Certainly the most extraordinary Batman story ever devised, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth applies a Grand Guignol aesthetic and the theories of Carl Gustav Jung to a superstitious story on the border of consciousness and nightmare. On one level, Arkham Asylum can be taken as a very simple Batman story (the inmates take over the Asylum, forcing Batman to save the staff and restore order) complicated by flashbacks establishing the disturbing history of Amadeus Arkham, the asylum's founder.
Arkham tells his own story in a narration culled from his secret journals. Like Batman, Arkham has painful childhood memories, but two traumas in midlife allow Arkham's own insanity to spill out. The psychiatrist becomes driven to open an asylum for the criminally insane and devote his life to the treatment of criminals, but his vocation begins to look as much like ritualistic self-torture as it does public service. Arkham's discovery of madness within his world and his self mirrors not only Batman, but Parsifal and Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough (specifically, the voluntary death-and-resurrection cycles of Odin, Attis, and Christ).
Both Arkham's story and Batman's story break into hallucinatory head trips, and Morrison's counterpointing and harmonizing musically and thematically links the characters. One sequence layers drug-addled narration by Arkham, in the past, over Batman's present-day confrontation with Killer Croc. Croc becomes the "dragon" that must be slain: the shadow spectre of the denied self to whom Arkham painfully dawns even as Batman struggles to hold it at bay. Batman fights monsters and perhaps sees himself as one (a fearful Bat-man), though he unconvincingly asserts, "I..I'm just a man." In this way, the story can be characterized as an allegory, with Arkham Asylum being the mind (one panel depicts pipes dissolving into veins), the villains aspects of the unconscious, and Batman the troubled conscious suppressing his true self, a pained and helpless child.
Ostensibly, the Joker is behind the madhouse uprising, and his piercing humor—physically threatening though it may be—classically characterizes him as the painfully truth-telling Fool directing his own Marat/Sade. Morrison fearlessly allows his Joker to voice homoerotic taunts: mocking terms of endearment and innuendos about Batman's "boy wonder" Robin (the Joker even slaps Batman on the butt). The heart-of-darkness troublemaker isn't, in fact, the Joker, and to face the worst of it, Batman has to work his way through the Rogues Gallery: the Mad Hatter (Morrison is a Lewis Carroll fanatic), Clayface, Black Mask, Professor Milo, Doctor Destiny, Maxie Zeus, Scarecrow, and Two-Face. In the resolution, the Joker stands just inside Arkham's walls and watches as Batman heads back into "civilization" or, as Joker terms it, "the real Asylum."
Jung and Aleister Crowley make cameos, and overt allusions to the Tarot deck and the Star-Spangled Banner share the page with visual inferences of Edvard Munch and Hieronymus Bosch, who Jung called "The master of the monstrous... the discoverer of the unconscious." Morrison's symbolist drama harmonizes with Dave McKean's astonishing illustrations. McKean's thrilling combination of paintings, drawings, collage and photography throws down the gauntlet for comic art with rich color and texture and a horrific, claustrophobic resistance to easy orientation. Author and illustrator spark the imagination, and the superstitious, philosophical, psychosocial, simply artful results are to be savored.