Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth; a gothic tale by Kaitlyn Roemer

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth follows Batman as he ventures into the madhouse after his rogues gallery escape. Throughout this issue we see the darkest portrayal of Batman thus far with him questioning his identity and eventually his humanity. Reading on we discover the founder of Arkham’s dark past, and his ties to Batman in a psychologically haunting reveal.

This comic title is actually taken from a Phillip Larkin poem; “Church Going”.
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round”.

This poem takes an extremely dismissive and even antagonistic look at religion. This reminded me of Young Goodman Brown which also dives into religion. In this we see Goodman Brown slowly lose his faith in humanity and eventually die alone.  Relating this to the comic, we see Batman wonder if he is truly different from those he puts in the asylum, eventually giving up and having the inmates decide his fate. This theme of questioned reality and wavering faith is gothic to its core. Gothic-ism is all about challenging mainstream beliefs and norms. This comic questions the very staples of Batman mythos; is justice real? can Batman ‘clean’ up Gotham? and finally what differentiates Batman from his rogues?

We’ll be going through the plot in more detail now to better understand how gothic elements are woven into the comic itself. Batman is forced to meet with his foil, the Joker, who’s taken over Arkham Asylum. I want to quickly emphasize how this comic frames Batman and Joker as opposites of the same coin. Both are obsessed with their utopian society and strive to shape the world in accordance. They highlight the classic man vs nature dichotomy; with the Joker just wanting nature to run wild, a personification of chaos while Batman emphasizes justice and order. Continuing on Batman further explores the Asylum, seeing how broken and mentally ill his villains actually are, taking the supernatural element out and showing a gritty perspective. The climax occurs when Cavendish, the Asylum administrator, accuses Batman of ‘feeding the evil’ by continuing the cycle of violence. This story itself is steeped in gothic influence, from the questioned morals of medicine to the cycle of violence affecting every character.

Another way this comic flexes its gothic roots is the art style. This is what initially drew me to this comic in particular. From the visceral, rushed strokes of violence to the key moments left in the dark for the viewers to visualize.  I’ll attach some of my favorite moments depicted, but I highly recommend skimming the whole comic! I’d warn potential readers to look up trigger and content warnings however as this is an extremely dark story line. One instance of this could be when Amadeus Arkham ( the previous administrator) finds his wife and child brutalized and murdered by a former patient of his. While this is beyond horrifying and forces the reader to see this man in an empathetic light it also doesn’t glorify the violence. A key part of gothic media to me is the unknown, a lack of substantial answers, forcing the reader to put their own biases into the story. Much like in Young Goodman Brown, where the reader is left to decide if the occult village is real or not.

While you might not expect Batman to cover these nuanced gothic themes, it actually has a history of pushing boundaries within its characters. A quote from Grant Morrison, a writer from this comic said in an interview; “The repressed, armored, uncertain and sexually frozen man in Arkham Asylum was intended as a critique of the ’80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven, and borderline psychopathic.” (Morrison, Grant. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth 15th Anniversary Edition (DC Comics, 2005). And throughout Batman comics there have been hints at Batman’s trauma impacting his view of justice, plus the Joker’s unrequited feelings which were deconstructed in this comic. This deconstruction all finalizes where at the end, Batman has lost his footing and leaves his sanity up to Two Face; if a coin lands scar side up batman will stay in Arkham Asylum for the rest of his life and go free if it lands clear. The coin ends up landing scar side up but Two Face remarks “Who cares for you?” and leaves the reader wondering if ignoring the result was the right thing to do, as even Batman is questioning his morals.

This comic is undeniably gothic, from its art style and aesthetic to the gritty haunting story line. Readers can clearly see the influence from the recurring quotes from Lewis Carroll, to the Jungian archetypes I couldn’t mention due to the complexity in that issue alone! This comic uses symbolic gothic elements like the moon, shadows, violence and duality to showcase how nuanced the Batman mythos can be. I’d highly recommend this comic just for its distinct art style and to see gothic elements in a unique genre.

Kaitlyn Roemer, English 370, 4/24/23

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2 Responses to Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth; a gothic tale by Kaitlyn Roemer

  1. lara says:

    Hi Kaitlyn!
    I have to say that I really enjoyed reading about this topic. It was a really unique choice of media and one that I am not personally familiar with. Your walk through the plot was thorough and easy to follow. I liked your point that the comic’s plot centered around questioning morality. If I know one thing about Batman it is that he is supposed to be the “good guy,” the guy who upholds justice that keeps society running smoothly. This comic bringing Batman’s essential meaning into question and making him consider the validity of his purpose is extremely Gothic and so interesting. I also enjoyed your analysis of the art style and your inclusion of some examples definitely supported your assertion that the style reflects Gothic themes. I am intrigued by the way this comic keeps the reader in the unknown. As you brought up, it is similar to the unclear ending of Young Goodman Brown. But it also reminds me of other texts we’ve looked towards this semester like Sanctuary and We’ve Always Lived in the Castle that rely on the untold to carry the narrative. This story also reminded me of the way Sanctuary’s narrative questioned the baseline morals of the South. This comic seems to follow Batman’s deconstruction of what he has believed in his whole life, justice and morality. A very Gothic theme to bring into question something that modern society puts confidence in being “right” and “true.” Thank you for introducing me to this comic and teaching me about Batman’s Gothic side.

  2. brooke says:

    Kaitlyn, I really enjoyed reading this post for a number of reasons. First of all, I am not the biggest fan of superhero/villain storylines but the way you’ve dissected this one makes me want to read it. I love the images you’ve chosen and felt that as a newcomer to this subject matter, they caught my attention and had me wanting to look at more. I have to agree with you, the visceral brush strokes are captivating and undeniably gothic. Although we didn’t cover much gothic “art” in this class, you can see how these images closely align with the aesthetic of gothic literature. The darkness and red hues mimic what is happening internally for Batman.

    This is inherently gothic because we see the repressed or subconscious mind coming to fight its way to the surface. This is illustrated in the second and last image you’ve put in your post. I think you’ve really captured the essence of this narrative here when you discuss the man versus nature dichotomy. Since I have no prior knowledge of this storyline, I was able to really identify with this and see how it is artistically displayed in the comic strip.

    When you mention, “…this comic frames Batman and Joker as opposites of the same coin” I can clearly see this through the images you’ve provided. I think this tension between good and evil is also inherently gothic and serves to release the macabre emotions of humankind. The way the characters look terrorized in the images you’ve selected solidifies this idea completely.

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