Looking Glasses:

Sexual Dangers and Curious Responses in Carroll’s Alice Books and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Part One

The seminal Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, by writer Grant Morrison and artist Dave McKean, recontextualizes the themes and the motifs of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There to suggest the sexual anxieties of the Batman character and the “dangerous” queerness of his mad villains. The anxieties in Arkham Asylum mirror the anxiety surrounding female puberty ubiquitous in Carroll’s texts. Both the graphic novel and Carroll’s Alice books make extensive use of ideas and images of food and eating to represent irrational and insane sexual urges, as well as language and speech to represent psychosexual maturation and truth. This paper will explore how sexuality is represented in these texts, specifically in relation to madmen, women, puberty, food, and speech. Finally, this paper will explore how both Batman and Alice each eventually accept their respective sexualities, and the strikingly disparate tones Arkham Asylum and Carroll’s Alice books exhibit when expressing these changes – Morrison’s tone being one of hope, and Carroll’s one of loss.

Carroll’s Alice books and the mythology of Batman have been long associated, references to the Alice books having been made in Batman comics as early as 1939, the same year Batman debuted. Characters from the Alice books are typically transformed in Batman comics into villains, the most prominent example being the Mad Hatter (1948). Other Wonderland / Looking-Glass inspired villains include Tweedledee and Tweedledum (1943), the Queen of Hearts (1991), Humpty Dumpty (2004), the Wonderland Gang (including the Carpenter, the Walrus and others) (2008), and the White Rabbit (2011). Other villains, such as the Joker (1940) and the Royal Flush Gang (1966), are often portrayed with motifs relating to Alice in Wonderland characters.

These emblematic villains bring into the Batman universe different kinds of sexual queerness – not merely non-normative kinds of sexuality, some kinds of which (such as homosexuality) are often symbolically associated with good within Batman narratives, but rather various kinds of queerness that are destructive – the Mad Hatter’s brainwashing of young girls and pedophilia; Clayface III’s agalmatophili, or love of (female) mannequins, a love which he sometimes forgoes when he feels the urge to touch real human beings, a touch which turns them into clay; Joker’s anarchic and nihilistic egotism, which at times takes the form of a predatory sexuality; Two-Face’s repression of all his rage and aggression, arguably sexual in part; Maxie Zeus’ masturbatory obsession, steaming from his ego and delusional belief that he is a transvestite god who comprises both sexes; and Killer Croc’s vaginal deformation, symbolic for the wet, dark, and ravenous Dragon of legend and religion, representative of  the “danger” and voraciousness of female sexuality. Batman’s relationship to these various mad villains is symbolically indicative of his own psychosexual health. Whether he fears them, relates to them, or defeats them in a story is important in understanding what authors and artists are saying in those texts about Batman’s psychologically and sexuality.

Nowhere is this reading of Batman and his villains more appropriate than when discussing Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum. Morrison says in his comic book script that the Batman in Arkham Asylum is “completely incapable of any kind of sexual relationship”, a man who is “repressed, armoured, uncertain and sexually frozen” (Arkham script 5), though Morrison also states that this “portrayal…is not definitive” and meant only for Arkham Asylum – an important fact that will be touched upon later. In the graphic novel, “the demented and deformed enemies of the Batman” have “taken over the asylum” (AA prologue). Joker explains to Batman that the inmates of Arkham want him “In here with us. In the madhouse. Where you belong” (AA 6). Batman, though resolute in his decision to enter Arkham alone, admits to his friend Commissioner Jim Gordon that he “is afraid that when [he walks] through those asylum gates…it’ll be just like coming home.” (AA 8). The Asylum functions as a symbolic prison for the “demented and deformed” sexual thoughts and urges of the Batman, “a bad dream house” (AA prologue), where Batman imprisons dark desires he has no idea how to cope with.

Within this “bad dream house”, Batman is sexually antagonized again and again by the language of the Joker. His arch-foe repeatedly uses crude and carnal provocative language to upset Batman’s rigid psychological defenses. The Joker addresses the Batman by saying, “Well hello, big boy! How’s it hanging?” (AA 5). Batman’s sexual health is called into question – “How’s it hanging?” – and Joker’s nickname for him – “big boy” – suggests the reason for Batman’s ‘arrested development’ is linked to his childhood. The murder of Batman’s mother when he was a child left him psychologically scared with the belief that “women leave you when you need them most” (AA script 61), making his adult sexual and romantic relationships with women unhealthy and lacking. Joker’s linking of sexuality to childhood calls attention to this fact, and therefore highlighting Batman’s psychological vulnerability.

The Joker also links food to sex, asking Batman “Why don’t you sprinkle some [salt] on me, honey? Aren’t I just good enough to eat?” (AA 12), and telling him “Cheer up, honeypie!” (AA 16). Arkham Asylum repeatedly links food to both sex and madness, not only through the words of the Joker, but also through the inmates’ asylum party. After they take over Arkham, the inmates request the police bring them “food” (AA 5) and have a “Feast of Fools” in the Asylum’s dining area (AA 15), where a dead nurse “hangs by one ankle from the ceiling” and drips blood “onto a tiered wedding cake” (AA script 15). Food is thus linked to sexually provocative and violent actions – particularly towards women – and an essential component for these madmen’s party. This mirrors the role food plays in Carroll’s Alice books, which will be detailed below.

The most shocking moment of Joker’s sexual aggression occurs when the Joker says to Batman, “Loosen up, tight ass!” (AA 14) and grabs his butt. This act breaks “right through all of Batman’s carefully constructed defenses” (AA script 14), forcing him to respond to an overt sexual threat. Their following dialogue reveals some of Batman’s anxieties regarding sexuality:

BATMAN: “Take your filthy hands off me!”

JOKER: “What’s the matter? Have I touched a nerve? How is the boy wonder? Started shaving yet?”

BATMAN: “Filthy degenerate!”

Batman’s response is one of “rage, hatred, and shock” (AA script 14), and his word choices of “filthy” and “degenerate” reveal how sees sexually linked activity as something dirty and those who engage in it as perverted. Also, the Joker again draws attention to Batman’s stunted maturity by referencing Robin (“the boy wonder”). Batman’s choice to spend his time primarily with a young boy suggests he finds more in common with a teenager than with adults.

Batman’s confrontation with Clayface III furthers the notion that Batman’s idea of sexuality is one of something inherently diseased. The third Clayface’s urge for human contact, in spite of the rapid and fatal decay of human flesh which occurs as a result, makes a disturbing metaphor for sexual contact. Clayface himself says that his “skin is sick” and “rotten and seeping” (AA 36). The only relief he can gain is through Batman, whom he tells “Only you can help me” (AA 37) – meaning only touching Batman’s flesh relieve him of his urge. Clayface also  says, “I just want to share my disease”, to which Batman screams “Don’t touch me!” in response (AA 37) and brutally kicks the diseased man down.

Here again a Batman foe sparks in the Dark Knight a fear of sex – in this case, the fear of sex as something impure and pestilent. Clayface’s attempt to engage with Batman so that he may appease his need for contacting human flesh augments Batman’s fears greatly. Because he is a potential contributor to Clayface’s deadly cravings, Batman implicitly becomes a part of the very dynamic which he so fears. In other words, Batman’s ability to give Clayface the pleasure he needs makes him a part of the very thing which he is most afraid of – sexual activity.

Turning to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, we find that Alice is similarly threatened by symbolic manifestations of her sexual self. In Alice’s case, sexual development repeatedly threatens her in the forms of bizarre changes in size, the effects of her eating and drinking. The fantastical and absurd worlds Alice enters in these books exist as transitory spaces, places where Alice transitions from child to pre-teen or teenager through the transformations she undergoes within. Alice constantly contends with the surprising and unknown effects of food and the nonsensical language she encounters in these two realms, which place her in sometimes perilous circumstances. Alice does eventually master her intake of food and its effects, and thus symbolically gains control of her newfound  sexuality that she has discovered in these absurd realities.

Immediately upon Alice’s arrival in Wonderland, our child protagonist desires a physical change to her body: “how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only knew how to begin” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 13). She wishes this so that she can “wander among the beds of bright flowers (AAW 12), because she cannot fit into the small opening leading to the garden. Alice discovers that eating and drinking changes her body size – but none of these changes enable her to enter the garden. She becomes too big to fit into the garden door’s keyhole but too small to get the key she needs to open its door, and then becomes too big to fit through the door altogether. These effects occur after Alice finds “a little bottle” with “a paper label, with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters” (AAW 13), which shrinks her “ten inches high” (AAW 14), and later when she finds “a very small cake, on which the words EAT ME were beautifully marked” (AAW 14), which causes her to “open out like the largest telescope that ever was!” (AAW 16).

While it is primarily Batman’s foes who represent the ‘dangers’ of his repressed sexual side, for Alice it is eating and drinking that symbolically represents her own sexuality. Eating and sex have long been closely linked, both long “seen as equally productive and reproductive” endeavors “in traditional agrarian societies” (Garnsey 9), and as natural urges linked together in the “foundation myth of the Garden of Eden” (Garnsey 95). The forbidden fruit ushers “sin into the world, sin of the gut, of the groin, and of the soul” (Genesis 3:17, Garnsey 95), humankind’s unchecked appetite leading to disaster. Alice’s own discovery of provocative food and drink in Wonderland (provoking her with written commands to “EAT ME” or “DRINK ME”) leads to drastic and barely controllable changes in her body. Like Batman’s foes, these changes prove threatening: upon shrinking again, she ends up “in the pool of tears she had wept when she was nine feet high” (AAW 20). She regrets her tears, saying, “I shall be punished for [crying] now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears!” (AAW 21). Young Alice’s changes in size brought upon by food are clearly emblematic of the sexual and developmental changes children undergo in puberty, which can often seem frightening.

Alice again finds herself in similar trouble when she drinks out of a bottle, hoping “it’ll make me grow large again” (AAW 32). Instead, she grows so big inside the house she is in that she is forced to “put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney”, becoming “very uncomfortable” and “unhappy” (AAW 32). Alice is attacked by the White Rabbit and Bill the Lizard, who first attempt to remove her, then plan to “burn the house down!” (AAW 36), and finally begin pelting her with “little pebbles” (AAW 36). Eating and drinking puts Alice in several life-threatening situations, and thus Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland symbolically situates Alice’s own sexuality as extremely dangerous to her.

Alice eventually learns to control her eating and drinking and use these actions to her own benefit. The beginning of Alice’s control over what food does to her body occurs after she receives a mushroom from the Caterpillar, to whom she had expressed a desire to “be a little larger” (AAW 46). She is told that “One side [of the mushroom] will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter”, and discovers which is which by eating some of one side “to try the effect” (AAW 46). Although she both shrinks and grows incredibly at first, she is finally able to control her size changing to suit her own desire: “she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller, and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height” (AAW 48).

Alice masters her intake of food, thus symbolically mastering her own new and pubescent sexual changes, and becomes able to change her body as she sees fit. When coming across “a little house…about four feet high” Alice is able to nibble “till she had brought herself down to nine inches high” so that she doesn’t “frighten [the house’s residents] out of their wits” (AAW 48). When she comes across “so large a house”, she “nibbled some more of the left-hand bit of mushroom, and raised herself to about two feet high” (AAW 59). Later, she returns to the door leading to the garden she had desired to see, and nibbles “at the mushroom…till she was about a foot high” (AAW 69). Finally she can walk through the garden passage.

Through her mastery of her size changing, Alice is able to obtain access to places of food, her entering the “little house” leading her directly to “a large kitchen” (AAW 52) and the “large” house to the infamous “mad tea party”. She is now in control of her eating and drinking – or sexual – experiences, no longer subject to what before seemed like random changes. But though the effects had been previously uncontrollable, Alice did in fact still “direct them”, as Nina Auerbach states in her essay “A Curious Child” (Auerbach 35). In other words, Alice did attempt to engage in some kind of sexual activity, and could only not control the results of her engagements. Alice has only found a way to control an already existing sexuality, not create it.

Continued in Part Two…

References:

Auerbach, Nina. “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child.” Victorian Studies 17.1 (1973): 31-47. JSTOR. Web.

Boney, Alex. “Grant Morrison, Architecture, and Mythology: Arkham Asylum.” The Comics Journal. Oct. 2010. Web. <http://classic.tcj.com/superhero/guttergeek-column-arkham-asylum/>.

Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ; And, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Ed. Hugh Haughton. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.

Garland, Carina. “Curious Appetites: Food, Desire, Gender and Subjectivity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Texts.” The Lion and the Unicorn 32.1 (2008): 22-39. JSTOR. Web.

Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.

Morrison, Grant, and Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. New York, NY: DC Comics, 2004. Print.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nikolai Fomich is a writer and teacher in Philadelphia. He received his Master of English degree from Rutgers University, where he wrote his thesis in linguistics. His interests include linguistics, literature, comics, film, history, religion, and politics. He has written for several comic sites, including Bleeding Cool, Sequart, and Monkeys Fighting Robots, as well as many other non-comic related news publications. He is currently working on several projects, both academic and creative. His current academic focus is on the use of perspective in early nineteenth century novels. He is also working on a history of DC comics and media, as well as essays on several superheroes. Among his creative projects are The Colorblind Cannibal, Uhuru, and Jimmy Lin. You can follow Nikolai on Twitter @brokenquiver.

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