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?