Arkham Asylum: Madness

I love superheroes, but trying to aim DC or Marvel superhero stories at adults almost never works for me. That recent All-Star Superman was great, and Grant Morrison gets it, but most of the time the characters in these comics are operating on the same emotional level as they did when they were written for kids, but there's grisly crimes thrown in and the writers try to make these impossible worlds make sense. The world of Batman is an amazing one and open to individual interpretation by the creative teams who work on it, but most of the the stuff made after the sixties seems wrong to me.

The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, Tim Burton's first Batman movie, and even Bruce Timm's Batman projects are all examples of adult Batman stories that aren't dull or completely ridiculous to me. On the other end of the spectrum of ridiculosity there's the idea of Arkham Asylum. When Batman is written for kids you don't really have to explain where the bad guys go after Batman beats them. Adults want to know, so in 1974 Dennis O'Neil wrote it into Batman continuity. When the supervillains get beat up, instead of going to regular jail they go to a supervillain mental hospital.

The problem is that once you start questioning things like, “Where do the mass-murdering supervillains go?” it's hard to stop asking other questions like, “Why are the greatest murderers of all time being stored together in one place where they can conspire to escape, which they keep doing again and again? Why not store them in separate buildings? Or hire a staff that's capable of handling them? Or why not just execute them since they're basically all super-terrorists?” You bring a little bit of reality into the world of Batman and it just draws attention to how stupid the whole premise is.

Sam Kieth's new Arkham Asylum book is probably a follow-up to the Dave McKean/Grant Morrison Arkham Asylum comic which I did not read. The book has the unimaginative subtitle, “Madness”, and the cover art is a blow-up of one of the interior panels. It all feels kind of lazy from the beginning.

The story begins with some images of an abandoned metal bathtub and narration by an unidentified character. Then we're introduced to Sabine, an annoying and generic character, along with her non-person of a son and equally bland husband. Her husband drops her off at Arkham Asylum where she unhappily works and we're treated to a beautiful splash-page of the full Arkham Asylum building looking faded and ghostly. We see her walk to her job as her dress is fluttering in a way that seems like it was fun to draw for Kieth but doesn't really make sense or need to be there.

We're introduced to some of the other staff at Arkham Asylum and quickly realize that they all are fucking incapable and annoying idiots. It was when I saw this page (below) that I thought, “Man, I hate these fucking characters. I can't wait for the Joker to murder these annoying bitches, lumpy security guards and maybe eat Sabine's family.” Unfortunately that never happens.

There are some cool shots of Killer Croc in his prison aquarium tank and a lot of boring conversations between characters who I want to see get chopped up, and some visual metaphors like a bleeding clock. I really don't care though. I don't think Sam Kieth gave a fuck about this comic. Sam Kieth is one of my favorite artists in comics and it's really bizarre to me that he managed to come through Marvel without having to adopt the house style. His drawing style jumps around from hyper-rendered paintings and drawings of faces, muscles, cars, and beautiful architecture, to crude scrawls that he could have been doing with his other hand. It's an interesting drawing style that feels free and gives everything a diaristic feel. And mostly Kieth focuses on what interests him. In this book it seems like the thing's he dug most were drawing the building and doing large portraits of the Joker. Everything else is kind of a waste and the story is a big nothing.

Also, Harley Quinn is transformed from a cute psycho into a dreadlocked Juggalette, which makes sense. She reminds me of the girls I knew in Special Ed. Now that I bring it up, the few scenes of the supervillains interacting reminded me of the way the junior criminals I had classes with interacted. Kieth tried to make a human story where Arkham Asylum is a metaphor for a normal lady's problems, but the problem is that the bitch sucks and the villains are way more interesting and relatable.


18 Responses to Arkham Asylum: Madness

  1. Great work. Now I want to intensely flip through this comic book at the shop. Looking forward to more reviews here, Nicholas.

  2. Uland says:

    Good stuff, Nick.

  3. Uland says:

    Why don’t they just do balls-out exploitation? I can’t think of any other kind of *adult* superhero story that makes sense right now.

  4. rene says:

    god i hate Sam Kieth

  5. Agreed. The Joker is a perfect hero for a classic exploitation story. Have him take over Arkham and turn it into a systematic torture palace. Have The Joker get hired as the lead torturer of an anonymous government military contractor dispatched to track down Nazi war criminals living in South America. Send him on a road-trip killing spree across the Midwest in a Ford Model T or set him up as the warden of a women’s prison.

  6. Nicholas Gazin says:

    I love him but there are times when I don’t think he challenges himself and just phones it in.

  7. dalessi says:

    You need to check your use of the word ‘bitch.’

  8. patrick ford says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever gone from “What is this crap” to “What is this crap” in so few words.

  9. Ali Almezal says:

    I think it’s okay when he calls an imaginary character a bitch. If she was based on a real person, he might have to rethink using it. But she’s not, she’s completely fictional.

  10. Uland says:

    I can see it now: Benjamin Marra-penned superherosploitation series, published by Avatar.

  11. Uland says:

    I’d suggest DC, but they’d never go for it.

  12. Alipp says:

    Agreed. This isn’t Vice magazine. Unnecessary Cussing and Special Ed comparisons make you sound like an ignorant high school student with a potty mouth. Please consider adjusting your approach.

  13. Robin Margolis says:

    If you’re previous attempts to bring adults to super heroes also involved sounding like a frustrated 8th grade male, I’m not surprised they failed. While I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are actually a lovely human being, this review definitely provides fodder for those who would say comic books fans are just frustrated boys who hold onto not growing up (a view I don’t hold mind you).

    Oh and in case you cling to Ali’s point, not only do you casually drop bitch in at the end, you say “the bitch sucks” and elsewhere talk about how you want to see her cut up. I would think the point of The Comics Journal is to acknowledge how we talk about art and fictional characters count. If you don’t want to send the message that women better conform to what you find interesting or get cut up, I’m not saying it makes it seem like you believe that in general, but it DOES mark you as nasty voice in my head and flags this as not a female-friendly space.
    In other words, my mental image of you is now that of a Juggallo too. Hope you have a nice Faygo guzzling day.

  14. Nicholas Gazin says:

    I am a Juggalo.

  15. hcs says:

    This is a very poorly written and unintelligent review. It seems beneath the general quality of material that usually appears in the Comics Journal.

  16. Igor says:

    Whoop Whoop.

  17. Nick Dawson says:

    Yeah this isn’t a very helpful review.. It sounds like the reviewer is trying too hard to sound tough, and not explain what’s up with the comic. No thanks.

  18. OD'E says:

    ‘Sam Kieth’s new Arkham Asylum book is probably a follow-up to the Dave McKean/Grant Morrison Arkham Asylum comic which I did not read.’
    Great research here, Nich: No, it’s not a follow-up to the Grant M. book. And secondly, is this supposed to be a serious web page for comics when you don’t even know a thing about one of the most celebrated comics of all time: ‘Arkham Asylum: A serious House on a Serious Earth’ Voted 4’th best Batman story of all time by IGN.

    I agree with the last two posters..

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