Extra Credit & A Giveaway: Recommended Reading for Arkham Asylum
Folks seem to love Arkham Asylum. (I certainly did.) So there’s much Twitter-ing and discussion about the game. If you’ve roamed around the web, other people will direct you to read Grant Morrison’s classic graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum–A Serious House on Serious Earth. I say *pfah* to that.
There’s nothing wrong per se with Morrison’s super-deconstructed Jungian take on Batman and his rogues. With Dave McKean’s art driving the storytelling, it certainly delivers a sense of the sort of madness Batman must grapple with to emerge victorious. But the game it shares a name with doesn’t draw much from that vibe, with the notable exception of the Arkham lineage itself being cursed.
For my money, there are other comics that the game owes a greater debt to in terms of its sensibilities. [Editor's note: Spoilers ahead!]
You wouldn't know it from playing Arkham Asylum, but there was a time in the Batman mythology when the Joker was portrayed as way more wacky and a lot less homicidal. That all changed when Batman #251 hit the stands. "The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge" by masters Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams shows how dangerous it is to be employed by the purple-clad lunatic.
The game’s Scarecrow sequences make for one of the best recapitulations of Batman’s origin ever. It draws a bit from “There is No Hope In Crime Alley,” originally presented in Detective Comics #457. That story by O’Neil and Dick Giordano brough Batman’s origin into a modern light, establishing what happened to young Bruce Wayne in the immediate aftermath of his parents’ murders. The idea that Batman revisits the crime scene that birthed him every year originated in that story and has been built upon by other writers. (One great follow-up is “…My Beginning… and My Probable End” from Detective Comics #574 by Mike Barr and Alan Davis.) Both of those stories have been bundled as part of two great collections.
When you’re in the penitentiary portion of the game, you’ll happen upon the shape-changing villain Clayface. In his cell, there’s a mannequin, whose presence goes unexplained. If you read 1987’s Batman Annual #11, you’ll see that it’s Clayface’s girlfriend. The story by Alan Moore and George Freeman shows how a man who can never touch anyone else finds companionship and what happens when he thinks his inanimate lover's cheating on him with Batman.
Alan Moore’s a living legend of comics, the visionary who created Watchmen and V for Vendetta among others. Along with Brian Bolland, he crafted an iconic, chilling portrayal of the Joker in The Killing Joke. There’s a brief sequence in Arkham Asylum at the beginning, and both Commisioner Gordon and his daughter Barbara play pivotal roles in the plot. (There’s a glancing reference to it in one Barbara Gordon’s lines of in-game dialogue.) Once you read it, you’ll realize what Joker’s taking a picture of and why this story is still controversial. After the events of Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon became super-hacker Oracle. It’s in this identity that she helps Batman all throughout the Arkham Asylum game. Before she honed her l33t hacking skills, she once patrolled Gotham’s rooftops as Batgirl. Check out Batgirl: Year One, with superb art by Marcos Martin, for more on her freshman crime-fighting days .
There’s a moment in the game where Harley Quinn–Joker’s nutso girlfriend–sets Poison Ivy free. Kinda seems like they know each other, right? Turns out they do. Arkham Asylum game writer Paul Dini was the mastermind behind the Batman animated series of the 1990s and he also penned 2007’s Harley & Ivy. Gotham City’s femme fatales don’t get to team up in Arkham Asylum the way they did in the 2007 comic and, for Batman, it’s probably better that way. For another Dini take on Harley and Joker’s dysfunctional relationship, check out Mad Love and Other Stories.
One of the big bruiser enemies you’ll encounter is the conniving strongman Bane. He thrives off of a super-steroid named Venom, which first appeared in the anthology title Legends of the Dark Knight and collected later in a trade paperback. Read it to see how even Batman was tempted by the addictive power ofVenom. This story’s got one of my favorite endings of any Batman story,showing how even his victories leave Batman with grief.Bane himself isn’t in the story but he gets his moment of glory later in the Knightfall story arc. (He’s smarter than he looks.)
I’ll close with some honorable mentions for two of my most beloved Bat-villains who only get mentioned in the game. My favorite version of Two-Face’s origin (in comic form anyway) happens in Batman Annual #14, which probes the psychological roots of Harvey Dent’s schizophrenia. Like Two-Face, Ra’s Al Ghul never appears in the game but you can learn all about the seemingly immortal criminal and his twisted relationship with Bruce Wayne in Tales of the Demon, Son of the Demon and Batman and Son.
I’ll also admit that the creepy one-armed prisoner in the penitentiary totally has me stumped, though. I have a free copy of Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore for the first commenter to explain to me who the hell that guy is.