How Postmodernism Challenges Notions of Fantasy and The Real in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum

‘But even then, I think I understood that mother had been born again, into that other world. A world of fathomless signs and portents. Of magic and terror. And mysterious symbols.’

– Amadeus Arkham, Arkham Asylum (1989)

According to Stuart Sim, postmodernism is the rejection of cultural certainties upon which life in the West has modelled itself over the past couple of centuries (Sim, 2005: vii). Dan Laughey proposes five tenets of postmodernism, they consist of: a decline in grand narratives; a breakdown of the distinction between culture and society; an emphasis on style over substance; a breakdown of the distinction between high art and popular culture; and confusions over time and space (Laughey, 2007: 147-148). This essay will explore how postmodernism questions notions of fantasy and the real and will focus on the postmodern text Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989) by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, a Batman comic book. Upon receiving knowledge that the inmates have taken over, Batman enters the titular asylum to confront several of his major foes as well as his own psyche. Parallel to Batman’s narrative, the story of asylum founder Amadeus Arkham, whose descent into madness led to his incarceration as an inmate in his own asylum, is told. The text relies on the deconstruction of the typical superhero narrative and does this visually through an abstract barrage of multimedia imagery, symbolism and signs. Key postmodern theorists to be considered and expanded upon in this essay will include Strinati, Laughey, Sim and  Baudrillard and some general superhero theory will be drawn from Reynolds and Coogan.

Before the question of how postmodernism challenges notions of fantasy and the real can be answered, firstly, I must outline what notions of fantasy and the real are. I shall draw from the works of Furby, Hines and Jackson will and discuss how the relationship between fantasy and the real correlates with postmodernism. Furby and Hines write that although fantasy and the real, ‘at first sight’, seem opposites; they are in fact ‘closely related and interdependent’ (Furby & Hines, 2012:41). Critics as far back as Plato and Aristotle stressed their views on the  importance of realism; it was deemed the highest level of achievement in art whereas fantasy was deemed untrustworthy and was disparaged (Furby & Hines, 2012:42). In postmodernism the distinction between high art and low culture is broken down, so fantasy is no longer looked down upon when viewed through a postmodern lens. From the Renaissance to early nineteenth century, artists maintained similar realist views to Plato; as did the earliest critics of photography and cinema, in their art they aimed to imitate real life as objectively as possible. Although, due to the effortlessness of replicating life through photography, arguments against realism began to appear. Bazin argued that mechanical reproduction of reality removes the interpretative will of an artist, creating complete objectivity (Bazin in Furby & Hines, 2012: 43); whereas Arnheim opposed this view, arguing that the mere action of taking a photograph imprints an artists’ will on the subject and therefore strived for a divergence from the real in the pursuit of imitating it (Arnheim in Furby & Hines, 2012: 43). Furby and Hines declare that the argument over which is ‘better’, realism or fantasy, is irrelevant and counterproductive because few texts are exclusively one or the other anyway. It is here that Rosemary Jackson’s notion of fantasy as a mode comes into play as it is a less binary and a much more inclusionary approach. Jackson places fantasy beside the real, suggesting that: in fantasy, the real is ‘re-placed and dis-located’ (Jackson, 1998: 19). She labels this notion paraxis, which refers to fantasy’s ‘inextricable link to the main body of the real which it shades and threatens’ (Jackson, 1998: 19), meaning that fantasy and the real share a ‘symbiotic’ relationship as opposed to an oppositional one. In paraxis there is often a portal between the real and fantasy, symbolising the link between the two; in Arkham Asylum, the looming door to the asylum acts as this (see Fig.1). It is the doorway linking the black and white world outside to the colourful fantasy inside. Considering, then, that fantasy lies not on the other end of a spectrum to the real but parallel to it, where does postmodernism fit in? Postmodernists claim that the real in fact no longer exists but has been replaced by a similar notion to the paraxial called the ‘hyper-real’, which was introduced by Jean Baudrillard and will be explored later in this essay. It, as with fantasy, exists on top of reality, mirroring it whilst being different enough from it to expressionistically display ideas and images of the real that, through fantasy or the hyper-real, have been loaded with new meanings.    

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Batman enters the Asylum

Jean-François Lyotard introduced the term grand narrative to describe universalising theories which have, in postmodernism, come to be rejected; they include Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Capitalism and other overarching principles. Lyotard’s disdain for them stems from their totality and authoritarianism. Lyotard argues grand narratives which people have lost faith in are modelled off the Christian idea of redemption; meaning that industrialisation, colonisation, capitalism and materialism all had an end point that would eventually legitimise the pains and struggles of achieving them (Sim, 2005: 19). ‘The Postmodern Condition’ is the effect of the proverbial rug provided by grand narratives being pulled out from beneath society and and the notion of an end point is dismissed; the closest thing to an end point becomes ongoing efficiency or ‘performance’ (Sim, 2005: 19). The Christian narrative is applicable to the traditional Superhero narrative. The hero encounters a villain, is somehow bested (killed), and returns stronger to defeat the villain (resurrected); whereas in Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, the postmodern Batman has already defeated all the villains hence their residence in the asylum. Yet the story continues and its endpoint is removed. In Arkham Asylum, the superhero grand narrative is deconstructed as Batman wallows in its aftereffects. The link to the Jesus myth is exemplified in much of the book’s imagery: the crucifixion is invoked when Batman’s hand is impaled by a shard of glass, he even cries out ‘Jesus’ as this happens (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 43) and soon afterwards Killer Croc sticks a spear through his side (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 75) (see Fig.2 and Fig.3); there are themes of death and rebirth throughout the book in both Batman’s narrative and the parallel Amadeus Arkham narrative. Reality is put into question in the postmodern when its foundational pillars are removed. In fantasy, this can be explored through characters such as Batman: Morrison achieves this by forcing the character to confront what is left when the conventions that built him up and made him secure are stripped away.   

Reynold’s outlines a grand narrative, or universalising theory, for the traditional superhero story, based on analysis of the first Superman story. He suggests, in a structuralist fashion, that: lost parents; the man-god; justice; the normal and the super-powered; the secret identity; superpowers and politics; and science and magic form the foundations of a superhero narrative (Reynolds, 1992: 13-14). The postmodern comic ignores this framework. Sim writes, ‘the incredulity towards grand narratives that defines the postmodern condition is also the loss of faith in the hermeneutics of depth associated with them’. In other words, postmodernism entails ‘the critique of critique’ (Sim, 2005: 20). Questioning the motives of teachers on subjects such as Marxism and Psychoanalysis led to arguments, from those such as Deleuze and Guattari, that claimed the psychoanalyst simply reinforces ‘the straightjacket of normality’ and keeps the wheels of his trade spinning. Lyotard’s answer to this was the idea that states of repression or social inequality could not simply be ‘cured’ (Sim, 2005: 20). The same scepticism is applied to the postmodern superhero. In the 1980’s, comic books began to question their heroes: Watchmen (1987) asked ‘who watches the Watchmen?’; The Dark Knight Returns (1986) asked what happens when Batman gets old?; and The Killing Joke (1988) asked why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker? Peter Coogan refers to this dark time in comics as ‘the iron age’; he writes: ‘heroism itself was put into question…the conventions that have sustained it no longer seem to work. They do not seem inherently satisfying to the producers and consumers, and they become the subject of the stories rather than the means to tell the tales’ (Coogan, 2006: 216). Arkham Asylum went a step further and asked, what if Batman is just as insane as his villains; what if, like the psychoanalyst, he simply perpetuates his lifestyle. The Batman grand narrative spun since his debut in 1939, in which Batman becomes a myth and a figure of ever-prevailing justice, is deconstructed in Arkham Asylum as Batman breaks down and admits, amongst more Jesus imagery that he is ‘just a man’ (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 83). By questioning the sanity of its authority figures, Batman and Amadeus Arkham, Arkham Asylum embodies the notion of ‘critique of critique’. Postmodernism challenges ideas of fantasy and the real by applying realistic analysis to fantasy archetypes that have been around for long periods of time such as the superhero, the fairytale creature and other myths. Also, ideological grand narratives that modernist fantasies once relied on are given harsh and realistic treatments that challenge them and unravel their inherent flaws; this can bring one to question their own reality and the grand narratives in which they previously held faith. 

Strinati states, ’the importance and power of the mass media and popular culture mean that they govern and shape all other forms of social relationships’ (Strinati, 1995: 224), meaning that the way in which we interpret our surroundings is decided by images that we see on the television, on the news, on the internet etc. Jean Baudrillard describes this as a world of hyper-reality and Third-Order Simulation (Laughey, 2007: 148-149). Through what Baudrillard calls ‘the ecstasy of communication’, we consume images and signs that do not represent what they seem to represent but in fact represent viewpoints manufactured by those who distribute the images. In this post-reality, images, according to Baudrillard, ‘no longer represent real things but serve to mask the absence of reality’ (Laughey, 2007: 149). In describing hyper-reality, Baudrillard refers to Disneyland as ‘the real America’ because it reflects the state of the hyper-real America outside it, even though Disneyland is pure fantasy and serves to ‘make us believe the rest is real’. In the final pages of Arkham Asylum, as Batman leaves and The Joker watches him depart, Joker says ‘Enjoy yourself out there, In the Asylum’ (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 98) (Fig.4). He implies that the outside world is in fact the asylum and the asylum itself is the only place that makes sense. This reflects Baudrillard’s view of Disneyland, the seemingly fake territory, that represents the real America. It is only in the asylum, and to its inhabitants, that Batman makes sense. This is further reflected in the colour scheme: the outside world, before and after Batman spends time in the asylum, consists only of black and white pencil shading whereas inside the asylum the world comes alive and the colours are bright and vibrant (Fig.5); and in The Mad Hatter’s reference to the entire place being a dream (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 60). Postmodernism can assume that a madhouse or a theme park is more real than the real, bringing questions of reality and fantasy into question. The ecstasy of communication has allowed fantasy to bleed into and to dictate reality creating a blurred line between the two. 

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‘Enjoy yourself out there. In the Asylum.’
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The ‘real’ world lacks the colour of the Asylum

 

Repeated simulations (copies of copies), pastiche (parody without the comedy) and intertextuality (referring to existing texts within new texts) in postmodern culture have created a void which is often described as ‘style over substance’. No longer do forms of communication inspire thought, instead they rely on spectacle in order to briefly entertain (Laughey, 2007: 147). One could argue that The Joker, Batman’s guide through the asylum in Arkham Asylum, embodies style over substance; his image obsessed appearance and theatrics reflect the stylings of celebrities, another example of style over substance. In the Arkham Asylum 25th Anniversary edition, Morrison describes how his pitch for The Joker’s look was originally based on postmodern artist: Madonna (Morrison, 2014: Postscript notes). The celebrity-inspired Joker, through intertextuality and pastiche, furthers the idea of the asylum reflecting the artificial, hyper-real, postmodern world. Celebrity culture and style over substance creates new realities. In celebrity as well as politics, reality television and other simulated situations: what might seem to be spontaneous, genuine and real is in fact meticulously planned and timed in its execution to have pre-determined effects. These acts are then further manipulated by whichever media medium delivers them to a consumer to create their own secondary meaning. Notions of fantasy and of the real are further challenged and blurred in the postmodern age by manipulation, both before and after an event takes place. This results in what is commonly accepted as being ‘the real’ being, in fact, far from it. Postmodernism challenges the real in this sense by questioning its very existence.

Since the early twentieth century, modernist notions of art and ‘high culture’ have been eroded. This is due to high culture becoming more accessible, low culture becoming more revered and the mass commodification of them both. Laughey provides some possible reasons for this including: advancements in civil rights; higher levels of education; social mobility and more disposable income; rises in consumerism, globalism and mass media; and technological advances allowing for global distribution of culture (Laughey, 2007: 148). All of those factors allowed for art to become accessible. If postmodernism opened the door for low forms of culture being accepted as art, then the comic book’s transition to the ‘graphic novel’ is a prime example of this. The once frowned upon medium now holds critical and literary weight. The costumed superhero comic first appeared in Action Comics #1 with the debut of Superman in 1938. Although they have been continuously produced and profitable since then, they have suffered a reputation as low culture; to the extent of persecution in the fifties (see Wertham, 1954: Seduction of the Innocent). In the nineteen-eighties, though, the postmodern comic appeared. Having been around such a long time, comics readers and authors were now savvy to the codes and conventions of their medium; this self-reflexivity led to a new breed of comic, often referred to as the graphic novel. Reynolds outlines the main differences: comics are thin, wire-stitched, have dramatic covers, have no listing of author or artist, show no reviews, are printed on cheap paper, have adverts in them, are periodical and are cheap; graphic novels, on the other hand, are thick, perfect-bound, have subtle cover designs, show the name of author and artist, quote reviews on the cover, have no adverts and are expensive (Reynolds, 1992: 96-97). Arkham Asylum epitomises the graphic novel style of comic book and therefore epitomises the postmodern breakdown of the distinction between high art and popular culture. It is long, bound more like a paperback book than like a comic; and although it boasts its esteemed creators’ names proudly on the cover, it only subtly hints at its subject matter by showing a tiny silhouette of Batman and a ghostly wisp of The Joker (Fig.6). The postmodern comic uses ‘common strategies which perform the function of raising the intellectual and cultural stakes and articulating narrative themes and ideological positions’ (Reynolds, 1992: 97). These strategies pluck the comic book from the safety of traditional fantasy and asks the question, what if these characters were real? Similarly to how postmodernism breaks down the distinction between culture and society, it breaks down the distinction between art and popular culture. Without clear distinctions, what is real and what is fantasy becomes indistinguishable as, in postmodern texts, the two become one. 

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Arkham Asylum cover

The postmodern can be identified by the way it disorientates notions of time and space. This manifests physically in things like the internet and twenty-four hour establishments like supermarkets and restaurants; it is represented symbolically in fantasy texts such as Arkham Asylum. For example, there are two narratives running parallel in the book: Batman tours the asylum in the present whilst in the past Amadeus Arkham founds the asylum and consequently loses his mind. Although the two narratives are clearly set in different timeframes, Batman, on entering the asylum, hears echoes of the past: ‘Oh Daddy make him STOP! He’s hurting me! The Dog’s hurting me!’ (Morrison and McKean, 1989: 19-20); this is Amadeus Arkham’s daughter, years earlier, begging her father to save her from being murdered, the event that drove Arkham mad. As well as this echo, intertextual references to films, songs and television shows can be heard which further distort any positioning of time or space. Furthermore, Dave McKean’s abstract art disorientates the spatiality of the environment and of the characters themselves. Where Batman is a solid block of straight lines and corners, reflecting his stoic formality and immovable focus, The Joker is formless, fluid and grotesque; Batman’s opposite (Fig.7 & Fig.8). The environments are vague and claustrophobic, emphasising the dreamlike and psychological nature of the text: The Mad Hatter concurs, ‘Sometimes… Sometimes I think the asylum is a head. We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being’ (Morrison and McKean, 1989: p60). The book is impossible to tie down in regards to space and time as the entire story could be easily argued to be a dream. Notions of the real can be disregarded in this postmodern style in order to use the fantastic to signify meaning. Although, if Baudrillard is to be believed and there is no real – only the hyper-real – then an abstract and postmodern reality, such as Arkham Asylum’s, in ignoring rules of space and time may represent the real more accurately than a decidedly realistic text ever could.

   

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Batman is a solid block of straight lines whereas The Joker is an inconsistent, fluid mass

To put postmodernism simply, there is no real, not any more. Postmodern texts challenge notions of fantasy and the real by embracing the notion of a third space; in which texts can, as they do in fantasy, create new meanings whilst exploring the meanings of what they represent too. Postmodernism has erased the lines between art and culture, time and space, fantasy and the real as well as the grand narratives through which they were interpreted. It has provided a blank canvas for artists to create upon whilst arguing that there are no new tools for them to create with. 

Bibliography

  • Coogan, P (2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Texas: MonkeyBrain Books.
  • Furby, J & Hines, C (2012). “Theoretical Approaches to Fantasy in Film” in Fantasy . London. New York: Routledge.
  • Jackson, R (1981). Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London. New York: Methuen.
  • Laughey, D (2007). Key Themes in Media Theory. Berkshire: Open University Press.
  • Miller, F (1986). The Dark Knight Returns. New York: DC Comics.
  • Morrison, G & McKean, D (1989). Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. New York: DC Comics.
  • Morrison, G & McKean, D (2014). Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth: 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: DC Comics.
  • Moore, A & Bolland, B (1988). The Killing Joke. New York: DC Comics.
  • Moore, A & Gibbons, D (1987). Watchmen. New York: DC Comics.
  • Reynolds, R (1992). Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.
  • Siegel, J & Shuster, J (1938). “Superman” in Action Comics #1. New York: DC Comics.
  • Sim, S (2011). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.
  • Strinati, D (1995). An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.
  • Wertham, F (1954). Seduction of the Innocent. New York: Rinehart & Company Inc.

Filmography

  • Batman. (1989). [Film] USA: Tim Burton. Warner Bros.
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