Reviewing this book is a bit intimidating for me to be honest. I’m just a guy. I’m no journalist and I can confidently say that most of my readers probably know more about comics than me. I just like Batman. A lot. And I’m vocal about it. So when DC Comics agreed to send me a review copy of Batman: Through the Looking Glass I was incredibly grateful. I must’ve sent three “Thank You” emails. I’ve been getting DC Comics since I was 4 years old and now DC Comics is out of its way to mail me a comic so I can tell everyone else what I thought of it. That’s pretty amazing and naturally, I was excited and I watched the UPS tracking information each day with growing anticipation until Wednesday day the book came to comic shops everywhere and reader TC left this comment on the Batman & Robin #5 Review post:
“On a side note, I 100% hated the graphic novel released today, Through the Looking Glass. Maybe like Penguin #4, I was really expecting too much, but I plowed through it hoping it would pan out it just never did for me. I almost had to watch a couple of TAS episodes to remember I like the Mad Hatter.”
Ouch. After reading that I decided to dig around and see what other opinions existed…but there were none. The big sites like IGN, CBR, ComicVine, etc. etc. none of them had a review up. I went to Amazon to see if anyone had reviewed it here– no, but the price had already been marked down 35%. Newsarama had added Batman: Through the Looking Glass to their “MUST-READ” list for the week, so that offered a glimmer of hope, but there was nothing said about the book whatsoever which lead me to believe that the article’s author didn’t actually read this “must-read” and just posted it on the list because it was a brand-new original graphic novel. Even the book’s artist, Sam Keith, didn’t update his own blog to tell any of his fans about it. Even an article devoted entirely to Sam Keith that was posted on Thursday by io9.com titled “Why I love Sam Kieth, the most grounded madman in comic books” did NOT mention Batman: Through the Looking Glass, which had been released one day before the article was posted. Even when I searched twitter for “Batman Through the Looking Glass” the majority of the results were not others talking about the book, but MY OWN tweets about how I was waiting to get the book in the mail! So then I went to The Source, the official blog of DC that’s a must-read for all DC fans. It has news, interviews, previews, basically everything DC wants promoted gets posted there. And guess what never got a single write-up: Batman: Through the Looking Glass. It was as if the book didn’t exist.
Like the last original Batman graphic novel to come out, Batman: Noel, Through the Looking Glass takes a classic piece of literature and replaces its characters with their Gotham City equivalents. But also like Batman: Noel, the big selling point is the artwork which, in the case of Looking Glass, was handled by THE MAXX creator Sam Kieth who is known for highly stylized drawings that are cartoony and feature exaggerated anatomy– he particularly likes to overly detail a character’s crow’s feet and arm muscles. But whereas I gave Batman: Noel a 10/10 and claimed that it was a seasonal classic that Batman fans would want to read every holiday season, I’m afraid that Batman: Through the Looking Glass is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum and should be dismissed immediately.
The synopsis for this book described it as the first confrontation between Batman and the Mad Hatter, but Mad Hatter is hardly in this book at all and when he is, Batman pays little to no attention to the Rumpelstiltskin-like creature whose motivations are never truly explained. If you were hoping for a Mad Hatter origin story the likes of the recent Penguin: Pain & Prejudice, you’ll be greatly disappointed. And if you were hoping for a fun Batman themed Alice in Wonderland tale, you’ll be disappointed as well. Instead, this is what the synopsis really is:
Bruce Wayne goes to a Gotham Judge’s banquet featuring entertainment by a magician named Gervis Tetch and his assistant Grace. At dinner, Bruce swaps plates with a councilman whose steak is covered in mushrooms. Poisoned by the mushrooms or by a toxin found in beaver fur (this kept getting brought up as well…*shrug*) Bruce begins to trip-out that evening in the batcave while suited up for patrol. He starts to see Celia (anagram for Alice), a childhood friend long since dead who looks identical to Alice from the Lewis Carroll classic, and a white rabbit who runs across the batcave and flees through a manhole cover that is connected to the Gotham sewer system. Batman acknowledges that he is hallucinating, as does Alfred, yet Alfred lets Batman climb down into the sewers anyway. It is there that Batman learns that all of the council members are targets and he and Celia unravel the mystery as they travel through an imaginary Wonderland.
It’s unclear what this book was trying to be. It clearly wasn’t trying to be an origin story for Mad Hatter– the character is nothing more than an afterthought. He serves no purpose to the story other than being an obstacle to be defeated that in turn gives the sense of a proper conclusion a story needs.
Was it trying to be a Batman in Wonderland? If so it succeeded in a way, but its execution was exceedingly poor. With Batman: Noel we had characters like the ghosts of Christmas present, past, and future replaced with characters from the Batman mythos that oddly fit the role. Here, Jones makes up characters like Jimmie Cheshire, Dunphrey Tweedle and Judge Hart and other equally forced and unsubtle characters. And whereas Batman: Noel spun Scrooge’s self discovery of finding love and the true meaning of Christmas into Batman finding a proper balance between hero and monster, yet it still retained the beats of the Christmas Carol story. Through the Looking Glass, however, shoehorns in a murder conspiracy involving a Wonderland theme park that never really makes sense and muddles the potential whimsy of an Alice in Wonderland adaptation. And many of the scenes of Batman’s investigation were very confusing especially due to inconsistent coloring. Flashback scenes were sometimes colored the same as real-world scenes and sometimes real-world scenes were colored the same as Wonderland scenes…and if the point of that was to make the reader question what was real and what was fantasy, then what exactly is Jones trying to say? What would the point of that be?
Was it about Bruce finally letting go of a childhood friend? It certainly seemed so by the book’s ending which was very heavy on Bruce’s mourning…but we’re never actually given a reason to care. If Jones wanted an emotional response he should’ve devoted more of the story to Bruce and Celia’s childhood or better yet chosen a character from Batman’s past that fans are actually familiar with and would already care about. If this takes place outside of the New 52, there are plenty of dead people for Batman to miss.
Trying to make sense of the story is a waste of time, honestly. Since it’s never clear what is real and what isn’t and what is actually at stake none of the scenes, even the most action filled ones, carry no emotional weight. And even if they did, the whole “conflict” wraps up in a deus ex machina anyway.
But I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly this book has to say about the Mad Hatter. Well, this Mad Hatter is an entertainer, or at least he was posing as one. We never learn how he got into mind control and I’m not sure what his role was in the construction of the Wonderland theme park that was introduced in the last 20 pages or so of the story. He does run a “Mad Hattery”, but he is not a child murderer or rapist as many have wondered…although there is some weird perversion to his character. His assistant Grace used to perform at a strip club but Mad Hatter rescued her (it’s never explained how). But only at the book’s conclusion does he assault her so I don’t know how long he’s been waiting to lick her face and dress her up as Alice, etc.
Why is it so hard to properly characterize The Mad Hatter?
Mr. Freeze used to be a mad scientist with an ice gun and no moral motivations until Paul Dini’s “Heart of Ice” episode from Batman: The Animated Series changed everything. Now, Mr. Freeze is a three dimensional character who is both sympathetic and threatening. The episode was so good that it won an Emmy, woke everyone up to how good of a character Mr. Freeze could be, and ultimately got DC to absorb the origin into the comics and make it canon. So why on earth didn’t the same thing happen with Paul Dini’s “Mad as a Hatter” from the same animated series?
That episode is still referenced to this day as one of, if not the best depiction of the character. He doesn’t need some bizarre physical deformity for society to shun him. He doesn’t have to be a pedophile to like Alice in Wonderland. Instead, he’s just a severely depressed human being who retreats into a fantasy world to find solace. It’s a very real and human tale because it is based on something that actually happened and it involves emotions we can all relate to. Paul Dini, in an interview with animationarena.com can explain it better than I can:
You look at somebody like the Mad Hatter, who basically is an ugly guy who lives in this dream world and who fantasizes about a pretty co-worker. I based [the Mad Hatter’s first episode, “Mad as a Hatter”] on a really tragic story that happened in Silicon Valley about five years ago, about this guy who was a brilliant but shy computer designer and had a fixation on a woman, and he shot everybody in the office. With the Hatter, I made somebody who is technologically brilliant, but who lives in this dream world and was probably ridiculed as a kid; everybody used to call him names because he looked geeky and looked like the Mad Hatter. He actually had a poster of the Mad Hatter up. He liked Alice in Wonderland. When he came up with a way of controlling people, suddenly, they were able to do his will, and he loved it, and he was able to bring his fantasies of Wonderland and living happily ever after to life. But the main reason he did it was he was in love with somebody, and he didn’t want to use that power to control her because he knew that he’d lose her, but ultimately, he had to. That drove him over the edge and drove him crazy, so there’s an element of sorrow to that character – unrequited love taken to the nth degree.
The Mad Hatter I want to see is one who is full of sorrow. One who is not out to murder innocent civilians, molest children, get rich, or take over the world. He’s just a depressed, lonely man who has lost sight of reality and is now willing to use these mind-control devices to force people into providing him with the companionship we all so desperately need. He’s a villain who partners up with the likes of Scarecrow not because he agrees with his goals, but because Scarecrow uses him. And Mad Hatter, who wholly believes he has found a friend, commits horrendous acts alongside Scarecrow as a means of finding acceptance. That, to me, is far more compelling than what we get in Batman: Through the Looking Glass, an impish creature who carries a gun, knows nothing of love and thinks only of sex.
But it’s every major character who is poorly characterized here, not just Tetch. Batman is constantly sarcastic and Alfred is a stuttering mess who lets Batman climb into the sewer and into danger when he knows that Bruce is under the influence of hallucinogens. And don’t even get me started on the sewer that everyone uses to walk from the batcave to city hall and back in mere minutes—logic is outlawed in this story whether they are in the real world or Wonderland.
Batman: Through the Looking Glass is basically a showcase for Sam Kieth’s wacky, fun artwork and if you’re a fan of his work, then you’ll likely enjoy this book for Kieth’s contribution alone. If you’re not a fan of Kieth and are here for the story, you’ll likely hate it. Then again…perhaps those who enjoy the insanity of Neal Adams’ Batman: Odyssey might take pleasure in this, but I found nothing of value here. I feel that there isn’t a single page that belongs in the Batman mythology or resembles what I would call good storytelling. Most importantly, it’s not a book that I will ever want to revisit and that is what makes a graphic novel worth the price tag.
If you’re still craving a good, new Batman graphic novel, check out Batman: Noel (obviously, I certainly hyped it up enough here) or wait a week and pick up the Absolute edition of Kingdom Come, which isn’t exactly new, but if you haven’t read it before then it’s definitely something you should pick up as it is a classic. Also, if you’ve never seen those episodes of Batman: The Animated Series I mentioned, do yourself a favor and try to find them—immediately.