Most agree that Batman has the best villains in comics. Sure, he’s squared off against some of the worst, as well (Crazy Quilt, anyone? How about Egghead?), but as a whole, Batman’s rogue’s gallery is just about as iconic as he is. I’ve talked about the Joker and Two-Face at great length previously, but by this point in our reading, we’ve met most of the famous ones, with Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Poison Ivy, Riddler and Penguin all having some part to play in The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. With Robin fighting at Batman’s side, we’ve reached the most iconic iteration of the character, which seems a good opportunity to take a little time to examine a couple of those villains.
Scarecrow and Mad Hatter are two characters that Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale frequently paired up throughout their works, but here, they’re in the hands of a different writer: Bruce Jones, albeit in two separate books. Like Batman himself, both these characters lend themselves well to a myriad of different interpretations, ranging from almost innocuous troublemakers to twisted and dangerous psychopaths. Bruce Jones’ take on one character is closer to the former, while his take on the second skews toward the latter.
Scarecrow is the one getting the “twisted and dangerous psychopath” treatment in Year One: Scarecrow, a two issue miniseries released in 2005 concurrently with Batman Begins to make the most of the character’s increased exposure. I don’t know if the story was ever intended to fit continuity, because it pretty definitively doesn’t (Robin’s presence in the story would place this book after Dark Victory, despite Scarecrow’s presence in earlier stories). But continuity gripes aside, Year One: Scarecrow has some pretty good stuff going on, and better still, I have the perfect beer to pair with it: Scarecrow Organic Golden Pale Ale. Brewed by Wychwood Brewery from the UK, these self-described “brewers of character” make a selection of whimsically named beer to rival Batman’s rogues gallery. Unlike its namesake, however, this particular beer is nothing to be afraid of, but a little like this book, it has some pretty good stuff going on: like it says on the label, it’s pale and golden, but is definitely more malt-forward than most North American pale ales tend to be. It would be easy (and enjoyable) to drink more than one.
Year One: Scarecrow is similarly appealing while being entirely inoffensive. The plot is straightforward, as Scarecrow stories go – Jonathan Crane has synthesized a fear toxin, and uses it to get revenge upon the people from his own past who failed and tormented him. It’s a pretty good treatment of this story, digging a little deeper than the simplistic revenge-of-the-nerd plot from Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Terror, providing some deeper insight into Crane’s family and childhood. The story also charts Batman and Robin following the trail of Scarecrow’s crimes, with more mixed results. Bruce Jones consistently puts Robin to good use, and his tendency toward colloquial dialogue and contractions definitely serves the Boy Wonder better than it does Batman.
But the highlight of the book is undoubtedly Sean Murphy’s magnificent art. His distinct, angular style, his clear storytelling and a superb sense of movement in his figures really elevates the book well above mediocrity. Paired with Lee Loughridge’s always-well-considered colour palette, the art works wonders to make Scarecrow terrifying, giving a slightly southern Gothic flair to the flashbacks detailing Crane’s childhood.
While the art is enough to carry Bruce Jones’ script in Year One: Scarecrow, this regrettably is not true of his Mad Hatter book, Through The Looking Glass. This is especially disappointing, because ordinarily, Sam Kieth is great, and on paper, his weirdness would seem to be a great fit for the deranged wonderland of the Mad Hatter. But here, the art looks rushed – even the quality of printing makes it look more like his rough pencil layouts were blown up to full size, with Dave Barton putting his psychedelic colours over the unfinished art. Maybe that’s precisely what happened, but I can’t be sure – there is little background surrounding the publication of Through The Looking Glass. It seems designed as a five part miniseries, but only ever received publication as a graphic novel. Though released after DC launched the New52 reboot, this book doesn’t seem aligned to that new continuity, but, a little like Year One: Scarecrow, it doesn’t entirely sit comfortably in the previous continuity either.
Thus, it’s a little hard to know what to make of Through The Looking Glass, but try as I might, I can’t make it into something very good. Jones’ plot is superficially designed to mirror Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, with Batman having inadvertently ingested a hallucinogen at a fundraising event and following a spritely hallucination of his dead childhood friend Celia (it’s an anagram of Alice, get it?) into Gotham’s sewers to investigate the murder of a Gotham politician. The Mad Hatter is behind it. It has something to do with the zoning of a Wonderland themed amusement park. I think. It isn’t very interesting. The Hatter gets up to his usual mischief, as well, abducting a girl to be his “Alice,” which has little to do with much else in the story. If you’re looking for a great Mad Hatter story, you would be much better served to revisit Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s “Madness” from Haunted Knight, or his appearance in the first chapter of Robin: Year One – both those stories much better capitalize upon the creepiness inherent in Lewis Carroll’s original character (with subtle links to the allegations of Carroll’s own pedophilia.) Once again, Bruce Jones’ script really only manages to do justice to Robin, as Batman is not really in charge of his own faculties here, calling upon Robin to be the capable and resourceful one.
Even Robin isn’t spared by the art, drawn by Sam Kieth less as a lithe circus acrobat and more as a stout and sturdy circus strongman. He isn’t the only character who gets an unusual interpretation in the art, either – the Mad Hatter himself is barely recognizable as Jervis Tetch, looking hardly human, and more like a strange goblin. Which brings me to the beer I’ve paired this book with: Wychwood’s flagship brew, a dark red beer called Hobgoblin. Frankly, it’s a beer that deserves a better pairing, because it’s really quite good. Of course, red ales do tend to be among my favourite beer styles, and this is a good example of that style. While still malt forward, it has a more pronounced piney bitterness at the end than what I usually prefer in my red ales, but that is really the only complaint I can find. The books can’t all be good, I suppose, so at least the beer should be.