It was October 1989. Maybe early November. I know it was a Friday night, because Friday’s were the night I would usually go with my friend David and his father to the comic book shop to pick up our weekly wares. For some reason though, on this particular Friday, David and his Dad went without me. My guess is that they were out for something else, and were going to drop by the shop on their way home. I was alright with it, though. I remember that, because that Friday night was when my grade school crush finally agreed to go out with me. Whatever that meant when you’re thirteen years old; back then, I thought it meant hand holding and maybe, just maybe a kiss or two.
It’s funny the way memory works. I remember the phone call, where the lovely young girl in question finally agreed that we should go out. I also remember being so excited because David was dropping off a hardcover comic book we’d both been waiting for. One that took one of my favourite characters, Batman, into the depths of madness.
The book was Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and for many burgeoning comic book fans, it was the first taste of the talents of soon to be industry icons, writer Grant Morrison and artist Dave McKean. I didn’t know either creator’s works, but this was going to be a horror story featuring The Dark Knight, and I was all in on that front.
For the uninitiated, Arkham is where the majority of Batman’s rogue’s gallery are locked up until their eventual breakout; this is comics, after all, so nobody’s stay at Arkham was ever permanent. In Arkham Asylum, Morrison and McKean created a backstory to the building, telling the sad, sordid and grotesque tale of its founder, Amadeus Arkham, juxtaposed beside Batman’s own journey through the asylum’s halls, as he faces off against some of his most notorious bad guys.
At the time of Arkham Asylum‘s release, I was almost thirteen years old, and an avowed horror fan. However, reading the book was a brand new experience for me, and one I found equal parts disturbing and perplexing. I found Morrison’s writing to be more complex than I was used to (little did I know that Arkham Asylum would be a piece of cake when compared to much of the author’s future work), while McKean’s art was not remotely something I had ever seen before, and not nearly as welcoming as I was used to from my monthly books.
I also found the book scary. Damn scary. Morrison and McKean delivered violence that I had never seen in a comic book, even if most of it was implied more than in your face. In what’s become the scene that’s stayed with me the most, Batman and the Joker are communicating over phone. The Clown Prince tells Batman that he’s standing with a nineteen-year old girl named Pearl, who recently started in the kitchen at Arkham. As this is happening, there is a skritching sound playing it in the background. It Joker, sharpening a pencil, that he then proceeds to stab budding artist Pearl in the eyes with. It’s horrific, and it all happens off camera. Until, of course, Batman arrives at Arkham only to discover Pearl with both eyes still intact.
“April Fools Day!” Joker exclaims in blood red, his features long and exaggerated by McKean. It’s a brilliant scene in a book that has many of them.
I read Arkham Asylum countless times as a kid, but it’s only been as an adult that I’ve been fully able to absorb the real horror of the story. As a father, I sympathize with Amadeus Arkham when he suffers unimaginable loss; I fully understand his descent into madness. The book is far more his story than Batman’s, who is more of a bit player as he wanders through the nightmare house. As my own interest in occultism has grown, I appreciate Grant Morrison’s references to magic, along with well known figures such as Aleister Crowley in the work. And while Dave McKean’s artwork remains an acquired taste in my opinion, I still find myself struck and more than a little creeped out by his depiction of characters like Clayface, Killer Croc, and of course, The Joker.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. Like the evening I received it, and the phone call I was on while waiting for it to arrive at my doorstep, I remember first reading it like it was yesterday. All these years later, it remains as haunting as ever.