All-Star Batman #8 review

Think of the last great Mad Hatter story you read.  When you do, let me know what it is.

I don’t say that to be snide, I’m genuinely curious what the great Jervis Tetch stories are.  Right now, I’m drawing a blank.  When I think of a good Hatter story, I think of “Perchance to Dream” or “Mad as a Hatter.”  You know, animated series episodes.

And make no mistake, those are great episodes.  “Perchance to Dream” in particular isn’t just one of the best Hatter stories in any medium, it’s one of the best episodes of the animated series and maybe even one of the best Batman stories of I’m being really crazy.

With comics, though, I’m struggling to think of any.  It’s kind of strange, that, because Hatter is one of Batman’s more recognizable foes.  Sure, if you’re asked to name Batman villains his name probably won’t pop up in the first five or even ten characters you spout off, but surely you’d get to him before you go too far past a dozen.  He’s not quite A-list like the Joker, Two-Face, Catwoman, or Ra’s Al Ghul, but he isn’t D-list like, say, Maxie Zeus.  Who is terrible.

So, readers, let me know what your favorite Jervis Tetch books are, because after reading All-Star Batman #8, I want to read more.  It’s still way too early to tell if this will go down as a classic Hatter story, as it’s a bit off the beaten path, but I found it gripping and effective.

And by gripping and effective I mean, of course, absolutely bananas.

Pictured: one of the tamer moments of the story.

This is an issue that will likely have to be re-assessed after next month’s finale to the arc.  It’s weird, opaque, and lacking a narrative through-line, instead opting to go the route of a psychological head-trip.  The opening and closing pages seem to have little to do with the bulk of the narrative.  While the opening scene is pretty entertaining, what with not-Nightwing getting whacked in the face with a robot machine gun flamingo, the inclusion of the Blackhawks and their abduction of Duke never pays off.  We’ll have to wait until next month to see what the point was, to see just what Hatter was trying to accomplish with Bruce.

It’s one of those cases where everything is so weird and so obtuse that just reading something different than the norm is refreshing.  I’m not sure what Snyder is trying to say here, and I’m not sure I’m even supposed to know.  We’re just as confused as Bruce, going down the rabbit hole where we don’t know what’s reality and what is a fantastical hallucination.

The mere fact that this is a Hatter story that doesn’t revolve around Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass tropes is reason enough to check it out.  Like I said before, I haven’t read an awful lot of stories with Tetch, and those that I have tend to involve abduction, mind control, and girls named Alice more often than not.  While “possible virtual reality hallucinations” aren’t too far removed from mind control, Hatter himself doesn’t speak in rhyme or verse.  In fact, when there are references to the works of Lewis Carroll they take the form of a trigger phrase.  It’s not the entirety of Hatter’s dialogue.

Dialogue that, thanks to the hand of Steve Wands, is jagged and slightly off-putting.  This isn’t quite on the level of the Mr. Freeze tale and its horror movie vibe, but it’s still unsettling in its own way.  The dialogue flows with the illustrations, adding to the surreality of the work.  Even beyond the weird narrative, this is just a visual arresting book, with some simultaneously gorgeous and bizarre visuals from Giuseppe Camuncoli, Mark Morales, and Dean White.  There’s the great splash image above with its beautiful colors and inventive use of perspective, and then there are images like this that are just as arresting:

Another artist could have made that truly macabre and even unpleasant, but Camuncoli makes it to where it’s just off-putting enough to arouse curiosity while still being a largely attractive image.  I’m mostly familiar with his work on Green Valley (which is… something else now, all right), and he’s a good fit for Snyder’s stylings.  I’d like to see more from the two of them in the future, maybe on something a little more straightforward.

Like Bruce, I questioned what was real and what wasn’t through the whole issue.  It’s open to interpretation for sure, along with what the entire point of the exercise was.  It may fall apart in next month’s finale, but as it is now, I couldn’t help but enjoy this strange trip through Bruce’s mind.

Of all the entries in the second cycle of “The Cursed Wheel,” this is by far the slowest paced.  Frankly, I’m ok with that, because it also has a sense of direction.  We get a greater idea of Duke’s mentality as he trains under Batman, and his lamentation that it might not be for him actually rings pretty true.  It’s becoming more and more evident where Duke is going to end up and what his role is going to be, and save for maybe an on the nose line or two this is a pretty good backup.

Francavilla continues to do his thing too, and “his thing” is drawing some pretty good comics.  His opening page is about the only action moment of the entire story, but he makes great use of panel layouts to tell his side of the story.  In lesser hands his use of panel overlays and double-page spreads may not have worked, but that’s not the case here.  His reliance on square panels to evoke crossword puzzles is an inspired choice, perfectly fitting with the Riddler’s involvement.

Plus, his Batman has longer ears.

That’s worth a point or two right there.

Recommended if:

  • You want a different kind of Mad Hatter story.
  • You want to see some arresting visuals.
  • You’re ok with things getting a little weird now and then.

Overall: Visually inventive, narratively bizarre, and an overall weird ride, this was so strange I couldn’t help but love it.  Snyder is having a blast playing around with narrative structures and styles and he’s bringing along some A-list talent to realize the visual side of his scripts.  If nothing else, this got me wanting to read more Mad Hatter stories, just to see how a character I saw as one-note could be used in different ways.  This issue of All-Star Batman may not be a typical clear-cut superhero comic, but it’s certainly unique and weirdly beautiful in all its surreal madness.

SCORE: 8.5/10