I’ve always held the belief that the best batman stories aren’t about batman at all. Arkham Asylum further strengthened my personal hypothesis.
On April Fools day Batman gets a call from the Joker, locked in Arkham Asylum. The prisoners have broken out of their cells and are taking the staff and other innocents hostage. Batman can save them, but only if he voluntarily submits himself to the treatment of Arkham Asylum. When he gets there the hostages are let free without any hassle, but the staff choose to stay feeling responsible for the outburst.
The story of Batman’s attempts at escape are juxtaposed with the story of the founder of the Asylum. We meet the founder of Arkham Asylum, Amadeus Arkham, as a young boy whose mother is battling mental illness and we follow him as he tries to deal with it, and, in his own ways escape from it. When he cannot escape he returns to his childhood home and begins the process of transforming it to an asylum for the mentally ill.
One of the first patients is “Mad Dog”, a serial killer who destroys the faces and sexual organs of his victims. Amadeus feels sympathy for a man who does this because “It was virgin Mary’s idea”.
How many more like him must there be? Men whose only real crime is mental illness, trapped in the penal system with no hope of treatment.
This sickened me. And even more because it was a naivety that is present in our society. In the comic book retribution comes, we understand that Amadeus Arkham is mentally ill as well and this is the first inkling – the complete and utter detachment to the victims – the passion for saving the mentally ill.
As we follow Arkham’s descent into madness, Batman faces one villain at a time, slowly making his way out. As Batman faces each of the inmates they in turn reveal truths about him that we always catch out of the corner of our eye. And so the story becomes about the shadows that hide in us all – some deal with them one at a time within their strengths; others face their deepest fears and they break.