Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Myth of the Mad Hatter

Let's take a look at DC's Mad Hatter, one of its best examples of how comic myths grow.

It was very first obvious in his first story that the Mad Hatter was intended as a one-time, throwaway character; he's not even the central figure of the plot! The first Mad Hatter story is, in fact, Vicki Vale's story (Batman #49, Oct/Nov 1948). It introduces her as a Lois Lane manque for Batman, always snooping around trying to deduce Batman's identity. Vicki never caught on with readers; the secret identity games Superman played with Lois were needed to give him a challenge, but Batman readers were more interested in watching their hero catch crooks than evade reporters. Superman is essentially French farce; Batman, pulp fiction.

The Mad Hatter is merely a plot device in that story (although he is quite a pitcher). Not wanting Vicki's introduction to be overshadowed by the presence of a real member of Batman's rogues gallery, the writer, I'm sure, simply plucked a familar culture image out of a hat (um, no joke intended) and made a villain of it. At the end of the story the Hatter does have some thugs disguised as Wonderland characters infiltrate a costume affair, but mostly the Hatter's "theme" is pretty light. No interest in hats per se, either; he was after a yachting club trophy.

A yachting club trophy. Yes, I'd risk my life and freedom for such a prize. Ever wondered why crooks hang out in Gotham, despite the Batman's threatening presence? The answer is simple: the best darned fences of stolen goods in the world. No matter what obscure ridiculous crap you steal, the Insuperable Fences of Gotham will have it sold and converted into cash for you in under three business days.

"Whaddaya got? Priceless collection of Etruscan snoods? That'll be ready Friday by close of business. A trainload of chewing gum for the black market? Depends; if it's sugarless, I can get you top dollar." Name it: Batagonian Cat's Eye Opals, industrial size vats of caviar, pinched cruise ships. You can get anything fenced in Gotham City.

Since the Mad Hatter was a throwaway, it's no surprise he never appeared again in the Golden Age. But in the Silver Age, all characters were grist for the mill of reinvention (just ask Alan Scott and Jay Garrick!). And, thanks to googly-eyed foaming-at-the-mouth trendsetters like Joe Coyne, all you needed was a "crime symbol", a sort of theme around which to base all your crimes, and you could be a supervillain. I mean, this is the era of Signalman, Calendarman, and the Spinner.

Thus, the Mad Hatter, now drawn with dramatic red hair and moustache with unmatching black eyebrows, was reimagined as a sort of big game hunter of hats. He stole hats, using hat weapons. And, um, hat-related stuff. Thanks to the Insuperable Fences of Gotham, there's a living in that sort of thing.

Anyway, his two main stories involving getting revenge on the jurors who had sent him to prison and stealing Batman's cowl. Sure enough, these became the very plots of the Mad Hatter episodes on the Batman live action series in the late 1960s. The Mad Hatter was portrayed brilliantly by the underappreciated David Wayne. So deadly earnest was his acting that the Hatter was actually disturbing, threatening. Well, by the standards of the Batman show, anyway.

Here's where it gets interesting. Writers must have thought the comic version of the Mad Hatter too colorless or his various hat tricks to reminiscent of the Penguin's umbrellas. So they came with

"the super instant mesmerizer concealed in my top hat."

GODS, how I love saying that--daily. The top of his hat would pop open and little tiny glowing eyes would zap people in their eyes and, well, super-instant mesmize them. Ridiculous. Extremely cool. I remember trying to make one as a kid. I got the top to pop. I'm still working on the super instant mesmerizer part.

As is often the case in the evolution of a myth, there were variant versions of the Mad Hatter, waiting for a synchretic attempt to pull them into a unified whole. That happened in Detective 510 in 1981.

It was a high time for villains; the Joker, Two-Face, Dr. Death, Catman, the Scarecow, the Mannequin, the Pharoah. Everyone was making the scene. Cue the "new" Mad Hatter. Actually he was the original one, now portrayed as a genius in electronics and neuroscience who had invented "mindcontrol hats". Though the hats stifled individual thought they also unleashed hidden brain potential (an excuse for making the Hatter's slave extra strong and dangerous).

He also had a creepy attachment to his pet monkey. Where is that monkey? DC; bring back the Hatter's monkey, please. Monkeys and comic books are a natural together.

Who did write that story? I don't remember it as being very good, but it did pull together the appearance of the Wonderland character (from the Golden Age version), using hats as gimmick weapons (from the Silver Age version), and mindcontrol (from the TV version).

Those were all the elements needed for the folks at Batman the Animated Series to craft the perfect Mad Hatter. Just as they had done with Mr. Freeze, they gave the character a backstory based in a love gone wrong that explained their descent into crime and madness. That, along with giving him an obsession with the Wonderland books, completed the picture. This powerful mythic amalgam, backed by Roddy McDowall's inspired voicing of the disturbed Jervis Tetch, finally pulled the Mad Hatter of their mists of the Third Tier of Batman villains and placed him solidly in the Second Tier.

Further portrayals have enriched the Mad Hatter myth. An unhealthy attachment with little girls (aped from the rumors about the author of the original Wonderland stories, Lewis Carroll) has been implicated (at least in Robin Year One and Arkham Asylum). And in case you're wondering why no one else uses his mind control technology it's because the feedback poisons the mind of the controller, contributing to the madness of the Hatter. Now all he needs is his monkey back.

Writers have on the whole done a good job combining the Hatter's various themes and elements in different ways to form stories (for example, when he gains control of the police department through a coffee service, a sort of modern twist on the Mad Hatter's Tea Party).

I wonder when we'll see him again!

P.S. Hi, Gail! Will you marry me?


Cole Moore Odell said...

Jervis Tetch and his mind control hats made a memorable appearance in Gotham Central just a couple of years ago.

Anonymous said...

Scipio, since you seem to be the expert on the Mad Hatter: Did the paedophilia angle start with the Arkham Asylum GN? It couldn't have been pre-1980's. I'll tell you, for those people who ask why Sue Dibney getting raped is worse than Sue Dibney being flamethrowered, just look at the difference the presence or absence of this element makes to this character. It may be a veiled reference to Lewis Carroll. It may be a snarky meta comment on the kind of comic geek who bought hypnosis products in the back of the old comics. But it makes him really unpleasant to read about and adds only the illusion of character and drama.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Dini will use him. I believe he wrote the first Hatter episode in Batman:TAS.

Anonymous said...

According to the GCD, Gerry Conway wrote Detective Comics 510.

What do you think of Neil Gaiman's take on the Hatter from his 1988 Black Orchid mini? Gaiman portrayed him as rather sweet (albeit clearly murderously insane) old man who is thrilled to receive a flower as a gift from Black Orchid. Not sure how that fits into to the character progression you outlined here.

joncormier said...

This is further Proof that Batman: The Animated Series is a high water mark for the Batman mythos. This was mainly because they did their homework and combined a lot of elements from the history of Batman to come up with a high-octane mix. Suddenly all the gimicky villains had motivation and depth.

As you so eloquently display here Scipio, comics were one trick ponies. They were written to be discarded and because of that the writers on Batman TAS had a huge tank to pull from. Kind of like Alexander Luthor's giant space hands petrie dish only cool and good.

Scipio said...

": Did the paedophilia angle start with the Arkham Asylum GN? "

Yes,it did.

Scipio said...

"According to the GCD, Gerry Conway wrote Detective Comics 510."

Ah, that makes sense. Conway could create interesting characters then use them very poorly (Vibe, for example).

Chris said...

"I wonder when we'll see him again!"

I don't want to give you spoilers, but he's in a book that comes out THIS VERY DAY. Should be good, too.

Scipio said...

Why, imagine that!

Anonymous said...

Didn't a Spiderman villain called the RINGMASTER also have a hat that hypnotized people?

(Marvel experts out there?)

Steven said...

Yes, but he's got nothin' on the Hypno-Hustler.

Jeremy Rizza said...

Aw, the old school Hatter was positively adorable! Looks more absent-minded than malevolent. By contrast, the last-page reveal of the Hatter I got in a certain comic I bought today gave me quite the start! I was expecting to see the Mad Hatter, mind you, and I was thinking he might be kind of creepy, but I didn't think the sight would be that off-putting. 80% of it was just the look on his face. Yeesh. I'm shaking my head just thinking about it. But it was a fun kind of disturbing, like you'd get with a good horror film or a haunted house at the carnival. And that's rare to get from a comic book! In fact, I'm thinking I'll post about it -- hats count as fashion, so it's fair game -- but I'm gonna wait until next week. I don't want to spoil the surprise of it for anybody quite yet.

Paul S. said...

I particularly loved The Mad Hatter's role in the "Unresolved" arc of Gotham Central. One of the scarriest comics I've read.

Anonymous said...

I apologize (as usual) for the bandwidth hogging, but you've made me gabby with this post, Mr. Scipio. Just last week, I was obsessing a tad about the Hatter (re-reading old comics and re-watching BTAS toons), and given this week's Secret Six, I was happy for my (wholly inadvertant) prescience.

The Hatter character has had an "interesting" (in the Chinese sense of the word) evolution, thanks entirely to the fact that, seemingly, the Bat-staff couldn't make up their damned minds about who he was or what to do with him.

As you mentioned, the dumpy, no-civilian-name-given Golden Age version was a one-off, and they scrapped that Hatter for the red-haried Silver Age Jervis Tetch, who only had two real appearances ('Tec 230 and Batman #161) before the Adam West show. And like all things relating to that show's villains, it was a virtual death knell for the character, as he only had a half-dozen teensy, tiny cameos over the next decade. It wasn't until 1978 (Batman #297) where he got a starring baddie role.

Then came 'Tec #510, which re-introduced the still-no-real-name Golden Age Hatter and added all that micro-circuitry, mind-controlling glory. You'd think that this tale would be a great revival, as the Hatter gets a choice bit of dialogue about how he slew the "imposter" that stole his identity (wait--he really WAS Jervis Tetch, or is he just griping about the nome de plume?) and is ready now for the big leagues, but--alas--he STILL can't catch a break, as his brain is turned to gelatin by his own machinery. From revamp to lobotomy in 24 pages!

You'd think this plot point might be somewhat significant, but it's wholly ignored in his almost-immediate next appearance (the mythic, villain-o-rific 'Tec 526), though--in fact, irony of ironies, a now perfectly-cerebral Hatter berates the Scarecrow for being a slobbering, brain-dead zombie (thanks to 'Tec #503, where the Scarecrow ingests his own toxins)! But as all comic readers know, karma is a fickle mistress, and it's only a mere two pages later when the Hatter is just, oh, FLATTENED BY A FREAKING TRAIN.

A few years later, in 1985, we come to the Ms in the Who's Who, and you'd think that this would be a prefect opportunity to set the character(s) straight. However, the encyclopedia is no help at all, as it gives short shrift to both Hatters (Mk I STILL has no name), and all but confirms in print that the Mad Hatters make no sense.

Then we come to 1987's 'Tec #573, which gave us the first Post-Crisis Mad Hatter...and he was now (and again) the (allegedly-deceased) red-haired Jervis Tetch. Two decades later, I still remember my frustration upon first reading that book and realizing that the Hatter still had NO consistency. (I was gleefully comforted by his new flying buzzsaw hats, though.)

And for the next 5 years, thanks to Arkham Asylum and plenty of overused "spot the villain’s name on the cell door" panels, what Hatter did we get, you ask? THE ORIGINAL WHITE-HAIRED GOLDEN AGE ONE, WHO STILL NEVER HAD A GODFORSAKEN NAME.

You'd think that I would loathe the Mad Hatter given my obvious disdain of his history and treatment, but all my ire vanished in 1992 thanks to the magic of Mssrs Dini, Timm, and McDowall. The animated Mad Hatter is one of the greatest creations in toondom, full of pathos and depth. I actually get teary every time I see "Perchance to Dream," where the Mad Hatter's grand scheme is to give Batman perfect bliss, just so he himself can be left alone. The raw anguish as the Hatter's voice breaks in his climactic cry--"I did it FOR YOU!"--is heartrending.

And, thanks to BTAS, we've had the longest run of stories--Long Halloween(s) and Robin Year One and Gotham Central and infinitely more overused "spot the villain’s name on the cell door" panels--featuring the consistent and stable (both relatively speaking) Mad "My Name IS Jervis Tetch" Hatter that I adore today. (Granted, I think most writers go overboard on the Carroll-speak and weirdness-for-weirdness-sake, but my McDowall-devotion goes a long way in smoothing that over.)

And--whew!--if anyone is still reading this thing, I come to the so-awesome-I've-read-it-three-times Secret Six #1.

When the Six are discussing the "anti-Psycho" protocols, I figgered that they were discussing a mentalist/psionic villain who could shield them from mind-bending, and I started ticking off the usual suspects: Hector Hammond, Gorilla Grodd, Brainwave(s), Mr. Mind, the Shark, etc. But that line of thinking came to an abrupt end when Cat-Man (I still think he needs that hyphen, if you please) goes (in the long-lost Cat-Mobile, no less!) to the mystery house. The dialogue is appropriately weird, giving a maybe Riddler-y vibe, but that art, with the big playing card in the foreground and the card-themed doorknockers/knobs, added with Scandal's earlier line about the person being "not a lover of the Society," made my mind leap to the Joker.

But then...but THEN....

I took a closer look at the page, and noticed, on the left side of the third panel, a particular thing—a robotic rabbit. And then I let loose a mighty guffaw of surprise and delight, for I RECOGNIZED THAT ‘LECTRIC LEPUS! And, lo!, I immediately knew the identity of the Secret Sixth!

And I gleefully zoomed to the end of the book, and wallowed in my own deductive brilliance at guessing the last-page reveal. Callooh, callay, indeed!

Ms. Simone, if you’re reading, let me say that you’re a godsend when it comes to DC’s baddies. Thank you. I’d be willing to duel our host for your affections, even!

(And for those that have no idea about what I’m blathering, lemme clue you in. If you never haunted the toy aisles in the 90s, you would’ve missed Kenner’s amazing BTAS toy line. They released a picture-perfect version of the Mad Hatter, and his mandatory, essential action accessory wasn’t a hat-grenade or the like; instead, it was…a jumbo bunny-bot. Canon? No. But delightful and adorable, absolutely! And if you take a gander at the comic panel I mentioned above, that flop-eared fabricant that has me all a’twitter is none other than the exact same toy that came with the Mad Hatter! Bravo, Mr. Walker!)

What a frabjous day for comics!

Scipio said...

"The animated Mad Hatter is one of the greatest creations in toondom, full of pathos and depth. I actually get teary every time I see "Perchance to Dream," where the Mad Hatter's grand scheme is to give Batman perfect bliss, just so he himself can be left alone."

I agree wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for showing me a Gene Colan cover I've never seen before!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The Batman animated series was brilliant at this sort of thing, wasn't it?

Mr. Freeze in "Heart of Ice." The two-parter that introduced Two-Face was exciting, cool, romantic, and sad. Plus it had "Bull" from "Night Court" as the voice of Harvey Dent. Nice.

Good stuff, yo.

Anonymous said...

Bless Gail Simone... there's just a little bit magical about the idea of Hatter vs. Psycho.

I'm practically giddy with anticipation.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Kathy Kane...

Anonymous said...

If you can sell anything in Gotham, why the heck is Killer Moth a thug for hire when he can hit the Black Market? I'd pay a heck of a lot of money for the Mothmobile or the Moth signal.

Benjamin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.