Borges and the Maze that Dreams

Behold the product of an intellectual hangover:

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This is not to say that I no longer stand by the ideas put forward in the as-yet-unpublished article below.  In most respects I still do.  Rather, this foreword should be considered as something of an apologia.  An admission of the fact that, in the three months between the submission of my doctoral thesis and my viva voce, I saw Borges in everything.

The recurring symbols of Borges’ literary legacy; the mirrors, mythical books and labyrinths (Borges would doubtless argue that these are all, in fact, one and the same thing) coloured and informed my reaction to just about everything I watched, read or played in the weeks and months leading up to the defense of my doctoral thesis.  I saw Borges in the most unlikely of places.  

I saw Borges in The Batman.

My surprise did not come from finding Borges (or a Borges) in a comic book. I’ve seen him before.  I’ve seen him many times, in many forms.  In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, for example, Destiny is depicted as a blind man bound to a mystical book who wanders The Garden of Forking Ways.  ‘Nuff said.  The surprise came from finding Borges in Batman specifically. At once the joyfully camp, caped-crusader of the late 60’s and the hard-boiled, Burtonized bastion of the 90’s adult comic boom, Batman seemed like an unlikely candidate for ruminations on philosophical hermeneutics and ludic ontology.

The idea was never to pontificate on the literary and intellectual merits of the comic book.  Both of which, I feel, are indisputable.  Nor was this an attempt to over-intellectualise or even overstand the work of Morrison and McKean.  I have no need to flaunt their credentials nor their intentions on their behalf.  Quite simply, the article below represents a (somewhat rigorously) playful departure from my doctoral thesis (or at the very least, from its strictly Latin American contexts). Its aim was to elaborate upon the primary theoretical tenets put forth in my thesis; those of play, space, and idealised reader/player constructs.  Using Morrison and McKean’s treatment of The Batman allowed me to apply these tenets to the intriguing idiosyncrasies of the comic book medium.

A secondary aim of the article was to brush up on my understanding of the fantastic. Very much the theoretical birthplace of my postgraduate studies, the fantastic provided an invaluable albeit increasingly understated theoretical impetus to my postgraduate work.  To return to the genre/mood/mode after so many years was not without a certain catharsis.



This article considers the role of the fantastic in the contemporary comic book through an analysis of one of the medium’s most prevalent figures; the Batman.  Specifically, this article discusses the ways in which Grant Morrison’s and Dave McKean’s seminal Batman story, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, facilitates a deeper understanding of the fantastic as it comes to represent a subversive and ontologically disruptive project aimed at problematizing the reader’s relationship with the text. Owing to this focus on intellectual subversion, ontological disruption and the reader-text dynamic, this article draws on Arkham Asylum’s numerous thematic and ideological convergences with Jorge Luis Borges’ «Death and the Compass».  Doing so allows us to explore the ways in which the comic book speaks back to a rich, universal literary heritage of fantastic experimentation, all the while carving out exciting new avenues of critical exploration.

Keywords: Batman, Borges, comic, Morrison, McKean, Arkham Asylum, short fiction


The present article offers a comparative analysis of the fantastic elements of Grant Morrison’s and Dave McKean’s Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: A serious House on Serious Earth (1989) and Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastically-inflected metaphysical detective story «Death and the Compass» (1942).  Of particular interest are the ways in which the fantastic comes to represent, in both narratives, a vertiginous and subversive force that serves to destabilize or otherwise disrupt a seemingly collective reliance upon certain ontological and epistemological precepts such as the perceived separation between the real and the unreal, reason and unreason, reality and fiction.  Through a Borgesian reading of Arkham Asylum, I seek to show how the comic book medium, already a socio-culturally liminal entity, not only represents a particularly effective vessel of the contemporary metaphysical fantastic, but also speaks back to the fantastic genre’s long literary heritage of experimentation and serious metaphysical, epistemological and ontological inquiry.  

Jorge Luis Borges’ (1899-1986) particular brand of metafictional fantasy represents a benchmark in fantastic, experimental fiction both in Argentina and in the wider scope of contemporary letters.  As Pablo Brescia (2008: 1) perspicaciously suggests, Borges’ «selective importation, imitation and intertextual dialogue about literature» became part of a process that turned the fantastic into «an original mode of expression» for twentieth-century literary history.  Borges’ vision of the fantastic goes beyond traditional, Todorovian limitations on the fantastic to provide a deconstructed and transcendental genre that forces the reader to consider the inherent fragility of the boundaries between the rational and the irrational, the possible and the impossible, the known and the unknowable.  As Peter Cersowsky (Collins & Pearce, 1985: 25) observes, «together with Kafka’s path-breaking works [Borges’ oeuvre] represents a transcendental kind of the fantastic that is fundamentally different from the solely spiritualistic type described by Todorov».  Along a similar vein, Stanton Hager (Collins & Pearce, 1985: 232) asserts that Borges’ fictional strategy was to deconstruct «the cornerstones of rational, systematic edifices of ontological explanation».  

To this end, Borges’ particular transcendentally-inflected breed of the fantastic shares certain parallels with the postmodern fantastic project.  According to Lance Olsen (1987: 117), «postmodern fantasy has become the literary equivalent of deconstructionism, for it interrogates all we take for granted about language and experience, giving these no more than a shifting and provisional status».  Olsen (1987: 14) argues that the fantastic has become both «the vehicle for the postmodern consciousness» and «the realism that our culture understands».  Such a stance echoes that of Gerhard Hoffmann (Hoffmann, 1982: 362-363), who believes the fantastic to be inseparable from the postmodern.  For Hoffmann, «the tendency of the postmodern fantastic goes towards an epistemological analysis of reality through its disintegrating it».  

Such a postmodern framework not only points to an explicit playfulness or analytical irreverence in Borges’ intellectual and creative processes, but also reveals the inherited values of a fantastic literary trajectory that reaches beyond the canonical works of Borges or Kafka and towards the canonically-peripheral and often generically-hybrid works of contemporary fiction.  I argue here that the comic book is representative of just such a hybrid work.   The comic book medium inhabits a liminal artistic space, as Thomas Giddens (2015: 397) suggests, it «exists at an intersection, a meeting point between different orders of knowing: between the visual and verbal, rational and aesthetic; between picture and word, logic and irrationality; image and text, reason and unreason».   

With this in mind, my aim in this article is to discuss how the Arkham Asylum comic meaningfully resonates with the Borgesian fantastic project as it is manifest in «Death and the Compass».  Cited as one of Borges’ most successful forays into the metaphysical detective genre, «Death and the Compass» represents a similarly liminal work of fiction to that of Arkham Asylum.  At once a detective story, a philosophical treatise and a self-referential consideration of the reader-author dynamic, the short story represents an early foray into a fantastically-inflected process of generic-hybridization that offers a preliminary consideration of the «different orders of knowing» called into question by the comic book.  As Adrian Gargett (2002: 86) asserts:

Borges’s is a realm where fact and fiction, real and unreal, the whole and the part, the highest and the lowest, are complementary aspects of the same continuous being.  The word is a text and the text is a world, and both are labyrinthine and enclosed enigmas designed to be interpreted and participated in by humans.  The synthesized intellectual unity is achieved precisely by the confrontation of opposites.

With a clear emphasis on the destabilization of similar dichotomies, Morrison’s and McKean’s vision of Batman is one that enthusiastically invites a Borgesian reading.  Indeed, I argue that Arkham Asylum is home to the same strategy of ontological blurring or merging as «Death and the Compass» and as such points to a rediscovery or playful reconfiguration of the Borgesian fantastic project.  To this end, Batman’s journey through the Asylum will be discussed in light of its ideological, technical and thematic parallels with Borges’ metaphysical detective story.  Such an approach serves two purposes.  Firstly, it allows us to observe the continued relevance and influence of the Borgesian fantastic in contemporary cultural and creative outputs such as the comic book. Secondly, it insists on the increasing literary and intellectual merit of such contemporary outputs.  

Owing to the detective-esque nature of both narratives, the present article will be structured around three perceptible narrative symmetries; the detectives (Batman and Detective Lönnrot), the criminals (the Joker and Red Scharlach) and the crime scenes (Arkham Asylum and the Triste-le-Roy villa).  Firstly, I will explore Morrison and McKean’s depiction of Batman as a symbol of rational order.  Such a role, I will argue, not only shares significant functional, thematic, and ideological parallels with that of Detective Lönnrot, the super-sleuth protagonist of Borges’ «Death and the Compass», but also offers a textually-embedded representation of the reader.  Secondly, I will explore the roles of the Joker and Red Scharlach, the main antagonists of Arkham Asylum and «Death and the Compass» respectively, as they come to represent symbols of fantastic otherness.  Lastly, I will offer a comparative analysis of the fantastically-inflected, hostile and often paradoxical structures of both the Asylum and the Triste-le-Roy villa.  


Alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke (1988), Morrison’s and McKean’s vision of Batman appeared at «the height of the deconstruction of the superhero» (Cortsen, 2009: 36), offering a «more complex» (Pearson & Uricchio, 1991: ix) conceptualization of the caped crusader.  Arkham Asylum, then, is a work that not only challenges traditional superhero precepts, but successfully explores the potential of the comic book as a vessel for the fantastic as a subversive mode of serious intellectual enquiry.  According to Giddens (2015: 398):

[Arkham Asylum] is a disturbingly rich tale of Batman’s dark night of the soul; it represents the ultimate testing of his rationality in the face of his repressed madness within Gotham’s infamous madhouse.  It is, in many ways, a counter-point to the dominant versions of the heroic Batman, exposing the weakness and madness that fuels his wider fight for justice.

In his traditional role as both master-sleuth and crime fighter, Batman is a textually-embedded representation of the rational subject, as evinced in his reliance upon reasoned interpretation, logical deduction and staunch ratiocination.  Since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman has long-remained a symbol of reason and order.  With no particular superpowers or magical capabilities to speak of, the caped vigilante’s weapons of choice have always been those of science and reason. Bill Boichel (Pearson & Uricchio, 1991: 6-7) observes how co-creator Bill Finger’s depiction of Batman as «a figure of awe and mystery as well as a master sleuth and scientist owed much to pulp magazine superstars Doc Savage and the Shadow, […], and to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth, Sherlock Holmes».  Boichel’s evocation of Doc Savage, the Shadow and Sherlock Holmes – a scientist, a crime-fighting vigilante and a super-sleuth, respectively – is indicative of Batman’s place within a lineage of practitioners of scientific reason and logical deduction.  

This staunch rationalism, however, is challenged at every turn by the inherent otherness of Arkham Asylum, a psychotherapeutic institution that houses Batman’s most violent and dangerous enemies.  In Morrison’s and McKean’s Arkham Asylum, the institute finds itself overrun by these inmates.  Led by the Joker – Batman’s most infamous nemesis – the inmates demand an audience with the masked vigilante; «we want you.  In here.  With us.  In the madhouse.  Where you belong» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).

According to Giddens (2015: 406), the significance behind Batman’s journey through the Asylum is twofold.  As well as his literal journey through the maze-like halls of the asylum, Batman’s exploration of the institute is also indicative of a «path of radical introspection».  Giddens further suggests that «[Batman] enters not a building, populated with the otherness of civilisation (madness, criminality), but his own mind».  Presently, I argue that Batman’s journey through the asylum is not merely symbolic of a consideration of his own «animating traumas and desires», but also serves as a metaphor of the interpretive role of the rational reader upon contact with the otherness of the fantastic.  

The significance of the moon tarot – as it appears in the comic as a recurring symbol of trial and initiation – is instrumental to this reading of Arkham Asylum.  According to Morrison’s original script (2014: 2), the moon card «represents trial and initiation – the supreme testing of the soul, where we must face our deepest fears, confront them and survive or be broken.  In this single image are encoded all the themes of our entire story».  Just as Giddens uses the tarot to suggest that Batman’s journey possesses a highly introspective significance, I suggest that Batman’s journey through the asylum bears an extra-textual significance.  That is to say that Batman’s recurring attempts to combat, both literally and introspectively, the hostile otherness of the asylum are consonant with the reader’s attempts to make sense of the fantastic nature of the narrative.  Indeed, just as Batman must navigate the treacherous and hostile halls of the asylum, the reader must also navigate both Morrison’s symbol-laden split-narrative (that of present-day Batman and that of the diary of Amadeus Arkham, founder of the asylum) and McKean’s fevered mixed-media arrangements and compositions.  In short, I not only argue that Arkham Asylum is a work that allows for new considerations of the fantastic, but also provides a metatextual consideration of the very process of reading the fantastic.  Of immediate interest, then, is an analysis of Morrison’s and McKean’s respective narrative strategies and the challenges they present to the contemporary reader.

An early example of the interpretive gauntlet thrown down by McKean’s artistic vision can be found in Batman’s arrival at Arkham, following his initial briefing by Commissioner Gordon.  While both the arrival and the briefing are chronologically separate, McKean’s manipulation of the comic medium’s traditionally sequential panelling presents the reader with both events simultaneously.  The onus, then, is on the reader to logically deduce the true chronological order of both sequences.  In other words, there is an implicit call for the reader to straighten the narrative «line», despite the apparent temporal overlaps presented by McKean’s subversive visual splicing.  As postmodern novelist Robert Coover (1992: np) suggests, «much of the novel’s alleged power is embedded in the line, that compulsory author-directed movement from the beginning of a sentence to its period, from the top of the page to the bottom, from the first page to the last».  In the visual pyrotechnics of McKean’s illustrative style, we detect an explicit subversion of just such a line.  The otherness of McKean’s artistic vision challenges the reader’s traditionally linear reading precepts by making such a linear reading impossible.

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While both the arrival and the briefing are chronologically separate, McKean’s manipulation of the comic medium’s traditionally sequential panelling presents the reader with both events simultaneously.

This subversion of traditional, comic book linearity is all the more glaring when we compare the visual kineticism of McKean’s work on Arkham Asylum to that of Brian Bolland’s work on The Killing Joke.  Written by Alan Moore, The Killing further evinces the ideological drift towards a deconstruction of Batman mythos.  Visually, however, Bolland’s work is more conservative, more traditionally linear than that of McKean.  In Bolland’s work, the sequential nature of the comic book format defends a linear reading of the visual narrative.  As Will Brooker (2005: 272) observes:

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Bolland’s artwork is in the traditional comics mould, built around detailed pen lines and solid blacks.  Sometimes criticised as stilted, his figure-drawing tends towards the static, frozen moment even when characters are in movement, and he relies on ‘speed lines’ to convey action.  There is no ambiguity about the content of each frame, and the art is contained within strict panel grids.

Thus, McKean’s approach to Arkham Asylum subverts the cognitive and structural certainty of the comic book format in such a way that resonates profoundly with Morrison’s thematic concerns regarding the false dichotomy between the rational and the irrational.  Despite the comic book’s traditional inclination towards clear and concise spatial and visual representation, McKean co-opts traditional reading precepts so as to challenge the reader’s traditionally linear reading paradigms and thereby problematize spatial representation.

In her narratological analysis of spatial constructs in literature, Marie-Laure Ryan (2009: 428) asserts that «when topography is of prime importance for the logic of the plot, as it may be in detective fiction, the limitations of language as a medium of spatial representation can be remediated by a graphic map of the narrative world».  Such graphics are intended «to spare the reader the effort of building a cognitive map, thereby facilitating the mental visualizations that produce immersion».  McKean’s spatial representations of the asylum, however, seemingly revel in their vertiginous structural complexities.  Consequently, any sense of immersion comes from the reader’s concentrated efforts to formulate a reliable cognitive map of the narrative space.  In this sense, both Batman and the reader of Arkham are trapped by their very efforts to hold the narrative, investigative and exploratory lines that Morrison and McKean intentionally obfuscate.  

Thus, in problematizing the reader’s traditionally linear passage through the text, Morrison and McKean set the reader up as a detective-esque counterpart to the caped-crusader turned master-sleuth.  As Batman is tested, so too is the reader.  On the subject of the challenges of interpretation as it pertains to the fantastic, Roger Fowler (Cornwell, 1990: 25) notes that «the reader has to make sense of the content by reconstructing it as a world which is plausible in terms of the world he knows. (Or, in the case of the fantastic, related to “our” world by systematic transformations) ».  Human perception is the bedrock of the fantastic, the fantastic depends upon «the reader’s ability to recognise a commonly acknowledged, or normal, world and to recognise descriptions as pertaining to, or failing to pertain to, normal conditions» (Apter, 1982: 111).  In his function as the reasoned detective, Batman adopts this reconstructive readerly role.  Any attempted reconciliation of the otherness of the Asylum with the natural, logical plausibility of the real world is, however, constantly taken to task in Arkham Asylum.  From the very outset of his journey through the asylum, Batman’s ability to recognize and reconcile any deviations «from the norm» (Apter, 1982: 111) is called into question.

Consequently, Batman strives to maintain a sense of ontological separation from the otherness of the asylum.  These efforts, I argue, are not unlike the reader’s assumed ontological distance from the fantastic text.  This assumption of distance is evinced in the word-association game that Batman is subjected to upon his arrival at the asylum. Initially, Batman attempts to draw a sharp line of distinction between the tangible and the abstract, the world and the text, by rejecting the affective potential of the word; «Go ahead, Dr Adams.  I’m not afraid.  It’s just words» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).  Before long, however engaging in the word-association game stirs up Batman’s/Bruce Wayne’s traumatic past; the cold-blooded murder of his mother and father during an attempted robbery of a pearl necklace; «Mother.  Pearl.  Handle.  Revolver.  Gun.  Father. Death. End.  Stop.  Stop» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).  The word association game becomes indicative of the means by which the fantastic narrative undermines ontological separation through the coercion of the reader’s referential codes and personal ontological horizons.  Thus, Arkham Asylum carries an implicit, textually-embedded warning that in assuming oneself to be above the otherness of the fantastic, one runs the risk of being destroyed by it.  

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«Mother.  Pearl.  Handle.  Revolver.  Gun.  Father. Death. End.  Stop.  Stop» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).

In many ways, this warning echoes the thematic underpinnings of Borges’ «Death and the Compass».  Indeed, Batman’s coerced movements through the halls of Arkham Asylum share significant parallels with the doomed investigation of Detective Erik Lönnrot, the staunchly rational gumshoe of Borges’ metaphysical detective story.  On the nature of the metaphysical detective genre, Patricia Merivale (1998: 103) elucidates; «a metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions […] with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot».  In its similarly subversive and self-reflexive nature, Arkham Asylum represent a contemporary remediation of the metaphysical detective story, a genre with strong roots in Borges’ opus.  

Borges’ description of Detective Lönnrot as a «pure reasoner, an Auguste Dupin» (2000, 106) situates the character within the same heritage of hyper-rational detectives to which Batman also belongs.  Like Batman, Detective Lönnrot could also be said to function as a textually-embedded representation of the reader figure.  Lönnrot’s investigative troubles are, therefore, indicative of the problematics of the reader’s interpretive and exploratory tasks within the fantastic narrative.  That is, the reader finds him/herself in a similar position to that of Lönnrot, whose analytical rigour and unwavering belief in deductive reasoning sees him lost in his own attempts to straighten the perverse narrative line of his investigation; «here we have a dead Rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation, not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber» (Borges, 2000: 107).

On the futility of Lönnrot’s investigation, Adrian Gargett (2002: 95) points out that the detective «is fated to enter Scharlach’s infernal symmetrical design, to meet his destiny wandering forever through some infinite eternal landscape».  Similarly, Batman is locked into what the Joker refers to as «a nice little game of hide and seek» (2014: np), the improvised rules of which are in a constant state of flux.  Thus, both Batman and Lönnrot find themselves at the mercy of the traps constructed by their criminal opponents in such a way that evokes Robert Rawdon Wilson’s concept of the godgame. According to Wilson (1982: 6-7), «a godgame occurs in literature when one or more characters creates an illusion, a mazelike sequence of false accounts that entraps another character».  The relationship between the entrapped character and games-master not only shares significant parallels with the detective-criminal dynamic of both narratives, but is also evocative of the reader’s relationship with the fantastic.  That is, the investigative plights of Batman and Detective Lönnrot echo the reader’s interpretive uncertainties when faced with the «cunningly opaque strategies» (Wilson, 1982: 8) of the fantastic narrative.

Thus, the godgames constructed by the Joker and Red Scharlach not only reveal a strong thematic parallel that runs through both narratives, they are also indicative of the ways in which the fantastic narrative often works against the reader by challenging both his/her perceived ontological distance from the text and subverting his/her interpretational precepts.  As Olsen (1987: 30-31) suggests in relation to the transcendental fantastic fictions of Borges, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet:

At every turn in the labyrinths she [the reader] discovers the texts thwart her stock responses concerning narratibility.  Every sentence is filled with data, but someone like Borges seldom interprets the ‘clues’ for his reader, and Kafka and Robbe-Grillet never do.  Nothing works for the reader.  Everything seems to work against her.

Such readerly frustrations become embedded in the fates of Batman and Detective Lönnrot. The latter manages to straighten the narrative line, but is killed in the act; «it is true that Erik Lönnrot failed to prevent the last murder, but that he foresaw it is indisputable» (Borges, 2000: 106).  The former survives his interpretive journey, but is marked by the inescapable otherness of the experience.  Indeed, Batman is unable to permanently resolve the ontological and psychological discord of the asylum.  The Joker further reinforces this deferral of resolution in his final insistence that there will always be a place for him at the asylum «if things get too tough» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np). 

Having now established the dual roles of Batman and Detective Lönnrot as both ill-fated slaves to rational order and as avatars for interpretively-frustrated readers of the fantastic, we turn our attention to both the Joker and Red Scharlach in their roles as fantastically-inflected symbols of otherness.


Of present interest are the ways in which both the Joker and Red Scharlach seek to disrupt the detectives’ – and by implication, the reader’s – perceived ontological distance from otherness, manifest in both narratives as deviance and criminality.  Doing so allows us to explore both criminals’ roles as both counterpoints to the staunch rationality of Batman and Detective Lönnrot, and as functional analogues of the fantastic element as a socio-cultural other.  

Both Batman and Detective Lönnrot come to represent players caught in the godgames of their respective criminals.  By implication, both the Joker and Red Scharlach adopt the role of what Wilson refers to as the «artifex ludens»; the games wright or games master. At every turn the investigative, and thereby interpretational, endeavours of Batman and Detective Lönnrot are frustrated by the machinations of their respective «artifex ludens».  Such machinations are evinced in the Joker’s maniacal game of hide and seek; «now Batman.  Run.  The Game ends at midnight! Run! Run! » (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np), and Red Scharlach’s fatal manipulation of Lönnrot’s intellectual and investigative zeal; «I knew that you would make the conjecture that the Hasidim had sacrificed the rabbi; I set myself the task of justifying that conjecture» (Borges, 2000: 116).  

These instances of manipulation through the construction of vertiginous and potentially fatal godgames undermines the concept of separation and otherness through an attempt to merge, or otherwise level, the ontological playing field.  Joker’s suggestion that Batman, locked in the asylum, is «in the real world now» (2014: np) suggests just such an instance of ontological merging.  Likewise, in his own additional commentary on «Death and the Compass», Borges (1971: 269) suggests that «the killer and the slain, whose minds work in the same way, may be the same man».  The Joker’s continuous references to Batman’s rightful place in the asylum, together with Borges’ suggestion that Lönnrot and Red Scharlach may well be one and the same man, offer a continual reminder of the ontologically disruptive effects of the literary fantastic.  On this concept of ontological merging in Borges, Gargett (2002: 95) suggests:

Borges’s fictions grow out of the intense confrontation between the text and an exterior narrative which is not only a central problem in literature but also in human experience – the problem of illusion and reality.  We are concomitantly writers/readers/protagonists in a continuous eternal narrative.  We construct personal illusions, attempt to interpret the symbols around us, but ultimately find all efforts frustrated – and yet in this mournful defeat there can come a glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails at our expense.

These concepts of personal illusion, interpretive frustration and higher understanding are not only vital to the understanding of Lönnrot’s fatal predicament at the hands of Red Scharlach, but are also indicative of Batman’s plight in the asylum.  That is, the Joker, in his role as «artifex ludens», serves not only to frustrate Batman’s interpretive and investigative endeavours, but also to challenge Batman’s self-constructed personal illusions, manifest primarily in his perceived separation from otherness.  This illusion of separation comes in the form of Batman’s construction of a duel identity as both vigilante crime-fighter and as orphaned, millionaire philanthropist, Bruce Wayne.  From the outset of the graphic novel, this self-conscious, self-imposed separation of Batman and Bruce Wayne is called into question:

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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.
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And I’m afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates…when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me…it’ll be just like coming home. (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np)

This fear of destabilization is further compounded by the Joker’s taunts once Batman has entered the asylum.  Following one inmate’s suggestion that Batman’s mask be removed in order to reveal his true identity, the Joker responds in such a way that challenges the very possibility of any such duality: «Oh, don’t be so predictable for Christ’s sake!  That is his real face» (2014: np).  The Joker’s attempts to merge or otherwise disrupt such ontological separations set him up as something of an anthropomorphized manifestation of the fantastic.  Like the fantastic, the Joker problematizes the ontological «othering» (Camp et al, 2010: 145) of prevalent referential and sociocultural codes through an insistence on a shared ontological space; madness.  

While the present discussion does not simply attempt to equate the fantastic with mental illness it does strive to underline the mutual, socio-culturally contingent otherness of both concepts.  Both the fantastic and madness operate outside typical socio-cultural boundaries; both represent a perceptible attack on the apparent rationalism of the so-called civilized world.  In this sense, both madness and the fantastic exist as «others» in a society of unwavering, self-perpetuating myths and referential codes.  Seen through such a lens, the Joker’s perceived insanity is merely the product of a collective inability to face the inherent otherness of human existence.  The Joker, I argue, seeks to subvert or otherwise co-opt this sense of otherness.   

The literary fantastic represents a similarly subversive project.  Rosemary Jackson (1981: 3-4), for instance, insists that «fantastic literature points to or suggests the basis upon which cultural order rests, for it opens up, for a brief moment, on to disorder, on to illegality, on to that which lies outside the law, that which is outside dominant value systems».  Thus, just as the Batman of Arkham Asylum fights all that which lies outside such dominant value systems, and thereby comes to embody the staunch rationality of the sane individual, the Joker comes to represent the antithesis of just such a rational construct.  The Joker becomes a symbol of disorder, deviance and illegality.  He becomes a mascot of otherness.  Like the fantastic itself, the Joker and his fellow inmates resonate with what Jackson (1981: 121) refers to as the shadows «on the edges of bourgeois culture»; «black, mad, primitive, criminal, socially deprived, deviant, crippled, or (when sexually assertive) female».  Such shadows can be easily equated to the inmates of the Asylum.  Hence Morrison’s comments on Clayface.  Found in the comic’s accompanying script, Clayface is described as both a personification of the AIDS virus and as a symbolization of Batman’s fear of sexuality:

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As with the other villains, Clayface is being given a slightly different portrayal than usual.  He is seen here as an avatar of filth and corruption, the personification of pestilence and infection, whose impure touch carries instant contagion.  Alert readers will perceive him as AIDS on two legs and realise that he represents the fear of what lies beyond the curtain in the tunnel of love. (2014: 36)

However, while each of the inmates comes to embody some form of demonized otherness, the Joker is unique not only in his constant desire to level the ontological playing field through a destabilization of the boundaries that – both consciously and unconsciously – perpetuate this very otherness, but also in his notoriously erratic, unpredictable yet undoubtedly self-aware behaviour.  Such qualities make the Joker the perfect conduit through which we can approach the contemporary literary fantastic as is it manifest in Arkham Asylum.  Citing Erik Rabkin, Greg Bechtel (2004: 144) effectively outlines the necessarily unpredictable nature of the contemporary fantastic, suggesting that «pure» fantasy «must repeatedly contradict itself, consistently rejecting any single, fixed narrative reality».  Such an emphasis on the inherent unpredictability and constant self-contradiction of the fantastic not only offers a valuable qualification of Todorov’s original theorizations, it also resonates profoundly with the Joker’s characteristically erratic behaviour.  Let us consider, by way of elucidation, both Morrison’s literary treatment of the Joker’s protean nature and McKean’s similarly amorphous visual representations.  

Morrison’s vision of the Joker’s dangerous unpredictability is made clear in the analyses of Arkham Asylum’s psychotherapist, Dr Adams:

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It’s quite possible we may actually be looking at some kind of super-sanity here. A brilliant new modification of human perception more suited to urban life at the end of the twentieth century.  Unlike you and I, the Joker seems to have no control over the sensory information he’s receiving from the outside world.  He can only cope with that chaotic barrage of input by going with the flow.  That’s why some days he’s a mischievous clown, others a psychopathic killer.  He has no real personality.  He creates himself each day.  He sees himself as the Lord of Misrule, and the world as a theatre of the absurd. (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np)

The Joker’s super-sanity seeks to instil epistemological insecurity by holding a mirror to rationality, it forces Batman and the reader alike to question the a priori nature of personal experience.  In the words of the Joker himself; «how do you measure madness? Not with rods and wheels and clocks, surely? » (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np). For Morrison, then, the Joker comes to represent the fluid and unpredictable nature of the literary fantastic.  

On the visually nebulous nature of the Joker, Brooker (2005: 272) observes how McKean’s visual representation of the character, «all swirling fluorescent hair and gleaming white face, remains a blur who refuses to be pinned down».  He continues; «McKean’s abandon with different materials, styles and visual references suggests anarchy rather than control».  McKean’s artistic representation offers a strong visual corollary to Morrison’s treatment of the Joker as an inherently unknowable force; a volatile otherness that operates beyond the limits of collective understanding.

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«McKean’s abandon with different materials, styles and visual references suggests anarchy rather than control»

The Joker, then, in his role as an anthropomorphized fantastic force, echoes the «elusive» and «ultimately unknowable» (Collins & Pearce, 1985: 28) nature of truth.  The inherent unknowability of the Joker’s «super-sanity» represents a strong thematic and philosophical analogue of the Borgesian fantastic as a volatile and often paradoxical force that reflects the «absolutely indecipherable and utterly unstable» (Olsen, 1987: 31) nature of literature.  In this way, the Joker becomes a reflection of the postmodern fantastic text as it, in turn, comes to represent «an act of aesthetic, metaphysical, and political revolution that is designed to throw the reader into epistemological discomfort» (1987: 31).  

Thus, despite the efforts of Batman and Lönnrot to straighten, or at the very least hold, the investigative line, both detectives find themselves trapped by the interpretive and ontological vertigo produced by the godgames of the Joker and Red Scharlach.  This sense of vertigo is further compounded by the structural labyrinths in which both detectives find themselves lost.  To borrow form Wilson (1982: 19) once again, the labyrinth «perplexes straightness; it bends directions, in the inescapable fusion of illusion and impasse, and involutes the empty potential of space».  Of present interest, then, are the labyrinthine qualities of both Arkham Asylum and the Triste-le-Roy villa.


In the case of Arkham Asylum, Morrison’s original script elucidates on the structural complexities and narrative significance of the madhouse:

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The construction of the story was influenced by the architecture of a house – the past and the tale of Amadeus Arkham forms the basement levels.  Secret passages connect ideas and segments of the book.  There are upper stories of unfolding symbol and metaphor.  We are also referencing sacred geometry, and the plan of the Arkham House was based on the Glastonbury Abbey and Chartres cathedral. (2014: 2)

In the case of Borges’ «Death and the Compass», the Triste-le-Roy villa – the site of Lönnrot’s murder – is described in terms of its vertiginous and labyrinthine repetitions. We are told of how «viewed from anear, the house of the villa of Triste-le-Roy abounded in pointless symmetries and in maniacal repetitions: to one Diana in a murky niche corresponded a second Diana in another niche; one balcony was reflected in another balcony; double stairways led to double balustrades» (Borges, 2000: 113).  Both Batman’s and Detective Lönnrot’s frustrated exploration of their respective labyrinths further attest to their desire to straighten the narrative line, to rationalize that which they do not immediately understand, and to maintain their perceived separation from the otherness in which they find themselves engulfed.  In short, both the asylum and the villa house the detectives’ personal confrontations with the fantastic; they both represent topographical structures of otherness.  Olsen (1987: 31) suggests that the detective genre is particularly replete with such topographically-inflected interpretive frustrations:

«Meaning» seems to exist, but it is just up the next flight of stairs, just through the next dark doorway, just on the next page.  Often, therefore, the operative form of postmodern fantasy becomes the detective story which has been perverted through deferredness so that the centre of the text comes into focus only through the characters’ and the readers’ inability to achieve it.  «Meaning» is contained in the failure to achieve «meaning».

Thus, the labyrinthine architectural makeup of both the asylum and the villa, their maze-like corridors and lurking threats make them the perfect structural analogue to the fantastic project as it is manifest in both narratives.  In the case of Arkham Asylum, there are numerous references to the asylum’s tethering to «that other world’» a world of «fathomless signs and portents», «of magic and terror» (2014: np).  Similarly, the numerous symmetries and repetitions of the Triste-le-Roy villa come to represent topographically-inflected fantastic forces that ultimately instil a sense of situational and ontological vertigo.  As Lönnrot ponders; «the house is not this large […]. Other things are making it seem larger: the dim light, the symmetry, the mirrors, so many years, my unfamiliarity, the loneliness» (Borges, 2000: 114).

While the concrete, architectural make-up of both the asylum and the villa are evidence enough to suggest their vertiginous complexity, their true analytical value lies in their ability to produce an internal unrest in both detectives.  That is, the contested and vertiginous spaces of both the asylum and the villa produce an introspective discomfort in Batman and Detective Lönnrot.  In doing so, both spaces come to represent what Wilson refers to as «strong labyrinths».  According to Wilson (1982: 12), «strong labyrinths have no shape at all, at least no necessary shape.  They are the purely conceptual mind-mazes of literature, corridors of doubt, passageways of perplexity, forking paths of decision that underline godgames, giving structure but not receiving it».

The investigative and introspective journeys of Batman and Detective Lönnrot are tantamount to their desire to overcome the corridors of doubt, passageways of perplexity, and forking paths of decision that their respective labyrinths – structurally and introspectively – come to represent.  The physical, intellectual and psychological challenges they both face in attempting to do so are indicative of the unknowable, fantastic otherness of such structures.  Both the asylum and the villa seemingly resist any interpretation or orientation that relies upon traditional referential codes or illusions of ontological distance.  Instead, both structures represent contested spaces wherein a game of reason versus unreason is constantly played out.  The late Amadeus Arkham’s decision to turn his childhood home into an asylum for the criminally insane is further indication of just such an interplay; «I will bring light to those dismal corridors of my childhood, I will open up the locked doors and fill the empty rooms.  And set above it all an image of the triumph of reason over the irrational» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).  

The war of attrition perpetrated upon the rational is manifest in the gradual destruction of the statue of St. Michael during Batman’s final confrontation with Croc.  The analytical merit of this confrontation resides in its obvious symbolic corollaries with the story of St. Michael’s war in heaven, wherein the Archangel leads an army of angels to defeat Satan, the Great Dragon.  In many ways, Croc comes to represent Arkham Asylum’s very own «Great Dragon»; «somewhere, not far away, the dragon hauls its terrible weight through the corridors of the asylum» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).  By implication, Batman’s victory over Croc using the lance from the St. Michael statue tentatively suggests a final victory of reason over unreason.  As Giddens (2015: 412) suggests:

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In his fight against Croc, and in his broader fight against the forces of unreason that populate the Asylum of his unconsciousness, Batman is allied with the figure of St. Michael, the warrior angel of Heaven, leading the charge against the armies of Satan and evil.  But this subduing of the forces of evil symbolised by St Michael in configured in Arkham Asylum not just as the triumph of goodness, of heaven over hell, but […] of reason over the irrational.

And yet, Batman is doubtless changed as a result of this confrontation.  Both Croc and Batman are simultaneously pierced by the same lance.  As Giddens (2015: 413) deftly points out, «the linking via the spear is a visceral emanation of the broader epistemological process that is happening throughout Arkham Asylum, the meeting of law with its denied dimensions, of reason with madness».  To this «broader epistemological process» of which Giddens speaks I would add the textually-embedded confrontation between the rational everyday and the otherness of the fantastic.  Thus, the function of the asylum as a fantastic space of contestation further reinforces the concept of ontological merging through the literalization of just such a process.  For a brief moment, the ontological territories of reason and unreason are linked in the violent and visceral collision between Batman and Croc; «I must have fainted then, for it is morning when I next open my eyes.  No longer able to tell where the dragon ended.  And I began» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).

This brief, «mutual contamination» (Ryan, 2006: 206) doubtless echoes certain instances within the Borgesian project.  That is, there are obvious ties here between Morrison’s treatment of the asylum as a site of fleeting ontological interpenetration and the philosophical quandaries that pervade Borges’ oeuvre. «Partial Magic in the Quixote», for instance, ruminates on this same possibility of the temporary merging of two distinct ontological territories:

Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights?  Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator in Hamlet?  I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of the fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. (Borges, 2000: 231)

Despite the ephemeral nature of these fantastically-induced moments of contact, both Arkham Asylum and «Death and the Compass» end on the suggestion of the irresolvable and infinitely recurring nature of the fantastic.  Moments before his death, Detective Lönnrot attempts to resolve the labyrinthine nature of his plight and straighten the interpretive line once and for all.  In doing so, however, he merely enters a hypothetical labyrinth of his own design:

«In your labyrinth there are three lines too many, » he said at last.  «I know of one Greek labyrinth which is a single straight line.  Along that line so many philosophers have lost themselves that a mere detective might well do so too.  Scharlach, when in some other incarnation you hunt me, pretend to commit (or do commit) a crime at A, then a second crime at B, eight kilometres from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometres from A and B, half-way between the two.  Wait for me afterwards at D, two kilometres from A and C, again halfway between both.  Kill me at D, as you are now going to kill me at Triste-le-Roy. » (Borges, 2000: 117)

Likewise, throughout Arkham Asylum there are numerous suggestions that the Joker has always been a part of the labyrinthine and contested structures of the house-turned-asylum.  Even the second narrative, charting Amadeus Arkham’s gradual descent into madness, is marked by the Joker’s presence.  Both the Joker card and the Japanese Clown fish appear before Amadeus, producing an «inexplicable frisson of déjà vu» (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).  Batman too, we come to realize, has always held a place in the asylum.  The story concludes with a final entry from Amadeus’ diary revealing both the trigger for his mother’s suicide and his own subsequent madness; the symbol of the bat:

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«But God help me I see it.  I see the thing that has haunted and tormented my poor mother all these long years.  I see it.  And it is a bat!  A bat! » (Morrison & McKean, 2014: np).

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In Arkham Asylum, then, we discover a contemporary re-examination of the philosophical, ontological and epistemological ruminations of Jorge Luis Borges’ forays into the metaphysical detective genre.  My analysis of these mutual concerns not only defends the comic book’s position in the vast literary trajectory of the fantastic, but also celebrates its somewhat singular analytical capital.  That is, over the course of this article, I have argued that the comic book, owing to its generically and culturally liminal nature, represents a particularly effective vector for the contemporary fantastic and its constant destabilization of ontological hierarchies and reader-author-text dynamics. Thus, what we see in Arkham Asylum is not a simple re-articulation of Borges’ philosophical quandaries, but an attempt to shed a new investigative light on such quandaries via the comic book’s singular visual and aesthetic capabilities.  As such, the comic book offers a visual and spatial literalization of Borges’s topographically-inflected approach to the metaphysical fantastic.  Ultimately, Arkham Asylum’s fantastic project succeeds in visually compounding Borges’ destabilization of the reader’s sense safety and perceived ontological separateness from the text.  

As I have discussed, Batman undergoes a process of self-doubt as his sense of epistemic and ontological integrity is challenged by the inherent otherness of the asylum and its inmates.  This doubt is echoed in the reader, who is forced not only to confront his/her paradigmatically linear methods of interpretation, but must also attempt to resolve the fantastic elements of the narrative with his/her tradition-laden and socio-culturally contingent referential codes and epistemic horizons.  Moreover, the Joker’s indecipherability and volatile instability offers a textually-embedded consideration of the fantastic project and the challenges it presents to the reader’s attempts at resolution and reconciliation.  These thematic, ideological and philosophical convergences with Borges’ «Death and the Compass» are not only a testament to the comic book’s potential as a viable vessel for fantastically-inflected intellectual and philosophical inquiry, but are also indicative of the ways in which Borges’ metaphysical fantastic project continues to dialogue with contemporary cultural outputs and philosophical fascinations.

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