Here I was, all excited for more Ethan Van Sciver pencils when in fact issue #19 marks the reunion of writer Gregg Hurwitz and artist Szymon Kudranski, who haven’t worked on a Bat-story together since the great-until-the-last-two-issues Penguin Pain & Prejudice.

While I enjoyed Kudranksi’s very atmospheric style on that story, I did grow a bit tired of it with the backups in Detective Comics written by Tony Daniel. Kudranksi’s emphasis on extreme close-ups, overuse of shadows, and the occasional red saturation in moments of fury became predictable. But, thankfully, when it comes to his work on Batman: The Dark Knight #19, I felt like he brought his A-game, tried things he hadn’t done in previous bat-stories, and the colors by Hi-Fi really brought the images to life. The only pages that I didn’t care for were between Bruce and his new girlfriend Natalya. Bruce looked scrawny and had a receding hairline and Natalya’s facial expressions looked artificial like those of a store window mannequin. Flashback colors were blinding and while that might be unappealing for some I found it to give the panels the distant feel of a memory. Only the characters in the foreground, the integral moment itself is in sharp focus while the details of the environment fade away. But it’s the final pages of the book that I enjoyed the most. It’s really horrific, haunting stuff. So what I’m saying is that there’s no reason to fear the art quality taking a nosedive due to Ethan Van Sciver taking a break. If you’re a big enough fan of his, you should at least find solace in knowing that he did the fold-out cover. Now, this gatefold cover, while well drawn, inked, and colored would under ANY other circumstances be a great cover to have– as far as “WTF” gatefold covers go, this is one of the least surprising I saw this month.

What about the story, you ask? Well, for a comic with Batman’s name in it twice, the Caped Crusader hardly makes an appearance. He’s there for maybe a page or two in the final, spooky pages but everything else in the book focuses on Jervis. In the last issue we saw that Jervis’ craziness stems from having taken an experimental tesosterone drug when he was a teenager. I’m not a fan of this idea by a long shot, but I was willing to see where Hurwitz was going with it. Here in issue #19 Mad Hatter’s childhood is explored more deeply than ever before. You’ll see how the drug affected his mind and body  how his world fell apart and the path to villainy began. You’ll also finally get an understanding of what his obsession with Wonderland is and what exactly he’s been building for the past 3 or 4 issues– the arc’s been going on for a while… I think this is the 4th installment. It’s drawn out too long by any count and Hurwitz needs to pace his stories more economically. Scarecrow’s reign of terror dragged for too many issues as well.

It’s a very important issue for the New 52 Mad Hatter and I’m sure it will divide people. While I don’t care at all for the drug angle, I do very much like how Hurwitz addressed the Wonderland obsession. This is an issue that may be worth checking out just so you can get in on the discussion. I’ll talk about this a bit more deeply in spoiler tags.

Spoiler
The most loved and well-known origin of Mad Hatter is that from the Animated Series where Jervis was a sad, lonely man who had an affection for the old children’s story Alice in Wonderland and used that fantasy as a means of escape from his depressing life. The line between fantasy and reality blurred and when his real life crumbled he fell completely into the make-believe and became the fantastical villain who would take over a Wonderland theme park in Gotham and host tea parties with kidnapped victims he would force to play dressup. In the New 52 version, the Wonderland theme park is actually what started it all. It is the very setting for Jervis’ psychological break. The greatest day of his life was in this fairy tale world with the girl of his dreams but after having his mind twisted and his body made all the more grotesque by experimental medication, Jervis lost any chance he had with this girl. He became obsessed with her, obsessed with recapturing that moment inside the theme park. And it’s that element that I really like. Forget the drugs making him crazy, this is actually a very good excuse for why the man would be so consumed by the fiction of Alice in Wonderland. However, it doesn’t exactly solve the problem of Mad Hatter being a one-note super villain. In fact, it possibly makes it worse because instead of trying to bring victims into the expansive an imaginary world of Wonderland, he’s just trying to reenact a single moment from his childhood.

Other spoilerish points to make–

  • Using the hats for surveilance as well as mind control was an inventive idea that I liked and I think it’s a development that makes Hatter far more sinister than the recent ultra violence.
  • Bruce acting like he’s never experienced love before was awkward. “Is this what love feels like?” is a line that made me gag.
  • Dropping Natalya off at the symphony in his Batwing was ridiculous. Batman would never do that. It…it draws attention, you know?
  • After the last issue I’m sure we were all waiting to see if Hurwitz would take the predictable route of having Natalya be kidnapped by the Mad Hatter and turned into his perfect Alice. Well, that’s what he did and it’s a pretty boring direction to take the story. After trying so hard to breathe new life into the Mad Hatter’s characterization this plot development is a snooze.
  • What’s the point of having Mad Hatter having a rehearsal if he’s just going to kill all the crew afterwards? I guess you can just write it off as “the guy’s crazy, what more do you want?”
  • Wouldn’t all the people drowning themselves snap out of the trance once they got deep enough in the water for their hats to float away?
  • The final moment in the comic is scary. The final line delivered by Gordon is corny. After all the shit this man has seen I don’t think anything could make him drop to his knees and weep “I fear he’s going to make our city bleed.”
  • I still hate the idea of Tetch being turned evil first and foremost as a result of chemicals, but I suppose what Hurwitz is going for is a parallel with the mercury induced insanity of the Hatters of old.

This was an alright read with a great atmosphere thanks to Szymon Kudranski and colorist Hi-Fi, but Kudranski’s style is so vastly different from Sciver’s that it’s going to make for one extraordinarily jarring trade paperback! As for the writing of this book the romance subplot is falling flat for me and Mad Hatter’s target for the perfect Alice is a predictable and boring direction to take the arc. There are some very corny lines as well that I could have done without. At the very least, you’ll finally understand New 52 Jervis Tetch’s turn to the dark side, grasp what his latest evil plan is all about, and you’ll likely be shocked by what the first phase leaves in its wake. It could be the most disturbing Bat-title of the month. I went back and forth between a 6 and a 6.5…thereabouts. It’s not great. It’s not terrible. Quite the long review to just say “Flip through it at the comic shop and decide for yourself.” eh?

SCORE: 6.5/10