The influence of Sigmund Freud’s ideas on the cultural landscape of the twentieth century is incalculable. Because of Freud, the human mind became a vast, complex dimension of its own– a world not unlike an iceberg where only a small part can be readily identified. The importance of dreams and their interpretations, once belonging solely within the province of shamans or mystics gradually moved toward the accepted realms of science. The actions of a person and the experiences of childhood were seen to have long lasting consequences. All of these things (and many others) which have shaped the way the western world perceives itself can be credited to Freud.
Nowhere is the impact of Freud’s theories seen more clearly than in the arts. Film directors like Fritz Lang, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen have made acclaimed films that incorporated Freud’s theories into the plots as well as the characters and sets. Literature, both on the part of writers as well as critics used Freud to create new methods of storytelling as well as new ways to examine the classics. Freudian themes also permeated the world of visual arts as well. Cubist painters like Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp created images that seemed to have been broken apart and reassembled, as if the paintings themselves had been psychoanalyzed. Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Max Ernst filled their canvases with dream imagery and symbols as a way to represent the subconscious.
Like Sigmund Freud, the ideas of American psychologist George Herbert Mead have also permeated our world in our never-ending quest to understand ourselves and those around us. While Freud’s theories helped us to see our mind as an infinitely more complex mechanism than previously thought, Mead’s theories on the self and identities helped us to see that we can only really know ourselves through our reactions to and interactions with others, not unlike Hegel who said of the self-conscious: it is only by being acknowledged or recognized (Hegel 11). Regarding the self, Mead said:
The individual possesses a self only in relation to the selves of the other members of his social group; and the structure of his self expresses or reflects the general behavior pattern of this social group to which he belongs, just as does the structure of the self of every other
member belonging to this social group. (Mead 40)
Returning now to the arts, I wish to examine, using both the theories of Sigmund Freud and George Mead, the comic book character Batman who was created by Bob Kane in 1939 and who, along with Superman was one of the first comic book superheroes. Specifically I will examine the character as he appeared in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean, published in 1989 by DC comics.
As a character, Batman himself was born of childhood trauma when a young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents get murdered in an attempted mugging. This incident forever changed him and drove him into the life of a vigilante hero. In 1989, a few months after Tim Burton’s long-awaited Batman film was released, DC comics published Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, a 128-page hardcover graphic novel. Arkham Asylum has within it two intertwining narratives, one set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about the founder of the infamous (within the DC universe) home for the criminally insane, Amadeus Arkham and his descent into madness. The other, set in the present day is about all of the inmates– lead by Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker– taking over the asylum and holding the staff hostage until Batman agrees to enter and subject himself to a mentally and physically torturous game.
One of the main themes of Arkham Asylum is that of identity, specifically who or what is Batman? Soon after Batman surrenders himself to the inmates of Arkham one of them says “I say we take his mask off. I want to see his real face.” The Joker replies, “Don’t be so predictable. That is his real face and I want to go much deeper than that” (Morrison 30). To the Joker, who does not care and to the reader who already knows, Batman’s secret identity is of no importance. The Joker wants to see, and Morrison wants to show us something beyond Bruce Wayne– the self. Concerning the self, Mead says that one of the background factors in the genesis of self is represented in the
activities of play and the game (Mead 34). In Arkham Asylum, the game is a kind of hide-and-seek where Batman must confront many different foes as well as the deep psychological traumas that drove him to become a vigilante. The game however begins with some intense word-association at the hands of one of the captive doctors:
Fig. 1. Batman’s word association, art by Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum
(New York: DC Comics, 1989) 33.
From the first word “mother,” the word association game reveals what drives Batman to do what he
does. This is significant because it is happening in full view of his enemies as well as complete
strangers, thus rendering Batman’s psyche in some way tangible. The unconscious or unknown has
become conscious. Freud says the division of the psychical into what is conscious and what is unconscious is the fundamental premise of psycho-analysis; and it alone makes it possible for psycho-analysis to understand the pathological processes in mental life (Freud 29). In the end, Batman rallies himself and faces down his enemies, surviving numerous physical as well as mental attacks and meets Dr. Adams, who had earlier given him the word association test. She asks, “What are you?” to which Batman replies, “Stronger than them. Stronger than this place.” Dr. Adams says “That’s insane.” Batman’s reply before confronting the Joker one last time is “Exactly. Arkham was right, sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are. Or destiny perhaps” (Morrison 93, 94). Batman has had his psyche laid bare and taken apart in a dark game and has emerged knowing exactly who he is and what drives him.
The other story that Morrison weaves through Arkham Asylum is that of the founder of the asylum, Amadeus Arkham and his descent into madness; whose ultimate fate is to be locked away in the hospital that he built. We learn that Arkham spent his childhood taking care of his mentally ill mother until her suicide in 1920. Later in the story we discover that Arkham in fact killed his mother, however Arkham seems to have repressed this information and believes that his mother committed suicide. Concerning repression, Freud says the repressed is the prototype of the unconscious for us. We see however, that we have two kinds of unconsciousness—the one which is latent but capable of becoming conscious and the one which is repressed and which is not, in itself and without more ado, capable of becoming conscious (Freud 30). Arkham’s repressed memories manifest themselves in his dreams.
Dreams play a significant role in the story of Amadeus Arkham, for it is in his dreams where we see how disturbed Arkham truly is, and it is also through his dreams that Arkham discovers the truth about what he did. When Arkham understands at last what he has done he writes in his diary:
“I understand now what my memory tried to keep from me. Madness is born in the blood. It is my birthright. My inheritance. My destiny” (Morrison 84). Whereas this epiphany led to Arkham’s breakdown and imprisonment, for Batman it became a statement of purpose, a liberating truth.
One of the most striking elements of Arkham Asylum is the unique artwork by Dave McKean, who painted most of the book rather than using traditional drawings. The image below is
Fig.2. Amadeus Arkham’s dream, art by Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum
(New York: DC Comics, 1989) 16.
from page 16 and represents a dream of Amadeus Arkham’s. For this book, McKean seemed to be influenced a great deal by German Expressionist cinema, which was known for its visual representations and outward projections of the psyches of the characters onto the sets and scenery of the films. McKean’s paintings are occasionally broken up with line drawings that seem to take
inspiration from cubism as seen below:
Fig.3. Batman discussing therapy with Dr. Adams, art by Dave McKean,
Arkham Asylum (New York: DC Comics, 1989) 25.
Arkham Asylum is a masterpiece of psychological horror and an examination of the self all within the medium of a superhero comic. It is a nightmare that takes the form of a game and it is full of secrets and self-revelations. The book uses the theories of both Sigmund Freud and George Mead to tell a compelling story about madness and identity.
Freud, Sigmund. “Consciousness and What is Unconscious.” Identities: Race, Class, Gender and Nationality. Ed. Linda Martin Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 29-31.
Hegel, G.W.F. “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness.” Identities: race Class, Gender and Nationality. Ed. Linda Martin Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 11-16.
Mead, George Herbert. “The Self.” Identities: Race, Class, Gender and Nationality. Ed. Linda Martin Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003. 32-40.
Morrison, Grant and Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum: A serious House on serious Earth. New York NY: DC Comics, 1989.