“Mad” is bloody. How bloody? Well, the cover you see was originally part of a gate-fold, which when extended revealed the second half of a larger image: Mad Hatter riding his own private gondola afloat a river of dead bodies. I’ll talk about this more gruesome depiction of a classic baddie, a Bruce Wayne love interest that nobody cared about, and the beautiful artwork that makes it all almost forgivable.

Content

Batman: The Dark Knight, Vol. 3: Mad collects issues #16-21 of the New 52 series (that’s the entire Mad Hatter arc) and the 1st Annual, which also featured Mad Hatter.

You know The Mad Hatter. He’s a bad guy that’s been around for a very long time. He started out as a mustachioed man who just really loved hats and was willing to steal to get all the best ones. Later he was characterized as being a more tech-oriented villain who used mind control devices hidden within hats and he became obsessed with the Alice in Wonderland stories as well. Often times– most would say “too often”– he would recreate the famous tea party scene, kidnap a girl to be his “Alice,” and then… well, that was about the extent of it. We haven’t really looked back since that second interpretation until now and it’s widely agreed that the Batman: The Animated Series version of the character was far and away the best. In Gregg Hurwitz’s “Mad,” the origin gets an update and I’ll go on the record as saying I don’t much care for it at all and unfortunately this 6-issue tale is devoted to it entirely, particularly Tetch’s troubled childhood, a theme that Hurwitz brings in to all of his comics. However, the childhood flashbacks were not as predictable as many expected and some readers should actually find them quite enjoyable. Hurwitz loves to dive into the psychology of these characters. It doesn’t always work and often times it’s structured too similarly to all of hi his other stories featuring A-list villains, but if you’re looking for something dark and slow-paced then this should do.

The new Mad Hatter is bug-eyed, rage-filled, loves tea for all the wrong reasons, and is impish in height although he tries to improve that with stilettos. He’s a psychopath who has achieved the 2nd highest body count of any Batman villain in the New 52 so far by my estimate– Harley Quinn likely has the highest if you can believe that! While I’m grateful that Hurwitz didn’t go the pedophile route with the character (something I’ve seen fans suggest but I’m wholeheartedly against) I’m still not a fan of Tetch’s new found bloodlust. There are even numerous occasions in which Tetch will sip specially concocted teas that act like PCP so he can really beat someone death with impunity! Unfortunately, these teas are also used much like Scarecrow’s fear gas. There’s one scene in particular where a tea bag is emptied of its contents and blown in a victim’s face and the end result is identical to what we would find from Jonathan Crane’s worst batch. In addition to stealing some of Scarecrow’s thunder, the all-new Mad Hatter also takes note from the animated series villain Baby Doll. Now instead of trying to recreate a tea party because it’s in the Lewis Carroll fable, he’s doing it to recreate better days gone by– you’ll see when you read it. While these aspects are lifted from other enemies, the scenes in which they are employed are gorgeous to look at and stand as a great example of artist Ethan Van Sciver’s range.

In addition to rebuilding Mad Hatter from the ground up, Hurwtiz’s story also tries to impose on its readers a new love interest for The Dark Knight, but he doesn’t give her the same attention to detail and sturdy foundation as Tetch. Six issues are spent explaining why this new Mad Hatter is so eager to break necks and drown the world, but the thing we readers most need to understand is what it is that Bruce sees in Natalya Trusevich. His infatuation is taken to such an extreme that he even begins to think about retiring. Any character that can do that needs to be extra special and yet most fans have either never heard of her or can’t remember her name. She’s likeable and even stands up for herself when Bruce never shows up for a date or one of her performances as a concert pianist, but even after establishing her in volume 2 that’s still not enough! We need to see her interact with Alfred, Grayson, and especially Damian. If Bruce is thinking about making her Damian’s new mommy then just think of how many funny, awkward, and tension-filled scenes that could create between her and the Son of the Batman. We get none of that and it’s a lot of squandered potential.

Despite dwelling on the new love, the doubts it inspires in our hero, and focusing so heavily on ways to make The Mad Hatter newer, scarier, and more edgy in these 6 issues, by the time we reach the end it’s all very, very, very predictable. I’ll freely admit that I could be being too hard on Natalya or the frightening new way Tetch behaves. There’s definitely some entertainment value to be found there, especially when the action is running high. But “Mad” falls flat in the end regardless because it falls into the same tired Mad Hatter formula. In the end it becomes exactly the thing that every Mad Hatter story over the past 20 years or more has been: we have to have a tea party, we have to have an Alice, and… that’s about it. You’ll hardly even hear Hatter say a word in the final chapter because he’s totally run out of things to say. And to add insult to injury, we do have Batman referring to Alfred as “Penny-One” and Alfred calling Batman “Bat-One” so there’s that.

However, as I said before, if you’re into making your Batman stories more X-treme and emphasizing bloody, gory violence then this story is going to be right up your alley. Personally, I see decisions like this to be too easy. Turning a villain into a homicidal maniac or giving them an all-new super power comes off as being an overly obvious route to take when looking for ways to improve a classic foe’s threat level. Scarface? He’s an old man with a dummy. Let’s make that old man a young chick with telekinetic powers and lets make the dummy look more like the one from those SAW movies and give it drills in its hands– and make him cuss and talk about sex! –That happened. By moving more of the Bat villians in this direction you strip them of the complexity that makes them so unique. I could write about this for hours, but luckily I already have. You can read more of my thoughts on this across all the reviews I did of every individual issue of this 6-part series, which, frankly, could’ve been told in 3.

What you’ll find in these reviews is that there were indeed elements of this story that I did enjoy. Obviously, those elements were not the new portrayal of Mad Hatter, his origin, or the weak attempt at a romantic angle. But this comic excels in artwork and action– which is mostly because the artwork is so good at making you feel every bit of it. Ethan Van Sciver is far and away the biggest reason why I’m giving this book a higher score than the previous two volumes. There are some jaw-dropping pages here and there’s a panel where you see some literal jaw-dropping when Batman punches a henchman across the face. Seriously, it’s the #1 Batman punch of 2013. The way he draws Batman’s cape in that vampiric style akin to what Kane did in the first issues ever, the impressive layouts that you’ll marvel at and remember long after the contents of the story have left your mind, and the colors by Hi-Fi really make it all pop. I was especially pleased to see that Hi-Fi’s original colors for the issue #16 cover were restored (it was a sea foam green when it went to print). You’ll see me rave even more passionately about Sciver in the individual reviews, but unfortunately he didn’t get to tell the story from start to finish and Szymon Kudranski filled in. Their styles don’t mesh well at all and it’s incredibly jarring. In some instances Kudranski is great, the quiet moments where things need to be very moody and atmospheric. He emphasizes shadows a great deal. But when it’s time for action things get very stiff, very static.

Lastly, the Annual that closes out the comic is quite enjoyable. It’s such a simple story about three of Batman’s oldest enemies being stuck in a haunted house for a night. There’s none of that cheap shock-value, it’s just an oversized comic that’s really fun.

I’m also happy to report that this book includes every chapter in the story from start to finish. You wouldn’t think this would be worth noting, but the past 2 or 3 TPBs I’ve read all called it quits with 1 or 2 chapters left to be printed in a later volume that fans won’t see for a long time.

Bonus Material

None. The “Mad” arc was really long and with the Annual tacked on there just isn’t enough room for extras in this hardcover. A shame, really, but the Annual should feel like a pleasant bonus to most. However, I was looking forward to some original pencils by Ethan Van Sciver at the very least. While I don’t think it’s a particularly well-written story, there’s plenty of beautiful artwork.

Value: Sale Price

Wait for the softcover or find it at a discount. I personally dislike the blood-thirsty portrayal of Mad Hatter that Hurwitz has devised and wouldn’t want to re-read this overlong saga again. However, it does have some fantastic artwork, the New 52 origin could be worth having in your collection just to say you have it, and… did I mention that the Ethan Van Sciver’s artwork will make this collection a perfectly worthy purchase for many? It’s a pretty book. You just have to love violence even when it comes from characters that really shouldn’t turn to savagery.

Overall

On the plus side, it looks great, has some genuinely cool and memorable moments, and comes with a fun done-in-one annual about Mad Hatter, Penguin, and Scarecrow trapped in a haunted house that all stacks up to quite a bit of content for your money. On the negative side, the main story is way longer than it needed to be, showcases gratuitous use of death and gore, and has a portrayal of, and all-new origin for, The Mad Hatter that I just don’t like at all. Still, I can’t bring myself to give it less than a 6 because I like that artwork so dang much.

SCORE: 6/10