A guy came up to me at the San Diego comics convention a few years ago angrily brandishing a copy of BATMAN: SHADOW OF THE BAT #1 in his hand. “You ripped this off from Silence of the Lambs!” he accused.
I’d certainly heard of Silence of the Lambs – the media was full of it around the time this took place. But I pointed out that I’d never read Thomas Harris’ book nor seen Jonathan Demme’s film version. He was surprised. “You haven’t? Why not?” “Well, for the same reason I’ve never seen Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Marathon Man. Basically, I’m too squeamish.”
I’ve written Judge Dredd, brutal lawman of the future, for fifteen years. I’ve written Bamtan, GOtham City’s obsessed vigilante, on a monthly basis for seven years. I’ve written LOBO, DC’s perfecto demento Main Man, for six years. So this guy wasn’te entirely convinced that I couldn’t stand the thought of violence of the sight of blood, and that dead rabbits in the road make me physically ill. “Oh yeah? So if it wasn’t from Silence, where did you get the idea for SHADOW?”
We were in upstate New York on one of our biannual Batman retreats, planning future stories, continuity, annuals and one-shots. Batman maestro Dennis O’Neil, never one to stand on ceremony, began the meeting briskly. “We want to publish another regular Batman comic. Alan–you’ll be the writer. Norm–you’re the artist. Anybody have any good ideas for a title?”
Doub Moench and I did, and so SHADOW OF THE BAT was born. We needed a new angle for the comic–BATMAN monthly ran the regular continuity stories, DETECTIVE COMICS was more “what Batman did on his nights off from the monthly” and LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT focused on events in our hero’s past. So what would be different about SHADOW? The title provided it: the shadow of the Bat would fall on various heroes or villains, putting someone new under the spotlight in each story arc.
Who’d be first? Natural choice was Batman’s one true nemesis, The Joker. But he had recently starred in the ROBIN miniseries and we didn’t want to overexpose him. The other members of Batman’s rich Rogues Gallery–Penguin, Two-Face, Catwoman, Riddler and so on–somehow didn’t seem individually strong enough to carry off the first four-issue storyline in a new comic. We needed a “new” classic villain–not the easiest of characters to create when you’re up against fifty-five years of continuity.
If memory serves, it was DC President Jenette Kahn, who often sat in on our meetings, who came up with the answer. “Arkham Asylum” would be the villain of the piece, meaning that we could use all the incarcerated villains that we chose, as well as reestablishing a new asylum and curator in the wake of the best-selling Grant Morrison/Dave McKean graphic novel, ARKHAM ASYLUM: A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH.
I started to read up on the Asylum and was amazed to find its first appearance had been in 1980, in BATMAN #326, I could have sworn that I read Arkham stories when I was a kid. I’d have bet good money that I saw Arkham in the 60s TV series. A peculiar thing, the human mind, reaching back to plug gaps in the past with false memories…
Twenty-five winters ago I dated a psychology student at Dundee University, Scotland. Because of her workload and my financial hardship, we spent many unromantic but warm afternoons together in her college library. While she studied, I browsed. I edged past dry textbooks, which I skimmed but never actually read. One slim pamphlet stood out from the rest–Superstition in the Common Pigeon by, if I remember right, the behaviorist B.F. Skinner.
Here’s how it worked: wait till a pigeon is walking past a recognizable landmark, then give it a severe shock. [As a vegetarian I prefer to think the experimenter jumped out and said “Boo!” rather than juiced it with current.] For the next few days the pigeon will be extra wary when passing that landmark, as the memory of that shock lingers. Then, on the third day, when the pigeon is starting to forget its antipathy to the spot, give it a second shock. For the rest of its life, the pigeon will do its best to avoid that landmark–even if it never receives another shock. The experimenters had produced the equivalent of a superstition in a creature not renowed for its glittering mind (though they’re really good at homing).
Skinner’s point was that thought/mind was little more than an irrelevance. He maintained that only an organism’s behavior matters: change the behavior, and the mind will follow.
Though Behaviorism has been largely discredited since then, that thought has always stuck with me. I knew I’d use it in a story one day. “The Last Arkham” is the belated result.
The irate fan was almost mollified. “So what about the villain, Mr. Zsasz? Where did he come from?” Another of the books I read in that college library. The Myth of Mental Illness, by Thomas M Szasz. Note the similarity in name?
That was the clincher. We ended up having coffee and pizza together, talking crazy comics for an hour. I’ve forgotten his name, but if he’s bought this trade paperback edition and is reading this now–Irate Fan, it’s dedicated to you!