25 years ago, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum graphic novel came out. It was a huge hit. I bought it. I read it. I remember liking it a lot; the seriousness of the narrative, the dark atmosphere of the story, the moody art. Last week, I decided to re-read it, after all that time.
And I pretty much hated it.
Well, ok, maybe hate is too strong a word. I disliked it.
I was alternately angry or bored with the story. I found it to be a pretentious piece of wankery, disguised as a “serious” work. Maybe it’s because these days, despite my love of his Doom Patrol, I can’t stand most of Morrison’s superhero work. I don’t know. What I do know, is that I found no joy or awe or fulfillment in the story, other than a respect for the mechanics of the script (the overlayed narrative bits were done well).
I disliked the heavy-handed religious symbolism, the pompous psychobabble, the casual use of sexual violence as plot point. I disliked the portrayal of a young Bruce Wayne being chided by his parents for being a “crybaby.” I disliked a Batman who casually grunts “He got what he deserved” when a psychiatrist is forced to slash a villain’s throat.
I disliked the whole reading experience.
And even as I type all of this, I know that there’s a lot of intelligence and depth to Morrison’s story. That it wasn’t just a money grab hacked out by a clueless writer over a weekend. And yet, I still can’t help but feel the way I do about this book.
The only thing that I did like, was McKean’s art. Which is interesting in it’s own right, because I’m actually not a huge fan of the artist’s work in general, especially in his later career. His moody photo manipulations and pseudo-abstract collages (as exemplified by his Sandman covers) don’t really do anything for me. But in this book, he mainly sticks to paintings, and they’re gorgeous.
They’re scratchy and ghostly, subdued and bombastic, monochrome and color burst. McKean switches with ease between large, open pages with a few floating panels, to dense 12-panel grids. He incorporates bits and pieces of mixed-media, enough to make the whole more rich and textured, but not so much to detract from the storytelling. In short, his art makes the book look, and more importantly, feel serious and important, regardless of how you may feel about the narrative.
So, I’ll keep the book on my bookshelf. I’ll look through it every once in a while for the beautiful artwork. But I’m done reading it.