Batman was the focus of a lot of high calibre attention in the late 1980s. Frank Miller was looking at Batman’s past and future in Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, while Alan Moore and Brian Boland were realising Batman’s arch enemy, The Joker, as a truly nasty piece of work in The Killing Joke. The Joker also crops up in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, often considered the other great Batman graphic novel of the time.
The art is magnificent, showcasing McKean’s talent for mixed media and painting. The length of time it takes to create work like this must be phenomenal, which we would presume goes toward explaining why the majority of McKean’s comic work is restricted to covers.
It’s Morrison’s story that doesn’t stand up to his rivals’. Mixing the history of the asylum – famous dumping ground for Batman’s psychotic foes – with a typical Batman adventure is interesting enough, but Morrison throws too much at the hero in too small a space. This makes Batman’s journey through Arkham’s finest nutters appear too easy – more of a stroll through a fairground haunted house with a few old chums than a serious battle for his life. Coupled with an anti-climatic ending, there’s little feeling of impending disaster – the chronicled event should probably appear in Batman’s casebook of over-hyped walkovers.
Morrison delves a little deeper into Batman’s messed up psyche than most, but this leads to a story that has more ponderous psychology than action and, as a result, not enough room to fit any decent action in. Although bringing adult themes like insanity into superhero comics is admirable, it shouldn’t be to the detriment of a high-octane plot and, in this case, it gets right in the way.