Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Winding Maze Of Color And Psychosis: A Review Of "Batman: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth" ★★★★

The concept of abstract art meeting philosophically intriguing writing, in the graphic novel context, has interested me for a long while, now. How timely should it be that the father and champion of what may have been a virtually new art-form has awoken from its hibernation and stricken my heart at last. Batman: Arkham Asylum, written in 1989 by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Dave McKean, is a graphic novel that was without precedent, without peer, and is arguably without contention, to this day, as the finest comic book ever published. The record it holds as the best-selling work in the industry's history certainly suggests so. Popular acclaim stands it erect in line as a classic, a class including many formidable productions of marvelous novelists and artists. In spite of the hype, perhaps, many other reviews have created, this reading was certainly no disappointment.
     What Morrison and McKean concocted just about 25 years ago doesn't invite readers, then or today, to indulge the classic version of Batman and the Joker. The artists beckon an unsuspecting audience to take part in a near-claustrophobic "feast of fools", hosted by a clown in a dark house, originally intended for something nobler than dooming the sane, the moral, the rational. The novel is characterized by spellbinding imagery, and an unorthodox assortment of paintings, photography and etchings. It's rich in symbolism and purpose. The story is, just as well, harmoniously conniving and surreal. The amalgamation of this near-illusory craft creates a beautiful sum of literary work that compels even the most ordinary folk to the deepest, most necessary philosophizing.
     The old DC story follows the parallel paths of Amadeus Arkham, pre-world-war-two founder of the infamous Arkham Asylum, and Batman, the protector of Gotham city's innocent. The inmates of the said asylum "for the criminally insane", king-ed by the Joker, have staged a takeover and successfully seized control of the facility. Notably, this takes place on the night of April 1st, April Fool's day. The Joker's one last demand before he releases the hostages his henchmen hold is that they have their caped adversary in their captivity. Batman enters the asylum, as ransom, unbeknownst of what craze lies ahead, or whether he may stand to escape, in the end, the clutches of his heinous enemies. Or is it one enemy? While Batman ventures to the lawless playground of the unleashed rogues, the grim history of Amadeus Arkham's own trip to insanity reawakens in the unfolding horror, only to lead the masked vigilante to his darkest nightmare.

Symbolism, Imagery and the Grand Metaphor

Arkham Asylum's plot is threaded with the incredibly luxuriant fabric of the journal entries of the aforementioned founder of Arkham Asylum. The initial entry, revealed in the first few pages, details the pains of Arkham's childhood, marked with tragedy - Amadeus's father died, his mother stricken with psychosis. Right away, our unfortunate boy, then, introduces the reader to symbolism: the beetle, which his mother sickly consumed, as one of rebirth. Rebirth into what, exactly? Another world of "fathomless signs and portents ... magic and terror ... And mysterious symbols." Then we are brought back to the present, where Batman and Commissioner Jim Gordon assess a developing situation: the Joker and his gang have taken over the asylum. The Joker, enrobed by his trademark sadistic humor, orders the Batman into the "madhouse" to free the hostages. Though other options are presented by a compassionate Jim Gordon, Batman agrees to the clown's conditions. He feels compelled to. But he's afraid:
Afraid? Batman's not afraid of anything. It's me. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that the Joker may be right about me. Sometimes I... question the rationality of my actions. And I'm afraid that when I [...] walk into Arkham [...] it'll be just like coming home.
     From there, we are submerged back into the mind of the deceased Dr. Arkham. In fact, the whole story is a back-and-forth process that matches the tragic events of Arkham's life and career with the grotesque afflictions of the Madhouse upon Batman's mind. Parallels intentionally mark the plot progression and sees powerful themes given flesh and unforeseeable life. Numerous instances of this intense parallelism exist that are so remarkable and subtle, it's chilling. For example, when Amadeus Arkham's family is brutally murdered by a madman, he finds his daughter's head facing him from inside an otherwise innocent dollhouse. What a fantastically gruesome comparison that is drawn between the past and the present in this story - what was intended for good is abused and marred into something horrifying, like the malignity of the Joker's laughter and the hospital turned war-zone. There seems to be a fate that is repeating itself in our hero's life.
     In fact, by Morrison's creative interpretation of the hero, the Dark Knight appears much more vulnerable and seemingly a lot more penetrable in this episode. He's not the morally immune, physically impressive warrior-type we've enjoyed by Christian Bale's incarnation or Jim Lee's modern comic-book impression. The weakness of Batman, the humanness of Bruce Wayne, is more obvious. When the King of Lunacy challenges the Cape-and-Cowl to a devious word association exercise, heavy philosophical rocks are overturned as a psychological burden is laid. As the Joker examines an abstract picture on a card, he sees all kind of seemingly random images. But when he inquires what Batman sees in the same picture, the next frame literally becomes an extending bat that takes up an entire page. But as this sequence continues, your confidence is overwhelmed with pathos. An inquisitive but still insightful psychotherapist, Ruth Adams, facilitates the exercise (she's innocent and good-intending, it would seem, but must go with the Joker's orders as he's the one with the gun, at this point.) She gives the first word, "Mother." Batman responds, "Pearl."
     "End." Batman breaks under the agonizing weight of memory, regret and remorse and orders the exercise to stop. The pain is so thick and heavy in his mind that he would later take a shard of glass and drive it through the center of his hand, perhaps as a distraction from the real pain. But even in this moment of sheer distress, we can see the early revelations of a messianic metaphor. It's hard in literature to separate pain from any analogy to Jesus Christ, but this goes beyond mere melodrama and faint self-deprecation. The mirroring of the two figures is sincere and only right. Batman accepts every one of the Joker's challenges - the Nazarene lugging reddened lumber - even as it breaks him down to the bare fibers of his person. It's about sacrificing the subjective desire of security for the reign of what's objectively true. Something deeper and more universally abounding is on the line. This is what the fight is for. But the fight, up to this point, has only begun.
     Mercilessly shooting down an officer right in front of our Caped Crusader's eyes for intimidatory purposes, the Joker gives Batman an hour in the Asylum before the inmates are unchained to kill him. And here we see that Batman must push through a hefty line-up of classic and lesser-known villains to ensure his own survival: Clayface, Doctor Destiny, Mad Hatter, Zeus, Killer Croc and Two Face. Did I miss anyone? Oh, right! The Joker! Never forget that devil. Each battle, each confrontation, seems to take a greater toll on Batman's mind. The artwork seems to follow the same, near hallucinogenic trend into a chaotic bowl of mental worms and dirt.
     Symbolism is prominent throughout the escalating conflict, reflecting the story's all-too-evident, psychological underpinnings. A clock is a frequent image representing the aspect of time in the story. The house is a symbol of madness or disorder. The bride's gown a symbol for innocence. And so on. Extreme blood imagery prevails as well as an appropriate dark tonality throughout. It makes for a very captivating and altogether pleasureful opportunity for exercise in literary analysis. It's almost Shakespeare-esque in how much detail went into the various devices and creative employments by the authors. In many ways, this abstract dimension is the factor separating it from all other Batman comics.
     Batman as an implicit, but nearly explicit, Christological metaphor reaches his ultimate peak in the titanic, blood-bathed battle between him and Killer Croc. Giving an added epic and personal overtone to the climactic contest between beast and man, the most vital and provocative journal entry of Amadeus Arkham is lettered, woven into the most physical performance of the whole story. As Croc and Bats have at each other, and Croc plunges a spike into Batman's gut, we have a reading of Akham's disparaging journal [excerpt] :
I have been shown the path. I must follow where it leads. Like Parsifial, I must confront the unreason that threatens me. I must go alone into the Dark Tower. Without a backward glance. And face the Dragon within. I have only one fear. What if I am not strong enough to defeat it? What then? The drug takes hold. I feel small and afraid. Perhaps I've done the wrong thing. Somewhere, not far away, the dragon hauls its terrible weight through the corridors of the asylum. I am borne up on a wave of perfect terror. And the world explodes. There is nothing to hold onto. No anchor. Panic-stricken, I flee. I run blindly through the madhouse. And I cannot even pray. For I have no God.
     The battle rages and blood is spilled. Batman is not only the one who bears the intense psychological burden of overcoming this "unreason", but also very clearly bears the excruciating pains that no one else could take. That no one else could take and sensibly hope to overcome on their own, finite terms. His victory would take a dramatic, heart-sickening and triumphal turn as this fantastic read reaches its awesome end.

Batman is still a hero for the ages.

The Verdict

     This is a novel unlike any other I've read. You read it moreso for the art which, in and of itself, contains a story within each frame. A gallery whispering sensual songs and war poems. The immaculate variety of styles and imagery, incorporating into itself the strong symbolism, allusions and metaphors of the prose, penetrates the soul today as it wriggles and scampers to know the truth of reality, be it one of total irrationality and meaninglessness or one of universal beauty and morality. A boon for the comic book industry and DC Comics, the book bears few shortcomings. These, which I would consider disappointments in spite of a terrific script, include one very debatable scene at the end after the Killer Croc battle, and a Batman that is perhaps just a little too weak for my comfort. Nevertheless, the message and thematic elements stand tall. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean pulled off an ambitious, genius work that, in large, deserves its fame. 4 out of 5!

Morrison, Grant. Batman: Arkham Asylum. 15th. ed. S.l.: D C Comics, 2005. Print.     


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Definitions Of Blessedness

The idea of God being a necessarily loving and merciful deity, though my greatest joy, is an exhausting burden for many others. This is simply and inadequately put. To toil to bend one's coursing rapid of thought around it and, what's more, to reconcile it to the dying, desperate world around it is surely a lifelong quest. Seldom is the journey completed. In the midst of this common struggle, which brands our lives, we find a relatively small group of confident, boastful Christians. They've deserted the battle and made a mad dash to the hidden victory flag-pole of whimsical blessedness.
     Here's what I mean to say. What I hear frequently from God's army of saints are the many ways in which God is merciful and a blessing to them.

"I wake up every morning with breath in my lungs."
"I have a roof over my head."
"I live in a free country."
"I have a job in a tight economy."

These are examples of God's "blessing" and "mercy" and "faithfulness" to his people, as I am told. The question I am now asking is "Really?" This is a universal question. A question that must be assessed to bring unity to the Church and to bring believers to a proper understanding of what it means to follow Christ. If blessing is ill-defined, the implications can be spiritually catastrophic as is exemplified by countless churches, sects and heretics throughout the history of Christendom.

Re-Evaluating The Definition Of Blessing     

Beginning several months ago, I have been reassessing what it means to be blessed. Initially, I examined how the term "blessed" or "blessing" is used and as it turns out we Christians tend to use and, quite frankly, abuse this word a lot. One, almost every day, reads on Facebook or Twitter how so-and-so got a job, gave birth, got married, got promoted, got out of bed, got lucky, got, got, got, and if the account is of a Christian, you'll find the phrase afterwords "God is good" or "God is faithful" or "God is merciful" or "I am so blessed". So, by way of contrast, one can uncover what is really being meant. All one has to do is read what is written on a bad day. So the question I am now asking is "Is God unfaithful and unmerciful if you are fired, aborted, killed, diseased, unlucky, still in bed and are you no longer blessed?"     
     So what does it mean to be blessed? One can say it is finding love or freedom or something less tangible like that and more fluffy. One can go for the Bad Answer and say success. However, I've resolved that by these two definitions, one has to resort to subjective, physical, human terms. About the former "definition", though God gives an ideal freedom and love, these things, in human hands, can be tainted and twisted into ungodly things. We see everyday how love can cause utter turmoil and how freedom can produce chaos. So things like love and freedom, on their own, aren't necessarily an absolute "blessing". About the latter, success, in every physical sense, is impertinent and meaningfully dead in and of itself. This is why I would be hesitant to say that because I avoided a car crash, I was blessed. Because someone else crashed instead of me. The problem is, conclusively, that the definition of blessing becomes altogether human and quite individualistic.
     As Christians, how can physical gain be so regularly equated to blessing from Heaven when we claim to exalt the one who gave up all physical gain? It's strange to me. We so regularly emphasize what God allows us to have in our life. The problem I'm having is why we don't put equal emphasis on what God does not grant us. What does this suggest about the popular perception of God's character? What does this suggest about the way blessing is commonly defined? This is truly problematic. An overemphasis on things that are spiritually neutral can liquefy a person's platform easily by both masquerading the essential meaning of life and leading to a deceptive philosophy that could misrepresent the cause and character of Christ. After all, Jesus was a very successful unsuccessful person. If we want to be like him, then why are we afraid of being successfully unsuccessful also?
     A popular punching-bag for ministers and congregates is the grossly popular Health and Wealth Prosperity camp. The likes of Osteen, Dollar, Copeland and Meyer are insistent on physical gain as a basic, essential definition of blessing. Of course, the only way to this conclusion is pure ignorance and deception, among other traits. To redefine what it means to be "favored by God" so extremely and grotesquely, not to mention dogmatically, is to redefine the Gospel message similarly. This extremity is the ultimate implication of an ill definition of blessing. If the measure of God's faithfulness and mercy is restricted to our deliverance from physical abuse and impoverishment, then we have contradicted, in the most basic sense, the meaning of the Gospel and our human existence.
     The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is where the conversation, on what it means to be blessed, begins and ends. The beatitudes edify not the high-up or the worldly wise men. They exhort everyone to be fruitful and pure in spirit. "Blessed is the man..." Who is blessed? The peacemakers, the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, and so on. So, basically, if you want to live a blessed life, here's what Jesus is offering: holiness. Take it or leave it. He doesn't offer free kicks, a nice crib or a Magic Bullet. What Jesus offers, in return for belief, is a sanctified, purified heart by his definition of purity and godliness. This is from the words of Jesus, our savior. He doesn't imply that you will be blessed if you peace-make or are pure. He says you are blessed. Your reward is waiting for you in Heaven.
     Jesus's life, from a birds-eye view, contradicts the physical spectrum of blessedness, because he was not a frequent recipient of physical "blessing". Jesus did not make that many friends. At least, he wasn't hugely popular. In fact, if we were to define blessing in physical terms, Jesus was considerably un-blessed. He was scrutinized, mocked, rejected, unemployed and finally tortured and crucified. This trend in his life speaks for itself. Physical wealth is of little meaning to God.
     Another man, who I pity because he is so frequently misunderstood, is Paul, the renowned missionary of God's appointment. His life was often, in a sense, hermitic and largely under the weight of persecution. His success was nil if it were quantified materialistically, similar to Jesus's life. The oft misquoted Philippians 4:13, when taken in context, actually speaks enormously about what ought to be counted as rewarding in life. Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV):
... I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.          
     What does Paul's testimony suggest about the reality of pleasure and poverty? Did it matter to him whether he suffered or not? Basically, it doesn't matter if we have lots of stuff or no stuff at all, because we have Jesus. Point, blank.
     If one takes blessing and converts its meaning into strictly spiritual terms, what does one get? The answer, in my mind, is what matters in light of eternity: salvation and the possible renewal of our heart and spirit. God so evidently in scripture, and from experience, prioritizes our character and identity in Christ over our resume or our income. This is the only way the Gospel can be the Good News it professes. This is the only way the Scripture can remain consistent. This is the only way a loving God can be reconciled with a world filled with sufferers and thieves. It is the only way for the cross of Jesus Christ to remain pedestalled. It is the only way death can be a joyful event in spite of all its tragic properties. The camp that would assert the message of Creflo Dollar or Joyce Meyer or any other hardline Word of Faith materialism is a camp that, by blindness or intention, would dismantle all of this - what the apostles and martyrs stood, suffered and died for. They would opt to discombobulate consumerist congregations and diffuse the potency, adequacy and life-providence of Jesus's mission which every attentive individual knows is already accomplished in the life of his true bride - dead sinners turned into living family members, not failures turned into accomplished merchants.
     Now it is not wrong to enjoy things, but I believe the key is in the balance which, by the way, I do not believe is in a "fifty-fifty split". The idea of Jesus being the one and only true blessing must dominate our life. It must gush out of our hearts, seep into our minds and well over into our outward actions. There is a spectrum of definitions which can be separated into physical and spiritual. Our spiritual definition of what it means to be blessed must over-arch our physical passions including professional, sexual, and habitual endeavors. We can consider the physical pleasures of life a blessing and, in a sense, an act of God's mercy, but always while kept under the piercing gaze of God's redemptive and vengeful light. This is what I meant by balance. It is important to keep things in perspective.
     Just to further clarify my last point, let me describe a fictitious scenario. Pretend that you are married. You have a wife or a husband. Now, let's say you have another friend of the same gender you are physically attracted to. If you were to meet with this friend, along with your husband or wife, you can enjoy your friends presence, talk with that person, enjoy them. Your partner would be there and there would be no question you remained faithful to your partner, while still enjoying communion with your friend. Now, if you were to get together with your friend, whom you could theoretically be attracted to, while your partner was someplace else (out of sight), the likelihood of you cheating on your husband or wife increases immediately. Whereas, if you were to hang out with your friend with your partner present in your mind, in your thoughts as a reminder to keep to your vows, then the odds of unfaithfulness are virtually zero. Though the analogy breaks down, as all analogies do, I sincerely hope it serves the purpose of exhorting individuals to always remain faithful to God's higher purpose while enjoying earthly pleasures.

Ready, Fire, Aim

The possibility of error increases rather steeply, to me, when we haven't a clue what we're after. This is the hope I have for my readers, that they would shape their desires after God's. The desires of many are the superficial tangibles. The desires of many are the intangible ideals, which are not necessarily bad. God's desire for everyone, whether we read the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels or the Epistles, is clear as day. God's desire is that we would strive after holiness above all the other vain and meaningless ambitions. All other purposes sway and break down under the gale of God's call for personal, spiritual renewal.

Indeed, no other blessing is as adequate and fulfilling as our hope and communion with Jesus.