Batman: The Dark Knight #16-21, written by Greg Hurwitz and penciled by Ethan Van Scriver, contains a story which is being considered by some to be the definitive Mad Hatter story. There is a reason for this — it probably is the definitive Mad Hatter story.
Let me explain. See, the thing about the Mad Hatter is that he doesn’t have a very coherently defined character. The Joker is always a crazy, campy lunatic, whether he’s the murderous Thin White Duke of Death or the loony Clown Prince of Crime. You always know, though, when it’s the Joker. The Riddler leaves his riddles, naturally, and the Penguin has his aquatic capers. The Hatter, however, varies wildly. Sure, he often uses hats in his schemes, but compare the batty lover of wild haberdashery from the classic ’60s TV series to the newest incarnation, fresh of the pages of Dark Knight. They hardly seem like the same character. The TV Hatter is, quite literally, just a madman with zany hats and hat-themed crimes. In fact, I’m pretty sure he once tried to turn the Dynamic Duo into hats. More recently, though, the Hatter has taken on aspects of his more obvious persona, that of the famed Alice in Wonderland character. Of course, even back in the ’60s he looked like the classic Disney character. Regardless, the modern Hatter is much more Lewis Carrol than ’60s camp.
What’s brilliant about the newest Hatter tale is that Hurwitz crafts him into a surprisingly sympathetic villain — whereas he put the “mad” in Mad Hatter back in the ’60s and was a pedophile in Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. We’re treated to flashbacks into the past of young Jervis Tetch, son of a hatmaker, and subject to an unfortunately severe testosterone deficiency. He falls hopelessly in love with a girl his age named Alice — blonde, pretty, everything that goes with the name. They have a single date at a Wonderland-themed amusement park, where she seems to reciprocate his feelings. But as time moves on and Jervis doesn’t grow and mature like everyone else, his defender and beloved leaves him behind. Jervis tries experimental testosterone supplements to bring himself up to speed with his schoolmates… but unfortunately they cause aggression and psychosis, leading him to become the villain of our tragic story, attempting to recreate his one perfect day, no matter how many lives it costs. I won’t spoil the surprises, and trust me, there are surprises packed into every page of the six-issue epic.
Scriver’s art beautifully supplements Hurwitz’s script, seamlessly weaving past and present. When psychedelic hallucinations are called for, the gritty realism of the Dark Knight’s world is left behind for an acid trip straight out of Woodstock. When Gotham’s darkness beckons, Scriver more than provides with stunning pages full of the horrors of Gotham.
If you’ve never read a Mad Hatter story, this is the one to start with. If you’ve read older stories, whether or not you liked them, give this one a shot. Batman’s current ongoing comics have brought an awful lot to the table, and continue to provide. Not only is this tale not an exception, but it proves that after all the decades of his existence, the Dark Knight is still going strong, still fighting the good fight, and provides some of the best thrills in the DC Multiverse.