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A review a day: Arkham Asylum: Madness

It’s Sam Kieth! What’s not to love?

DC, which, unlike Marvel, still releases original graphic novels every once in a while, recently released this one, which is written, drawn, and occasionally colored by Sam Kieth, colored the rest of the time by Michelle Madsen and Dave Stewart, and lettered by Steve Wands. It’s a slim volume – not quite 100 pages long, and it retails for $19.99. If DC releases a softcover, that might be a better version to get, because it’s an interesting comic, but not a great one, and that’s too bad.

The basic plot is simple: A nurse named Sabine arrives for her shift at Arkham Asylum in the morning and ends up staying for 24 hours when she’s drafted for the night shift as well. It is, of course, a strange 24 hours. The Joker is doing weird things, and everything kinds of comes to a head while Sabine is there. Kieth is concerned far more with Sabine and the way she and the staff reacts to the weirdness going on at the asylum, so the plot is somewhat inconsequential. In many ways, this book is a nice companion piece to The Killing Joke, in that the Joker is trying to drive many people mad, and instead of turning a carnival into a madhouse, he simply uses the madhouse in which he’s confined. In some ways, this is a far more disturbing comic than The Killing Joke, because Kieth leaves the ending more ambiguous than Moore did. We think that the Joker is proven wrong and that not everyone loses their sanity when confronted with the insane, but then Kieth forces us to reconsider what happens. The idea that Kieth is toying with is an interesting one. Sabine needs the job – she’s a young mother and she and her husband don’t make much money – but does she need it to the point where it destroys her soul? Is her love of her son enough to resist the insanity that surrounds her? Will defending her child against the Joker drive her to the point where he wants her to go anyway? Kieth brings all of these themes up throughout the book, and although they don’t always work perfectly (mainly because Sabine remains somewhat of a blank slate, emotionally – she reacts to things as we expect her to react, and so we don’t really get a sense that she might swerve), Kieth is good enough to make the ending fairly gut-wrenching. It’s a decent psychological horror story, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The problem with the story is that Kieth doesn’t really do anything new with any of the characters. I know that he can’t really do too much because this is, presumably, “in continuity” and so he can’t change too much, but he doesn’t really give us new takes of the old chestnuts. The book that this is obviously hearkening back to, Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (yes, I just compared it to The Killing Joke, but I can compare it to two different books, right?), at least gave us an odder version of the Joker than we usually see, but Kieth’s Joker is just the Joker. Even Killer Croc, a malevolent presence on the top floor, is similar to many other versions. Because of this restriction, it’s kind of difficult to care too much about what theatrics the maniacs in Arkham pull, even when it directly affects Sabine. Kieth toys a bit with the Joker – his obsession with Antiques Roadshow and old toys in general ought to become canonical – but in the end, he’s just the Joker. Kieth also hits all the common notes about Arkham – he brings up the idea that something deeper lurks within its walls, for instance – but it’s still Arkham. In other words, it’s still ridiculously understaffed even though the greatest concentration of evil in the DCU is concentrated inside it, and it’s still a wreck of a building that, even in an economic recession, is an embarrassment in a major American city. The idea of Arkham is always more interesting than the reality, and Kieth doesn’t do much with the reality.

The reason I can mildly recommend this is because the ending really does work well, as Sabine comes to understand her warped relationship with Arkham and its patients and why she acts as she does at the end, and because Kieth’s art is always fun to look at. His character design is wonderful, as he draws people as slight caricatures that reveal much more about them than if he drew them straight. He shifts from cartoony and benign to cartoony and violent very easily, making the violence stand out and more disturbing. While his Joker looks like the Joker and even Killer Croc, as malevolent a presence he is, is still a big crocodile, Kieth’s visual portrayal of Harley Quinn is brilliant, wearing her hair in dreadlocks and laconically jousting with her replacement at Arkham, while Jonathan Crane, with his stitched-up lips, is a creepy demon haunting the halls. Kieth always does a good job moving from relatively simple line work in certain panels to fully painted panels in others, and his range is breathtaking. Kieth doesn’t quite earn the final image of horror (which breaks the tension that has been building up inside the asylum), but it’s a tremendous visual. While Kieth’s writing has been better than in this comic, it’s always a treat to look at his artwork and see what fun stuff he’s up to these days.

Arkham Asylum: Madness isn’t quite great, although it’s not bad. Kieth shies away from really delving into madness, giving us the standard insane characters of the DC Universe and not going too far into Sabine’s psyche to make a grand statement. Her struggle is a gripping one, but there’s a sense that Kieth had an opportunity to really dig in, and he passed it up to give us stories of characters we know far too well. Still, it’s a fascinating book because, like Dave McKean, Kieth is an artist who can make madness visually interesting. It’s a decent read, just not a brilliant one. But it’s still nice that DC actually publishes stuff like this every once in a while!

Tomorrow: An old morality tale … turned on its head!

17 Comments

I still have this on my “to read” pile; with this reminder, I’ll get to it this evening. Even if the story is a bit of a letdown, at least I’m sure I’ll enjoy looking at Keith’s twisted art.

I just re-read the entire Maxx 35 issue series. I always loved the art in that series, but after re-reading the series, I found the stories to be less strange and shocking and more just plain weak. What carried that series for the three years or so was Kieth’s art.

He needs to collaborate with a quality writer and start knocking some projects out of the park and stop trying to control the entire project. His artwork is great, but it can’t carry a poor storyline.

It’s disappointing how dull and by-the-numbers most Arkham stories have been lately. I’ve not read Madness, but beyond the art, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to. There was also that mini-series recently, which I’ve already forgotten the name of because I only bought the first issue and it was dismal.

Arkham Asylum: Living Hell and even the videogame were both cool interpretations of Arkham that could co-exist alongside Morrison’s vision. More of that sort of thing, please! It’s a shame Gotham Central never really had an arc set within Arkham as that would’ve been really interesting.

Speaking of Sam Kieth…
I just reread his Hulk/Wolverine miniseries from a few years back. Very nice story, very cool art. Well worth the time to dig it out or look it up.

The story of Maxx is a bit…well…parts of it are good. The art of course is gorgeous.
Kieth does usually get the characters well, from entirely mundane to outlandish, even if he does rely on archetypes (but that’s ok, I find use of archetypes interesting), which means he does write these psychological treatises well. But he is rather weak at pulling dramatic arches and thus does tend to end up in this “yeah, but so what” group. Lots of promise but ultimately unsatisfying.
But I wonder if I ever could get tired of looking at his art.

I guess I’m the only person who liked The Maxx storyline, warts and all.

Hmm. Okay. I’d like to make a general comment here. About everything.

Listen. IF “comics should be good” how come most of them *aren’t*? (Any more – haven’t been for many years. I’m talking American comics here: some of which have British writers. I can’t really get my hands on, say, Japanese or Korean or even French comics any more, sadly, so they’ll have to remain outside the purview.)

I know the Batman characters. I think that sadly over years they have been turned into travesties of what comic book or ANY characters should believably or aesthetically be. So have a lot of characters, largely because the writers and the industry have run out of anything to say, and are just trying to make it “novel” while saying constantly the same!

This comic above for example. It certainly doesn’t tempt me. What does it say? Nothing! Certainly nothing real. It speaks to no genuine reality; no real feelings or things going no around us living human beings. Anybody can “trendy” up cartoon characters by dressing them as..

..as slagettes with dreadlocks. You could do that with Daisy Duck! (For that matter – and if Disney would let you!)

What is IN something like this? Answer: so obviously nothing. Only some hoary old cliches, now copied by everyone in this retarded company – plus, I should like to point out, some equally horrible old – and OUTDATED – cliches, outdated since the c 19th – nay the Middle Ages – about mental illness and how “evil” and “dangerous” the majority of such afflicted people are – the reality in real life being nearer to zero. (But then I’ve been complaining about the neo-medievalism of DC’s portrayal of mental illness since.. what.. about Killing Joke? Which is another really stupid story incidentally: nowadays even the author admits it.)

Makes me wonder what these “genius” authors really think they’re writing about – witches?! (From my neo-pagan viewpoint, it really feels like it.)

I wonder what any RL psychiatric nurses or mental health worker thinks of such trash? Unfortunately I know none to ask.

Yes well: to the readers/authors of such benighted rags, I would recommend you a couple of writers with both academic and lit-crit clout (neither of them sadly has written directly about comics: Marina Warner – try her Six Myths of Our Time and No Go the Bogeyman: and the late great pagan author Isaac Bonewits: read his essay The Geeks vs. The Jocks on neopagan.net. They should serve to both explain and cure you all of your dualism and patriarchy.

Right: now to deal with the whines of protest! :) 1) Anyone who says I lack a sense of humour should check out the god I worship: clue’s in the handle! :)

2) Anyone saying: But it’s only a story or It’s not real – yes well thankyou, I know that! But shouldn’t stories at least SPEAK to the real; to things we meet in our daily lives, literally and figuratively? Shouldn’t they, even more essentially, speak to the realities of (constantly gradually evolving) human nature, of social and economic relationships? And to those quirks &traits of personality,odd or mundane..

..that we observe in the real people around us? Note: REAL HUMAN BEINGS, ie PEOPLE LIKE WE ARE – not just some weird insane “freaks”: “those weirdoes” “over there” who “aren’t like us at all” and who we are constantly encouraged to be afraid of. Hmm yes it’s a particularly American trait, isn’t it, this “othering”.. must stem from what you did to the slaves and the Native Americans. As I said the best european equivalent I can think of is witch-hunts, also not unknown in earlier America.

Anyone who has taken some kind of literature, race or gender classes must know what I’m talking about.

Well. Back more to the subject at hand. IE Modern comics – why are they good and WHAT is funny about them? Or at all entertaining?

Don’t get me wrong: I think that in more progressive times and economically stabler days, US comics, as indeed the rest of its pop culture, was far more entertaining. It didn’t usually take itself as seriously but was much better written. You only have to watch old movies or old b&w serials..

..such as The Addams Family to demonstrate this to yourself.
Well. Now back to the subject under question. Why are modern comics good and what would make anybody want to read this one? “Realism”? Because it portrays “daily lives” of these “mental health workers”? Yes but WHO works in a joint like that?? Maybe in the days of Bram Stoker or Viktor Frankenstein?! :)

Whatever “realism” this story (say on the part of the joe blow workers) possesses – even in a science fiction or fantasy sense – must needs be marred methinks by the non-corresponding – PERSISTENT in these modern rags – literary treatment – “othering” of the “evil, crazed” inmates, etc etc. Modern DC rags show this neverending desire to “monsterize” such inmates. Honestly, the comics are worse, in their fantasy way, than right-wing British tabloids such as the Sun and the Daily Mail.How about some nice stereotypes about immigrants while you’re at it?!

THIS is not any sort of way to foster understanding or humanity in people.I for one call modern..

..Transatlantic comics out for being non-humanist, indeed anti-humanist in slant, intent and nature – and that indeed seems to be the nub of the problem!

Anyone (sadly!) can see that Arkham Asylum: Living Cliche was NOT written by Kurt Vonnegut!

I just read an Amazon review which claimed Mr Kieth for the “feminist” camp @ how did he win that label – by writing uninspiring, sullen female characters?!

Listen. Modern comics writers should go to frigging writing class! Their work lacks BALANCE, between the characters, as much as anything else!

See here. Even if you’re writing (semi) Gothic fiction, which OFTEN if not always features ingenu(e) hero(ine)s (Harry Potter, Jane Eyre) – the bigger the bad/bunch of freaks you are going to put him/her (usually a her) up against, the more personality/talent/swift-developing potential that hero(ine) will need. Think of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: that too will do as an example: hopefully you’ll see when the film comes out. Or – of course- Clarice Starling in Silence

..and Hannibal (Thomas Harris’ books being much better than the movies) which are possibly the perfect example! The feistiest of heroines, developing from a modest start – and what a FORMIDABLE, initially and for a long time totally mysterious adversary/Svengali of a mentor/villain – and eventually, satisfyingly, he turns out to be an anti-hero – Harris’ heroine is posed in contrast to! Now THAT’S writing!

Kieth – meh – what has he written that has any merit?

Meh-level characters don’t get you going. Except to protest against such meaningless fare!

NOW. What I think Gotham City / Arkham Asylum really needs – in view of all this talentless bunch, protagonists and writers alike..

..what I think it really needs – you may laugh but I’ll still say it – is its very own, empathetic “CC-Whisperer” (It works with dogs – why not with them? “Evil” is after all a non-scientific and monotheistical, dualist concept. No-one seriously talks about “the evil lion” even if it happens to be a man-eater.)

Taking the animal metaphor further – what does this Sabine think she is doing in that job? There are surely better-paid and “safer” ones. At the risk of appearing non-PC myself – oh I’ll take it – if you didn’t like animals, monkeys or elephants or something – why would you want to work in a zoo? And if you had no talent, aptitude in, or dedication to zoology or to a particular species, why would/should they employ you?

(If this were a business book they’d all talk about the necessity for being passionate about what you do!)

I should prefer to read a book about a dedicated person! In fact, because the Asylum so obviously needs its very own Florence Nightingale/Oliver Sacks/ Jane Goodall/ Dian Fossey

..and it (sadly) lacks one – WERE IT AT ALL POSSIBLE – I’d like to volunteer for the job!

Failing that, I have thought of writing myself in. Only trouble is, this big “feminist” publisher you see, DC, doesn’t hire female writers! Not in any number to make one think they take the non-patriarchal, non-imperialist, non-monotheistic-infected viewpoint seriously.

So how do you like them apples? Oh – and I should say – as I am a Heathen as well as a leftist, I also am devoid of FEAR – unlike all you wussies who obviously have been scared by born-agains into concurring that Satan does indeed lurk in every asylum, under every bed too!

I ain’t afraid of no Joker! I got some tricks myself, by Loki!
:)

As for this novelette above, please don’t feel I’m picking on it inordinately! It just caught my eye: could have been any one. The ones about the asylum tend to particularly annoy me though. DC’s Medieval View of Madness they should be called!

Sorry about the multiple bits: did this on a mobile phone. Over and out.

PS Oh yes – and to make it perfectly clear, I AM saying that ALL the inmates of Arkham Asylum are not as “black” as they are painted: that includes the stalwarts of the so-called Rogues’ Gallery. (If Batman were Star Trek, the scales would instantly fall from readers’ eyes and they would see how weirdly quasi-“RACIST” the modern DC concepts have become. Does anybody SERIOUSLY think Kane and Finger INVENTED it like that – they were Jews after all, and probably tired of being “othered” themselves, by the then contemporary likes of Coughlin, Henry Ford etc.)

So yes, of course, the “moderns” have the Joker etc all wrong! (I’m a Lokean, I should know – who would know better, seeing as he’s the most misunderstood god?)

Why do you believe the likes of Morrisson – he’s the biggest idiot ever!

I’d like to say that modern comics are written by fascists and I can prove it. But I won’t. I’ll just say their authors are deeply conflicted! (And they can’t prove a thing, about any concept or character, either! But I can.)

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