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News and Commentary

11 January 2011

Arkham Asylum: An Analysis

Jonathan Bowden

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Story by Grant Morrison, art by Dave McKean
DC Comics, October 1989

Arkham Asylum claims to be among the most “adult” treatments of the comics genre which has ever been produced, and, although there are a few other candidates, it does merit this accolade up to a point. It has also inspired numerous spinoffs, including video games. Elsewhere on this site I dealt with a Batman and the Joker team-up comic from the mid-seventies, but this was deliberately circumscribed by the Comics Code Authority and lacked a mature sensibility.

Note: I am not referring to a predilection for transgression, low-grade or “edgy” material here. Most of these attempts in popular culture are faintly ludicrous, it has to be said. No. What I am referring to is the philosophical limitations placed on such narratives by an insistent Dualism. This leads to a totally uncomplicated schema where the forces of light and darkness ply their trade in a Manichean way.

The first point of departure is in the treatment of mental illness. Nearly all of the villains in this institution for the criminally insane are regarded (by the story-line) as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. They are all considered to be responsible for their actions irrespective of their madness. In this respect, Arkham — in a fictionalized New York City called Gotham — resembles a British mental hospital such as Broadmoor. This establishment was erected in Berkshire in the 1850s as the prototype for criminal lunatics — even though such descriptions are studiously avoided.

All of the super-villains contained herein — the Joker, Two-Face, Crock, Black-mask, Doctor Destiny, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Clay Face, Maxie Zeus, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, Professor Milo, etc. — are all held to be accountable for their crimes, but treatable. This accords with the liberal-humanist notion (based on Pelagianism) that Man is naturally good, rational, kind, humane and non-criminal. The facts of Man’s post-animalian state completely militate against this, of course, but don’t forget that we’re dealing with an ideology here.

Several psychotherapists are employed in the institution in order to treat the maniacs contained therein. When the lunatics take over the asylum (quite literally) some of them even volunteer to remain with their charges. They have a responsibility (you see).

Just like in a real hospital a range of treatments (whether medical or ideological) is tried. Paint-spot/Rorschach tests, word association mind-games, as well as classic Freudianism are all tried — whereas some of the other “therapies” are obviously from the Behavioral school. The director of the institution even uses severe ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy) on the “patients.” This is is interesting for two reasons: one, the anti-psychiatric movement campaigned against this from the 1960s onwards; and, two, it indicates the biological basis of mental illness. It can only be physically assailed if it is somatic to begin with.

In fact, those who are criminally insane fall into two large categories. The offences that they commit — murder, rape, cannibalism, and so forth — tend to be rather similar, but the originating conditions are very distinct. The two categories are psychopathia and schizophrenia. Interestingly, the word Psychopath (reduced to “psycho” in popular language) is now deeply “offensive” or politically incorrect. It has got to the point that certain staff in these hospitals can be disciplined if they make use of it.

Psychopathia is a birth condition — that is, persons suffering from an advanced personality disorder are born and not made. Psychopaths begin torturing animals about age of 4 to 6 and then proceed onto young children later. They regard killing their own species as the equivalent of swatting a fly. Likewise, for them rapacity is normal sex. It appears that psychopaths are hard-wired to believe that life happens to be a constant war-zone of each against all . . . and that love is hatred, quite literally.

They are relatively incapable of lying, unlike normal humans who are mendacious all the time. (Note: this is usually to survive social situations without conflict.) Psychopaths live for conflict; believe life to be worthless; and have utter contempt for social workers, parole board types, concerned professors, and do-gooders who attempt to help them. They often advocate the harshest punishments for criminals of their sort (excluding possibly themselves); they would love to apply such indignities with the maximum amount of torture or humiliation. Psychopaths lack certain female chromosomes (if male) which soften the ferocity of the male nature and prepare it for camaraderie, fatherhood, paternalism, and the softer virtues.

One of the most famous psychopaths in criminology was Peter Kurten (the basis for Fritz Lang’s film M) who was executed in Germany in the early 1930s. This occurred during that authoritarian half-way house period (typified by a whiff of Conservative Revolutionism) between the end of Weimar and Hitler’s rise.

The Joker is certainly a psychopath, but in Arkham Asylum he is presented as suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome. This is a clever notion, because Tourette’s is a complicated diagnosis with both positive and negative characteristics. (Mozart is believed to have suffered from it, for instance.) The simplistic thing to say is that Tourette’s is a tic-based condition which is both generic and inherited (i.e., strictly biological). The Joker’s mindless and repetitive desire to be rude, upset social order, utter blasphemies and be mentally sadistic (whilst grinning inanely) are all part-and-parcel of it.

Yet, if we probe deeper, the Joker can also be diagnosed as suffering from Super Sanity: in that his ego is completely suppressed and experience washes over him continuously. He has no filter in relation to hyper-reality (in other words) and is therefore incapable of a conservative gesture; whether linguistically, morally, violently, sexually, etc. Everything is in the moment — he is a pure Existentialist without remit or prior expectancy. With him, Being is becoming — to use Continental philosophical language. He bears a strong resemblance — as a result of this — to the personality of Caligula, the mad Roman emperor, as designated in Robert Graves’ I, Claudius and Claudius the God, as well as Albert Camus’ absurdist play. To bring it to a point: the Joker, like the Mad God Caligula, can embrace you, flirt with you, assassinate you, and dance with the corpse: whilst laughing continuously . . . as well as having tears of mock-genuine sadness flowing down his cheeks. “I’ve done away with my best friend, but he deserved it” would be a typical remark.

Batman, by point of contrast, is everything which is ordered, finite, prior, Right-wing, apriori, anti-atheistic (in a metaphysical sense), and Objective . . . philosophically. Bruce Wayne (the Batman) is a metaphysical Objectivist; a Fascist: the Joker (by dint of contrast) an anarchist. Yet anarchism and fascism are tied together by virtue of their dialectical inversions of one another. Scratch Nietzsche and you move to Stirner (in the center of this spectrum), make a move to scratch him and you end up with the individualistic element in Bakunin, say. You can also go back along the spectrum as well.

Another consideration arises: the notion of the anarcho-fascist or Right-wing anarchist (a combination of Batman and the Joker). This would include a great number of artists: such as Céline, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Gottfried Benn, Ernst Jünger, Yukio Mishima, Drieu la Rochelle, T. E. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and so forth. A new conundrum also arises here: most far right leaders (unlike the majority of their followers) exhibit Anarch traits; the most notorious political-artist of the twentieth century being Adolf Hitler, of course. (Note: the supporters of such movements tend to be much more conservative than their leaders, per se; they look to such individuals to provide the rebellious conformism, aggressive normalcy, and transgressive stoicism that the Right needs.)

But if we might return to Arkham Asylum proper: one of the other major tropes is the treatment of homosexuality. Interestingly, the writer, a Scottish creator called Grant Morrison, wished to visualize the Joker as an effeminate (if threatening) transvestite replete with french bodice and underwear. This is to off-set or exemplify the grinning red-lips, green hair, palsied or blanched skin, string tie, purple jacket and slacks, and green dress-shirt of the original. To link inversion with a psychopathic clown (i.e., a negative image) is relatively reckless on Morrison’s part . . . given that any such treatment would be considered “politically incorrect.”

In Italian neo-Realist cinema after the second War (for instance) two lesbians were used as a dark or sinister portrayal of fascism, but negative depictions of inversion are rare in contemporary media. (This is contrary to the Liberal-left view that “homophobia” lurks as an omni-present catch-all.) The last sinister depiction which I can recall is the triumvirate of villains in the Humphrey Bogart version of The Maltese Falcon. This starred, quite memorably, Sidney Greenstreet as the eponymous Fat Man. I remember a bourgeois Marxist catalog from the 1980s at the National Film Theatre (in Britain) describing the villainous troupe’s portrayal as an example of “bigotry.”

Nonetheless, Morrison’s schemata for the Joker continues — with him embodying an inverted sadism in contrast to Batman’s gruff, no-nonsense, Josef Thorak-laced, and straight as an arrow sensibility. There are also some terrific scenes in this folie à deux (so to say); one of which occurs at the end of the piece. In this particular, Batman starts wrecking the asylum with an axe, and, as he does so, one of the maniacs runs down various corridors (in this Bedlamite labyrinth, you understand) screaming “the Bat – the Bat; he’s destroying EVERYTHING!” To which Black-mask responds, “You see, Joker; he’s too powerful, you should never have let him in here.” In a great panel, drawn and painted by Dave McKean, the Joker screams as a false martyr: “That’s it! Go on, blame me, go on . . . do!” All of this is accompanied by the quiff of emerald hair and the manic smile — amid tons of grease-paint — which just grins on and on without mirth. Just how far the author, Morrison, is aware of any symmetry with Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character was a moot point, however. In his own mind, he is probably trying to create the “wildest” version of Batman on record, nothing more.

In finality, Arkham Asylum goes quite a long way towards considering Batman as a putative Superman (in a Nietzschean sense). First of all, he has to overcome distaste at going in the place to begin with; then he must confront his own “demons” — by virtue of the mentally questionable state of someone who dresses up as a bat in order to beat up on criminals for a living. Also, the Batman seems hesitant in the face of the Joker’s triumphant lunacy inside the Asylum where he can posture as the Lord of Misrule. In one revealing moment he refers to an Arkham run by lunatics as the “real world.” Presumably, in this context, the world outside the gates superintended by Commissioner Gordon is unreal.

Nevertheless, Batman goes through a series of tests — even a crucifixion manqué — as he gradually conquers the place and subdues it to his will. Over time he side-steps Harvey Dent’s (Two Face’s) deconstruction from dualism, beats down upon Clayface’s disease, refuses the nightmares of Doctor Destiny, or the serendipity of Professor Milo. Likewise, he emerges from the Scarecrow’s cell unscathed and confronts the man-Alligator, Croc, in a clash of the Titans. Yet, throughout all of this process, he is getting stronger and stronger . . . as he engages in personal transcendence or self-over-becoming. Until, by the end of this film on paper, he can absorb the insanity of the place, sublimate it, purge it, throw it forward, and then clamber out on top of it.

By the time the drama ends, Batman makes a move to rejoin the waiting police (headed by Gordon) and the media outside. The criminal lunatics remain inside where they belong, but in a strangely subdued way. The fascistic hero may have lanced the boil (granted), but he has only been able to do so by re-integration, fanaticism for a cause outside oneself, and the adoption of a strength greater than reason. At the end (although sane) he has incorporated part of the Joker’s Tarot (The Fool or the Hanged Man) into his own purview. To use an Odinic or pagan device, he is walking with Weird or embracing his own Destiny [fate] — i.e., the will which lies at the end of the road where you will the end’s refusal. In this state — perhaps — a fictionalized variant on the end of the Charlemagne division exists. Remember: they fought onto the end in a fire-torn Berlin because they had no country of their own to return to.

It is intriguing to point out the states which a form of entertainment for children can begin to approach. But it’s only a funny book, isn’t it?

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