BOOK REVIEWS (2013): McKean and Morrison’s (2004) Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition [Again]

18 April 2013


I’m not saying that Morrison gets the patriarchal versions of this mythic pattern wrong; I’m saying he’s repeating a mythic pattern without realizing it is patriarchal.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These reactions will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to that when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

Consequently, I may provide spoilers, may misunderstand books or get stuff wrong, or get off on a gratuitous tear about the thing in some way, &c. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reaction I offer for a book is a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it is further up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever it is we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you can’t be bothered to take up your end of that bargain, that’s part of the problem to be solved.


A Second Reaction To: McKean and Morrison’s (2004)[1] Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (15th Anniversary Edition)

I wanted to let this go, and failed; so this is my second reaction to McKean and Morrison’s Arkham Asylum.

Batman is Gay, Morrison Says

Aren't they sweet?

Aren’t they sweet?

Grant Morrison has declared that Batman is gay, and even conservatives are complaining. But outing Batman is like declaring, in 1976, that Louis and Lestat in Rice’s (1976) Interview with a Vampire are gay—besides being disingenuous, even if the suggestion is apt, making it bluntly open like this mangles a central tension in both works. Of course, some gay men will not appreciate Morrison’s attempt to separate homosexuality and “sexual deviance” (his phrase), but let that go. Morrison is probably just pushing copies, or maybe he’s trying to catch up with 2012 and Wolverine coming out. Instead, I’d rather hoist Morrison by his own petard: here is what he included in the original script after the female psychiatrist Adams slits Cavendish’s throat.

Adams covers her face with her hands, breathing deeply, trying to find some way through to a state of normality. It’s quite clear that Batman doesn’t give a damn for her feelings. His mind is on other things. ((As far as this interpretation goes, Batman doesn’t like women—women are weak, women leave you when you need them most, women can’t be trusted, women will always let you down. That’s the way Batman thinks. I remember an interesting scene in a mid-‘70’s Batman—he’s seen at the end of the story adding a photograph, (of Talia or Catwoman or somebody.), to a line of similar photographs of all the great ‘loves’ of his life. As he does this, he moans to Robin about losing all the women he cares about and how he’s cursed to love only women on the wrong side of the law or something similarly dreary. I couldn’t help imagining Batman in love with a row of glossy photographs that never woke up looking like shit or complained about whose turn it was to wash the dishes…He could happily fantasise over these photographs without them every contradicting him, betraying him or telling him to stop acting like an asshole. Despite all the Talia stories and the Silver St. Cloud stuff, my own feeling is that, given the traumatic events of his youth and the way he currently lives his life, Batman would be quite incapable of sustaining any kind of relationship with a woman.))

Given Morrison’s recent disclosure, one expects, “my own feeling is that, given the traumatic events of his youth and the way he currently lives his life” to end “he probably prefers men”; but that’s not what Morrison wrote back when.

Some more contextualizing points. Morrison apparently wanted to make Joker wildly effeminate, and that was nixed the higher-ups. He wanted Joker to grab Batman’s ass: “get your filthy hands off me degenerate” remains in the text, but the ass-grabbing does not—I’d guess McKean realized the error of that way and opted out. Arkham (the doctor) dons his mother’s wedding dress—obligatory reference to Psycho along the way, the ultimate gay/tranny slur-film about a mommy fixation, even though it is women that Norman Bates kills; Cavendish himself seems to be wearing this dress before Adams slits his throat. This is after Cavendish strangles Batman, calling him mommy’s boy, blah-blah-blah, which Batman has been called earlier, and which his (Batman’s father) has implied, calling him a sissy for crying at a movie—or, to quote Morrison, “something similarly dreary”. Significantly, when Batman reenters Arkham with his ax to free the inmates, the script reads:

One of the inmates of Arkham runs towards us down a corridor, utterly terrified. It’s nobody famous, just a wild-eyed effeminate youth with straggly hair and a white smock. He looks like a debauched extra from Jarman’s ‘Carravaggio’ [sic].[2] He has a laurel wreath on his head and he’s dropping a bottle of wine as he runs. There are wine stains too on his smock … The mad youth bursts into the dining area, screeching hysterically, gasping for breath. His eyes bulge …

CaravaggioHowever, McKean doesn’t draw this figure this way at all—wise man. As for the quote about trouble with women above, Morrison adds (in this edition), “This appraisal of Batman’s sexuality applies only to the ‘damaged’ version of the character presented within these pages. I prefer to think of him now as Neal Adams drew him—the hair-chested globetrotting love god of the ‘70s stories. Now that Morrison has worked through his anti-gay bias, he prefers to think of Batman as some disco-hopping Casanova?

He also adds on the next page:

The “weak,” confused Batman of the earlier parts of the book vanishes here to be replaced by a more familiar character. From a Jungian POV, his anima has vanquished his shadow. He has merged with his own myth—the Death Bat—and become part man, part numinous legend.

This is once Batman’s wielding a properly Norse ax.

One could impute so much psychoanalytic material on Morrison here.

In general, it would seem that his major theme of “Batman as pansy” (or perhaps more exactly “Batman as pussy”) didn’t get into the book.[3] It’s telling that Morrison introduces his debauched youth figure throwaway as “it’s no one famous” and a moment later says it’s an allusion to Bacchus (by which he surely meant Dionysus, rather). It seems to ridiculous to say, daredevil-that-batman-s-a-pussy-63f8c7but this all seems really quite obviously Morrison working out his own masculinity issues, if you will, with all the standard misogyny and homophobia squarely in place. I don’t exactly begrudge him that—straight boys have to work out their shit—but for him to come out now (I use the phrase deliberately) and say that Batman is gay may be his own oblique confession? I don’t exactly begrudge him that either—gay boys have to work out their shit too—but stop in both cases (then and now) projecting your shit onto actual gay men, who have to bear the brunt of your anxiety.

About page 51, Morrison wrote:

Killer Croc stands in for the Old Dragon of Revelations. The Dragon can be seen to represent primal chaos, the R complex lizard brain. The spear, the weapon of rational intellect, is used to conquer the brute appetites of nature and man. St. Michael thus bound the dragon in Hell, just as Croc is bound in the cellars of Arkham … In this scene, Batman reunites Christ and Serpent, then confronts and overcomes his own attachment to his Mother in a perverse nightmare of lizards, lace, and bridal embroidery. ¶ Much of this subtextual material was lost on the casual reader but that didn’t seem to stop us from shifting mega-amounts of copies. I do believe that people respond emotionally to deep mythical patterns whether or not they actually recognize or “understand” them as such, but the fact that our book launched at the time of the outrageously successful Batman film by Tim Burton probably helped more than anything else.

No shit. Thanks for at least not being completely disingenuous.  However, this admission doesn’t mean that Morrison used what he calls these symbols any more adequately or with any greater insight than his casual reader, as he calls him.

Nichols (1980)[4] summarizes Jung’s distinction between sign and symbol:

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

Crivelli_StMichaelMy distinction about Arkham Asylum is this: McKean is dealing in symbols, and Morrison is writing about signs. For example, when McKean provides his images of Croc, he’s clearly not thinking “dragon”;[5] whatever he’s concocting, it’s something more like a symbol, in part because visual material is almost more like a symbol than language. Meanwhile, Morrison is talking about Batman reuniting the Serpent and the dragon, or alluding to St. Michael and the dragon—he’s piling together signs as if they might or would or could have symbolic numinousness. He specifically uses the word numinous even: that Batman “has merged with his own myth—the Death Bat—and become part man, part numinous legend.”

So the book has the weird (Jungian) feature that someone else (McKean) is drawing the pictures of Morrison’s unconscious for him—one might start with such a theory.

Presumably Morrison is perfectly aware that the specific dragon of Revelations is merely Babylon, that it and St. Michael binding the dragon (or St. George slaying the dragon, we might add) is already a conventionalized “theft” of older version of dismembering the dragon.  So what is galling in this manipulation of signs is how Morrison either ignores or really is ignorant of their “deeper” bases. He seems to be taking an at-best misunderstood if not deliberately bastardized form of dragonslaying imagery as its “correct” meaning (i.e., as the meaning found in Crowley, who himself was a bastardizer of the qabbala, which itself is a bastardization of these far older mysteries)—all of this being overwhelmingly masculinist and misogynistic in every bastardization. If Marduk slaying the dragon Tiamat is at least the most widely known (if not the oldest) version of this misogynistic gesture, then we can count that as the source for all subsequent misogynist configurations as well—including St. Michael and St. George, the obviously highly sexist dragon of Babylon, and so finally also Batman killing Croc.[6]

The point is ironic because Morrison actually uses the very word that would let him out of the forest, when he refers to primal chaos. (Here we are circling back around to Joker as chaos; see my previous post).

15211527441407634186Taken to its furthest extent, misogyny can pretend that Woman, ultimately, is merely and only and nothing more than a cunt, a gap (chaos) out of which everything comes. Male fantasies assert that anything only ever comes out of that gap because the male fertilizes it. The womb is imagined as passive, creating nothing itself; it is subject to male whims, as when YHVH (in a recent piece of patriarchal sexism) shows off by dilating the Goddess’ cervix: “let there be light” or Joker saying, “Let’s make this happen.”

And so, while I’m typically loathe to put a sexual interpretation on imagery, at least as a first resort, Morrison’s statement, “The Dragon can be seen to represent primal chaos, the R complex lizard brain. The spear, the weapon of rational intellect, is used to conquer the brute appetites of nature and man” is almost offensively naïve. It is only by stabbing primal chaos with the “weapon of rational intellect” that we conquer the brute appetites of nature and man?

Let us not pay not enough attention here. We have the brute appetites of nature and man—two entities, characteristically associated with female and male (nature and man), but it is, of course, a man who is using his (wink, wink) weapon of rational intellect to conquer the gap (chaos). Whose brute appetites again? Morrison has already made the whole thing into an entirely male-only fantasy, since the penis of rational intellect is conquering another part of the mind, the R complex lizard brain. But this is like Zeus pretending he could concoct the goddess Athena (i.e., could create something) merely with his imagination—no Woman needed. At this point, even the cunt of chaos has been written out of the picture. Nor is this the first time Zeus pulls such a feat; at one point the fetal Dionysus is sewn into his thigh to gestate.

So, indeed, apparently copy can be moved by imagery even when even the author does not actually recognize or understand those images.

None of this would be compelling as an argument to me if there were not already all of the chauvinist and homophobic elements floating around in the text—by “homophobic” I don’t mean “gay-repressed” imagery but simply “am I man enough?” images. Homophobia in straight males and in gay males differs. It’s probably more accurate simply to call it misogyny—because it is rooted in the fear of being a “pussy” a “bitch”—if one is not a man, well then logically, you must be a woman; and everyone knows that’s just terrible. Being a bitch or a pussy means of course that men fuck you, and that’s where the homophobic strains start to get into the text—that debauched extra from Jarman’s Caravaggio, which Morrison pretends to misspell?—but it’s rooted in misogyny first and foremost.[7]

When we’re dealing with something like St. George and the dragon or St. Michael and his ‘weapon of rational intellect,’ the problem is that this is at least one level removed from the authentic symbol from which such imagery arises—this is Morrison playing with signs, and he has a bad habit of it as the volume of the Invisibles I read showed as well. This is borrowed symbology; and just as the Roman versions of the Greek gods ultimately are a sedate and rather boring lot compared to the Greek originals—or just as Microsoft Word is a poor knock-off of WordPerfect—what we find here is a copying of the outward form of a symbol, but not the interior “logic” of it—those tensions that drive it that make it a symbol in the first place, that make it have numinous force. It winds up being just a heap of references that don’t hang together much. What glues it all together here—to the extent that it is glued together—is Morrison’s misogyny, if you will—his own angst over his masculinity.

mckean_vertigoAnd this is why the Joker is the figure he is, both in this text but also in Nolan’s (2008) The Dark Knight. Despite thousands of years of misogyny, despite no shortage of effort to impugn “chaos” (as the source out of which everything arises), ultimately we cannot—except through the most neurotic denial—pretend it is not the source. Men may rape cunts out of a desire for power-over, in frustration, in an attempt to silence them, occupy them, destroy them—or, like Jack the Ripper, save them for personal use in magical rites—but all of this is a tacit recognition of the power it is a symbol of, the Source. Moreover, as the source of everything, not everyone finds the chaos that ensues from Chaos to be undesirable. In this way it is in one sense Hope—which Pandora’s box still contains.

So Batman can never defeat the Joker, nor are his hypermasculine (as Morrison puts them here) stabbety-stabs going to avail him of anything. He declares, “I have freed you,” and Joker says, “Oh, we already knew that.” YHVH believes he let himself out of the womb—as I said, only through the most neurotic denial. Blaming women for being the source, by the by, is absurd—Woman is merely the most adequate symbol for the Source. Females and males alike come from the Source, however we want to symbolize that.

So I think that the Joker is the most compelling figure in the Batman franchise, because he is a symbol of the Source. As a male (presumably—what a twist if he turned out to be female), this makes him (traditionally) a consort of the Source. And like all symbols, we can only encounter their concrete embodiments (like Hindu deities) never the Ground out of which they incarnate. So, except that Morrison can’t imagine a consort of the Source except in faggoty terms (try reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you want an example; the Green Knight is a fine, masculine fellow without being an e-bag), thus he wanted to make his Joker a flaming Queen. Luckily someone else persuaded him not to carry his implicit misogyny all the way over into the Joker.

17-2-sir-gawain-plateSo the popularity of the Joker in part arises from our ambiguous relationship to what chaos, the Source, can throw at us—sometimes fate is awful, sometimes awesome. With the Joker as a villain, this just reprises Woman as the greatest archenemy of everything ever, just another extension of the patriarchal fantasies that demonize Source as Woman, but psychically (if you will) we know that the Source (even in the form of Woman) is where all that is now bad will find its defeat coming from—or in a word, is Hope. Hope might be unfounded; the next incarnation from the Source might be worse than the last—but that will not extinguish the Source as the source of Hope.

a648a7539a9c2e2d57bd1b8123aafbb6The madness of the Joker is that he might save us, as the agent of Hope. Hasn’t worked out well so far, and maybe we’re safer with him in the Pandora’s box of Arkham Asylum—the Greeks left hope in the box as well, on a similar argument. And hope has unleashed some terrible shit on us (as a species): genocides, capitalism, &c. But we can’t get rid of it, though it’s also obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy to call Hope the Joker—the one who cackles ha Ha hA HA, April Fool’s.


[1] Morrison, G., & McKean, D. (2004). Arkham Asylum: a serious house on serious earth. 15th anniversary ed. New York, NY: DC Comics.

[2] Let me clarify. Derek Jarman was one of the preeminent gay (English) filmmakers during the AIDS era, his Caravaggio (Morrison spells the name wrong) being about the fiery Renaissance painter—inventor, or at least the preeminent popularizer of the chiaroscuro technique—who eventually murdered one of his boyfriends (the story goes), probably one of those debauched youth Morrison describes, who would have wound up in Jarman’s film, Morrison images. Given the rather relentless gay stereotyping in Morrison’s script, one would have to only with caution assume that he was “cool with it.”

[3] —nor did McKean’s desire to make the Joker’s mouth the notorious vagina dentata. I could get on McKean’s case for wanting to, but in the context of the work, it seems to me merely to be him following faithfully the “logic” that Morrison is (only semi-consciously) following.

[4] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.

Blakesbest[5] Croc first reminds me of the image Moore and Campbell (1986) use in From Hell, which itself is from a painting by Blake.

[6] From his commentary, he wants this to be Odin stabbed with the spear on the ash-tree, to be Jesus on the cross—stabbed in the side by the legionnaire’s spear—but these already are misogynist thefts from the Goddess. The patriarchal bullshit in Judaism, and thus the Christianity derived through Jesus, needs no further amplification; in the case of Odin, the sexism is less grotesque, and impolitely ignores that that Odin had to originate from some womb, some chaos.

[7] I would say that the desperate and reaching quality of much of Morrison’s symbolizing, here and elsewhere, is the intellectual equivalent of this kind of misogyny—it’s very fortunate for him that McKean, either through diligence or visionary artistry, is able to overcome the performance issues in Morrison’s text.


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