Friday, April 18, 2014

The good, the bad and the ugly of Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 3: Mad

(Okay, let's try this again.) Please forgive the title for this too-long-in-the-works blog post. I'm not crazy about it, but it seems apropos given the subject matter: The collection of a Gregg Hurwitz-written, Ethan Van Sciver and Szymon Kudranski-drawn story arc from Batman: The Dark Knight. You can't tell from the cover that DC chose for the collection, but the story arc details the origin of, and an epic confrontation with, the villain The Mad Hatter, so the "Mad" of the sub-title refers to a Victorian brand of insanity, and not the child-like angry emotion the grumpy Batman posing on the cover seems to be projecting.

There's an awful lot of solid craft on display throughout the book, and, for the most part, Hurwitz's script is inventive, fairly tightly-plotted and boasting a few original ideas and even some nice, sharp writing. It has its problems though, probably more and bigger problems than it has attributes, and it read to me like a very strong second-to-last draft to an excellent Batman story arc, with those problems in the script being rather easily repaired after a conversation with an engaged editor (Mike Marts, the book's editor, apparently didn't see or have the same problems with the story that I did...and I imagine successful prose novelist and professional comics writer Hurwitz wouldn't place much value on the criticisms offered by a semi-professional comics critic he's never heard of, but I'm going to go ahead and write them up anyway).

I previously reviewed Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 3: Mad at Robot 6, and that short-ish, eight-paragraph review accurately reflects my reading and opinion of the book, but I did want to re-address it here, as I can devote more time, space and attention to it—as well as share some images from it—in a way that wouldn't have been quite as feasible at Robot 6.

This format also for a better enumeration of the books many virtues, its many more problems and, of course, its occasional ugliness. It's one thing to talk about how poor Kudranski's artwork is in places, but it's much easier and more effective to show you an image and say, "Look at how ugly this is."

So....


THE GOOD


1.) I really, really like how Ethan Van Sciver draws Batman's cape. Van Sciver has drawn Batman on several occasionas in the past, at greatest length in the 2004, two-part miniseries Batman and Catwoman: Trail of the Gun.

The Batman he draws here is technically dressed in the over-fussy New 52 costume, complete with huge metal gauntlets (with grooves corresponding to the scallops on the forearms) and the bat-shaped kneepads.

Van Sciver sells the armored-up Batman costume pretty well in general, though. There's a scene where we see Batman suiting up, and what used to be his cowl is shown to be a standalone helmet and neck brace now, complete with a visor that lowers the mask portion over his face.
Where Van Sciver deviates is in the drawing of the cape, which, like the one he's drawn on Batman in the past, resembles enormous bat-wings. Now, having Batman's cape flare out like giant bat-wings is an artistic flourish that pretty much everyone who has ever drawn Batman has engaged in before, but Van Sciver goes a step further, drawing the cape with umbrella-like structures running through it, as if it were built by Batman to resemble bat-wings, rather than simply being a cape that an artist can draw to look more like bat-wings during dramatic scenes.
Additionally, Van Sciver's Batman can wrap his cape around himself, occasionally resembling a bat with its wings folded around itself. I think that looks pretty cool.

2.) Van Sciver's adventurous lay-outs. Did you know that Batman has been dating a concert pianist named Natalya Trusevich since...well, for about two years now? (Our time; about a year his time). If you haven't been reading Batman: The Dark Knight, chances are you didn't. While I haven't been reading all of the Bat-books religiously, I think I'm pretty well caught up on them all at this point, and I don't recall Trusevich appearing anywhere other than Dark Knight.

About halfway through the first issue of this story arc, Bruce Wayne and Natalya have an intense conversation in which she expresses her displeasure at his secretive lifestyle and apparent unwillingness to commit; she also hints that she might know what his big secret really is. Eventually, they decide to part ways. The entire three-page sequence is layed-out in two tiers, with smaller, square panels running across the tops of the pages, and the rest of the page dominated by a close up drawing of piano keys, with the white keys serving as additional panels, broken up by the black keys.

I don't know that it necessarily worked better than it might have otherwise, but it was interesting at any rate, along the lines of what J.H. Williams III was always doing in Batwoman.

There's another sequence later, a two-page splash in which Batman is seated at the Bat-computer, surrounded by floating holographic "windows" representing different pages or screens, akin to what Tony Stark was using in the Iron Man movies, in which Van Sciver draws the scene from a high angle, looking down, and we see Bruce in the middle of this whirlpool of data and he does his computerized detective work.

Say what you will about Van Sciver's work (I generally like it, myself), but here it's exceptionally interesting looking.

3.) Hurwitz and Van Sciver fairly completely re-create The Mad Hatter, for a higly original take. Hurwitz similarly gave new, not-really-needed origin stories to The Penguin (in 2011's The Penguin: Pain and Prejudice miniseries with Kudranski) and The Scarecrow (in 2012 Batman: The Dark Knight story arc "Cycle of Violence," with David Finch).

Debuting way back in 1948, The Mad Hatter is actually one of the oldest and vital of the Batman villains one's likely to see in usage these days. While his portrayal has changed over the decades and from medium-to-medium the same way so many of the other Batman villains of a similar vintage have, he was generally a man obsessed with committing crimes having to do with hats (his desire to possess Batman's distinctive cowl being one source of their conflicts), or having to do with Lewis Carroll's Alice books, or some combination of the two.

As for his modus operandi, he's an ingenious scientist who has created a means of effecting limited mind-control, generally by putting a mind-control device near the head of another person. Like in a hat, for example.

The Carroll obsession has been the dominant portrayal for the last few decades, perhaps owing to the influence and success of the Batman: The Animated Series episode that served as his origin story ("Mad as a Hatter," which is right up there with the Mr. Freeze episode in my esteem). Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale gave him an origin story in 1994's Batman: Madness—A Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special (collected in Batman: Haunted Knight), in which it was rather heavily implied that he was a pedophile and in which the character was dramatically reduced in size.

As for other Hatter stories, he played a minor role in the two Loeb/Sale "Year One" epics Long Halloween and Dark Victory, hearned an arc in the Greg Rucka-written, limited color pallete of Detective Comics (2001's #758-760), was spotlighted in the second Joker's Asylum miniseries and Gail Simone used him in one of her early Villains United/Secret Six stories, mostly to make jokes about him having sex with hats.

Hurwitz's new origin finds young Jervis Tetch as the good-hearted son of a good-hearted Gotham City haberdasher, who one day hopes he will take over the family business. He has a lot of friends, including a beautiful blond girl named Alice Dee, with whom he shares on perfect little-kid date. When he reaches adolescence however, it becomes apparent that he's just not growing as fast as his peers, and Alice only likes him as a friend.

He starts wearing a top hat and lifts to look bigger, and he starts taking an experimental drug to make him grow. It doesn't work, but it does have some pretty dramatic side-effects, including making him irrationally angry and causing him to start losing his hair at a young age.

He grows up to become a Gotham City supervillain, of course. His grand scheme here is to use his mind-control technology to stage a grand re-creation of that one perfect day he spent with his Alice, which means sets need constructed and actors need cast. Despite his ability to control minds, he also coerces people through threats and violence.

In addition to his origin tweaks and his new-ish, altered appearance—which include eyes that don't look in the same direction at the same time—Hurwitz's Mad Hatter drinks various teas, each of which creates a particular effect on him. For example, before his climactic battle with Batman, he blows a handful of "Special Tea Psycho" in Batman's face, making the Dark Knight hallucinate. The Hatter drinks the same blend to give him adrenaline and get him ready for a fight.

I don't necessarily like all of the differences between this Mad Hatter and previous ones, in the same way I don't think Hurwitz improved either The Penguin or The Scarecrow by his tweaks to those characters, but I appreciate the fact that he is taking advantage of the New 52 reboot to reinvent characters, to do something new instead of simply doing something over.

4.) Van Sciver's covers are really good. You can't really tell from the one that DC used for the cover of the collection, which is really only the right half of the cover from the issue that shipped during gatefold cover month, which they almost called "WTF? Certified" month.

But a few of them are full of creepy, crazy, sometimes grotesque imagery. For example:


I particularly like the little "Cheshire Bat" in the second of those covers above, the one for issue #17 (Wow, looking at the covers as published, DC sure covered up a lot of Van Sciver's art with text, didn't they?)

5.) I thought this was funny. Even if I have a hard time imagining Batman saying "nope" when a "no" would do just as well.

6.)"Batma-Mining." The second issue opens with the perviously mentioned two-page spread of Batman in the middle of a maelstrom of glowing, holographic computer windows, with Alfred approaching to deliver a cup of steaming hot tea.

"There's no record of Jervis Tetch anywhere, but the Bata-Mining software traced a few wire transfers from his account before he disappeared."

When Alfred responds, "Down the rabbit hole?" and Batman shows that he's not in the mood with a simple e of "Alfred," our favorite super-butler responds with the barb, "Apologies. But is it really worse than 'Bata-mining'?"

I love the idea of Batman as an obsessive-compulsive brander, slapping Bat-logos on everything and making his tools and possessions his by adding the prefix "Bat-" to them. That said, when I first saw the word "Bata-mining," I thought it was a typo, because "data" is a real word, and Batman's usual pattern would be to simply refer to what he's doing as, say, "Bat-data-mining."

But it was just a set-up for an Alfred zinger, so that's cool.

7.) "He's a freakin' pterodactyl." In the final issue of the story arc, Batman arrives at police headquarters and finds his Natalya Trusevich's corpse embedded in the glass of the Bat-signal (more on that in the "bad" portion below). After taking an entire panel to mourn for his murdered girlfriend...
...Batman grits his teeth, leaps to the roof, dashes across it in a Neal Adams-style run, his cape stiffening around him like bat-wings while an enormous bolt of lighting fills the night sky.

"I've never seen him like that," Commissioner Gordon says to one of the several anonymous police officers around him.

"He was like a stealth bomber," one of them replies, offering a simile that makes no sense at all (Other than the fact that Batman and a stealth bomber both have wings and are black in color, I guess...?). "The Bat's gone insane."

"He's not a bat anymore," Gordon says. "He's a freakin' pterodacytl."

That bit of dialogue reminded me of Geoff Johns' writing, as it occupies that same rather dumb/sort of awesome territory that Johns' writing so thoroughly owns. I can't tell if Hurwitz means it to be funny, I can't tell if if he means it to be funny in the precise way that I find it to be funny and I can't tell why exactly I find it so hilarious, but the "he's a freakin' pterodactyl" line cracked me up.


THE BAD

1.) The Tweedles as henchmen. Golden Age Batman villains who have been around even longer than The Mad Hatter (and The Riddler), the Tweedles debuted in 1943. They don't actually have a lot going for them; they were basically identical twin criminals who fought Batman and Robin by rolling and bouncing around on their fat bodies. I can't really recall reading many stories to feature the Tweedles, let alone good stories (Garth Ennis/John McCrea's four-part Demon arc "Hell's Hitman" featured them in a minor role, and Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen's TEC #841, featuring "The Wonderland Gang," was nicely drawn and kinda clever). So it's really not that big a deal that Hurwitz here reduces them to mere muscle—Van Sciver has drawn them as big, bulky, egg-shaped men resembling slightly more realistic, tougher-looking versions of the Tweedles in the Tim Burton directed Alice In Wonderland—but it still seems, at least conceptually, off or wrong to so demote the characters.

2.) The savagery of The Hatter. In this story arc Hurwitz essentially turns The Mad Hatter into a differently-themed Joker; a soul-less mass murderer with a three-figure body count who kills calmly, casually and on a frequent basis (All of Batman's rogues seem to be turning into Joker-like mass murderers these days, which really rather stretches one's ability to suspend disbelief regarding the state and federal government's willingness to keep passing out not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts to men and women who are no longer just serial killers, but mass murderers and terrorists. Hell, even Harley Quinn recently murdered what had to be scores of people when she bombed children all over Gotham City in the pages Detective Comics #23.2).

In a flashback, The Mad Hatter kills a pet rabbit as a child. During the "casting" process for his memory re-enactment he guns down anyone whose forced audition he doesn't like. He snaps the neck of one underling with his bare hands. In one particularly memorable scene, he has the Tweedles set a stepladder down in front of one of his underlings, and then climbs up it and plunges his thumbs into the man's eye-sockets.

When he finally tracks down Alice Dee and finds that she's now a middle-aged wife and mother of three, smoking a cigarette while ironing laundry in front of the television, he beats her to death with the iron (This scene is actually staged somewhat tastefully, as Van Sciver draws the Hatter striding away from the murder scene still clutching the gory iron, blood splatter on his face, while the bashed-in head of the corpse on the floor in the background is obscured by The Hatter in the foreground. Yes, that actually counts as tasteful for DC Comics in the 21st century).

At one point in the narrative, he orders all of his mind-controlled thralls to drown themselves. When Batman asks how many, Gordon responds, "Hundreds. All ages, genders, ethnicities. And kids, too. Children.."

And, of course, The Hatter has Batman's girlfriend Natalya Trusevich killed. He kidnaps her and tries to beat Batman's secret identity out of her, calling in one of the Tweedles to take over punching her for him (This scene is drawn by Kudranski, so its dark, blurry and doesn't make much in the way of realistic visual sense, so it's not as upsetting as it could be. There are a few red panels with black blood splatter, and the sound effect WHAM!, and then we see an image of Trusevich with liquid, presumably blood, on her face.)

Finally, they throw her out of a helicopter with terrific aim, her body landing directly atop the Bat-signal on the roof of police headquarters.

3.) The cliches of Natalya's death. So the reason superheroes usually give for justifying the fact that they keep their identities secret is that, if their villains ever discovered their true identities, they would immediately go after their friends and loved ones, hurting these innocent associates as a way to get at the heroes. In Batman comics and other stories, this is usually played as a sort of tragic, romantic tension: Aflred and others worry that Bruce Wayne will never truly fall in love or find a romantic partner with whom to spend his life, Bruce always meets amazing women and comes close to forming a real relationship with them, only to pull back, not wanting to jeopardize his life's work of dressing up like a bat to fight crime and/or endanger them.

Sometimes he does actually share his secret identity, and then the women totally get killed.

As mentioned previously, Batman breaks up with Natalya early in this arc because his secret life is coming between them.

Later, Batman has a creepy dream or memory about his parents, in which his mother tells him that what the really wants for him, above all else is "to be known. Really known, by another person." Like, Biblially? "There's a fear in showing all the parts of ourselves to someone else," but when you do, and they accept you, "that's the most wonderful thing in the world."

So Bruce Wayne gets in his Batplane, flies over to Natalya's, drags her to the window, where he's left it in park and flies her to the Batcave, saying "THis is who I am" over and over again.

They then do it in the Batcave. This is another Kudranski-drawn passage, so there's no telling where or what they did it on—does Batman keep a mattress or Bat-futon down there for such occasions? Is there a big bed behind the giant penny? Who knows?

Natalya frets that she's late for her concert performance, and that she'll never make it in time, but Batman flies her there in his Batplane and drops her off—one of the perks of being Batman's girlfriend.

But wait, what's this? One of The Mad Hatter's many hat-wearing, mind-controlled spies has seen Natalya exiting the Bat-plane, and he calls it in. The Hatter sees Natalya, and immediately thinks she would be the perfect person to play his Alice in his memory re-creation. So he kidnaps her.

And, as previously stated, attempts to cajole and beat the secret of Batman's identity out of her, tortures her and, ultimately, kills her. So, in, like, a matter of hours Hurwitz reenacts the worst case scenario justifying Batman never telling anyone his secret identity: Better to simply bang broads and keep secrets from them.

It's cliche and it's a bizarre example of fridging a supporting character to one of the few superheroes who has absolutely no need to be motivated by the death of a lover or loved one because that's kinda sorta always been his whole deal and it makes Alfred and Batman's mom look like a couple of dumb a-holes for suggesting Batman pursue a relationship not built completely on lies sometime.

The speed of this whole cycle of events really makes the cliches seem even worse, too. There's no drama, this isn't something anyone struggles with; Batman shares his secret identity, and before the day's over the woman he shared it with is totally dead.

4.) Batman on the warpath. Also as previously stated, when Batman sees what The Hatter and Tweedles have done to Natalya, he loses his shit, turning into a "freakin' pterodactyl" (Hundreds of anonymous victims? That's sad and all, but it's not the same and losing your lover, I guess).

He hops in his Batplane and flies straight from the murder scene to The Mad Hatter's secret base. When Alfred suggests that Batman maybe wait a bit, as he's in no state of mind to tackle the villain, Batman responds, "Let me be clear, Penny one. If you try to stop me, I will run you over."

What a dick.

So Batman beat the shit out of a bunch of mind-controlled muscle, and brutally attacks the Tweedles: One he shoots with some kind of Batarangs-on-a-Batline bolo thingee that pins him that entwines him in wire and pins him to the wall, leaving him begging "Please...the pain...don't..."

The other he punches so hard that he knocks his jaw off, leaving it dangling grotesquely by the skin.

And then he gets to the Mad Hatter who, remember, despite all his evil acts, is still a spindly, four-foot-tall guy wearing platform shoes.

Our hero flying kicks him. He picks him up and throws him. The Hatter starts to crawl away on his knees, and Batman kicks him in the face, dislodging two of his teeth. "P-Please!" Hatter begs, and Batman gets on top of him and just starts pounding him in the face; The Hatter cries and begs him to stop, Alfred shouts in Batman's ear piece "Good God. You're going to kill him!" And Batman's angry face is covered in the Hatter's sprayed blood.

Batman gives him one more uppercut, sending him flying unconscious into a nearby pool, where the bleeding villain begins to sink face first. Batman turns away, and Alfred starts cajoling him through his earpiece:
Pull him out.

This isn't you!

You don't do this!

You can't. You can't do this. Because then it will be true. Then you'll be no different than them.
It's that last bit that apparently got through to Batman, as it caused him to stop, then turn around and dive into the water to rescue The Hatter.

Having Alfred talk Batman out of killing a foe in a vengeful rage is all well and good, but Alfred's particular argument here isn't very compelling, and it's hard to imagine that getting through to Batman at that particular point in time.

Alfred is essentially finding equivalency between The Hatter (and his ilk's) killings and Batman killing The Hatter. But, remember, The Mad Hatter has killed hundreds of innocent Gothamites, including children, for no reason. The Batman, had he gone through with killing the Hatter, would have killed one—just one—person, a person who had murdered hundreds of innocent people and would, in all likelihood, continue to kill. The scales aren't exactly even in this case, Alf.

A police officer would have shot The Hatter the moment the fight began. The President of The United States would have ordered a remote controlled drone to fire a missile at him for killing far fewer Americans, had he done so in a different country. Batman drowning the Mad Hatter here, even under these circumstances—in which Batman clearly has the upper-hand and comes across more as a bully than a righteous warrior—is hardly in the same ballpark as what The Hatter has done.

I know "Should The Batman Kill?" is a popular topic of conversation for comics fans and Batman fans, and I'm strongly in the "Hell no, never" camp. Practically, it doesn't make a lot of sense, as if Batman did kill, his rogue's gallery would end up looking more like The Punisher's than that of, say, Spider-Man and The Flash. Personally, my explanation for why the Batman shouldn't kill would be that he swore an oath to his dead parents, maybe as a child, that he would never take a human life, never put anyone through what he went through (even if The Hatter or The Joker deserve to die, maybe they have friends and family?); I imagine that as he faces more and more evil, Batman will realize the practicality of occasionally having to kill his most monstrous foes, but he would take that vow to his parents so seriously that he wouldn't bend or break it, no matter how illogical it might seem (Because Batman's crazy; I used to like the "broken" conception of the character, but Grant Morrison andDean Trippe and other's have convinced me that Batman-as-crazy person may not be as good or even as likely a reading as the Batman-as-super-sane person, so now I think of Batman as an extremely mentally healthy genius, with only two real manifestations of insanity: His obsessive-compulsive need to label everything with a bat, and his pathological refusal to kill under any and all circumstances, up to and including doing really crazy shit, like resuscitating a dying Joker).

Anyway, Batman got so mad he almost killed someone here, which is fine—we've seen that happen, what, 9,000 times before? This instance struck me as a little apalling mainly because of what a mismatched fight it was—The Hatter, like The Penguin, isn't exactly in Batman's weight class, and here he doesn't even have any weapons or get in any good blows; it's a beatdown more than a fight. And because of the particularly false-sounding rhetoric that Alfred used to talk him out of it; surely a "What would your parents think if they saw you now?" or something in that vein would have been better than a "If you do kill this one mass-murderer, you're practically committing an act of terrorism." (Alfred, unlike Gordon or any of the Robins or the folks that generally talk Batman out of beating people to death when he's really pissed off is actually in the unique position to be able to effectively evoke the memory of Batman's parents).

5.) Batman doesn't do anything to stop The Mad Hatter. The weirdest thing about this story, for me anyway, was that once Batman learned that it was The Mad Hatter behind the rash of kidnappings discussed on the very first page of the story arc, and that he knows the Mad Hatter is using his mind control technology to "take" people, Batman doesn't sit down and start working on a way to counteract the mind-control tech.

They never really get in to how it works (radio waves? Wi-fi?), but a signal is sent from somewhere to all the other where's, giving The Hatter control of the actions of anyone wearing one of his hats. Batman figures this out pretty quickly, but he doesn't sit down at his work bench with some generic circuit boards and a little electrical tool with a blue light on the tip of it as expected, coming up with a countermeasure—some way to block are override the signal.

Instead, he spends him time searching for The Hatter via raiding warehouses and interrogating a Tweedle (why, couldn't he track the hat-signals?), and then going on a date.


THE UGLY

Van Sciver draws four of the six issues in this arc, and Kudranski the remaining two (The collection also includes Dark Knight Annual #1 by Hurwitz and Kudranki, in which Batman psychologically tortures but doesn't capture or arrest villains The Penguin, Scarecrow and Mat Hatter).

Kudranski is fucking terrible.

Beyond that, though, his art doesn't look the least bit like Van Sciver's, and he doesn't even stick to the designs Van Sciver has established for the characters, so no one and nothing looks alike in the two distinct views we're given within the storyline.

I think this might have been the very worst part of the story; if you haven't read this comic, what do you make of this rorschach of a comic book panel?
Did you guess that it's obviously a bunch of drowned corpses being washed out of a drainage pipe...? If so, you sure made sense out of that image quicker than me. I had to puzzle over it for a while, eventually gave up and read the narration and dialogue for clues, and then went back to figure it out.

Compare it to Van Sciver's drawing of the same thing, from one of the covers to the story arc:
The human bodies washing out of a drain pipe are a little easier to recognize there, huh? Even though on the cover t hey are merely a bit of background design and not, you know, the whole point that the image is devoted to conveying.

Here is a bad scan of the maybe the worst of Kudranski's work in the book, which is from the annual that serves as a sort of back up to "Mad":
If you need context, Batman has tricked The Penguin, The Mad Hatter and The Scarecrow to meeting at The Arkham Detention Facility For Youth.

There, Batman scares the bejeezus out of them through various means; I think he doses them with Crane's fear gas, but it's not entirely clear. At any rate, after they relive their greatest fears and aspects of their new, Hurwitz-conceived origin stories, they all end up unconscious at the bottom of a big, grand staircase. The above page shows them waiting for the night to end and the sun to come up.

As you can see, Kudranski just dropped the same image of the background in, and then placed the same image of the three characters atop it, only altering them slightly in the last panel (and messing with the lighting).

What he doesn't do is position them in anyway that makes any sense. So that The Penguin, supposedly lying on his back, is levitating above the floor. The Hatter, in the backgorund, is drawn as if kneeling on his knees, but, as you can see, he's actually floating above the ground as well.

That is not a good page. It's not even a bad page. It's...well, I went with ugly, because "The Good, The Bad and The So Appalling I Can't Believe It Even Saw Print" didn't have the same ring to it...

4 comments:

Eric Lee said...

"rorschach of a comic book panel" is a great expression. It cracked me up so hard when I read it. I need to find a way to insert that into a conversation.

SallyP said...

I have to admit that I really like Ethan Van Sciver's artwork. And there were some amazing moments in the series as well.

But turning the Mad Hatter into a murdering psychopath...well, there are just too many of those types and I'm getting just sick of it.

Jacob T. Levy said...

FWIW, the Tweedles served as Joker's henchmen in the excellent Gibbons/ Rude World's Finest mini.

Bram said...

There's also a terrific Hatter arc in Brubaker/Rucka/Lark's Gotham Central.

I always thought of the sentence structure that drops "to be," as in your "need constructed" as a Pennsylvania thing, but I guess it drifts to Ohio as well. It needs to be more widely adopted, in any event.