Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Dave McKean's cover to the Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth hardcover edition
Publication information
Publisher DC Comics
Publication date October 1989
Main character(s) Batman
The Joker
Amadeus Arkham
Creative team
Created by Grant Morrison
Dave McKean
Written by Grant Morrison
Artist(s) Dave McKean
Letterer(s) Gaspar Saladino
Collected editions
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Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (often shortened to Batman: Arkham Asylum) is a Batman graphic novel written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean. It was originally published in the United States in both hardcover and softcover editions by DC Comics in 1989. The subtitle is taken from line 55 of the Philip Larkin poem "Church Going."

Conception and influencesEdit

In his original script printed in the 15th Anniversary Edition (2004), Morrison remarks on several details behind the genesis of the work:

Len Wein... had written a few short and evocative paragraphs on the history of Arkham Asylum [in the DC Who's Who series] and it was here I learned of poor Amadeus Arkham, the hospital's founder.... [Arkham]'s themes were inspired by Lewis Carroll, quantum physics, Jung, and Crowley; its visual style by surrealism, Cocteau, Artaud, Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, etc. The intention was to create something that was more like a piece of music or an experimental film than a typical adventure comic book. I wanted to approach Batman from the point of view of the dreamlike, emotional and irrational hemisphere, as a response to the very literal, 'realistic', 'left brain' treatment of superheroes which was in vogue at the time, in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and others.[1]

An additional reference to the work as a "response" to trends of the time is made in a later note: "The repressed, armored, uncertain and sexually frozen [Bat]man in Arkham Asylum was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven, and borderline psychopathic." Morrison goes on to explain that this conception of the character is for this book alone, and that his other work involving Batman has cast him in a far different (and more positive) light.[1] He explains,

... the story is woven tightly around a small number of symbolic elements, which combine and recombine throughout, as if in a dream: the Moon, the Shadow, the Mirror, the Tower, and the Mother's Son. The construction of the story was influenced by the architecture of a house — the past and the tale of Amadeus Arkham forms the basement levels. Secret passages connect ideas and segments of the book. There are upper stories of unfolding symbol and metaphor. We were also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres Cathedral. The journey through the book is like moving through the floors of the house itself. The house and the head are one.[1]


Commissioner Gordon informs Batman that the patients of Arkham Asylum have taken over the facility, threatening to murder the staff unless Batman agrees to meet with them. Among the hostages are Dr. Charles Cavendish, Arkham's administrator, and Dr. Ruth Adams, a therapist. The patients are led by the Joker, who kills a guard to spur Batman to obey his wishes. Meanwhile, Two-Face's mental condition has deteriorated as a result of Adams' therapy; she replaced Two-Face's trademark coin with a six-sided die and a tarot deck, hoping that he would realize that he doesn't need any of them. Instead, the treatment renders him incapable of even making simple decisions, such as going to the bathroom.

The Joker forces Batman into a game of hide and seek, giving him one hour to escape Arkham before his adversaries are sent to hunt him down. However, unbeknownst to Batman, the Joker shortens the time from one hour after being pressured by the other inmates. Batman subsequently encounters Clayface, Mad Hatter, and Maxie Zeus, among other villains. During a struggle with Killer Croc, Batman is thrown out of a window, grabbing onto the statue of an angel. Clutching the statue's bronze spear, Batman climbs back inside and impales Croc before throwing him out the window, sustaining a severe wound from the spear in the process.

Batman finally reaches a secret room high in the towers of the asylum. Inside, he discovers Cavendish dressed in a bridal gown and threatening Adams with a razor. It is revealed that he orchestrated the riots. When questioned by Batman, Cavendish has him read a passage from the diary of the asylum's founder, Amadeus Arkham. In flashbacks, we see that Arkham's mentally ill mother, Elizabeth, suffered delusions of being tormented by a supernatural bat. After seeing the creature himself, Arkham cut his mother's throat to end her suffering. He blocked out the memory, only to have it return after an inmate, Martin "Mad Dog" Hawkins, raped and murdered Arkham's wife and daughter.

Traumatized, Arkham donned his mother's wedding dress and razor, vowing to bind the evil spirit of "The Bat" with sorcery. He treats Hawkins for months before finally killing by means of electrocution during a shock therapy session. Arkham continues his mission even after he is incarcerated in his own asylum; using his fingernails, he scratches the words of a binding spell all over his cell until his death.

After discovering the diary, razor, and dress, Cavendish came to believe that he was destined to continue Arkham's work. On April Fools Day--the date Arkham's family was murdered--Cavendish released the patients and lured Batman to the asylum, believing him to be the bat Arkham spoke of. Cavendish accuses him of feeding the evil of the asylum by bringing it more insane souls. Batman and Cavendish proceed to struggle, which ends after Adams slashes Cavendish's throat with the razor.

Seizing an axe, Batman hacks down the front door of the asylum, proclaiming that the inmates are now free. The Joker offers to put him out of his misery. Batman retrieves Two-Face's coin from Adams and returns it to him, stating that it should be up to Two-Face to decide Batman's fate. Two-Face declares that they will kill Batman if the coin lands scratched side up, but let him go if the unscarred side appears. Two-Face flips the coin and declares Batman free. The Joker bids Batman good-bye, taunting him by saying that should life ever become too much for him in "the asylum" (the outside world) then he always has a place in Arkham. As Batman disappears into the night, Two-Face stands looking at the coin and it is revealed that it landed scratched side up – he chose to let Batman go. He then turns to the stack of tarot cards and recites a passage from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "Who cares for you? You're nothing but a pack of cards."


The graphic novel presents very different versions of several characters in the Batman universe. Examples include: Maxie Zeus, an electrified, emaciated figure with messianic delusions obsessed with electric shocks and coprophagia; Clayface (presumably Preston Payne), who is rapidly wasting away from lack of "feeding"; the Mad Hatter, whose obsession with Alice in Wonderland has pedophilic overtones; and Batman himself, who is driven close to the breaking point by the Asylum itself. Killer Croc was originally drawn as suffering deformities similar to those of Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man", although his final incarnation is that of a humanoid crocodile. The Joker was also originally going to be a Madonna like transvestite. Evidence of this in the final draft is of the clownfish in Amadeus Arkham's aquarium, which can change their own sex at will. The Joker also mentions the fact that he wears high heels in the final draft.

Critical reaction and legacyEdit

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Hilary Goldstein of IGN Comics said that "Arkham Asylum is unlike any other Batman book you've ever read [and] one of the finest superhero books to ever grace a bookshelf."[2] Goldstein ranked Arkham Asylum #4 on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels, behind The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Year One.[3]

Arkham Asylum illustrator Dave McKean later said he was "trying to make the book despite the subject, rather than because of it. At the end of the day, if you really love to do Batman comics, then that’s probably the best thing to do. Not liking them, and then trying to make something out of them is just a waste of time." He also came to think that "overpainted, lavish illustrations in every panel just didn’t work. It hampers the storytelling."[4]

Arkham Asylum is widely celebrated for Gaspar Saladino's distinctive lettering work, giving characters their own fonts, and lending the Joker's dialogue an ink-spattered manic intensity.[5] The practice of giving characters customized lettering treatments has since become widespread, especially in DC's Vertigo line and many Marvel comics.[5]

Media adaptionsEdit


Video gamesEdit

  • The game Batman: Arkham Asylum is loosely based on the comic, following a similar premise and featuring several similar episodes, such as the fight with Killer Croc. Additionally, the new warden of Arkham, Quincy Sharp, believes himself to be the reincarnation of Amadeus Arkham, and makes frequent reference to the history outlined in the comic. The asylum founder Amadeus Arkham's spirit haunts the mansion (however it turns out to be Warden Quincy Sharp who believes Amadeus's spirit chose him to continue his work in cleansing the city), with the cell in which he inscribed his name in the floor also discoverable. At one point in the game, Quincy Sharp calls the Joker "filthy degenerate", just as Batman does in the graphic novel. Additionally in the beginning of the game The Joker says to Batman that he is "always welcome" in Arkham.


Footnotes Edit

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Morrison, Grant. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth 15th Anniversary Edition (DC Comics, 2005) ISBN 1-4012-0425-2.
  2. Batman: Arkham Asylum Review, Hilary Goldstein, IGN, June 17, 2005
  3. The 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, Hilary Goldstein, IGN, June 13, 2005
  4. Grant Morrison: From the Asylum to the Star, Nicholas Labarre, Sequart, April 29, 2008
  5. 5.0 5.1 Kimball, Kirk. "The Treasure Keeper — Part Twelve of Twelve: Into the Asylum!", Dial B for Blog #500 (Sept.). Accessed May 20, 2011.
  6. Lesnick, Silas (2007-11-10). "IESB Exclusive: Heath Ledger Talks the Joker!". The Movie Reporter ( Retrieved 2007-11-12. 

Sources consulted Edit

External linksEdit

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