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It’s Valentine’s Day! So I have a few errands to run, a dinner to cook and a mission to make myself look presentable for when my breadwinning wife comes home from work. So a comic book review for today and I’ll return to some larger text for tomorrow’s review.

As it happens, this comic features my favourite supervillain – Harley Quinn. Poor Harley is quite demented, but also quite sweet in a strange kind of way. She does see herself as the Joker’s companion/number one fan, so a touch of madness is to be expected. I mention my interest in Harley, because when I first visited Stephanie, I saw that she had painted her own portrait of the former Arkham Asylum staff member (FYI, Harley is the one on the right lighting a bomb with a cigar). I took this to be a good omen, an indication of our suitability for one another as a couple.

I was not wrong.

Arkham Asylum: Madness is unusual in that it is set in one of the most famous landmarks in the Batman mythology, but does not feature the character at all. In fact he is barely even alluded to by the book’s cast. Instead, the story focuses on the ordinary staff at the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, in particular a young nurse named Sabine, and their fraught interractions with the dangerous psychopaths locked up behind its walls.

Sabine works the day shift at Arkham despite its reputation, so that she can afford to pay off her family’s debts. The one thing that allows her to get through the day is the thought of returning home to her son Ozzie. She has few friends working with her, with an elderly janitor named Eddy and a fellow nurse Randy, managing to make her smile now and then, despite the oppressive atmosphere of Arkham itself.

As the day progresses tension continues to build, a tension that the inmates are far more receptive to. Small things like a hallway clock marking the time left for lunch slowing down, or Dr. Hurd’s unusual health issues, are ominous hints of some threat approaching.

The Joker, Arkham’s most feared patient, acts as a barometer for the rising anxieties within the building. The staff are terrified of him and he, in turn, enjoys nothing more than to increase their fear of what he may be capable of. His latest scheme is to follow to the letter a suggestion by one of the attending doctors to take on a hobby, like collectibles. Joker seems to have become obsessed with an innocuous collection of comedic props, but the true nature of the items is far less innocent.

Then disaster strikes for Sabine as she is ordered to stay on for the nightshift. Prevented from spending the evening with Ozzie, she falls into a depression, seemingly reflected by the asylum itself. The clock in the hallway begins to bleed, Joker springs his trap on Dr. Hurd and then in the ensuing choas the inmates make an escape attempt. The attendants and guards are the only thing between the psychopaths and freedom.

This book is a genuine treat for fans of Sam Kieth. I first discovered his art style through the MTV adaptation of his comic The Maxx, before tracking down his excellent miniseries Zero Girl. I love his punk/painterly aesthetic, the contorted bodies and smooth faces. Sabine is for all intents and purposes a traditional Kieth heroine, innocent in appearance, but possessing a hidden inner-strength, in this case the intensity of her love for her son. This book also features fantastic redesigns of Harley Quinn and a less-than-dapper Harvey Dent.

Arkham Asylum: Madness completes an unofficial triptych of stories set in this Lovecraftian Bedlam. The first, by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, was a fantastic artistic showcase for the latter, with Batman’s righteous heroism eroded by the condensed madness of the asylum. The second, by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook, marginalised Batman in favour of a new inmate, the White Shark. Kieth disposes of the caped crusader entirely, creating a terrifying vacuum.

It is unfair for the likes of Sabine to be trapped in this hell with criminal psychopaths. The book shows how her spirit is crushed over the span of an exhausting twenty-four hours. The Batman series has always been party to a certain sadism and Kieth demonstrates the cost of the popularity of these villains on such ordinary people as Sabine.

Chilling and gripping, with wonderfully kinetic art.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

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