What's Arkham Asylum?

What's This? Gotham's porous mental institution.
The facts: Named after a fictional town in which H.P. Lovecraft set a number of his stories, Arkham Asylum may even have its roots in Lovecraft's The Thing on the Doorstep, which features Arkham SANITARIUM. Arkham is a well-known piece of the Batman mythos, first named perhaps later than you'd expect, in 1974's Batman #258, by Dennis O'Neil and Irv Novick. Much of its backstory was created by Len Wein FOR Who's Who, apparently. It's looked like a normal mental hospital, and like a Gothic haunted castle, but regardless, it's where most of Batman's villains are sent instead of prison. Very rarely do they get better there, and if they do, it rarely sticks.
How you could have heard of it: Well, the last word on Arkham Asylum is without a doubt Grant Morrison's A Serious House on Serious Earth graphic novel, but even non-comics readers will recognize it from Batman movies, the Gotham TV show, and video games (where it's turned into a blamed city!).
Example story: Batman #327 (September 1980) "Asylum Sinister!" by Len Wein, Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin
Choosing a story was complicated. My preference is always to take a story from before the Who's Who came out, but nothing I looked at had the Arkhams in it. So for a while, I almost discussed "The Last Arkham" from Shadow of the Bat #1-4. Then, I tried to go back to the first stories that featured the ol' sanatorium, and Batman #260 did have a sequence set there, but it wasn't really an ASYLUM story, you know? Then I was recommended this one and after seeing that Joe Kubert cover, well, I couldn't resist it. And it IS an asylum story, one with a classic premise: Batman goes undercover inside the place. Break out the bleach, Alfred, he's going in!
One of the things I look for in an Arkham-centric tale is the low, low quality of the mental health care available there. Cue some insensitive orderlies:
Even if there were glass on the window, I'd think that were inappropriate. No worries, "Shank" is Batman, so he has no trouble escaping from his straitjacket. That's the other thing about Arkham, security has to be lax AF. The ol' lockpick in the cheek trick gets him out of the cell so he can now investigate why patients are turning up committing crimes on the streets. In particular, one "Madman" Markham. On the one hand, he really wasn't trying when he chose a code-name. On the other, his last name has the word "arkham" in it, which has got to be worth something. As he skulks around, Bruce passes by a few of his foes, and showing their living conditions is kind of an Arkham trope.
It's nice that you can customize your room to fit your condition. Maxie Zeus has Greek moldings. Two-Face is currently believed dead but they left his room intact, one half near, the other shabby. As for the Joker, he's "dead" too, and bizarrely, he has a mannequin of Batman in his cell. This therapy is really suspect. (The costume will become important, as you might imagine.) Madman Markham IS in his room, sporting the injury Batman caused him the night before. Unfortunately for Batman, Professor Milo is watching everything with hidden cameras, including one that's in his room!

Cut to the secondary Batcave under the Wayne Foundation where the real Shank - oh crap, he's real - is being kept sedated by Alfred, strapped to a table. Alfred is under orders to contact Commissioner Gordon if Master Bruce hasn't made contact in 24 hours. 12 hours to go...

Fake Shank is brought before the director who hands him a cup of tea. Despite his raving performance, Bruce plays nice for now and seems nonplussed that the actual director's been replaced by a villain. (Because no one freaking checks up on this place, and I guess Milo is really good at doing the proper paperwork!) He explains his plan:
Milo wants to tap untapped talent, makes sense! And hey, he's only taking 50% of the take, sounds fair! And if the inmate doesn't want to play the game, well, he has his methods. A spiked teacup, for example (not the tea, Batman who smell it, the actual TEACUP). But Bruce has time to re-escape and grab that uniform from the Joker's cell before it has an effect. Subtle!

When the Bat wakes up, he's dizzy and has a straitjacket on over his costume. Milo KNOWS he's Batman, but he puts him in genpop with delusional Napoleon and Joan of Arc, and acts like Shank has gone over the deep end. Killing him lacks finesse. The crooked orderlies don't get it, but they forget MILO IS ACTUALLY AN INMATE! I mean, if he really is Batman, he should be able to get out of his restraints, right?
Well, wouldn't the super-observant Batman have an easy task playing the shell game with an inmate?
Is he on his way to thinking he's delusional? The Bat looks at himself in the mirror and realizes his pupils are dilated - he's been drugged!! (That was his only clue?!) When he snaps out of it, Milo sics his orderlies at him. Arkham: Where the staff is armed with switchblades.
But are also ineffectual, in case some dangerous lunatic wants to escape. The inmates think this is all very cool and free him from his straitjacket. Then they all follow Batman like an army. He waves them away, for their own safety. Cornered, Milo throws a bottle of the narcotic that opened Batman to madness, thinking he's safe from inside a hazmat suit. But he didn't count on Batman's lunatic army!
The mad become more mad and turn into a zombie horde that rip his protection off. In the final page, he's just laughing maniacally. Extra madness has actually made this one less dangerous. Hey! Arkham works!

Who's Next? A team for the first video game generation.



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