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.
For 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
If 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.
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.)