terrifying expressions of the real."[9] Morrison liked Bolland's art in The Killing Joke, and initially wanted him to have drawn the comic, while criticizing McKean's choice of making the novel more abstract, adding that it would have been better if it was more concrete. In Morrison's assessment, their writing and McKean's art styles clashed and competed with the novel's symbolic systems, which they said to be its greatest weakness.

In the 15th Anniversary and 25th Anniversary paperbacks, Grant Morrison recalls how an early version of the script was passed around for review to a number of professionals in the comics industry without their knowledge. Most of them thought the heavy symbolism and psychological horror elements were not only pretentious, but comical, many of them laughing at the idea. In the apocrypha of the 15th anniversary edition, Morrison asks these people, "Who's laughing now, @$$hole?"[8] Morrison would also add that the people "who don't read comics regularly seemed to really enjoy the book."[6]

Plot summary[edit]

Commissioner Gordon informs Batman that the patients of Arkham Asylum have taken over the facility, threatening to murder the staff unless Batman agrees to meet with them.[10] Among the hostages are Dr. Charles Cavendish, Arkham's administrator, and Dr. Ruth Adams, a therapist. The patients are led by the Joker, who threatens to blind a young girl to spur Batman to come to the asylum. Meanwhile, Two-Face's mental condition has deteriorated as a result of Adams' therapy; she replaced Two-Face's trademark coin with a six-sided die then a tarot deck, in each instance increasing the number of choices he has (as opposed to two choices from his original coin) in the hope that he will eventually not leave any of his choices up to chance. Instead, the treatment renders him incapable of making even the simplest decisions, such as going to the bathroom.[4]

The Joker forces Batman into a game of hide and seek, giving him one hour to escape Arkham before his adversaries are sent to hunt him down. Although Batman initially refuses, he accepts the challenge after the Joker shoots a prison guard in the head and then threatens to kill Adams. Unbeknownst to Batman, the Joker shortens the time from one hour to ten minutes after being pressured by the other inmates. Batman encounters Professor Milo, Clayface, Doctor Destiny, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus and Killer Croc. During a struggle with Croc, Batman is thrown out of a window, grabbing onto the statue of the archangel Michael. Clutching the statue's bronze spear, Batman climbs back inside and impales Croc before throwing him out the window, sustaining a severe wound from the spear in the process.

Batman finally reaches a secret room high in the towers of the asylum. Inside, he discovers Cavendish dressed in a bridal gown and threatening Adams with a razor. It is revealed that he orchestrated the riots. When questioned by Batman, Cavendish has him read a passage from the diary of the asylum's founder, Amadeus Arkham. In flashbacks, it is revealed that Arkham's mentally ill mother, Elizabeth, suffered delusions of being tormented by a supernatural entity. After believing to have seen the creature himself (a bat), Arkham cut his mother's throat to end her suffering. He blocked out the memory, only to have it return after an inmate, Martin "Mad Dog" Hawkins, raped and murdered Arkham's wife and daughter.

Traumatized, Arkham donned his mother's wedding dress and razor, vowing to bind the evil spirit of "The Bat" with sorcery. He treated Hawkins for months before finally killing him by means of electrocution during a shock therapy session. Arkham continued his mission even after he was incarcerated in his own asylum; using his fingernails, he scratched the words of a binding spell all over his cell until his death.

After discovering the diary, razor, and dress, Cavendish came to believe that he was destined to continue Arkham's work. On April Fools' Day (the date Arkham's family was murdered), Cavendish released the patients and lured Batman to the asylum, believing him to be the bat Arkham spoke of. Cavendish accuses him of feeding the evil of the asylum by bringing it more insane souls. Batman attempts to convince Cavendish he is sick and needs treatment, but Cavendish responds by attacking him. Batman and Cavendish fight, which ends after Adams slashes Cavendish's throat with the razor.

Seizing an axe, Batman hacks down the front door of the asylum, proclaiming that the inmates are now free. The Joker offers to put him out of his misery. Batman retrieves Two-Face's coin from Adams and returns it to him, stating that it should be up to Two-Face to decide Batman's fate. Two-Face declares that they will kill Batman if the coin lands scratched side up, but let him go if the unscarred side appears. Two-Face flips the coin and declares Batman free. The Joker bids Batman good-bye, taunting him by saying that should life ever become too much for him in "the asylum" (the outside world) then he always has a place in Arkham. As Batman disappears into the night, Two-Face stands looking at the coin and it is revealed that it actually landed scratched side up, implying he decided to ignore the coin. He then turns to the stack of tarot cards and before knocking them over, recites a passage from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards."

Themes and style[edit]

The story is influenced by many previous deconstructions of the superhero genre. Morrison themself wanted the novel to be their own re-imagining of Batman. Morrison includes themes such as symbolism and psychological horror, while depicting how insanity works within the setting of Arkham Asylum. Morrison references Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley, and Alice in Wonderland,[11] while also presenting psychologically different versions of several classic characters in the Batman universe.[4] Examples include Maxie Zeus, an electrified, emaciated figure with messianic delusions obsessed with electric shocks and coprophagia; Clayface, who is rapidly wasting away from lack of "feeding"; the Mad Hatter, whose obsession with Alice in Wonderland has pedophilic overtones; and Batman himself, who is driven close to the breaking point by the asylum. Killer Croc was originally drawn as suffering deformities similar to those of Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man", although his final incarnation is that of a humanoid crocodile. The Joker's mental condition is described as "super sanity": He re-invents himself every day, to suit his circumstances. He may be a harmless prankster one moment, and a homicidal maniac the next.[12]

The Joker is portrayed with a somewhat homosexual element, described as being indirectly "in love" with Batman.[13] In the script, Morrison initially wanted the Joker to "wear make-up and black lingerie in parody of Madonna." DC's editors, however, removed this, believing that readers might assume that Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the character in the Batman film would be portrayed as a transvestite.[14] The Mad Hatter is said to be a child molester; Clayface is described as "AIDS with two legs"; and both Amadeus Arkham and Charles Cavendish are seen cross dressing.[15]

The setting of Arkham Asylum plays a large role in how the inmates perceive their own insanity. As said by the Mad Hatter, "[S]ometimes I think the asylum is the head. We're inside a huge head that dreams us all into being." He also described the asylum as being a "looking glass" that shows the subject their own twisted psyche. Morrison used hypostasis to push the story forward, saying that the psychoanalytic theory and Jungian archetypes was an influence.[4][16]


A panel from Arkham Asylum, showing Dave McKean's artwork and letterer Gaspar Saladino's distinctive lettering treatment.

Dave McKean drew most of the principal art, as well as the cover art of the graphic novel. In illustrating the story, McKean blends paintings, drawings, photography, and mixed-media collage to come up with striking page designs, and dense symbols.[17] He has said that he was "trying to make the book despite the subject, rather than because of it. At the end of the day, if you really love to do Batman comics, then that's probably the best thing to do. Not liking them, and then trying to make something out of them is just a waste of time." He also came to think that "overpainted, lavish illustrations in every panel just didn't work. It hampers the storytelling."[18] McKean liberally uses symbolism, imagery, and surrealism, and many scenes involve the use of symbols to denote a particular psychological device. For example, a Greek inscription can be seen scratched on the doorway of Maxie Zeus's electroshock chamber, which translates into "Discover thyself." Much of this symbolism was later explained and expanded upon by the release of the 15th Anniversary Edition containing Morrison's annotated script.

Arkham Asylum has also been praised for Gaspar Saladino's distinctive lettering work and giving characters their own fonts.[19] The practice of giving characters customized lettering treatments has since become widespread, especially in DC's Vertigo line and many Marvel comics.[19] Different speech bubbles were used for many characters: Batman's is black with white lettering, Maxie gets blue with a Greek font, while Joker's speech is without a bubble at all; the red, ink-spattered script used for his dialogue is as ungovernable as the character himself.

Critical reaction and legacy[edit]

The graphic novel was published in October 1989 in the wake of Tim Burton's film Batman. Upon its release, the graphic novel became a commercial success and catapulted Morrison and McKean's name in the comic book industry. Editor Karen Berger revealed that it has sold "close to a half million copies" by 2004, making it the best-selling original graphic novel in American superhero comics.[17] According to the Grant Morrison website, the series has already sold over 600,000 copies worldwide.[20]

Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics praised the story and its "claustrophobic" portrayal of the asylum, saying that "Arkham Asylum is unlike any other Batman book you've ever read [and] one of the finest superhero books to ever grace a bookshelf."[10] Goldstein also ranked Arkham Asylum #4 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, behind The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Year One.[21] Rolling Stone praised the book as being one of Grant Morrison's best works, calling it "[his] first big commercial hit – and his first shot writing Batman, a character he would spend a great deal of time with over the course of his career – was this ground-breaking graphic novel featuring the grim, twisted artwork of painter Dave McKean. In this darkly poetic, psychologically rich tale, Batman faces off against the Joker, Two-Face, the Scarecrow and other villains inside Gotham City's house for the criminally insane."[1] Joseph Szadkowski of The Washington Times called it as "one of the key sequential-art stories of the Batman library."[22]

Keith Dooley of Comics Authority describes it as "psychologically and visually jarring book [that] brings the reader along with Amadeus Arkham and Batman on their journeys through their psyches in a world full of symbolism."[23] Adding also that "Batman, his foes, and all of humanity are greatly affected by the power of symbolism, with this story laying before the reader that these fictional characters' stories are also, in many ways, our stories."[23] Lucas Siegel from Newsarama also praised the comic, describing the art as " striking, beautiful, and yes, today's secret word: disturbing."[24] Morrison themself admitted that the amount of symbolism made them "[ending] up being accused of doing the most pretentious Batman book ever.[25]

In October 2005, a 15th Anniversary edition was released. The new reprint contained Morrison and Karen Berger's annotated script that breaks down and explains much of the symbolic references in the series, as well as principal art and step-by-step samples of the story.[6]


During the San Diego Comic-Con 2017, Morrison announced that they are currently working on a follow-up, tentatively titled Arkham Asylum 2. Described as a Luc Besson-esque thriller, the sequel will take place in the future timeline Morrison created where Damian Wayne, Batman's son, has grown up to become an adult Batman of his own. Comic book artist Chris Burnham, who collaborated with Morrison in Batman Incorporated, is attached to work on the project. While the graphic novel is described as a 120-page effort, further details or a release date have yet to be announced.[26] On October 2, 2020, Morrison stated that their sequel to Arkham Asylum is currently on hold due to their work on the Brave New World television series, but that they had already written 26 pages and expressed interest on resuming work on it along with Burnham, while commenting that the sequel will have a different vibe than the original comic book, feeling more like a work of Philip K. Dick.[27]

In other media[edit]

In the film Batman Begins (2005), Jonathan Crane's entrance to the Arkham Asylum's cellar with Rachel Dawes mirrors the Joker's own entrance with Batman in the novel.[28] Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker in the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight was heavily influenced by Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Ledger was given a copy of the novel as a reference for preparation, which he "tried really hard to read and put it down".[29] On October 22, 2015, during an interview with ToonZone, Batman: Bad Blood director Jay Oliva expressed his interest in making an animated film adaptation of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth.[30] However, Oliva departed from Warner Bros. Animation in 2017 before such adaptation could be made.[31]

The game Batman: Arkham Asylum is loosely based on the comic, which follows a similar premise and also shares the same name.[32] Although it was deemed an "ungamable graphic novel" by creative director Sefton Hill, its tone and psychological edge were a primary influence on the game.[33] Additionally, the new warden of Arkham, Quincy Sharp, believes himself to be the reincarnation of Amadeus Arkham, and makes frequent reference to the history outlined in the comic, including Amadeus's mother's dementia, the murder of his wife and daughter by Martin Hawkins, and Amadeus' murder of Hawkins. Under this delusion, Sharp "haunts" the mansion and recreates several tableaux which appear in the comic, including the cell in which Amadeus inscribed his name into the floor.[34]


  1. ^ a b Perpetua, Matthew. "The Best of Grant Morrison". Rolling Stones. August 22, 2011
  2. ^ LeTendre, Brian (April 24, 2009). "Paul Dini Talks Batman: Arkham Asylum". Comic Book Resources. Boiling Point Productions. Archived from the original on April 2, 2013. Retrieved April 2, 2013.
  3. ^ Booker, Will (2001). Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon. New York City: Bloomsbury Academic. p. 268. ISBN 978-0-8264-1343-7.
  4. ^ a b c d e Jackson, Matthew. "COMICS REWIND: 'Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth'". Nerd Bastards. June 11, 2011
  5. ^ Singer (2011) p.52
  6. ^ a b c d Morrison, Grant. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth 15th Anniversary Edition (DC Comics, 2005) s. Original scripts ISBN 1-4012-0425-2.
  7. ^ Carr, Alex. "Graphic Novel Friday: The Grant Morrison Interview: All Things Batman (and More)". Shelfari.
  8. ^ a b Singer, Marc. "A Serious House on Serious Earth: Commentary". I Am NOT the Beastmaster. October 7, 2005
  9. ^ Singer (2011) p.71
  10. ^ a b Goldstein, Hilary. "Batman: Arkham Asylum Review". IGN. June 17, 2005
  11. ^ Duffy, Andrew. "Top 5 Batman Comics #4: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth". Geek Retreat. Archived from the original on 2016-03-05. Retrieved 2014-08-04. July 20, 2014
  12. ^ Hunt, Matt. "How the Joker Works?". How Stuff Works.
  13. ^ Baker, Tom. "10 Things DC Comics Want You To Forget About The Joker". What Culture. Archived from the original on 2014-09-03. Retrieved 2014-08-05. May 30, 2014
  14. ^ Singer (2011) p.65
  15. ^ Singer (2011) p.68
  16. ^ Singer (2011) p.67
  17. ^ a b Singer (2011) p.64
  18. ^ Grant Morrison: From the Asylum to the Star, Nicholas Labarre, Sequart, April 29, 2008
  19. ^ a b Kimball, Kirk. "The Treasure Keeper — Part Twelve of Twelve: Into the Asylum!", Dial B for Blog #500 (Sept.). Accessed May 20, 2011.
  20. ^ Kristan. "Grant Morrison - The Official Website - Comics".
  21. ^ The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, Hilary Goldstein, IGN, June 13, 2005
  22. ^ Szadkowski, Joseph. "Batman vs. Joker in Asylum", The Washington Times, Washington, 10 September 2009
  23. ^ a b Dooley, Keith. "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth review". Comics Authority. October 31, 2013
  24. ^ Siegel, Lucas (August 15, 2008). "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth review". Newsarama. Archived from the original on December 10, 2015.
  25. ^ Singer (2011) p. 54
  26. ^ McMillan, Graeme. "Batman Writer Grant Morrison Unveils 'Arkham Asylum 2' Graphic Novel Plans". The Hollywood Reporter. July 20, 2017
  27. ^ Roberts, Samuel. "Brave New World's Grant Morrison explains why the sci-fi show matters in 2020". TechRadar. October 2, 2020
  28. ^ O'Neil, Dennis (2008). Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City. Dallas, Texas: Smart Pop Books. p. 115. ISBN 978-1-933771-30-4.
  29. ^ Lesnick, Silas (November 10, 2007). "IESB Exclusive: Heath Ledger Talks the Joker!". The Movie Reporter. Archived from the original on November 11, 2007. Retrieved November 12, 2007.
  30. ^ "NYCC 2015: "Batman: Bad Blood" Roundtable with Phil Bourassa, Jay Oliva, James Tucker, and Jason O'Mara - ToonZone News".
  31. ^ "Jay Oliva on Twitter".
  32. ^ LeTendre, Brian. "Paul Dini talks about Arkham Asylum". Comic Book Resources. April 24, 2009
  33. ^ "Making of... Batman: Arkham Asylum". Computer and Video Games. Computer and Video Games. November 23, 2009. Archived from the original on October 19, 2011. Retrieved September 8, 2018.
  34. ^ Halas, Jacek. "Walkthrough - Batman: Arkham Asylum Game Guide". Game Pressure.


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