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BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM (1989)

Written by Grant Morrison, Illustrated by Dave McKean

I wasn't impressed the first time I picked up Arkham Asylum. The artwork was brutal, assaulting the senses, with distorted scenes and odd colors. It didn't make me want to read the story.

Funny how a book's apparent weakness becomes its strength.

Arkham Asylum is the place where all of Batman's bad guys go. (This is how they explain the continued existence of mass murderers like the Joker; the death penalty never threatens and even maximum security prisons are no obstacle because they're crazy, and so are housed in a medium security asylum where escape is, it seems, fairly easy. It probably doesn't help that the founder, Amadeus Arkham, was himself crazy.) But in this story, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and their condition for releasing their hostages isn't freedom.

They want Batman. Inside, with them. So in he goes.

The first thing you notice in the book is, of course, the art. And McKean's artwork isn't easy to take. It's messy. His characters aren't all neatly drawn, although they're always vividly rendered -- and, at times, starkly realistic. He doesn't always color inside the lines. But it works astoundingly well, for the tale is told through the perspectives of insanity -- the inmates, particularly the Joker, the staff, and even the Batman himself, whose obsession for justice would be thought a form of madness by many.

And let's not be too hasty to dismiss that notion. Certainly stabbing himself through the palm with a shard of broken glass isn't the sanest of actions.

Inside the madhouse we meet the Joker, whose obsession with Batman has taken on homosexual overtones. Two-Face, weaned from his two-headed coin and relying on a 78-card tarot deck for his decisions, has become a confused individual unable to decide when to go to the bathroom. Various villains, including Clayface, Croc, the Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter and Doctor Destiny, wait to play the Joker's game and wreak vengeance on their cowled nemesis.

We get to see Batman psychoanalyzed through a revealing word association game. He won't even touch the Rorschach test. And when he's sent to run the gauntlet, he attacks his foes with unusual brutality.

Intermingled with the immediate story we see, through flashbacks, the madness which consumed Dr. Arkham. It's not a pretty picture. It involves a personal insanity which seems to stretch back into his childhood, but which took on new proportions after a great tragedy in his adult life. At times, the text of his journal overlays the Batman's struggles in his gauntlet. They fit together neatly. Dr. Arkham, it seems, was haunted by visions of the bat long before Batman existed. And his Norman Bates-like psychoses seem to be communicated through time by the structure of the asylum itself.

Perhaps Batman's attitude towards death is a little out of character here. And the Joker's dialogue -- red ink scrawled over whatever background presents itself -- is a little hard to read at times. But otherwise this is sterling storytelling which, combined with an atypical art style, helps to redefine what a graphic novel can be.