Arkham Asylum. Now that’s a name that provokes fear and terror for many. Officially named the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, the hospital/prison is where many of Gotham City’s, and the DC Comics universe’s, most dangerous deranged criminals are incarcerated. From a minor reference in one comic book, it has become so much bigger, most recently with two huge selling videogames and what looks to be a major plotline in one of this summer’s surefire blockbusters, The Dark Knight Rises.
The Roots of Arkham
Writer Denny O’Neil in the October 1974 issue of Batman introduced Arkham Asylum in an almost throwaway reference as the mental hospital and prison where both the Joker and Two-Face were serving time. The name was a nod to the town of Arkham featured in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, keeping in this month’s theme here at Biff Bam Pop!, a master in the art of madness. The name stuck, and very quickly Arkham became the catch-all holding pens for Batman’s more dangerous enemies, sometimes whether criminally insane or not.
On occasion, the Riddler has been depicted at Arkham. Does a catastrophic irrational attraction (a term wonderfully created for many gimmick and calling card super-villains in the DC Heroes RPG by Mayfair in 1985) to riddles really add up to insanity? Then throw Catwoman and Penguin in there for liking cats and birds a bit too much too. I also wonder about vengeful scientist Mister Freeze, eco-terrorist Poison Ivy, the monstrous Killer Croc, and the super-drug addicted Bane – are they equally as deranged as nutjobs like the Joker?
The King of Arkham
Speaking of the Joker, he is perhaps the facility’s most famous inmate/patient. In fact, the first, best looks readers got of Arkham were in the Joker’s short-lived comic book in the mid-1970s, where it was revealed that the clown prince of crime actually maintained a full functional headquarters called the Ha-Ha-Hacienda beneath the prison hospital! It’s rather horrifying when you think about it that the maniac could come and go as he pleased. Anyway you slice it, the Joker is king at Arkham, and any time its walls have been breached, he takes his crown, and sits on his throne waiting for the Batman to come and try to make order from the chaos.
Over the years, Arkham has morphed from a hospital with padded cell rooms to more of a cross between a turn of the last century dungeon and a maximum-security prison. For a good look at what Arkham is today, the videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel Arkham City actually gives a good schematic. It also displays a nice selection, though very Batman-centric, selection of the inmates there. These include, among others, the Joker, Harley Quinn, Victor Zsasz, the Riddler, Killer Croc, Bane, Poison Ivy, and the Scarecrow.
A turning point in the history of Arkham Asylum happened in 1989 with the hardcover graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It was written by future Batman scribe Grant Morrison and lusciously, and horrifically, illustrated by extraordinary mixed media artist Dave McKean. DC Comics editor Len Wein had written a few paragraphs on the background of Arkham in its Who’s Who entry about a Dr. Amadeus Arkham who founded the hospital and later went on to become an inmate. From those few words, Morrison fashioned this tale of terror that went as far as he was able to go at the time.
Once again, the inmates had taken over the asylum and Batman must enter the inferno to save the day. In the midst of flashbacks from Amadeus Arkham’s horrific diary, the Dark Knight fights off a cadre of his insane foes including Maxie Zeus, the Mad Hatter, Clayface, Killer Croc and of course the Joker. As I mentioned, Morrison pushed the envelope as far as it could go, imbuing some of these villains with psychoses rarely seen in comic books like pedophilia, coprophagia, oh and a touch of black magic as well. The graphic novel was wildly popular and continues to influence the comics today.
Arkham Staff and Residents
Amadeus Arkham was not the only worker at the facility to become cursed to become one of its inmates. As a matter of fact, it’s happened several times in more than one medium. The Joker seduced young Dr. Harleen Quinzel with his manipulative ‘mad love’ until she became Harley Quinn on “Batman: The Animated Series.” Also from the cartoon, security expert Lyle Bolton became the super-villain Lock-Up. Back in the comics, administrator Jeremiah Arkham inherited the mad mantle of the Black Mask, and in various media, both Professors Hugo Strange and Jonathan Crane (the latter known better as the Scarecrow) have become residents of the asylum.
Other notable Bat-villains who have stayed at the prison hospital include the Calendar Man, the Ventriloquist, Amygdala, Doctor Phosphorus, all of the Clayfaces, old school baddies like Killer Moth, the Signalman, and Crazy Quilt, new menaces like Professor Pyg and the Great White Shark, and even animated newbies like the Music Meister and the Condiment King. Soon after its introduction, Arkham Asylum began to branch out as the go-to place for any insane baddie on DC Earth. The more noteworthy of these include Doctor Destiny, the Floronic Man, the Key, Jean Loring, the Psycho Pirate, the second Brainwave, Professor Ivo, the Dummy, and even Ambush Bug.
So if you’re looking for madness in the DC Universe, you’re going to come across this prison hospital sooner or later. If you’re a gamer, it’s almost everything in Arkham Asylum and Arkham City and it even lives in the DC Universe Online game. It’s everywhere in the DC Comics, even in the new All-Star Western, where bounty hunter Jonah Hex teams up with, yep, Amadeus Arkham in 19th century Gotham City. And if you’re going to the movies this summer, don’t miss everyone’s favorite house of madness in The Dark Knight Rises.