Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Most people know of Arkham Asylum from the Batman franchise, my first exposer to Gotham’s AA was on a graphic novel rack at a book store in Oxnard California back in 1989. When I thumbed through the pages I was sorely disappointed that it had nothing to do with Cthulhu. Obliviously there had to be a shared connection, even the new Gotham TV show had a minor character named Dick Lovecraft, but until yesterday, I didn’t know exactly what it was.
There had been an internet rumor that the man who is credited with creating Batman, Bob Kane, had shared a train ride with HPL. The young comic book creator, so the story was told, bombarded his idol with questions about writing. The old gent from Providence was in a surprisingly good mood and humored Kane’s inquiries. As a tribute to that day Kane named the Gotham madhouse after one in The Thing in the Doorstep. This is a Great story but in the 70’s, when Arkham is first mentioned in the DCU, Kane had almost nothing to do with the Batman story line. So I pretty much assumed that the tale was apocryphal.
Another theory that seemed more likely was that Donald Wandrie who was one of Lovecraft’s closest correspondents, had a hand in the name. He was a pretty high figure in DC in the 70’s. The Arkham Asylum page in the Comic Vine website gives creation credit to Dennis “Denny” O’Neill in 1974’s Threat of the Two Headed Coin. It further says that it is unknown if he was inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos.
Arkham Asylums first appearance was not in 1974 but in fact 1931, and was not invented by Lovecraft but by Robert E. Howard. Howard is best known for his Conan the Barbarian stories, and who was a long distance friend and frequent correspondent with HPL. He chose the name of the asylum as a tribute to his pal HPL. Lovecraft who enjoyed sharing plot elements used it The Thing at the Doorstep.
Denny O’Neill, is in his own way is just as fascinating as Lovecraft. A Cuban blockade naval vet, who adamantly opposed the Vietnam War, a Catholic volunteer who supported the legalization of Marijuana in the 60’s, but who hated the actual drug, he was a reporter in Cape Gerardo, that was run out of town by the local police when, as a joke he made a fake AP wire dispatch that Martin Luther King Jr, was coming to town.
He fled to New York where he became a comic book writer, and basically signal handedly gave birth to comic’s silver age. He was the first person to deal with the drug epidemic and racial issues, in the pages of comics. He is probably best known for Green Lantern 76, when Hal Jorden is approached by a black man who says that he does a lot for the alien blue skins, but what is he doing for the black skins here on Earth. This leads to an internal crisis in Green Lantern so he and Green Arrow hop in a truck and spend the next eighteen months traveling across the US discovering America.
Yesterday at Portland Wizard World Comicon, Denny O’Neill, was speaking and I planned to attend his panel with the sole purpose of asking him about Arkham Asylum. His pannel was the same time as the William Shatner panel, but honestly I was more excited about talking to O’Neill. Leaving the Kristian Ritter (Jessica Jones) panel I literally passed hundreds of people lined up for Captain Kirk, to a small auditorium that had only forty or so attendees.
Though 76 O’Neill, seemed to be re-energized when he talked about his passions of his family, comic book writing and helping comic book writers and artist who were left with no pension or medical insurance from the publishers.
He said that many people in the comics in the 70’s like Julius “Julie” Swartz were from the pulp age. A writing style that sacrificed characterization for plot. That was why many early comic books (unlike today’s entries) were seldom character driven stories, and that with hindsight Green Lantern 76 was his first character driven story.
We had almost run out of time at the end and I was one of only two people that got to ask him a question. I asked, “If Arkham Asylum was based on the pulps specifically the writings of HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.”
He seemed to raise up about an inch and declared “Absolutely.” He then said that he didn’t come up with the idea. A creative team was sitting around the table, trying to come up with a mental hospital for an issue of Batman. when Jack C. Harris said, it should be named Arkham Asylum and that everyone then nodded their heads and had an “ah-ha” moment. He went on to re-emphasize the pulp back ground of comic books.
So we now know who created the DCU version of Arkham Asylum. I am afraid I don’t know much about Jack C. Harris, in fact when I looked him up in the DC Wiki, I could only find his photo. But I think that there are a lot of examples like this in collaborative writing where someone comes upon an idea in a bull session and it becomes a mainstay in the story. I also think this is only one example of the pulp influence in comic books that exist even to this day.