Speaking on a DC panel at last month’s Comic-Con, writer Grant Morrison looked back over his thirty years working with the publisher, and joked that a sequel to Arkham Asylum — the comic that helped make his name all the way back in 1989 — would be the sign that his career had well and truly jumped the shark.
It’s not hard to see where this joke came from. After all, DC Comics has made a recent habit of returning to that era of the late-1980s, when a run of stone-cold classics — Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman and more — established it as the home of more mature, literary superhero stories. Sandman marked its 25th anniversary with Sandman Overture. A third series of Dark Knight comics, subtitled “The Master Race”, wrapped in June. And between Rebirth, The Button and the forthcoming Doomsday Clock, we’re currently in the midst of DC’s second attempt to revive Watchmen in five years.
The thing is, the panel where Morrison cracked this joke was the very same one where he and DC did actually announce Arkham Asylum 2.
Given the context, this announcement should be another example of the cyclical nature of corporate superhero comics — a snake increasingly hungry for its own tail. Remarkably, though, the news actually left me excited to read the sequel, certainly more than any of DC’s other returns to the same 1980s well. So what makes Arkham Asylum 2 different to all its peers?
RETURNING TO THE ASYLUM
First, a quick history lesson. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, to give the book its full title, was a graphic novel that took an experimental approach to familiar characters like the Joker, Two-Face, and the Caped Crusader himself. It’s as self-consciously literary and ‘grown up’ as you’d expect from a book that references the poet Philip Larkin in its title.
The art of Dave McKean was unlike anything that had been associated with Batman to that point. His pages are works of collage, mixing realism with abstraction, pencils with paint, and traditional panels with photographed collections of physical objects. That was matched with Morrison’s symbolism-heavy approach to storytelling, which drew in everything from biblical imagery to tarot cards, psychoanalysis to sacred geometry.
That might not sound like the formula for a smash hit, but — buoyed by the blockbuster success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie — Arkham Asylum was an unprecedented success. It’s sold somewhere north of half a million copies, making it one of the best-selling original graphic novels of all time.
The book’s legacy stretches through the three decades of Batman stories that have followed, even outside of the comics. Arkham Asylum was circulated during production of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, and has lent its name — and some of its concepts — to a videogame series you might just have heard of.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
The surprising thing about Arkham Asylum 2 — from the rather scant details that have been announced — is that it won’t be picking up directly on the story of the first graphic novel. It won’t even star the same Batman. And this is the first reason it’s worth getting excited about.
The sequel will star Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son, in an alternate future where he’s forced to take up the cowl after the death of his Bat-dad. This is great news (sorry, Bruce) because Damian is a fantastic character.
Created by Grant Morrison and artist Andy Kubert, Damian is what happens when Batman sleeps with a criminal mastermind and forgets the Bat-contraceptives. Damian is raised by his mother, Talia al Ghul, and her League of Assassins to be the peak of human perfection. Instead of following his training and killing Batman, Damian chooses to battle by his father’s side as Robin — and eventually, as seen in the aptly-numbered Batman #666, grows up to become the Batman of a hellish future.
#666 first introduced the setting that Arkham Asylum 2 will be returning to. That issue pits Damian against a self-proclaimed antichrist in a Bat costume, and reveals that Damian made a deal with the Devil on the night his father died, selling his soul in exchange for Gotham’s safety. It also introduces a remarkable supporting cast, including Damian’s pet cat Alfred and the new Commissioner, former Batgirl Barbara Gordon — and, best of all, a roster of brand-new villains like Flamingo, Professor Pyg, and Jackanapes.
Jackanapes is a heavily-armed, cigar-chomping gorilla dressed in a clown suit, who also happens to be a talented molecular biologist. His potential return is reason enough to be hyped for Arkham Asylum 2.
In case ape-based arguments don’t sway you, though, here’s another reason. One of the great pleasures of Morrison’s superhero work is his ability to suggest an entire world with just a few brushstrokes. #666 teases a remixed version of the Batman mythos, leaving plenty of gaps for the reader’s imagination to fill in. Or, as the case may be, for future stories to return to.
By comparison, Watchmen’s world is a clockwork creation, designed to tick along for its duration and not one second later. The Dark Knight Returns is a powerful story precisely because it finally gives Batman an ending. Returning to either risks undermining part of what made them so special in the first place. The story of Damian Wayne, however, is left deliberately wide open.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Morrison himself has returned to this world twice in the interim: first in a brief segment of Batman #700, and then more fully in 2013’s Batman Inc #5. The latter is probably the best taste of what to expect from Arkham Asylum 2, not only because most of its action takes place in the titular hospital-slash-prison, but because it features the final reason to be excited about the forthcoming sequel: artist Chris Burnham.
Burnham and Morrison first worked together on Batman Inc, bringing Morrison’s seven-year epic to a close. The two returning for Arkham Asylum 2 gives the project a sense of continuity that is almost entirely absent from its peers.
When Neil Gaiman returned to write Sandman Overture, it was a rare exception, given his more-or-less retirement from comics. Dark Knight creator Frank Miller has likewise drifted away from superhero comics, and when DC has coaxed him back to tell more Batman stories, they haven’t always been welcomed. And then there’s Alan Moore, writer of Watchmen, who has been vocal in distancing himself from any follow-ups, and from DC as a whole, calling Before Watchmen, the string of prequels published in 2012, “completely shameless.”
By comparison, in the three decades since Arkham Asylum, Grant Morrison has continued to write superhero comics almost without pause — and, between JLA, Final Crisis and his seven years on the character’s own titles, Batman has remained something of a constant for Morrison. That makes it much easier to have confidence he’ll be able to update not just an established classic but also the much more recent comics that Arkham Asylum 2 is returning to.
It also helps, of course, that Chris Burnham is a stellar artist. His style couldn’t be further from Dave McKean’s moody paintings in the original Arkham Asylum, but it’s nonetheless gorgeous. Burnham’s art strikes a balance between cartoony simplicity and more detailed renderings, giving his characters a chunky weight that is ideal for superheroics, but he’s also capable of more experimental page layouts, something that really came to the fore in Nameless, Burnham’s creator-owned sci fi horror comic with Morrison. He also draws a really mean Jackanapes.
Arkham Asylum 2 might well be the latest example of superhero comics’ tendency to return to past glories; an industry “dependent on ideas that I had 25 years ago,” as Alan Moore said in interviews about Before Watchmen. But that doesn’t mean that the book can’t be great on its own merits.
At the very least, Morrison and Burnham have already proved smart enough to remix the original’s ideas rather than remain slavishly loyal to it. If Arkham Asylum’s appeal was that it presented very familiar characters in an unfamiliar way, its sequel looks to be taking the opposite approach — applying techniques honed through years of collaboration to characters much more rarely seen, and hopefully the kinds of new ideas that Damian Wayne’s dark future represented in the first place.
Alex Spencer is a writer about comics, games, technology, pop music and his dog, based in London. You can find him wrestling Twitter's character limit @AlexJaySpencer.