Hush and Arkham Asylum

by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams; and
Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

 

In a Bored and Literate first, I’m going to take a shot at two books in one post. Alright, technically I’ve done it before, but only when reviewing two or more books of the same series, by the same author; Hush and Arkham Asylum, while both well-known graphic novels starring my favorite superhero, Batman, are very different stories with very different aesthetics.

And while not a Bored and Literate first, this is personally my first foray into the graphic novel genre. I read Persepolis a few years back, when it was assigned for a women’s studies class in college, but other than that, I’ve read nary a panel; no Batman, no Spider-Man, no X-Men, nothing. The closest I’ve come is the funny pages in the newspaper which, while containing a long-running Spider-Man strip, aren’t exactly comparable to reading a book.

But friends of mine–and friends of the blog–know that I do get down with comic book characters, with Batman being far and away my favorite. (I even had to review The Dark Knight Rises, a movie I saw at midnight on a Thursday, despite having to be at work at nine the next morning.) I love the characters, themes, aesthetic, and even the relative plausibility of Batman, and I love the ongoing meta-commentary about what Batman’s meaning and presentation. So this past summer, after a tempting visit to a comic book store, I resolved to finally visit the world of popular graphic novels, starting with Batman. But which books to choose? Luckily, that choice was made for me when a friend revealed his heretofore unknown comic book collection, insisting that I borrow Hush and Arkham Asylum.

With my Batman books in hand, it didn’t actually take too long to get through them, and here we are. Since I haven’t done this before, and I’m just making up the rules as I go, I suppose I’ll start by describing the books separately, before getting into the similarities, the contrasts, the subject matter, the format, and whatever else there could possibly be to discuss.

Hush

HushFor someone already familiar with Batman from movies, TV, and his place in the broader popular imagination, Hush was an incredibly easy transition into a new medium. The book begins with our hero chasing down leads to thwart a kidnapping plot, leading him to Killer Croc and Catwoman before a life-threatening injury forces him to retreat to the Batcave. He eventually follows the clues and encounters just about every rogue in the gallery, from the Joker to the Scarecrow to Superman–even the Green Lantern and Lex Luthor make brief appearances. As he grows frustrated with his pursuit, Batman also reflects on how his persona has, in many ways, destroyed any hopes he might have had for a life as Bruce Wayne.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

Arkham AsylumIf Hush was crowd-pleasing and easily accessible, if somewhat uninspired, Arkham Asylum was small, dark, and surreal. Rather than depicting a mystery unfolding over the course of many days and nights, Arkham Asylum invites Batman–and the reader–to spend one night at Gotham’s infamous mental hospital, necessitated by an inmate takeover of the asylum and made urgent by the Joker’s sadistic and believable threats to Arkham’s staff. As Batman ventures deeper into the labyrinth, the audience is simultaneously given the twisted history of what had once been a private home and an exploration of the twisted minds of its current residents; the story of Amadeus Arkham, a man driven to the brink by Gotham’s cruelty, mirrors Batman’s own experience in the house.

Basically, these books could not be more different in style or tone. Broadly speaking, while both had beautiful art, Hush was much more centered on its plot than was Arkham Asylum, which instead used nightmarish visuals and heavy symbolism to tell its story.

I don’t know if I could say which I enjoyed more, though without a doubt I became more engrossed in the story of Hush. For one thing, the plot unfolded over the course of several days, with red herrings, betrayals, new leads, and dead ends. It was action-packed, but the separation into chapters gave the book room to breathe, allowing Batman to wax philosophic on his own existence. Arkham Asylum, on the other hand, was claustrophobic, and intentionally so. Taking place overnight, and across a century of Gotham’s history, Arkham Asylum nearly begs the reader to finish it in a single, two-hour sitting. So while I don’t think the story of Arkham Asylum was as good, each book accomplished what it set out to do. Hush succeeded in creating a serialized adventure with interesting characters, and Arkham Asylum was a thoroughly engaging and disturbing fever dream. On the plus side, as someone who has had trouble finishing novels recently, I can honestly say that I was never bored and I never lost focus with either book.

In addition to telling their stories differently, the two books also diverge in their depiction of Batman himself. Hush‘s Batman, as I mentioned, has time to reflect on his mission and his history; the book’s action is accompanied by Batman’s narration, which eschews the extremes of seriousness and silliness for  a quiet, self-aware internal monologue. While Loeb’s Batman often seems to see the humor in his situation, it is clear that he takes his role seriously, seriously enough to carry out his responsibilities even when they seem most futile.

With Arkham Asylum‘s treatment of Batman as a character, on the other hand, the first thing you notice is his appearance: McKean draws him as a dark, almost demonic figure, usually lacking a face or anything that would identify him as human. Indeed, befitting the book’s exploration of the line between reason and insanity, Arkham Asylum depicts Batman as a creature that would perhaps be more comfortable within the hospital, among its patients, than in the outside world. Unfortunately, while Batman’s visual depiction is thematically coherent and amazing to look at, his character, as created by Morrison, is largely reactive, especially towards his primary opponent. Not only does Batman only show up at Arkham at the Joker’s request, his silence stands in marked contrast to the Joker’s boisterous sexuality, to which Batman responds with obvious discomfort.

Yup, this happens

With respect to the artwork, I was much more drawn to that of Arkham Asylum than that of Hush. As I mentioned, Hush is story-driven, while Arkham Asylum allows the visuals and the atmosphere to take the lead; for me, it created a more immersive experience. With Hush, I never forgot I was reading a comic, but you could get lost in the insane and impossible images of Arkham Asylum, a credit to McKean’s craft.

So that about sums up my first foray into the world of graphic novels. It was a long time coming, but I’m very pleased with the books I chose. Hush and Arkham Asylum, while displaying different facets of Batman and his world, were both incredibly satisfying for me as both a Batman fan and a graphic novel noob. Hush told a grander story, but it also hinged on an incredibly stupid plot point that casts a childish light on the whole book, which is bad news for a medium already considered childish. Pressed, I would say I liked Hush better, though it’s almost like comparing a novel to a poem. (I’m just sounding pretentious now, so I think I’ll call it a day.)

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

Created by Joss Whedon

 

Oh yes, there will be spoilers. And if you’ve seen the show, feel free to skip the first section.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a group of friends (the Scoobie Gang) as they fight demons and navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Buffy Summers is a “Chosen One” type, and every season involves her fighting a “Big Bad” antagonist who threatens her world with apocalypse. Since twenty-two episodes is way too many for a single story arc–shorter seasons are one thing that I think HBO/Netflix/the British have actually gotten right–there are plenty of one-off, “monster-of-the-week” episodes, and in the earlier seasons especially these are often meant to symbolize problems that teenagers and twenty-somethings have. ScoobiesTypical examples: Willow, Buffy’s computer nerd friend, meets a boy on the internet who turns out to be a demon; Xander joins the swim team only to find that their recent success comes from exposing themselves to (Soviet-made, if I recall correctly) chemicals that make them better swimmers but eventually turn them into fish monsters; Buffy’s awful college roommate actually turns out to be a demon. These are metaphors for, respectively: the potential for meeting creepers on the internet, seemingly a huge moral panic from the 90’s; steroids; and the difficulties of the transition to college and living with strangers.

Later, the show moves away from after school special issues, and begins to explore key themes without needing to insert a monster as a stand-in for each problem. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons explore relationships, family, and the transition to adulthood, without being tied down by any particular formula. Personally, I feel like the show grew with the characters; as the characters aged, they took on more responsibilities, and the show set its sights higher, as well. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with that, and I can respect that opinion. Perhaps it’s because I’m only now watching the show at age twenty-five, or maybe people want different things in TV shows now. Maybe it defies explanation; it just is what it is. Continue reading

John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders

by David Wong

 

My friend recently- ok, a while ago- recommended This Book is Full of Spiders to me, and since I take requests, I picked it up. My inner completist wouldn’t let me read the second book without reading the first, so here we are. Ok, yes, these books are totally discrete and I was totally planning on reviewing them separately. You should know how lazy I am by now, though, so whatever.

David Wong, aka Jason Pargin, is a Cracked writer and blogger who’d apparently begun John Dies at the End as a web serial that eventually morphed into a book and movie. If you don’t know, Cracked is like Buzzfeed for people that can read. (Just kidding Buzzfeed, you know I love you.) John Dies at the EndMy favorite Cracked article of all time, “The 7 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Online Gaming,” is illustrative of the site’s general style: profane, irreverent, and hilarious. That article wasn’t written by Wong, but I wanted to a) show you the type of content found in Cracked articles and b) explain why I was skeptical of books by a Cracked writer. I’d read several of Wong’s articles and seen his pleas to purchase these books, but I really had no clue what they were about, and I frankly doubted his ability to keep my interest for a full novel. The irony of a blogger eschewing a book simply because it was written by a blogger does not escape me.

It would be utterly pointless to try to describe the plot of John Dies at the End, so I won’t. Alright, I’ll give it a shot. It’s basically Ghostbusters meets Men in Black, but in novel form. Our hero, Wong himself, goes to a party with his best friend John, who ends up taking a drug called Soy Sauce with a bunch of kids who happen to die the next day. Long story short, they end up with a special sensitivity to the supernatural, which works out, because their town is basically the Hellmouth. (Wong, seemingly reluctant to namedrop his hometown, refers to it only as Undisclosed, and describes it as the shittiest midwestern city you can imagine.) They keep having strange adventures and eventually confront Korrock, the extraterrestrial who is presumably behind all of their town’s troubles. Oh, and Dave ends up dating Amy, a former special-ed classmate with only one hand.

While the first book is an origin story that’s broken up into two or three main sections, This Book is Full of Spiders has only one major plot, and yes, spiders are involved. Inter-dimensional spiders, or something like that. Dave’s home is infested with the things, which then ransack the town and force the government to set up a quarantine zone in Undisclosed. Most of the book follows Dave and Co’s desperate attempts to save their city from being firebombed into oblivion.

Despite my skepticism, I gotta say that Wong’s books were good. Really good. I mean, you might have to get used to the B-movie horror stuff- like the Meat Monster, a humanoid demon whose body is made up of various frozen meats. You might need to adjust to the quirky humor- the possessed character with a penchant for punching his enemies in the dick, for example. But once in a while it’s fun to sink into the craziness. And to be honest, if you’re reading these books and didn’t expect an extra helping of insanity, just based off of the titles alone, I don’t know what to tell you.

I think these books work so well because Wong can actually write. Not to harp on the blogger thing, but a novel is really structurally very different from a blog post, and I doubt it’s easy to move from one format to the other. This Book is Full of SpidersWong, however, pulls it off really well. John doesn’t have a typical structure, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing here; the novel’s first half is a roller coaster ride of weirdness and horror, reflecting the experiences of our protagonists. And anyways, I’m guessing that writing a story as a series of blog posts over the course of several years is always going to result in an off-kilter novel.

Here’s my main gripe (and mid-major spoiler): why does it have to be fucking zombies? I’m so sick of the zombie thing. I mean there’s World War Z, Walking Dead, Call of Duty, whatever else people like these days- just, why? In This Book is Full of Spiders the main plot is, yes, driven by the titular spiders- but it’s really zombies! The spiders nest inside people’s skulls and turn them into zombies, which makes me think a more accurate title would’ve been This Book is Full of Fucking Zombies: Because Fuck You. I think Wong had a little bit of fun with it, though, poking holes genre’s tropes and introducing a zombie-obsessed group of college kids for us to mock. So at least he knows it’s been done. Still: fucking zombies, man.

Wong creates his own creepy and hilarious horror aesthetic, and he does it really well. These books kept me riveted and banished my doubts about whether he could actually write novels. Seriously, Wong is a credit to bloggers everywhere.