The great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once observed: “It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” Many would (and have tried) to apply this sentiment in regard to Batman, and it’s easy to understand why: after a childhood trauma, Bruce Wayne was damaged to such an extent that the only way he could cope was to dress as a bat and fight crime. Which, frankly, is insane in any realistic context. Speaking about his current run on the character’s comic book, Tom King referred to Batman as “psychotic,” a turn of phrase which Panels contributor Alice W. Castle took some exception to. In one of a series of thoughtful and insightful tweets, Castle observed, “batman is a story of the intersection of trauma and mental illness and making yourself into the hero that you never had.” I don’t know a summation of 75+ years of comic books could ever be expressed in less than 140 characters, but Castle comes pretty damn close. Which, if we accept that as the central premise at Batman’s core, means that Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s clunkily titled Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth might just be the single most significant entry in the Batman canon.
Of the staggering number of monumental Batman classics released between 1987 and ’89, Arkham Asylum is undoubtedly my favorite, and, arguably, objectively the best. I’ll confess some bias, however, as my entry point into comics as an adult was Neil Gaiman’s Sandman opus, and Dave McKean’s art provided a stunning through line between Gaiman’s mythic storytelling and the conventional super-heroics of Batman comics. Bias aside, Arkham Asylum is better and more sophisticated than most superhero comics and is certainly more visually striking. McKean’s hallucinatory visuals provide the perfect accompaniment to Morrison’s core question: is Batman crazy?
But consider, again, that Philip K. Dick quote, only this time in the context of beer. What is the reality of the beer landscape? Well, in 2015 craft brewers controlled a meagre 12.2% of beer sales, and while this marked a growth from previous years, it still means a maddening 87.8% of the market is dominated by macro-breweries. Confronted by such an insurmountable statistic, a veritable ocean of flavourless fizzy light lagers, few could fault a craft brewer for going a little insane. Which, one might wonder, could very well be what led to the creation of Sawdust City’s spiced barrel-aged stout, Spooky Action. Everything about this beer is insane, from its bold 10% ABV to its near-overwhelming body and flavour. This is a beer that renders a pint of Guinness water by comparison. People talk about the craft beer revolution, but Spooky Action makes it seem more like a craft beer rebellion.
Arkham Asylum is something of a rebellion all its own, both against the notion, popular in the late ’80s, of Batman as a brooding psychotic, but also against the very notions of what superhero comics could be. While the former point is pure Grant Morrison, the latter point is entirely Dave McKean. As Morrison explains in his extensive notes in the fifteenth-anniversary edition of the graphic novel, the artist “felt that he had already compromised his artistic integrity sufficiently by drawing Batman and refused point blank to bend over for the Boy Wonder.” McKean, no matter the subject, treats it with the same seriousness, and only the most stuck-up elitist would dare say that Arkham Asylum is not art. It’s a mixed-media masterpiece – some drawn, some painted, with elements of collage throughout, forming less of a sequential narrative than a map of a damaged psyche.
It is a sequential narrative, though, and a deceptively simple one. Led by the Joker, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and they have just one demand: that Batman joins them in the madhouse. Parallel to this, Morrison peppers his graphic novel with scenes from the life of the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham. Though nearly entirely independent, these two narratives are brilliantly complementary, charting Arkham’s decent into madness as a direct reflection of Batman’s recovery (or reaffirmation) of his sanity. Because, for all it’s dark and horrific trappings, Arkham Asylum is not, ultimately, a dark and horrific story – Batman confronts madness, flirts with it even, and definitely questions his sanity, but walks out the door of the asylum at the end having faced down his demons and assured that he is not insane.
Neither are the fine folks at Sawdust City, as it turns out. Like Arkham Asylum, this beer is bold and dark, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything else quite like it. Just as one could tell at first glimpse of Dave McKean’s art that Arkham Asylum isn’t your standard issue capes-and-tights book, Spooky Action warns you at the mere sniff of the beer, delivering a noticeable liquor tang in the aroma, combining with the cinnamon and vanilla in the beer to evoke a spiced rum fragrance. But the boldness of both aroma and flavor are not a sign of lunacy – this beer is confidently, even brazenly, good.
The beer continues to be well matched to the book even as one delves further into each: both have a lot going on, with multiple layers to unpack. In the book, Morrison casts Batman’s rogue gallery as Jungian archetypes (which Jung himself borrowed from myth), with the Joker acting as the trickster guide in Batman’s bizarre journey of self-discovery. This take on the Joker warrants some discussion, coming as it does following The Killing Joke and A Death In The Family – Morrison helpfully rectifies the various contradictory depictions of the Joker by explaining his psychosis thus:
“Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world. He can only cope with the barrage by going with the flow. That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer. He has no real personality. He creates himself each day. He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd.”
While the book is continuity-light, Morrison is adept at introducing notions like that, which neatly knit themselves to our prior or continued understanding of these characters and their stories. Similarly, though the traumas of The Killing Joke and A Death In The Family are never referenced, Arkham Asylum works brilliantly in continuity, addressing directly Batman’s repression and withdrawal we’ve charted since Son of the Demon.
While I could easily extol this book’s mastery for a hundred pages more, I would rather just urge you to read this book. While I assume anyone reading this blog is probably interested in (if not already familiar with) Batman comics, I don’t want to limit this recommendation just to Bat-fanatics: anyone interested in what can be done within the comics medium needs to spend a few days with this book, as well. Like Spooky Action, it might be crazy, but it also just might be genius. In both cases, this book and this beer will surely knock you on your ass, leaving you with an aftertaste lingering long past the conclusion.