The world of DC Comics Batman is dark enough as it is, but from its inception, the monthly series “Batman: The Dark Knight” has had its eye on delving into the darkest parts of Gotham City and its many mad villains.
Starting on January 30, that mission gets a new set of collaborators as artist Ethan Van Sciver joins writer Gregg Hurwitz for an arc focusing on Jervis Tetch – the mind-warping bad guy known as the Mad Hatter. From the psychedelic covers that debuted with the story’s announcement through to the sensibilities set by Hurwitz’s last Scarecrow-focused arc, a new version of the “Alice In Wonderland” obsessed villain was promised, but as part of its ongoing discussion of the Dark Knight’s world, THE BAT SIGNAL, CBR News dug deeper into the concept with the creative team.
Below, Hurwitz and Van Sciver team up to discuss their goals for the book, their plans to twist the Mad Hatter into the shape of one of history’s most notorious killers, the depth of their issue-to-issue collaboration, the role Catwoman will play in the series and more about the arc’s psychological underpinnings.
CBR News: Gentlemen, you start a brand-new arc with Ethan’s debut on “Dark Knight.” Gregg, your first arc on the book with David Finch was your first real meaty Batman story. What about that arc sets a tone for where we go next, and how does having Ethan as a collaborator impact that?
Gregg Hurwitz: It’s a blast. I love having Ethan on because he makes me look smarter than I am. I lay out pages, they come in, and they’re just like what I saw in my head or even better. One of the secret hopes you have when working with an artist -Â because my vision is obviously limited by the fact that I’m not one -Â is that your artist will make your story better. You want them to improve things you’ve written and elevate them. There are a couple of incredible visuals that you’re going to see in this arc. If you think about that first cover to #16, that’s an iconic, classic image for me that we’ll see for years to come.
He’s also having a lot of fun with some creative page layouts that are really making the read incredibly dynamic and innovative. For me, it’s great. It’s like getting a little heroin hit in my inbox each morning with a new page.
Ethan Van Sciver: Jeez! [Laughter] That’s awesome. Thanks, Gregg!
I think that Gregg, unlike any other writer I’ve ever worked with, has a vision in his head that’s so clear, so refined and so definite that it’s worth going over bit by bit with him. I mean, the whole story is finished. He wrote the first six issues within ten days, which is incredible. I think any artist who’s reading this and saw me say those words is going to seek out Gregg Hurwitz as a creative collaborator. Most of the time, we sit around and wait for scripts! Not so with Gregg. The whole thing is finished.
When I’m about to start a new issue, we get together and comb through the whole script. He lets me know why everything is important and that’s great. It’s phenomenal. There are some things I wouldn’t have understood properly or grasped. We have great, creative meetings on everything. I think Gregg sits down and aims to write a movie. That’s what he’s done here. He’s written the Batman versus Mad Hatter film.
Hurwitz: It’s funny. We have these conversations for the scripts, and my template for this really comes from TV since I’ve worked for TV for a while and written for that medium. One thing you always do on a TV show is the last thing after you’ve finished a script to do is your director’s call. You get the director on the phone, and you go through and say what you or the writing room thought of each scene and the nuance you were going for. That’s not to give the director instructions per se. It’s more to go, “Here are all of the ways we thought of it. Now you’re the lenser. You’re the director. Take the intent of what’s been written and capture that.”
There are times when Ethan has written me to say, “I need another panel here” or “There are too many panels” or “I have a way to hit this moment better.” My purpose is to arm him with the intent I had for the story, and then when you have a thoroughbred on hand, you’ve got to let him run. It’s all about us making sure we’re on the same page thematically. I just want to give him the room to throw his weight around on the page.
Van Sciver: Gregg’s never controlling about how to “shoot” something. He just gives me the information about what a scene is and what needs to come across in every panel as well as what are the secondary themes to every panel that are going to payoff later. And they DO payoff. It’s a very, very incredible script.
Hurwitz: That’s the fun of this for me – seeing how he interprets the pages. Like I said, they’re really better than what I imagined in my head. It’s a fun process. I’m having a great time with it.
How does all that process feed into your view of the Mad Hatter? The original pitch of “Dark Knight” on the series was to have a bit of a darker, more gritty take on Batman’s world than the other series. Is your goal here to get the Hatter away from being one of the “goofy” Batman villains?
Hurwitz: Absolutely. One of the stories I like to tell is that my first job for DC after coming over from Marvel was to do a Penguin mini series. And it was funny because I had a meeting with [Co-Publisher] Dan DiDio, and Dan said, “What do you want to work on?” I said, “Penguin mini series.” And he looked at me like, “Okaaaaay.” [Laughter] We announced it to like the least amount of fanfare ever. It was met with resounding and total apathy when we announced it. And I was surprised because I had this whole story in my head of how it would work, but the Penguin doesn’t inspire a lot of fans.
One of the things I loved so much in that character is that there was a great potential to layer in more backstory and make him more real -Â make him more legitimate. There had been a handful of great Penguin stories -Â like there have been a few great Mad Hatter stories – but I don’t feel like there had been one that provided the over-arching narrative. With Mad Hatter, that challenge is about doing a story where you really get a handle on why he’s obsessed with “Alice In Wonderland.” Why is he so fixated with something so off kilter and bizarre? What are the things that led to that? For me, what was most important was to say, “Let’s take the Hatter away from being a sort of jokey character in the same way the Penguin was always used and instead explore the grubby underpinnings of who he is.” What is the origin of these fixations he has, and what is their counterpart with Batman himself?
If we take that psychological background and wrap it up in the context of an enormous, escalating story that will have a huge impact on Bruce Wayne personally – and his role in the city and of Gotham at large – that’s the aim of this arc. It’s to paint that story on a very grand, grand scope.
Van Sciver: Early on, we discussed exactly what kind of a framework this story was going to be. When approaching these villains we’re looking to “rehabilitate,” we have to have a template to increase their stature in the DC Universe. With Mad Hatter, we thought of it in terms of Timothy Leary and Charles Manson. We had a little bit of the crazy, cult-like serial killer guy mixed with the LSD culture of the 1960s. That’s what worked into him visually. I think that sets Mad Hatter apart drastically from the other Gotham denizens.
Hurwitz: Ethan came up with that Manson metaphor, and one of the things I think I love so much about it is that Manson is a short guy, but he’s wiry and unpredictable and kind of menacing. It’s a great image to hold in mind moving forward as we work on the character. Grabbing these touchstones like that really helps. How is a short guys supposed to be scary? Well, there are a couple already out there.
Van Sciver: And Manson also inspired weak-willed people to follow him. So does Mad Hattter.
In your first arc, Gregg, you set up a definite supporting cast for this book with a love interest for Bruce and a big role for Gordon. How do those threads continue into your second story as you’re adding Catwoman to the mix? Is it like a movie as Ethan said where you’re starting from square one?
Hurwitz: There are some arcs that continue. Natalia is back and continues to play a role. One of the ways I view Gotham is as the contents of Batman’s subconscious in a way. This story is about fixation and obsession, but it’s also – like a lot of Batman stories are – about intimacy and a lack of intimacy or a fear of intimacy. There are a lot of different ways that Batman armors himself, literally and figuratively. There are scenes that were essential where Catwoman comes in. Like Gordon, she represents something essential in Batman, and that’s why she emerges in one particular scene where…well, I’ll say that I don’t like these scenes we’ve all seen in books where a character just flies in for a cameo so they can be on the cover. This is much more integrated.
That metaphor Ethan and I are using about this being its own movie -Â its own contained, giant story -Â means all the pieces have to be organic. They have to fit, drive the plot and be psychologically relevant to the story. Everything is in service of the story as a rule, and so Catwoman’s appearance calls forth some of the issues Batman is grappling with and that Mad Hatter will force him to face. The Hatter is going to make him face those in a more horrifying fashion than he’s encountered since he was a kid before the arc is over.
Ethan, what’s your draw in putting Catwoman in the book? I get the feeling that people love to do pinups with her and Batman together, but you’ve got a greater task in getting some emotional resonance in those images.
Van Sciver: I think it’s a lot of fun. I’ve drawn Batman and Catwoman before in 2003 for a book called “Batman/Catwoman: Trail of the Gun.” I’ve always loved their interplay. I love Selina Kyle. It’s always a joy. Whenever you’re drawing Batman, what’s most important is what the counterpoint is. It changes his shape and his meaning.
Overall, what’s the piece of this big psychological puzzle you’ve been most excited by as the work has come together from the disparate pieces?
Van Sciver: I just want everybody to become very fond of Jervis Tetch. I think it’d be so great if out of this arc, Batman fans said, “You know what? Mad Hatter is now my favorite villain.”
Hurwitz: That’d be cool! I think for me, I can’t wait to see how Ethan fully realizes this story. It’s been great to have him create it with me, and so there’s a different kind of fun I have where I know what’s coming, and I can’t wait to see how he handles the pages. I will say that in the first issue, there’s a sequence with a step ladder that’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever written, and it’s great the way Ethan has it portrayed. There’s also a couple of things towards the end of the arc that are amongst the most powerful and upsetting things I’ve ever written, and I can’t wait for Ethan to just make them better.
“Batman: The Dark Knight” #16 hits January 30 from DC Comics.
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