In Grant Morrison’s critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, there’s an internal monologue Bruce Wayne has with himself that encapsulates not only the character’s continual war between his dual sides, but also his relationship to Arkham Asylum, Gotham City’s notorious “home for the criminally insane.” Reflecting on why he hesitates to enter the facility, with its ornate gothic design and seemingly endless hallways, Wayne separates his feelings from those of his alter-ego, Batman, and identifies the fear at the heart of his reticence:
“Afraid? Batman’s not afraid of anything. It’s me. I’m afraid. I’m afraid that The Joker may be right about me. Sometimes… I question the rationality of my actions. And I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates… when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me… it’ll be just like coming home.”
Arkham Asylum (or the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum For The Criminally Insane, to use its full title) first came into existence in October of 1974, nestled between the covers of Batman #258. Of course, writer Dennis O’Neil originally referred to it as Arkham Hospital (or even Arkham Sanitarium on occasion), with the name fluctuating until becoming firmly established in 1979, and being definitively set in Gotham’s remote suburbs by Len Wein in Batman #326. The place has been reconceived and reimagined numerous times over the years: It’s been blown up, relocated, closed down, demolished, reopened, and even seized Wayne Manor for its foundation for a stretch. It’s been depicted in comics, movies, TV shows, video games, collectibles, and more. Outside of the Batcave, it’s probably the most iconic location in all of Batman lore.
And there’s a good reason for that. Writers and storytellers playing with the Batman mythos keep returning to the location because it’s the most psychologically resonant place in which to set tales of the Caped Crusader. Batman has plenty of issues of his own, and being confronted with the facility that serves as a repository for many of his most memorable nemeses illuminates—as Morrison so aptly notes—the sometimes blurry line between vigilante and villain. “Who’s truly the crazy one?” could serve as the unspoken question that animates the best Batman stories. Plunging the debatably sane avatar of crimefighting into his own potential prison creates an instant frisson that manifests those internal struggles in physical form.
It wasn’t always this way. After its invention, Arkham Asylum was just another place on the Gotham map, somewhere that actually housed patients with mental illness, with no real link to Batman or colorfully costumed baddies. But a funny thing started happening throughout the ’80s: Batman’s antagonists started to be delivered to Arkham. Joker, Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Two-Face—they all became repeat visitors, breaking out to wreak havoc on the city before eventually being captured and returned by Batman. It became a simple strategy for accessing the massive rogue’s gallery of bad guys the superhero had accrued over the years; rather than having to come up with yet another torturous method to reintroduce a villain, writers of Batman comics could simply turn to Arkham as a quick and efficient means of returning them to the streets patrolled by the Caped Crusader.
But toward the end of the decade, Arkham Asylum began to take on a deeper sense of place and purpose. A proper backstory was developed (again by Wein) in 1985, but with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, there was new focus on what made it more than just a holding facility for criminals. In a dystopian near-future when Batman has retired, the asylum is renamed the Arkham Home For The Emotionally Troubled, and Miller uses it to dig into the psychology of the Joker, to show how well-meaning support can end up contributing to the very criminality it’s trying to diminish. Dr. Wolper, the facility’s supercilious psychologist, believes he has a handle on his patient’s mental state, blinding himself to the Joker’s machinations and allowing the criminal to appear on a nighttime talk show, where the Clown Prince Of Crime proceeds to murder everyone in the audience, along with Wolper himself. It’s a transformation of the asylum into a site of mealy-mouthed appeasement, the opposite of its normal portrayal, which ironically served to highlight the sinister potential of the place.
It’s a potential that achieved one of its most striking—and arguably still best—representations in 1989, in Morrison’s A Serious House On Serious Earth. Called in to put down a riot unfolding inside Arkham that has left several of its staff held hostage, Batman agrees to meet with the inmates who have called for his presence, only for the Joker to give him a ticking-clock deadline to escape or die. As Batman progresses through the asylum, he confronts nemeses from the past—some radically changed—and learns the dark backstory of founder Amadeus Arkham. Filled with rich symbolism and a more abstract, ethereal tone than the gritty real-world Batman stories that had developed in part thanks to Miller’s reimagining, Morrison found a way to connect the tormented psyches of Batman villains with the hero himself, finding spiritual and psychological links that positioned Batman on a continuum of pathology alongside the criminals with whom he did battle. And the writer did so within the walls of Arkham Asylum, making the facility, with its tragic and violent past, as potent an element of Batman lore as any parents being gunned down outside a theater.
Arkham grew in stature in the wake of Morrison’s graphic novel, often featured in stories that highlighted its uncanny and oppressive atmosphere, using it as contrapuntal iconography to the supposed heroism of Batman. Batman: The Animated Series delivered one of the more entertaining psychological explorations of this contrast in the 1994 episode “Trial,” in which Batman is captured to be put on “trial” at Arkham, his antagonists the jury. Lawyer Janet Van Dorn is tasked with defending him against the charge that he, in essence, “created” each of the villains he brought to justice. While she’s ultimately successful in arguing that the inverse is actually more true—that these killers and psychopaths created Batman, not the other way around—the story allows for Arkham to serve as a warped funhouse mirror of justice, where even maniacal criminals give a fair shot to their captor, as long as he’s within Arkham’s walls.
There are many more. Dan Slott’s Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (2014) turned the institution into the literal embodiment of its title, dispensing with Batman to examine the perspectives of those who live and work at Arkham. The 2009 game Batman: Arkham Asylum delivered another spin on the journey-to-the-heart-of-darkness narrative, turning a struggle against the Joker’s efforts to create an army of super-powered henchmen into a hallucinatory exploration of Bruce Wayne’s traumatic past and Batman’s strangely affective bonds with the very people he’s tasked with capturing. Much of the power of these stories lies in the concrete materiality of Arkham itself, which enriches each character through not only the atmosphere of menace and dread, but also the way it brings out the emotional extremes of those inside it.
Arkham Asylum isn’t just a physical location; it’s the strongest symbol of the psychological maelstrom in which the Batman mythos churns, in which criminal and vigilante are mere flip sides of the same coin, the latter only spared the same institutionalized fate as the former through the luck of the narratives built around him. Perhaps that’s why stories challenging the standard hero arc of Batman via Arkham Asylum remain so potent. Real life has long ago abandoned the conceit that there’s such a thing as a perfectly sane mind, wholly untroubled by psychic pain or illness, so stories that highlight the universal experience of psychological turbulence—and the potential for it to get out of control—hit close to home. There but for the grace of god go we. And Batman.