Grant Morrison: The Early Years - Part II: "Arkham Asylum"

"Grant Morrison: The Early Years" is the first in a projected three-volume set of analytical texts examining the career of one of comics' most eminent and influential creators, Grant Morrison. Written by Massachusetts-based literature teacher and scholar Timothy Callahan, "The Early Years" offers not just simple annotations to Morrison's work, but instead provides readers with plainly-written, hugely detailed studies of every single issue of Morrison's early works starting with the groundbreaking "Zenith" and concluding with his Dadaist superhero manifesto "Doom Patrol," creating an invaluable resource to fans of Morrison as well as to those new to his work. The book concludes with a lengthy interview with Morrison himself.

"Grant Morrison: The Early Years" is published by the non-profit Sequart Research & Literacy Organization, which is devoted to the study and promotion of comic books as a legitimate artform. "The Early Years" is the first in a new series of scholarly books examining mainstream comics, and will be followed by "Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen." Other planned projects include a book analyzing the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Yesterday, in the first part of our conversation with "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" author Timothy Callahan, we discussed the seminal "Zenith," "Crisis on Infinite Earths,"and Grant Morrison's beloved "Animal Man" series. In this second part, CBR News discusses with Callahan the tremendously successful yet much maligned graphic novel "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. "

Your book provides Morrison fans (and detractors) with what is easily the most complete analysis of "Arkham Asylum" I've ever seen. It's tremendously useful to me, as someone who since basically childhood has been trying to make sense of this book. You detail really masterfully all the symbols, allusions and other references to be found in "Arkham Asylum," which I think you could say is probably the most unpopular Morrison work despite its actually being very successful in terms of sales. I mean it's hard to find "Wow, I just love 'Arkham Asylum!'"

Would you say that the book is misunderstood, generally? "The Filth" is obviously difficult for people to understand, but I think because Batman is in "Arkham Asylum," it's more misunderstood by more people.

Because of when "Arkham Asylum" was released and because of its reputation... in fact, when I did my little guest spot at Comics Should Be Good recently, I mentioned in my introduction that my book dealt with the "much maligned 'Arkham Asylum,'" and one of the commentators said, "Much maligned? I've never heard of 'Arkham Asylum' being much maligned." And to me, it's totally maligned!

There are certainly a lot of fans and a lot of people who respect its attempt to be symbolic and challenging, but there's just as many people - I think it sold over 500 thousand copies -hundreds of thousands of people who own the thing and don't know what to make of it. They're either baffled by it or dismiss it as pretentious crap, which apparently was the reaction even at DC editorial at the time. A lot of people were passing it around and laughing at how absurdly pompous the whole thing was. So, I do think it's underappreciated, and I do think that even though it sold a lot of copies people don't look at it as a landmark in any way. And maybe that's because it's basically a dream story; makes it easier to write off. "It's all just a dream, it doesn't really matter, it doesn't affect continuity in any way." And no one since then has tried to write such a Jungian symbolic graphic novel, so therefore it hasn't been influential.

But I do think "Arkham Asylum" has a lot to offer. In my book I make the case that it's the comic book equivalent of T.S. Elliot's "The Waste Land." And I'm not just making that comparison because I happen to like both books; I'm making that comparison because they're using a lot of the same symbolism in a lot of the same ways. "The Waste Land" was wildly misunderstood and remains misunderstood to this day. A lot of high school and college students who are forced to read "The Waste Land" just think it's pretentious crap. I think if you gave those same students "Arkham Asylum" without any kind of context, they would probably have the same reaction. "Well it's pretentious crap and doesn't really have any significance in my life," and I think that's the problem. They're not looking at the symbolism; they're not looking at the structure; they're not seeing it's all about patterns and it's all about images, and that's the meaning of "Arkham Asylum." The narrative is the meaning, but you have to read the narrative symbolically to understand it.

That's what I was trying to prove and I'm glad that you appreciated that analysis, because I thought I was making some good points. I try to do it without providing an annotation, that's one of the things I didn't want to do; just annotate all the references. I wanted to show the connections in an organic way and guide people through it so they would be inspired to go back and read "Arkham Asylum" and see how cool it is.

Arkham's flashback continues by describing his meeting with two controversial figures: Aleister Crowley and Carl Jung. By referencing these two names, Morrison is giving us the keys to understanding "Arkham Asylum." Crowley is significant because he created the Thoth Tarot which Morrison references continually in this graphic novel, while Jung's psychological theory of archetypes relies heavily on the relationship between what he calls the Self (unified consciousness) and the Shadow (the instinctive and irrational side of human nature. Batman and the Joker physically represent these archetypes, although Batman is not a fully realized Self until the end of the graphic novel. At first, and until he achieves victory over the various Shadows (as embodied by not only the Joker, but by other rogues as well), he is a mere persona, as the Joker so readily points out when one of the inmates asks to see Batman's real face: "[The mask] is his real face," Says the Joker, "and I want to go much deeper than that."

- excerpt from "Grant Morrison: The Early Years."

I think the most typical reaction to "Arkham Asylum" - the plot reaction, not the "pretentious crap" reaction - is that the book is saying Batman is just as crazy as the villains he fights; that he's some kind of hypocrite. That Batman actually emerges from that dream stronger and saner is missed a lot.

Yeah. It's not just about Batman being crazy; it's about Arkham Asylum being the literal embodiment of Batman's mind. This is his psychological struggle with himself and this is about death and rebirth and healing and resurrection. All those Jungian and Joseph Campbell things are definitely intended by Morrison. I'm so glad he put the annotated script in the "Arkham Asylum" 15th anniversary edition, so you can see how clearly the symbolic structure was part of it from the very beginning.

"Arkham Asylum" is hugely ambitious and beautifully executed, and I feel that way now a lot more than I used to, because of your book. "Arkham Asylum" is very complex. But some readers still wonder, is it a good Batman story? If that's even a separate question.

I don't know. It's sort of a ridiculous question that only comic book fans ask, but I understand why that question would be asked.

My next book is about the Legion of Super-Heroes. I'm not writing the whole thing, it's actually a collection of essays I'm editing and writing parts of, but I'm taking my approach to comic books, my close readings, my analytical approach and applying that to the 50 years of Legion continuity. My essay is about Paul Levitz's run, and I was talking to Paul Levitz as background reference. I asked him if there are certain qualities a Legion story must have and he thought that was a ridiculous question. He said, "No. As long as it's good, it doesn't matter."

And that's kind of my answer about if "Arkham Asylum" is a good Batman story.

There are certain Batman conventions that you would expect to see [in a Batman story], and you can't just put Batman in any story. If you have him wildly mischaracterized... well, I guess he could be. In the '50s, he was fighting mutated apes and running around gleefully.

Well, I think we can take it as read that those stories were very bad.

Yes. I guess the concept is that there are certain things that make a Batman story, but to me each writer defines those things. Even if you define them in the Bronze Age or Contemporary Age, I think Morrison does give you a lot of those conventions in "Arkham Asylum." He gives you the influence of the origin, he deals with the guilt over his parents' death, he deals with the fact that Batman is trying to be stable in an insane world, and he's trying to get revenge in a broader sense than just revenge on the guy who killed his parents. What's missing are the bat-gadgets, a sense of Gotham City itself, and Batman's relationship to other people besides the villains. That's all missing, but I don't' think that's necessary to have a good Batman work. I think it is a good Batman story on its own.

It's also pretty clear that when Morrison went back to write "Batman: Gothic," he wanted to add all those things he didn't get to add in "Arkham Asylum." He wanted to put in the bat-gyro and he wanted to put in all the little detective things he didn't get to put in "Arkham Asylum." I guess you could look at them together as a complete version of Batman. But I do think "Arkham Asylum" is a good Batman story, yeah.

Next, in the final part of CBR's in-depth interview with Timothy Callahan, the scholar will discuss with us a number of topics including Morrison's philosophies on both comics and existence, anti-climaxes, superhero traditions, and one of Grant Morrison's most beloved works, the surrealistic superhero opus, "Doom Patrol."

"Grant Morrison: The Early Years" is on sale now from Sequart.

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