Joker's Asylum II:Mad Hatter isn't the usual sort of comic that gets reviewed here at Supergirl Comic Box Commentary but I couldn't help myself.
For one thing, it is written by Landry Walker, the writer of Supergirl:Cosmic Adventures in the Eighth Grade. Walker captured the essence of Supergirl so perfectly in that series that it made me an avid fan of his work. Here he really seems to capture the despair of the Mad Hatter.
Second, of all the issues which I bought last week, this one moved me the most. Haunting, horrific, fantastic ... I was so impressed with this book I felt the need to review it.
The concept of the Joker's Asylum book is simple. The Joker hosts the issues like the Crypt Keeper, introducing and closing an in-depth look at one of Batman's villains.
From the opening splash page of the Mad Hatter's story, you get a sense of just how chaotic and erratic his life is, the state of disarray in his mind.
Out of Arkham, he talks of writing a book about his life. But look at the pages ... crayon drawings, ripped paper and pieces of photos and taped magazine clippings, post-it notes reminding him not to drink tea ... just disorganized thinking. Visually it is disturbing, the sign of a man trying to force his life into some semblance of order, trying to make his life a fairy tale ... but the images are hardly edenic.
And the words also hint at the Hatter's state of mind and how he is teetering on the edge of madness. His 'book', the story of his life, cannot discuss hats or tea, the symbolic triggers of his delusions.
But already you get the sense of the tenor of this issue. This isn't a madman reveling in his twisted fantasies. Here is a man struggling to hold back his insanity, someone working hard to have a 'normal life'.
Hats and tea aren't his only obsessions. Of course, he needs an Alice. And he wonders about the cashier at the local grocery store. Is she his Alice?
He so desperately hopes so. Looking from the outside, worshipping her from afar, he wonders if she could ever love someone like him ... someone as flawed and ugly as he is.
Of course, he could use his technology to make her love him. He could become the Hatter again. But he recognizes how empty that love is. And he knows that isn't how he would want his fairy tale to be written. He simply wants her to love him for who he is.
As his obsession for her grows, so do the temptations of the hats and the tea.
They almost overwhelm him.
Just as he is about to drink the tea, to become the Hatter again, he shakes off the impulse and vows to be strong.
You can really feel just how hard it is for him to keep his delusions at bay, how they are constantly creeping in from the edges of his life. It is, in many ways, admirable ... he wants to exist in the 'real world', to live an ordinary life ... but he is toiling at it.
I actually felt some sympathy for him.
Sympathy ... for the Mad Hatter! It is the sign of excellent writing for a reader to feel for a character like this.
But you could sense the madness was wearing him down. The hats, the tea ... they were always there, gnawing at his resolve. It would only take an extra nudge to break through his defenses. And it all comes too soon.
After working up the courage to finally talk to the cashier, he is astonished to find out that she is not Alice. Her name is Cathryn. It is more than he can bear. He gives in to his madness.
You really get a sense of how deep-rooted his obsessions are when a name is enough to tip him over the edge. And you sense how hard he is trying to fight those obsessions, his apartment covered in post-it pads, piles of papers strewn around him. It shows you that a life fighting mental illness is not a life of opulence.
I also felt for him. He has been trying so hard to keep his insanity in check; I couldn't help but feel sad to see him finally succumb. Again, sympathy for the Hatter.
But after seeing him battle painfully, working away to stay sane, you get the sense of how at peace he is once he enters his fantasy world.
Literally the weight of the incessant struggle with his urges is off him as he transforms into the Mad Hatter, floating above his own little world. The chains of reality are off him; he is free to fly.
Again, I love how his world of fantasies are still crude crayon pictures; it just shows how warped this life is.
In perhaps my favorite page, we see the montage of all the things he hoped he could be, all defined by the hat he wears. It shows how hard he tried to find a persona he could become to live in society. Finally, he realizes the 'hat' he must wear, that of a madman. Again, there is a feeling of acceptance here ... almost relief on his part as he bows to the crowd. He is who he is.
Freed from the shackles of a sound mind, he uses his abilities to take control of Cathryn, making her an 'Alice' at a twisted tea party. But his anger is seething. Despite controlling her as a puppet, he cannot control himself. He feels compelled to kill her, blaming her for not being his 'Alice', for not loving him, and as a result for making him drink the tea and wear the hat. He blames her for his descent into madness.
Just as he is about to kill her, Batman arrives, almost like a force of nature, to stop him. In another nice touch, Jabberwocky is used as commentary over the battle scene.
During the battle, it seems like the sudden appearance of Batman shakes the Hatter a bit from his madness, as if there is a glimmer of hope for him to regain his senses. He says he wanted there to be a story of him and a girl ... not hats, and tea, and Batman.
Is there hope?
Should I feel hope that he is able to regain some semblance of sanity?
And then Walker pulls the rug out from under the reader.
After constructing a tale where I felt sympathy for the Mad Hatter. I am greeted to this splash page. There are two other 'Alices', murder victims, stuffed into the Hatter's closet, taped smiles on their faces. Cathryn isn't the first time he has slipped into a murderous delirium.
This is outright frightening. The image alone is creepy. But it was as if all the sympathy I had built up for the Hatter was suddenly washed away. How can I feel any sympathy for this multiple murderer? How can there be hope?
It is hopeless ... he is the Mad Hatter no matter how hard he tries not to be, no matter how much we hope he won't be. There will always be literal skeletons in his closet.
This was chilling.
As he is being taken away to Arkham, he vows to be stronger next time, to stay away from the tea. But he also spies a blond woman cop drinking tea and you know his words are just words. That he will become obsessed and kill again.
Even his dreams, his fairy tale book images, have become more ominous as though even he realizes he can never defeat his compulsions. He has given in already ... the word 'tea' repeated over and over, his delusions already out of control.
Wow! What a great issue!
Walker does an absolute phenomenal job here, putting us into the Hatter's mind and making is care for him, hope for him. And then in that delicious moment he dashes all that hope away, showing how futile the Hatter's fight to escape insanity's clutches is. It was a powerful moment which made me immediately change how I felt about the character and how I had interpreted the beginning of the book.
And the art so perfectly suits the book. This is an ugly story of madness and the art by Keith Giffen and Bill Sienkiewicz is beautifully ugly as well.
I have been reading comics for a long time and have seen it all. I relish whenever there is a moment which utterly shocks me, which makes me completely reverse the way I was thinking. This book did that in a gut-wrenching way. I can give it no higher praise.
Overall grade: A+
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