Batman essay: Masks, Mirrors and Duality

Batman Arkham Asylum: Masks, Mirrors and Duality-
By Katie Whittle

The graphic novel Batman Arkham Asylum a serious house on serious earth Morrison, G. McKean. D, (2004) DC Comics (Arkham asylum) contains prevalent themes of mirrors, masks and the concept of dual personalities. This essay is a means to explore their importance within the novel and by extension how other media is incorporated into the story. I expect to find that Masks are literally used within the novel as a means to alienate the audience as well as a way to add a supernatural element to the comic, metaphorical masks, and mirrors used as a means to show duality and vulnerability in characters. All three are used within surrealism and within the horror genres; this essay will determine to what extent Arkham Asylum uses these tactics.

Mirrors and masks have very similar cultural connotations and are used for very similar metaphorical meanings in modern media. Both can represent duality (as is a primary use in Arkham Asylum which I will expand upon later), both can represent one’s desire to be an ideal being and both can be used to deceive using disguise. A key scene in Arkham asylum which links the two themes strongly is on pages 32and 33. Batman in this moment of the comic is facing the traumatic death of his parents. When seen in his present form he looks barely human, McKean’s depiction of him is a shadow, a literal bat, but in flashbacks we see the very human Bruce. The panels are lined in a way to contrast the two, in the memory (which begins to take place in the mirror) we see the vulnerable, human child Bruce Wayne; in the present we see the almost disfigured, animalistic Batman. The mask here serves to force the viewer to see Batman in a more threatening light, as well as to accentuate the humanity of the young Bruce. The mirror works in a similar way, embodying the metaphor of duality and acts as a window into Batman’s Psyche and as a key to looking into the past and, later on the future. These combined symbols set the main key for the rest of the novel: The duality of Bruce and Batman.

The literal mask and the metaphorical mask within Arkham asylum work very differently. The most prominent use of the literal mask (and the most important) is Batman’s own mask.

Take Batman (Christian Bale), for instance. His costume functions in three ways: first, to

cover Bruce Wayne’s face, to mask his identity; then to shield his flesh, to mask his vulnerability;

and finally to terrify his enemies, in other words, to mask his humanity. Dudenhoeffer, L. (n/a), Kennesaw State University Masks of Infamy:The About-faces in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

Dudenhoeffer’s analysis of Batman is a more traditional view of how Batman’s mask is used. Although still accurate within the context of the Batman universe, Arkham Asylum’s Batman is much darker and is a much more pessimistic version of this breakdown. Rather than just masking Bruce’s identity, the mask almost seems to consume it. The layout of the mask even looks like Batman’s face is being devoured by a monstrous entity, the ‘mouth’ consuming the top of Bruce’s head and leaving only his jaw. Not only has Bruce become his mask, he is also being destroyed by it. Batman is essentially becoming his mask and thus becomes a beast, dehumanised.

In addition to this, another important way Batman’s mask dehumanises him is through his eyes. At no point in the graphic novel do we see his eyes, they are constantly hidden in shadow, instead we are given full view of his mouth and often his teeth, this re-enforces the bat imagery (bats are associated with blindness and the dark). Eye contact is considered an important part of human interaction, in western culture a lack of eye contact suggests deceptive or untrustworthy behaviour, the lack of visible eyes on Batman’s mask make the reader uneasy and serve to make Batman even more un-relatable and distanced. In short, Batman’s mask is used as a means to make it harder for the audience to see him as fully human; it forcibly makes the reader scared of him, as well as creates a rift between hero and viewer. The mask also, with its ambiguity and connotations of darkness adds the suggestion that Batman is no more stable than the villains he fights.

Throughout the novel Egyptian tarot cards are shown. Egyptians are famous for their death masks, and the tarot represent various gods in their masks. On the final page of the novel the tarot card ‘the moon’ from the Thoth deck is shown prominently.

[on Egyptian death masks]Thus, the deceased would receive the god into himself and, simultaneously retaining his individuality, would become the image of the god..Florenskii, P .A. (1996)Iconostatis. The Conclusion: Egyptian Death mask and the life of the saint, Vladimir’s seminary Press

The Egyptians believed that by dressing their dead in the image of a god, that the dead in death would become the god while retaining their humanity. The Egyptians knew that if they veiled their dead in the essence of a god then they would be safer in the afterlife, much in the same way that if Batman became a bat he would be similarly safer. It’s particularly interesting to note that the god depicted is Anubis. Anubis is primarily in the god of mummification (in this context, the process of turning the body into a god) and his secondary role is weighing the hearts of the dead to decide who is worthy in the afterlife, a task Batman himself takes up metaphorically in his role of a superhero. The design of Batman’s costume is unusual in Arkham Asylum, instead of the traditional Batman costume with the short ears and pale grey and yellow colour scheme, McKean decided to make the ears longer and the costume darker than usual depictions giving an air of similarity between the two. Jackals and Bats are both linked symbolically to death.

In other cultures masks are also seen as a way to tell a story. Voltaic masks for example not only enable the wearer to become the god they represent but also the story they tell. Voltaic masks very rarely represent humans; Zoomorphic masks are more common and instead of only representing one subject matter, they contain symbols which tell a story and icons that represent certain aspects of the village’s life. The wearer essentially becomes the story and the story acts to reassure and remind the community of their origins and gods. The colours, shapes, icons and animals used represent different connotations and stories.

By their continual reference to rigid and coherent code, the masks coordinate human activities into a reassuring and balanced whole, the language of the shapes, the designs, the rhythms, and the colours, confirm the community’s sense of reality and give it control over its own time and its own space. Voltz, M. Voltaic masks, (1982), Cambridge MA, Drama review

In a sense Batman’s mask is used in a similar fashion. To the community of Gotham city his presence and the symbolism of his costume and mask also provide comfort and reassurance of safety. His mask is layered symbolically like the voltaic masks. The colour black, is associated with death, stealth and mystery, the bat is associated with night, death and rebirth, the shape of the mask (and the wings of the cape) could be compared with traditional demon illustrations. The story the mask tells is of Bruce’s own fear of bats.

Pages 15 and 16 show one of the most symbolically telling scenes of the comic, an amalgamation of symbolism and references are on this page (some of which I will be exploring extensively later in the essay) the scene is a chaotic over view of the asylum’s inmates, it is hard to distinguish individuals amongst the chaos. In the centre however, is a man with a bird head, we see him at no other point in the comic. An angel is hanging upside down from a chandelier and script from the Jewish Kabala is scribbled on top of the writing. Speech bubbles are dotted around the page (most filled with rambling) but some with biblical references: father dear father I have to confess, some say God is an insect…, I believe God is in man. The combinations of anthropomorphism and biblical references have similarities with Hieronymus Bosch’s garden of earthly delights (1490), especially with the sense of surrealism and confusion that it creates. The bird masked man in this context represents the hellish world the inmates live in, as well as a direct contrast between the calm dusky scene Batman leaves and the confused nightmarish one he enters. The bird headed man could also be a reference to Max Ernst’s surrealist work Une Semaine De Bonte which also includes bird headed men and women in disjointed realities. The scene is from Batman’s point of view and a way to get the audience to experience the insanity he himself is seeing.

Metaphorical masks also play an important role in Arkham Asylum; their use is throughout the book in various repeated forms. This is described in Jung’s persona archetypes as the Mask Persona.

When we analyse the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at a bottom collective: in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual society as to what a man should appear to be. C. Jung, Year and publication unknown

One of the most prominent uses if the mask persona is the use of a mask of sanity. Two prominent characters, Amadeus Arkham and Cavendish both wear this mask and it is represented visually through lack of clear features in the face (smudging/ distortion) When both characters are going through mentally revealing moments their faces become harder to distinguish working in similar way to Batman’s mask, dehumanising them. In the opening pages we are first introduced to Arkham and his insane mother. On the first page, an adolescent Arkham is seen walking up the stairs to see his mother, text boxes are imposed over the scenes ‘until the night in 1901, when I first caught a glimpse of that other world. The world on the dark side….’ The dark side mentioned here refers to the world of insanity his mother is living in. As Arkham finishes talking, his face is shown as a mirror image staring back at himself distorted. This is a representation of his true self, his equally insane self, living in the ‘darker world’ which is covered by his mask persona. When the young Arkham interacts with his mother there is a stark contrast between how their faces are shown. Her face is clear and all her features are clearly defined. While she is insane, this is her true self with no mask, Arkham’s face in contrast is darkly shadowed and miscoloured, implying his own self denial. Later in the book it is revealed that he eventually killed his own mother and this mask is a sign of what’s to come. As the book progresses, Arkham’s face is shown in different ways. When keeping up the pretence of normality his face is hard to see, heavily blurred or shown as demonic and skull like, it is not until later in the book when he embraces his own insanity, that the audience clearly see his unmasked visage
Cavendish is shown in a similar way, although as an audience we do not know he has gone insane until the end of the book however there are visual clues when Batman is first introduced to him. Cavendish is portrayed in a different light to Arkham, throughout the novel we know Arkham has psychological issues so his mask is more subtle, with Cavendish we are purposely led to ignore his façade until the end. When we first see him, he is wearing a red clown nose and smudged red lipstick around his face. His stature suggests authority and the tone of his words suggest professionalism. He and the Joker are juxtaposed for a page, Joker’s speech which is red and ragged and erratic looks far more crazy than Cavendish’s neat black and white text boxes, Joker’s makeup even makes Cavendish’s red nose look less ridiculous. By contrasting this character with far more extreme characters, it was easier to hide his insanity and keep up his mask. The red nose and makeup at first glance was put there by the Joker but is also a visual clue that Cavendish and Joker are alike.

Running with the theme of introspection, mirrors are used throughout Arkham asylum. The mirror itself represents the duality of the characters and the inner turmoil characters need to face. Even when mirrors are not physically present in the story, reflections are used metaphorically to remind the reader of their presence. Characters are shown as needing to face and become their mirror or alternative selves. What characters see in the mirror is never what they perceive themselves to be until they reconcile their differing personas.

The character Two- Face (Harvey Dent) is a representative of the dual personality. Physically the character is two halves of the same person, one horribly disfigured and the other clean faced and handsome, his ego and alter-ego manifested. When forced to deny his dual personality, Two-Face is shown as a broken and confused character. This is shown when the double headed coin which Two-Face famously uses to make decisions is taken away and replaced by tarot cards. The coin represents not only his disfigurement, but his conscious persona and his shadow-self ,it is not until the coin is returned to him and he metaphorically embraces his second self that Two-Face becomes stable and strong again. Two-Face is shown both at the beginning and end of the story, and his uncertainty of himself and vulnerability is paralleled with Batman’s own. Both Characters at the beginning are at odds with themselves and it isn’t until their personality splits are repaired that peace can be restored. The self that Both Batman and Two-face have to face is their shadow self.

We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions, and it is only with an enormous effort that we can detach ourselves from this burden. If it comes to a neurosis, we invariably have to deal with a considerably intensified shadow. And if such a person wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which his conscious personality and his shadow can live together. Jung, C. (1952), Psychology and Religion: West and East

Amadeus Arkham cannot reconcile his shadow with his personality. He talks about taping his mirror so as not to see himself, and it is through this lack of reconciliation that his shadow self becomes dominant. Symbolism, pointing to Arkham’s duality, litters the book. One of the most prominent examples is the panel after he’s digested some hallucinogenic mushrooms and stares at his two clown fish. They swim in a circle closely portraying the zodiac symbol Pisces, and are imposed over his face. In legend Pisces are tied together so as not to lose each other, in this case Arkham’s conscious personality and his shadow tied together, the fish represent his need for unity.

Dual personality is displayed physically on characters through themes of transgender. Arkham is seen walking through the halls in his mother’s wedding dress; Cavendish is later seen to be wearing the same wedding dress. In both circumstances the characters are shown to be completely controlled by their shadow selves, becoming completely either one sex or the other. When Cavendish is seen wearing the clown nose and makeup when we first meet him it is implied that the Joker did this to him. The Joker can be seen as an androgynous being, a mixture of both masculine and feminine features. By pushing Cavendish into wearing makeup, he is pushing him into his shadow self .

The Joker’s androgynous self is what makes him one of the most ironically stable characters in the comic. Becoming androgynous means overcoming stereotypical attitudes about what is appropriate behaviours for males and females, so that one develops more flexible behaviour appropriate to a given situation. Bradway ,K.(1982) Gender identity and Gender Roles: Their Place in Analytic Practice, Jungian Analysis According to Dr Ruth Adams, the Joker has no actual personality and reacts to whatever information he is given; in an extreme way Joker exhibits attitudes and behaviour that are both male and female. He is shown grabbing Batman’s behind and telling him ‘loosen up tight ass’ Batman is shown to be disgusted by this behaviour and shows his own discomfort with his sexuality. Joker’s movements are a mixture of camp and sadistic, his dress is an extremely masculine cut suit (prominent broad shoulders) but his makeup is distinctly feminine in origins (red lips white face powder) Androgyny is an archetype that represents in human form the principle of wholeness. Bradway,K. The Joker through his willingness to embrace both aspects of himself, becomes whole.

The clown fish previously mentioned in conjunction to Arkham can also be associated with Joker, even the name of the species is related to him. Clown fish are known to change gender when the need arises, much like the Joker’s need to change between masculine and feminine. The Clown fish can be seen to influence Arkham’s shadow side the same way Joker influences Cavendish’s.

While mirrors represent a person’s shadow side they also represent escapism and the unknown, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) are referenced frequently. Alice stepping into the looking glass and ending up in wonderland is paralleled by Batman stepping into the asylum. Both Characters leave a stable, ordered world and enter a nonsensical wonderland. The book opens with the quote

‘but I don’t want to be among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all made here. I’m mad, you’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice
‘You must be.’ Said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here
.’ Carroll, L. (1865) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wordsworth Editions Ltd

Continuing the parallel between Alice and Batman, this sets up the notion that Batman is as insane as the inmates of the asylum, a notion which is re-enforced throughout. Unlike Alice however, Batman is aware of his insanity. When Commissioner Gordon says to Batman: ‘
Listen I understand if even you’re afraid’ Batman replies ‘Afraid? Batman’s not afraid of anything. It’s me. I’m afraid.’ Implying the split between Batman and Bruce Wayne. He then voices his fear of his own irrationality being exposed by Joker in the asylum. Further parallels between the two dot the comic, one being on the spread on pages 15-16. The writing across the bottom of the page in the Joker’s font reads ‘Let the feast for fools begin!’ in the centre of the page the reader can make out a dinner table filled with plates, this is an allusion to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. There are also various tarot cards, checkers and clock numerals around the page, all associated with Alice and wonderland. This mimics the surrealism of Alice but while in her wonderland these aspects are seemingly nonsensical they have rigid rules they abide, in Arkham Asylum there are no barriers.

The next time wonderland is referenced is when Batman enters a room of mirrors, almost as if he’s stepping in and out of the looking glass, Batman is reflected infinitely until the Mad Hatter’s voice echoes through the glass ‘
Twinkle, twinkle little Bat! How I wonder what you’re at!’ which is a direct quote from Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter on which he’s based on. Again imagery taken from the Alice series fills the room, checkers, mushrooms, a hookah and the Mad Hatter himself except more grotesque. ‘Perhaps it’s in your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.’ This re-affirms the idea that Batman is as mad as the inmates, and also is another nod to Batman’s shadow self which lurks within the asylum.

In the final page of Arkham Asylum, after Two- Face is given back his coin, the last words are taken from Alice in Wonderland.
‘Who cares for you? You’re nothing but a pack of cards’ Two-Face knocks down the tower of cards he’s built, the collapsing of the card house is similar to how Alice returns to the real world, confronting the fake constructions in her mind then destroying them.

In conclusion the symbolic uses of masks and mirrors in Arkham asylum create a cyclical effect; the novel ends how it begins. The struggles of Batman, Arkham and Two-Face are parallel to each other throughout and each come to an end when they confront themselves. Batman’s need to reconcile his humanity with his alter-ego facilitates his ability to leave the asylum. When confronted by Cavendish ‘YOU are the Bat!’ he replies ‘No. I..I’m just a man’ using the same separation between Bruce Wayne and Batman. This separation makes him weak and makes Cavendish able to attack him; it is only when he accepts his shadow self, the Bat, that Batman can escape. Batman enters with the Joker, and then leaves with the Joker. At the beginning he treats Joker as an enemy, through accepting his own madness he leaves treating him in a companionate way. In a similar fashion, Two-Face is left paradoxically whole again at the end of the story. Masks and mirrors help create an unsettling surrealistic world for the reader to gaze upon and force the reader to both deconstruct themselves and the protagonist.


Morrison, G. McKean. D, (2004) Arkham Asylum DC Comics

Dudenhoeffer, L. (n/a), Kennesaw State University Masks of Infamy: The About-faces in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

Florenskii, P .A. (1996)Iconostatis. The Conclusion: Egyptian Death mask and the life of the saint, Vladimir’s seminary Press

Voltz, M. Voltaic masks, (1982), Cambridge MA, Drama review

Jung, C. Year and publication unknown

Jung, C. (1952), Psychology and Religion: West and East

Bradway , K.(1982) Gender identity and Gender Roles: Their Place in Analytic Practice, Jungian Analysis

Carroll, L. (1865) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wordsworth Editions Ltd

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