Saturday, November 29, 2008

Comics: Hats off, gentlemen.

As with so many reviews, I begin this one with a disclaimer. To wit: I'm not your most pop culture savvy horror-blogger.

I don't, for example, watch any television until it pops up on DVD. This is a technical limitation of my television set-up and not an ethical or political stance. My wife and I never bothered to hook up the ol' cable when we moved in and the "garden" level apartment we live in doesn't get a signal on the rabbit ears. Now, nearly seven years after we've moved in, shelling out for something we've done fine without seems silly. Especially these days, when one of us is sporadically employed and the financial pages are considerably scarier than anything bearing the "horror" genre brand. Not that I'm against television. We actually watch quite a bit of television. We're just always several months behind everybody else. Occasionally several years behind everybody else: my dearest and I's latest obsession has been The Addams' Family, meaning we're now caught up with the cutting-edge audiences of 1966.

I bring this up because this pop cultural ignorance means I occasionally step into the middle of a phenomenon, blithely walking into some massive franchise the way white explorers in old Tarzan flicks seemed to home-in on quicksand. I'll pick up a flick, book, or comic and complete it, only to realize latter that, to fully understand what's going on, one needs to have consumed a boat-load of books, several films, and perhaps played a videogame or two. Kinda like the time I purchased a Battle Royale manga and thought I was seeing something new and fresh, only to later be told that BR is a goldmine property in Japan: starting with a best-selling novel, going through two movies, and a 15 volume manga series.

Such is the case with Hatter M, a trade comic collection I picked up merely because the art was from Ben Templesmith. Turns out that Hatter M is a part of a massive mutlimedia exercise in world building. If you really want to figure out what the hell is going on in Hatter M, you need to have read this Eisner-nominated comic, worked through two or three YA novels, played a Magic-style card game, and Lord only knows what else.

So this review of Hatter M comes from a dude who has not, and does not intend to, become familiar with the novels, the game, the chewing gum, the t-shirts, or anything else that would otherwise flesh out the world of Hatter M. If you have done any of this, you already knew 2 billion times what I know about this comic and you should quit reading this blog. And perhaps go outside. And talk to a real woman. Perhaps go on a date – during which you will not discuss the Looking Glass War franchise. Seriously. Get out more.

That said, here's an admittedly limited review of Hatter M . . .

A four ish limited series, the Eisner-nominated Hatter M, penned by Frank Beddor with art by Ben Templesmith, is a dark fantasy/action tale loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll's iconic Wonderland stories. And when I say "loosely," I mean that term in the broadest way you can conceive of the concept. I'm using it in the way one might say, "The Sydney Opera House is loosely based on the Parthenon insomuch as both are buildings."

The eponymous hatter of Hatter M is Hatter Madigan. The world of the Looking Glass War, a growing invasion of the real world by an alternate reality fueled by human imagination, hatters are sort of the equivalent of Texas Rangers: they're bad-asses sent on a one riot, one ranger basis to handle particularly tricky jobs. Madigan was assigned to be the bodyguard of Princess Alyss, a royal of Wonderland directly in line to the throne who fled to the real world, circa 1859, when the royal palace was targeted by rebellious distaff members of bloodline making a violent bid for the throne.

Disgraced that he has lost his charge, Madigan hops through mid-19th century Europe hunting for Alyss. Along the way he runs across other Wonderland ex-pats, creativity junkies who feed off imagination, Kafka-esque anti-imagination educators, and Jules Verne.

"Okay," you might well say. "But how does a mad hatter bodyguard anybody? What does he do, serve tea to attackers? Fight bad guys with nonsense riddles?"

Hatter Madigan's primary weaponry consists of a forest of spinning blades that seem to be able to emerge from any surface on his person or, if necessary, project from his body.

"What? That's got nothing to do with the Mad Hatter."

What you can't see me doing over the Internet is me touching my nose.

This sort of WTF linkage is typical of the series. The Cheshire Cat is now a sort of breed of assassin were-cat, the card soldiers appear to be robots of some sort, the Queen of Hearts is now just one member of an elaborate and extended royal family that includes, oddly enough, Alice, now spelled Alyss.

I don't get it either.

As an exercise in world building, the ideas behind Beddor's Wonderland aren't bad. And the trade edition comes with a handful of nice extras meant to flush out the concepts. Really the only problem is the connection to Carroll, which seems so irrelevant as to be distracting. Beddor's take isn't even a satire or a revisionist undertaking along the lines of, say, Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman. In fact, the less you know of the originals, the better you'll like Beddor's Wonderland. If you're familiar with the original stories, you'll just wonder what the heck Beddor's smoking.

The other issue is Templesmith's art. In Hatter M, Templesmith is actually developing a more comic-friendly style. There are several pages where Templesmith manages to make his abstracted, dream-like art communicate motion and action. But, overall, the team of Beddor and Templesmith seems like a poor fit. Templesmith's art is minimalist and doesn't lend itself to Beddor's complicated world building. Furthermore, Templesmith's action sequences are incomprehensible. This isn't a problem in titles like Wormwood, which treat action sequences as vaguely embarrassing things that comic characters must do – they are the proctologist visits of the comic world. But Hatter M is first and foremost an action title. The murky and incomprehensible fight scenes are a disappointment.

Hatter M is an odd beast. On it's own, it isn't bad. The art could flow a little better, but it has a phantasmagoric feel that isn't inappropriate. The writing moves along and there is creativity to burn here. But hanging over the whole affair is the blatant, but then pointless connection of Carroll. One is forced to wonder if was just easier to sell to publishers if it bit off a famous brand.


Curt Purcell said...

I'm always intrigued to check out alternate versions of Oz/Wonderland/whatever. Doesn't sound like this was your cup of tea, but I may look into at least the first of the novels.

CRwM said...

Master of the Groovy,

I don't mind reworkings of Wonderland and Oz, to name two big seminal works. In fact, some of the power I now attribute to the originals probably comes from the fact that they've become the source of so many re-imagined worlds, so many re-interpretations.

Problem here is that the links seem so half-assed and unnecessary, like he had this story idea before and then shoe-horned it into series of ad hoc Wonderland references. As such, it neither adds depth to "Hatter M" nor illuminates some interesting aspect of the original.

Perhaps if one read the novels and played the game and ate the cereal, the allusions would become more meaningful. I leave those explorations for those more interested in I. I look forward to hearing what you discover.

sexy said...
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