Friday Feature: Arkham Asylum

So this week’s primary post talked about how mental illness is presented in horror fiction and how Batman comics in particular have handled it. In the article I said that using mental illness to create horror and suspense was a trope of the horror genre. I still believe that’s true, but I wanted to add a little bit to that statement.

Just because a story utilizes a genre trope doesn’t mean it is a bad story or that it was badly written. 

On the contrary, most tropes only become tropes because they began as very effective storytelling tools.

With that in mind, I am going to strongly recommend Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean. It’s a phenomenal and evocative story that touches on some very primal and some very cerebral fears.

The cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of Arkham Asylum.

The story that Morrison and McKean tell is unlike a true Batman story in almost every way. By Morrison’s own admission we know that the story is meant to be a dream sequence taken out of Bruce Wayne’s nightmares.

We witness very little of the Batman we know and love in this story. Instead, we a see fear-plagued pawn in the Asylum’s game. Morrison and McKean manage to present a Batman who is both ineffectual and strikingly cruel – both self-doubting and self-righteous. 

An example of this Batman’s cruelty: He kicks the wheelchair-bound Dr. Destiny down what appears to be a flight of stairs.

I don’t want to spoil any more of the comic than I already have, but it is full of symbolism: religious, literary, historical, and psychological. All of it provokes strong reactions (at least from me). In the midst of McKean’s striking surrealist art style, and Morrison’s disturbed writing, a chilling psychological thrill emerges, and it’s well worth the read.

An expositional encounter with the Mad Hatter.

Finally, I want to note that this comic is definitely not for everyone. It’s a psychological horror story in a super-hero’s cape. It contains suicide, self-mutilation, implied sexual assault, and is sometimes graphic in its depiction of violence.

If you’re a horror fan and you’ve always found yourself wondering what would cause Gotham’s Dark Knight to wake in a cold sweat, then Arkham Asylum should sail to the top of your must-read list.

Asylum and Cage

What does “asylum” mean?

For comic book enthusiasts the word may primarily be tied to a big mansion on the outskirts of Gotham city: Arkham Asylum For the Criminally Insane.

The history of Arkham Asylum has been explored in comics and, if you count them, video games. In the strongest telling of it, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, the late Amadeus Arkham, who watched his mother slowly lose her grip on her mind, founded the Asylum in the old mansion belonging to his family to provide help for those for whom, according to his own words, “their only crime is mental illness.”  Batman notes in this story that the Asylum’s imposing, dark architecture and rumors of haunting by Arkham’s ghost make it hard to imagine that any healing happens there.

If you’re a loyal Batman reader, then this past month you were treated to Batman Annual #2 – a chapter entitled “Cages.”  It was a story of Arkham Asylum’s oldest and newest residents.

Batman Annual #2 (2013).

The oldest, a character called “Anchoress,” committed herself to the care of the Asylum before the days of Batman and the super-criminals. She’d killed her parents in what was either an accident or a fit of rage, and chose the safety of the Asylum over the harsh terrain of judgement found in Gotham.

The newest is Batman himself, who is there to try and escape, testing the new security measures in the facility.

Anchoress brings to light several issues that are not often considered in reading stories about Gotham’s darkest criminals.

She makes it clear what her definition of asylum is: a space of safety and, for her, healing.

But she blames Batman for what the Asylum has become: a cage for dangerous people. You see, when Batman came along and started locking up the likes of Joker, Two-Face, and the other Gotham super-criminals, none of the well-meaning doctors of Arkham had time to help people any more. All of their time was devoted to trying to keep the super-dangerous from the general public.

This point is punctuated by Batman’s presence in Arkham for this issue. His purpose in the Asylum on that night is to ensure that the facility can keep the criminals in, not to see that the Asylum tries to heal patients.

On the other side of Arkham, however, a plucky new Arkham employee tells his more seasoned supervisor, “I don’t think anyone’s beyond help, or saving.”

In Morrison and McKean’s tale of Arkham Asylum, we see the Joker and Batman competing with any narrative of healing that the founder or the well-meaning doctors may have wanted.  Joker, true to form, taunts the doctors, Batman, and the other patients with sexual innuendo, and blackmail , while Batman actively works against some of the doctors who are trying to help Two-Face.

His doctor had been recognized his neurosis as being tied to his signature coin. The polarization of all of his decisions down to “yes” or “no” was hurting his perception of the world – too much duality. She worked him up to a die, with six choices instead of two, and then to a tarot card deck, with 72. Batman, seeing no progress, but rather a man who was paralyzed with too many choices, returned Two-Face his coin saying, “it’s only the madness that makes us who we are.”

Mental illness is often a trope of writers who want to create horror and suspense. Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is certainly frightening, it uses symbolism tied to Batman’s rogues gallery and the troubled journals of Amadeus Arkham to create the Dark Knight’s nightmare.

But behind every eerie sensation and disturbing image is the ghost of the mental illnesses that plague these characters.

Joker’s tauntings from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989).

Mental illness is incomprehensible for those of us who don’t have it and, I would imagine, mortifying for those who do. Even one of my favorite horror authors, H.P. Lovecraft, concluded most of his stories with a character slipping into insanity. (Trivia: Arkham is the name of a fictional New England town in Lovecraft’s universe.) Many horror and fantasy writers reference Lovecraft as a significant influence.

But where do we draw the line between horror fiction and exploitation? Does the consistent use of mental illness as a tool of fear create real-world fear of people with mental illness? It’s easy to see why people with mental illness would seek an asylum – a place away from the dangers of judgement and fear.

This concept of asylum is important. As the Anchoress would say, people facing mental illness – if they’re to have any hope – need to have a safe place to heal.

But Batman’s methods take away the safety that the asylees need by turning it into a glorified prison for super-criminals, some of whom probably don’t belong (Would the Penguin really count as “criminally insane” or just criminally greedy? The Riddler may be criminally prideful, but insane?).

In the case of Arkham, Batman offers asylum to the Gothamites. They’re made safe from those people they can’t control. But the actual denizens of the asylum are made to live in cages. They’re denied any chance at healing because the doctors can’t be both healers and wardens.

Zod With Us: Superman, Jesus, and the Redeeming Power of the Human Experience

It’s not cool to like Superman anymore.

This is a relatively new development in geek culture, and I’m going to have to pin part of the blame on one of my favorite people, genius auteur and world-famous foot fetishist Quentin Tarantino.

Fanboys latched onto the Superman monologue in Kill Bill like crazy.  The eponymous Bill says:

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent…Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

I argue that this understanding of Superman is completely flawed.

Bill, like many Superman detractors, does not understand what makes Superman super.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Superman as a Christ figure is old news. The much maligned Superman Returns and the by turns awesomely campy and unbearably awful Smallville did everything but literally crucify their Superman to drive that point home.

superman copy

It’s an obvious metaphor (though I wonder if young Jewish-Americans Siegel and Shuster didn’t have Moses in mind when they sent Kal-El down the galactic Nile in a Kryptonian basket of bull rushes). Superman came from the heavens to live as one of us in a lowly, unimportant town, and grew up to be the savior of all humanity.

The part of that simple story that Superman detractors fail to appreciate is the incarnational aspect – the significance of the omnipotent becoming human. Much like Christ, it is through Kal-El’s incarnation as human that he is able to become a savior.

Clark Kent (or alternately, Jesus of Nazareth) is not a misanthropic performance; he is an omnipotent being’s only connection to humanity.

Consider this: there is no reason for Superman to have an alter ego; he could be Superman all the time if he wanted to.

He lives among humans—and as a human—out of deep affection and admiration for the human race.

And this is what makes him superhuman – because of his love for humanity, he lives up to the highest standards of human morality, unwaveringly, despite the greatest temptation any human could ever face: the availability of absolute power.

By setting this example, Superman elevates all of humanity; for there is nothing that makes him “super” that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We don’t need his superhuman, fantastical levels of power; we only need the willingness to use what power we do have in service of those who are not as powerful as we are.

supermoon

Superman #156, “The Last Days of Superman”

Any time that Superman spends as Clark Kent – catching a movie with Lois or eating Christmas dinner at the Kent farm – is a time when someone somewhere is dying in an accident that Superman has the power to prevent.

And yet I do not believe this constitutes moral negligence.

If Superman stopped being Clark Kent; if he stopped taking the time to connect with individual human beings; if he had no personal relationships with anyone and therefore forgot what it is to love another human; he would soon cease to be Superman.

We’ve seen what rogue Kryptonians usually do when they end up on Earth: they conclude that they are superior to humans and attempt to subjugate us. But because he has lived among humans and as a human, Superman is no Zod.

His morality is intrinsically linked to his sense of humanity. As Superman’s connection to humanity, Clark Kent is as key to his superheroic identity as his ability to squeeze coal into diamonds.

all star

All Star Superman #10, “Neverending”

This modern American myth serves as a carnival-mirror reflection of the story of Jesus. In fact, it is perhaps more serviceable than the story of Jesus, which over the past 2,000 years has been robbed of much of its subversive power.

As Christian revolutionary Clarence Jordan said:

“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man…By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

This deification of Jesus makes the Man of Steel feel more human than the Son of Man. But the Gospels paint a much different picture. Jesus, like Superman, is redeemed and made able to redeem by his humanity.

Take the famous story of Lazarus.

Usually this story’s big special-effects moment gets the most attention. Jesus calls into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the four-days dead man rises to life. But in my opinion, the real emotional peak of the story comes earlier, when Jesus finds out that his friend Lazarus has died.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus began to weep. Because of the death of one man. In the infinite span of time and space, this man’s lifespan is less significant than a single grain of sand on the beach.

And yet Jesus – who, according to the book of John where this story is found, existed from the beginning of time, with God and as God, the nexus of all creation – weeps at the death of one man.

And so the point of the story is not that God raised someone from the dead.

Of course God can raise someone from the dead.  God can stop the rotation of the Earth.  God can simultaneously occupy the past, present, and future.

God can apparate inside Hogwarts grounds.

The point is that God was moved to raise someone from the dead because God loved him. Lazarus was so much more to Jesus than an insignificant grain of sand. In dwelling in the dirt and messiness and beauty of the human experience, Jesus discovered a deep love for humanity as we are – flawed and weak and constrained by brief lives.

God became more fully God than God ever was before. The miracle isn’t the point.

It’s love.  

And so the point of Superman’s story is not that Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.

The point is that Superman is moved to throw himself in the path of those bullets because he loves humanity.

The stories of the Last Son of Krypton and the only son of God teach us the same thing: power is not what makes a hero. It’s love.

The Coyote Gospel

First of all, welcome to The Promethean Playground. I really hope our thoughts are interesting and entertaining, and I thank you for reading our inaugural post.

When I was considering what to write about for our first post, my thoughts went immediately to Batman. Whenever I’m asked who is my favorite comic book character or super hero I say, “Batman.”

That’s not a lie, exactly, I do love Batman – I think he’s a rich character with a really impressive rogues gallery. But Batman is not my favorite character, or even my favorite hero.

That honor actually goes to Animal Man, but there’s very little Animal Man merchandise available to show my love, and so few people have even heard of him, so I continue to say “Batman,” whenever asked.

Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool hero.

First of all, his name is Animal Man – his name is so pathetically lame to modern ears, but he was created in an era when comic books were still a major entertainment business, and publishers were trying anything (read: scraping the bottom of the barrel) to create new heroes that might increase readership.

Secondly, his costume is pretty consistently weird-looking.

Finally, he’s a celebrity and a family man (both things that an interesting comic book hero shouldn’t be).

But in the hands of a skilled creative team, Animal Man is far-and-away one of the most interesting characters in western comics.

Fortunately for us, Baker has received all-star treatment at least twice in his heroic career. I’m thinking particularly of the current, New 52-run on Animal Man, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh, and the run beginning in 1988, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chas Troug.

Amid Morrison’s 1988 run (now collected in trade paperback) we witness one of the most unsettling, grotesque, and beautiful stories ever written: “The Coyote Gospel.”

Cover of "The Coyote Gospel." (Animal Man #5)

Cover of “The Coyote Gospel.” (Animal Man #5)

It’s partially a macabre parody of the coyote of Looney Tunes pedigree, and Animal Man is a relatively minor character in this particular chapter. It’s a great injustice to the comic, but I’ll provide a synopsis.

A truck driver hits an anthropomorphic coyote on a desert road, nearly splitting it in half. As he speeds off, the coyote’s body begins to regenerate in stomach-turning detail. The creature’s pain is excruciating. A year later, the same truck driver, convinced that the coyote is some kind of immortal “devil,” hunts it out in the desert. The terrified animal is shot, pushed off of a cliff, crushed with rocks, and blown up in an explosion which also wounds the truck driver.

The coyote's first death.

The coyote’s first death and resurrection.

With each new “death,” the coyote regenerates. Animal Man arrives to investigate the explosion and the coyote, ignoring the hunter who has made so many dedicated attempts to destroy it, hands Animal Man a slip of paper containing “The Gospel According to Crafty.”

In the gospel we learn that Crafty was a cartoon resident of another reality where intensely brutal violence and immediate regeneration was the accepted standard of life. Objecting to it, the coyote goes to speak with God (depicted only from a first-person perspective as an artist). For his dissidence, God sentences Crafty to suffer “in the hell above,” but agrees to stop the violence of the cartoon world. The “hell above,” we discover, is the world of Animal Man and the truck driver.

Crafty feels justified in his suffering because he knows it is not without purpose, “with each terrible death and resurrection, Crafty knew that by his torment, the world was redeemed. … and while he lived, there still remained the hope that one day he might return. And overthrow the tyrant God. And build a better world.”

After all of this is revealed in Crafty’s internal monologue, Animal Man confesses he cannot read the gospel, written in the coyote’s illegible hieroglyphs. Before the coyote forms a response, he’s shot by the truck driver with a silver bullet. The shooter dies, believing he has saved the world, and the coyote falls, dying, in a crucifix-like position in the middle of a crossroads while Animal Man watches, powerless to change his fate.

As the comic closes, it pans away revealing, again from the first-person perspective, God’s paintbrush filling in the blood that pools around the coyote’s body.

Words alone can’t do justice to this story, but that’s the best I can do.

The story contains several elements worth considering, but only one that I’ll focus on today: the grim assessment of God.

I’ve noticed that anti-religiosity is rather popular in the comics industry.

This is probably more true of the smaller, independent books than it is the major publishing houses who are very concerned with losing readership, but it’s something I’ve noticed anyway. It’s quite popular to portray religions or religious people as ignorant, predatory, or silly.

It’s not something I inherently have a problem with (of course, horrific things have been done – and are still being done – in the name of religion, and religions have done an impeccable job of ostracizing and condemning people who are “different” from their normative standard).

I think the comics industry should be a place where tough issues are brought out and challenged. Religious ideals shouldn’t be immune to that.

However, Morrison took a unique approach to his criticism.

By only showing us God from God’s own perspective, the art encourages us into an assumed identity.

But by then showing how God is rather more cruel than God would have us believe, the writing disturbs that identity, making us question what kind of God we might believe in – if we believe in God.

“What kind of God do we believe in?” is not a new question. It’s actually very old, and it’s one of the central questions of theology as a discipline. It became a very important question during and after the Holocaust, however.

Many theologians see the Holocaust as the beginning of a theological practice called “theodicy.”

Theodicy is the study of the origin of evil as it relates to God. The Holocaust left theologians with an unanswerable question: “If God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does something so unspeakably evil happen?”

By most logical assessments, one must either relent that God is good or that God is omnipotent, since there is no reasonable relenting on the truth of the evil present in the Holocaust.

The Coyote Gospel, while on a decidedly different scale than the Holocaust, answers the same question.

Its answer, both by the first-person nature of Gods portrayal, and by the questionable acts we witness at the hands of God, is that God is a creator with little regard for the creation. Omnipotent, perhaps, but disinterested or worse – wholeheartedly cruel.

As a writer, Morrison went on to use the Animal Man title as a space for him to consider the relative cruelty that creative teams exhibit over their heroic creations.

Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t yet had an opportunity to read them, Morrison reflects on how characters are pawns in greater games that they don’t understand.

With that in mind, depicting God as a creator – an artist – is quite significant.

Somewhere around the artistic guilt, which tries to walk the line between love of these characters and the need to create interesting stories, and the ridiculousness of satirizing old children’s cartoons, Morrison serves up a powerful theological challenge, one that leads many people into atheism.

If God is the sovereign of history, then God must have sanctioned suffering.

So we’re left with the disturbing question: do we believe in a God who loves us but can’t stop awful things from happening? Or do we believe in a God who can do whatever God wants, but whose love of creation is doubtful? Or do we believe in God at all?

Crafty's final demise.

Crafty’s final demise.