Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Arkham Asylum: An Essay As to Why It Sucks

Ah, Arkham Asylum. Hospital for the mentally ill, prison for supervillains and the most mainstream HP Lovecraft reference in comicbooks! Now, when people talk about Arkham, it's normally connected in some manner with how Batman is "incompetant" in some way for not stopping the Joker, Killer Croc and company from routinely escaping from the alleged SuperMax facility whenever the mood strikes them.

Well today I've decided to have a look at the numerous ways that, really, it's really the Arkham members of staff who are at fault here, not just Batman not having the time to physically watch his rogues 24/7 to ensure they don't go walk about. Plus Halloween is coming up, and this is kind of good subject matter for the season.

Let's begin!

To start with, we have the atmosphere and history of Arkham itself, which surely can't be good for the mental health of its patients. Indeed, although the overall architecture of Arkham is actually somewhat common with several real-life mental institutions, such as Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts , the fact that they're keeping a bunch of dangerous, smart or superpowered people in an antique building isn't helping matters any.

Indeed, the building has, through many different retellings in different types of media, been host of a history of madness , murder, black magic and suicide that infected the staff and even founders. This was used as a plotpoint in Geoff John's 'Batman: Earth One', where it was revealed that Bruce's Mother was the Last Arkham and thus part of a family infamous for going crazy and murdering people, while in Grant Morrison's 'Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth', had the founder of the Asylum getting committed to his own hospital after killing the maniac who murdered his family by electroshocking him to death.

My favourite possible origin for Arkham and Gotham comes in a story, 'Cityscape' by Dennis O'Neil, which Tim Drake reading a diary from roughly a century ago, where a mixed-race man called Hiram is living in the woods near where Gotham would later be built, building a church. Only the people of the nearby fishing village of Bludhaven view him with suspicion, with one man openly attacking him, claiming that Hiram murdered his brother. His evidence being... well, Hiram's skin colour. Finding out that that five other people have disappeared lately and that he is rapidly becoming a scapegoat for the killings, Hiram quickly decided not to return there.

Quickly making it out of the town to avoid a lynch mob, the man comes across a odd, wealthy man who follows him back to Hiram's under construction temple. The rich man seems friendly enough, and but he says that rather than a church, Hiram should build a madhouse.
The rich man, who turns out to be a doctor, says that his plan is to build an asylum and send out to New York and Boston for them to send him their mentally ill for a price, so that they could receive treatment for their plight as well as being given a home that properly respects them. He says that he'd even name the asylum and the village he predicts to spring up around it "Gotham", after a village in England that's famous for having inhabitants that "lack wits".

The doctor then gives Hiram a gun, warning him that there are murderers afoot and it be best he defend himself. Later that night, as a storm blasts the hillside, Hiram sees a man coming out of the woods, threatening to kill him. In a panic and fearing for his own life, Hiram blasts the man with his gun.

It turns out to be the brother of the murdered man Hiram had found earlier, who had accused him of the killing. The doctor then steps out of the shadows, showing the ability to impersonate voices and saying that he had drawn the man here to get Hiram to confess to killing the man's brother.

This story hasn't been brought up anywhere else to my knowledge, but the idea that the Asylum somehow feeds Gotham and vice versa is an idea that I do find interesting to a degree. In addition to the problems with the site itself, a large section of the blame for Arkham's failings as a mental institution should also lie with the members of staff. This isn't to say that ALL the members of staff are useless at their jobs, Aaron Cash of 'Living Hell' and the games 'Arkham Asylum/Arkham City' and most versions of the current member of the Arkham family running the place are proof of that, but not all of them are exactly out to heal or contain the inmates either.

For example, in the 'Arkham' games there is Warden Sharp, who took the job of warden of the Asylum just because he thought that any positive additions to the facility would look good when he moved into politics (indeed, he takes credit for what Batman did in the first game so that he could become mayor in the second). Though that isn't even the START of his problems...

Moving to the comics themselves, it seems that despite Bruce Wayne being on the parole board in the Paul Dini 'Detective Comics' run (a position he also holds in Din's main DCU and DCAU work by the way) and Wayne Enterprises donating tons of money to cure/lock up the patients, the people more immediately in charge don't always spend the money where it should be spent.

The best example of this can be found in Kevin Smith's 'Cacophony' storyline,

So it could be argued that the same corruption in the Gotham civil service that causes the corruption in the police force (as shown in 'Gotham Central' and Brubaker's 'Catwoman') and shoddy social service system (Jim Balent's 'Catwoman') within the City, also poisons the security staff in Arkham as well.

I do remember a story where Zsasz apparently bribed a contractor that was modernising the facility to include a secret passage for him to sneak in and out of the building whenever he wanted, but I'll just stick with what comics I actually have for this miniessay.

Such as a guard in 'Living Hell' who makes a bit of money on the side selling contriband to the prisoners, as well as acting as a kind of pimp for the less dangerous female inmates.

Whereas another guard, in 'Birds of Prey', took more evasive means to squeeze money out of the people who are meant to be in his care due to being not legally competant.

Huh, you'd have thought that they'd have cut Savant's hair after he'd been committed. Oh well.

The doctors, however, don't seem to be afflicted with the same desire to abuse their charges for profit like those guards though. A lot of the time, they are depicted as being "merely" as being grossly imcompetant, resulting in such situations where interns/newly minted doctors like Harleen Quinzel are left alone with the Joker, or when they're used as a mouthpiece for the writer's scornful views on pop-psychology.

The more infamous example of this would probably be Dr Bartholomew Wolper, who was used to display Frank Miller's conversative bias against the contemporary liberal celebrity psychologists of the 1980s.

A less famous example would be when one of the inmates somehow manages to personate one of said doctors...

So the ground the asylum is built on is, if not cursed, then certainly not a good environment for one's mental health, the administrators are greedy (if not outright insane themselves) and corrupt, the guards are underpaid, corrupt and are open to bribes, and the doctors either don't know what they're doing or are trying to make a quick buck out of the people who are legally in their care.

Much like the GCPD, it's argueable that the facility is so messed up at a fundemental level that the likes of the Joker escaping on a regular basis to go on rampages, isn't so much the fault of Batman and Commissioner Gordon personally, but due to forces well outside of their control.

The system in Arkham is so corrupt at this point, that it should really just be easier for Bruce to just build a new facility that's up to JLA-specifications, buy Arkham, move the inmates, rehire only the more competant members of staff and start over (indeed, Gotham City Council throwing their collective hands in the air and saying "Fuck it! Let's just knock the place down!" happened in the DCAU between BTAS and Batman Beyond).

The fact Arkham is in many ways beyond fixing was one of the things that was brought up as backstory in Paul Pope's underrated 'Batman: Year 100', where the action taken to finally sort out all of the supervillain escapes all at once signalled the start of the US becoming more totalitarian in its handling of not just supervillains but all costumed types in general...

Cut off bit: And when we came back the next day they were gone. Everyone one of 'em.
So yeah, that's my opinion, using canon, as to why Arkham is as much to blame for the Joker as Batman allegedly is. Even if you ignore the fact that they're meant to be trying to cure the people sent there, the notoriety of the patients coupled with people's desire to make money off of them by any means necessary doesn't exactly help matters either.

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