What is it with comic book writers inventing characters who can hypnotize people with their hats? Look, there is nothing inherently frightening or intimidating about a weird dude in a top hat. And yet, at the same time, there most definitely is something…off-putting about it.
Jervis Tetch is either a simple character to write that has just been over-thought, or he’s an impossibly complicated character to write that has never been handled correctly. When you’re that completely crazy, it’s really hard to make it believable (and unbelievable too). Here’s another villain whose background has been muddled over the years. At times he’s been obsessed with Lewis Carroll and reciting silly nonsense rhymes. At other times he’s shown as being unhealthily drawn to hats. He’s pulled simple crimes and ornate schemes. He’s used mostly mind control as his modus operandi, kidnapped little girls to sell as sex slaves, and even used his hats on himself to induce pleasure and lucidity. He’s one messed up little man.
On paper, he holds a lot of similarities to Scarecrow. The main difference is that while Scarecrow seems relatively sane while committing his crimes, Mad Hatter is quite the opposite. The little bugger is, to put it simply, mad. Cuckoo. Nutso. Off his rocker. Clinically wacko…from manic depressive, to obsessive-compulsive, delusional, schizophrenic and dangerously homicidal. However, where The Joker comes across as being a bit off and obsessed with taking down Batman, Tetch appears to just be totally chaotic. His schemes make no sense, they have very obtuse goals and roundabout processes. He babbles nonsense. He seems to be playing along only to turn and sink a knife into someone’s back. One moment he’s foaming at the mouth, the next he’s sipping a cup of tea and talking to stuffed animals.
Before we get into our regular back-and-forth session, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I think Gail Simone handled him beautifully in his recent Secret Six appearance. He was weird, creepy, helpful and one hundred percent dangerous all at the same time. She made you feel bad for him and then she made you feel bad for anyone who was around him. The little quirks, like only eating food with hats on it, really gave his character some much-welcomed dark humor.
So where do you start with a revamp ? What’s the big idea here? Who is Jervis Tetch and where does he fit in the DC Universe? Can the Mad Hatter be made into a big time villain?
Since you brought her up, can I just say that I think Gail Simone is one of the best writers in comics today, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being as good as she is? She’s excellent with character, but doesn’t neglect plot (so many writers seem to favor one element over the other), she doesn’t feel the need to eject years of continuity to tell her stories, and she does a very good job of balancing serious subjects, yet injecting a little bit of humor into a book as well. I am a huge fan of hers, and I have been ever since I first read her column “You’ll All Be Sorry”, which was consistently one of the funniest columns on the internet. I am always entertained by her work.
Of course, that first paragraph has nothing to do with the Mad Hatter, probably because I’m stalling for time and trying to fill up space. I’ve been contemplating Mr. Tetch since we first mentioned the Bat-Villains as our next group of characters we wanted to explore, and I’ve focused really hard on him this morning, since now he was on the blog, in black and white, with a nifty picture. It hasn’t helped. I’ve never really had a handle on this character, perhaps because nobody else has a handle on him either. We keep coming back to this fact with a lot of Batman’s villains, but you mention here again how the Mad Hatter has been depicted in a variety of ways over his career. I suppose, when characters have been around this long, that’s to be expected. Honestly, my most vivid (and fond) memory of the character is what was done to him in Batman: The Animated Series (another subject that keeps popping up for us) and even then the character didn’t interest me much; I just liked Roddy McDowell’s voice work.
So, what do we do with the Hatter? Um, I have no idea. Let him be a casualty the next time a character needs to be killed to prove a point? Team him up with the Ringmaster in an intercompany crossover? Perhaps Marvel and DC could trade some characters, the way pro-sports teams trade players? I’m stumped on this one….but I have no doubt you have a crafty plan up your sleeve. I’m anxious to hear it.
Nice cop out. Let me see if I can struggle out from under this sudden and unexpected “right back at ya!” weight. Jerk.
I have to admit that my thoughts were all over the place on this character as well. I always saw him as a bit of a goofy, themed villain in my earliest exposures to the Batman world. Then, when I dove into the Loeb/Sale stories, I started to see him in a different light. Now, he’s actually one of my favorite Bat-foes. And after reading your befuddled response, I have reached an epiphany about Mr. Jervis Tetch. His origin and previous appearances are not at odds with his current incarnation. In fact, there is nothing overtly conflicting about his character at all. He is just totally and one hundred percent crazy.
How liberating it must be, as a professional comics writer, to be able to pluck an established character out of the ether and use him as you see fit without any reverence to his previous appearances, knowing that you always have the ultimate editorial excuse in your back pocket: he did it because he’s crazy. Why has he stopped reciting nursery rhymes and is now fixated on hats? Because he’s nuts. Why is he obsessed with little girls yet manages to create advanced technological gadgets? Because he’s an ACME Brand loony-tune! Why was he a brunette, then a blond (with a pet monkey), then a gray-haired older man with a penchant for stabbing strangers? Because reality has no use in his mind!
Batman would be spending as much time assuring that Tetch was not a threat to himself as he would be keeping Hatter from causing trouble for others. And the unpredictability would be truly enlightening. He could crack in mid-sentence and go on a killing spree that only ended when he finally got his hands on a bowl full of green gummi bears. He could cook up a scheme to steal all the pants in Gotham City as an offering to the aliens that contacted him in his sleep last week. He could start blowing up post offices after he believes that the President is ignoring his subliminal messages involving a National Custard Pie Day. Jervis Tetch can do ANYTHING.
It would be liberating to write dialogue for a madman and you could really push your creative limits when coming up with plotlines and reactions. Imagine Batman sitting at the Bat-computer as it spits out theory after twisted theory on what Hatter was going to do next, what hidden meanings may or may not be present in his motives and how he could be stopped or at least derailed (if that’s even possible with a schizophrenic showman).
I’m not sure this is a big idea as much as it is a revelation into the truth of the character. I still haven’t really answered any of the questions I posed at the end of my initial post. So how does it all fit together?
You’ve discovered my super-hero identity….Cop-Out King. I’ll sit around the Watchtower, sipping mai-tais and eating Cheetos, and when the rest of the Justice League comes back from smacking down Amazo, I’ll tell them that I was going to help, but I had to take my Kingmobile in for service at Jiffy Lube. Or I was going to help them decipher the newest super-riddle from the Riddler, but I was really busy talking to the Police Commissioner about a possible charity gig for us. Gee, and I would have enjoyed being part of the team that busted Darkseid, but I was trying to finish the latest Neil Gaiman novel. I expect Cop-Out King to take the comics world by storm.
Anyway, I do like what you’re suggesting with the Hatter. We’ve basically been spending most of our time in these Bat-Villain entries explaining that, yeah, this villain may be a little crazy, but it’s a very functional crazy. I like the idea that Hatter is simply bat-guano insane (are we a PG blog?; I didn’t want to be slapped with a mature readers label, so I’m keeping it sanitized). As you say, it actually gives the writers a lot of room to work with him. It could be considered a cop-out in its own right, if we were using it to label every villain. However, for this one villain, I think it works well. Hatter is actually crazier than the Joker, and I like that.
As for those questions you ask, as to how he fits into the DCU and if he could be a big time villain, I’d have to give the latter question a big fat, “NO!!!” While I like the idea of Tetch as you describe him, I think his insanity would prevent him from ever being truly effective. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Tetch does very well with his own schemes, and he might even plan big, but I wonder if someone with his level of insanity would ever be able to bring a detailed plan to fruition. I don’t think so. Of course, as I say that, I think of the things he’s been able to accomplish and some of those plans were incredibly detailed, but they never had a huge scope. I think, to be a really big time villain, you have to be able to perfect and execute not just one plan, but a whole series of them, leading to something really big, and I’m not sure that Tetch could do that.
I see the Hatter being very effective, however, on whatever scheme he’s currently working. After all, because the man is completely loony, it makes it that much harder for Batman to get inside Tetch’s mind and predict his next move. In many ways, Hatter’s very insanity is the best defense he has against Batman’s analytical mind. Hatter may not always take the next logical step, even if the next logical step is also the best step to accomplish the Hatter’s goals, and while that would normally be a weakness, it would be a strength if it allowed the Hatter to confound the Dark Knight. I like the edge that would give the Hatter, and think it could make him a very interesting foe.
This is why I see him as perhaps not a major villain in terms of world domination, but a major villain in terms of nuisance and effectiveness. As long as he can avoid being captured, the Mad Hatter can wreak havoc throughout the DC Universe. No one knows where he’ll strike next or what he’ll do or what the consequences will be. And he shouldn’t be chained to Gotham City either. I see nothing in his origin or operation that is Gotham-related specifically. He could be used effectively in just about any title that DC prints right now. Of course, that doesn’t really help us redefine him as a Bat-villain either.
But I think the biggest thing you’ve pointed out is the fact that Jervis Tetch is much more insane than the Joker. Hatter is so crazy he’s barely within the scope of reality. Joker is just unpredictable. Hatter sometimes switches up the way he handles situations, preferring to play along sometimes if it helps him attain his goals more efficiently. Joker is just an evil jerk. If Batman has to stare down the face of madness in order to counteract any personal demons he may be struggling with, I think it’s far more productive to have him battle the diminutive Tetch than it is to have him go toe-to-toe once again with the overused Joker whose only goal is to eliminate Batman, and not to simply cause chaos in spite of him.
And, with that proclamation, I assume we should move the discussion on to The Joker himself…