In 1989, DC Comics published a graphic novel called Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. The book focused on Batman’s interactions with the inmates of Arkham Asylum, while detailing the backstory of the asylum’s founder, Amadeus Arkham.

Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum was a huge success upon release, both critically and commercially. The book continues to remain a fan-favourite and is often considered to be one of the best Batman stories of all time.

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What happens in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth?

Image: ©DC Comics

It’s April Fools Day and Batman’s greatest foes have taken over Arkham Asylum. The Joker appears to be in charge, and lives are at stake.

After making contact with the Joker, the Caped Crusader agrees to enter the Asylum in exchange for the release of the hostages. These hostages include staff members.

Upon entering Arkham, Batman is greeted by the Joker. He also meets Arkham doctors, Dr. Charles Cavendish and Dr. Ruth Adams, who have remained in the building to watch over their patients.

Batman begins to question the validity of their work when he sees what has become of Two-Face. As part of a rehabilitation plan implemented by Dr. Adams, Harvey Dent is no longer able to make simple decisions – so is the asylum doing good work or not?

Batman makes his way through Arkham Asylum, encountering various foes including Doctor Destiny, Mad Hatter, and Killer Croc amongst others. Meanwhile, as Batman’s story plays out, another story is being told, which explores the history of Amadeus Arkham.

Amadeus had a troubled life, experiencing trauma and madness. He built the asylum to house the criminally insane, but he also became a patient, eventually coming to believe he was being tormented by a giant bat.

As the two stories come to a head, Batman learns the truth about the siege – it was Doctor Cavendish who released the inmates, in order to entice Batman into Arkham. Cavendish blames Batman for driving patients into the asylum and believes he must rid the world of the bat and continue Amadeus Arkham’s work.

Following an altercation, Cavendish is killed by Dr. Adams, which gives Batman the opportunity to escape. But he chooses to remain in the asylum, instead giving Harvey Dent the choice of whether to free him or not.

Dent tosses a coin and grants Batman freedom; but it is revealed that the coin did not fall in Batman’s favour. Dent chose to ignore the coin and let the Dark Knight go regardless.

As the story ends, Batman returns to the outside world, which Joker believes is the real asylum.

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What makes Arkham Asylum unique?

Image: ©DC Comics

What sets Arkham Asylum apart from its peers is its very distinctive look and feel. The book is written with an ethereal, dream-like quality, which is matched by the unique visuals.

Artist Dave McKean uses mixed media to convey Morrison’s story. His characters and environments feel raw, tactile and at times provocative.

Speaking about the book’s influences in the anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum, writer Grant Morrison, said: 

“The story’s themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung and Crowly, its visual style by surrealism, Eastern European creepiness, Cocteau, Artaud, Svankmajer, 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.”

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Is Arkham Asylum about Batman?

Image: ©DC Comics

Arkham Asylum is very much a tale about the asylum – its origin, its inmates, and the way in which the structure is very much part of Gotham City. As such, this story isn’t about Batman, he is simply part of the narrative.

What is perhaps most interesting is that Robin was originally in the story (albeit in a minor role), but Morrison removed the Boy Wonder from Arkham Asylum after Dave McKean refused to draw him. It was a decision which ultimately benefits the story, as it detaches Batman from his support network and allows him to get swallowed up by the asylum – this dangerous, nightmarish place, which houses Gotham’s dark secrets.

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Is Arkham Asylum as good as people say?

Image: ©DC Comics

Arkham Asylum is a unique story which stands out for two reasons: Visually it is unlike any other Batman tale, and from a narrative point of view there is something incredibly intoxicating in the way the story unfolds. But it is not a book that everyone will instantly appreciate. 

The first time I read Arkham Asylum (when I was in my early teens) I found it to be a difficult book to get into. After that initial reading I put it to one side and didn’t return for quite some time – I just wasn’t ready to connect with the material and felt it was a story that boasted style over substance.

In more recent years I have found much to appreciate about Arkham Asylum and now believe it to be a fantastic piece of work. It dives head first into the horrors of the asylum, while offering an unconventional approach to comic book art which is truly captivating to look at.

I have often wondered if Arkham Asylum will ever be adapted into film? It hasn’t happened yet and I’m not sure if it is even possible.

In order to capture the same tone and flavour, the adaptation would need to pull off something extraordinary and I don’t know if that is possible. I certainly don’t think it would work in live-action – it would need to be an animated tale.

For now, I am more than happy for Arkham Asylum to remain as a graphic novel. In my mind, the book is very much like a film, and deserves the same kind of recognition.

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I hope this information on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth has proved useful. Should you want to read more posts about Batman, please take a look through I’ll Get Drive-Thru, or alternatively check out one of the recommended reads below.

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