Batman is called in by Commissioner Gordon for a special problem. The inmates of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane have taken over. Among their many varied demands is the request for Batman's presence. Gordon is not sure they should send him, but Batman is sure he should go. The night will be a test of will and sanity for the Dark Knight.
A parallel story is told--the life of Abraham Arkham, who turned his family home into the Asylum after many tragedies in his life. He becomes a doctor obsessed with curing criminals of their evil. But does he wind up embracing evil himself? The protagonists' (Batman and Arkham) stories have parallel themes--troubled relations with parents, questionable sanity, working with criminals.
Both stories are told in a dark brooding style that emphasizes the insanity of what's going on. A lot of the imagery is primal and significant, like the moon hanging in the sky trapped between towers of the asylum. Morrison drew on many sources, including Tarot cards and Jungian dream imagery. I only know this from the commentary, which is included with the original script in this fifteenth anniversary edition. He also has an enlightening note about how Batman's personality in this book:
I'd also like to stress that the portrayal of Batman presented here is not definitive and is not necessarily how I would write the character otherwise. The repressed, armoured [sic], uncertain and sexually frozen man in ARKHAM ASYLUM was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychopathic. My own later portrayal of Batman in the JLA [Justice League of America] comic was one which emphasized the character's sanity and dignity; in the end, I figured that anyone who had gone so far and been so successful in his quest to avenge his parents' death and to help other people would have ended up pretty much straightened out. Bruce Wayne would only have become conflicted and mentally unstable if he had NOT put on his scary bat-suit and found the perfect outlet for his feelings of rage, guilt and revenge.Batman is pretty uptight and joyless and not quite human. His detachment seems like a hollow facade that keeps him from becoming just another member of the asylum. He might wind up just as crazy as Dr. Arkham did years before. Only his archetypal portrayal brings him ultimate triumph, not his own personality or character. He survives long enough where circumstances shift into his favor and he can take command of the situation after a passive victory.
There are few moments of light and almost no levity in the book, which makes it a tough read. I found the book interesting but not really enjoyable. The script with Morrison's comments is enlightening and made me appreciate it more. But I can't quite recommend it.