Later this month, Ethan Van Sciver will debut on Batman: The Dark Knight with writer Gregg Hurwitz, introducing a new, horror-inspired version of Mad Hatter.
For this revamped Mad Hatter's inspiration, Van Sciver drew upon the disturbing image of Charles Manson, combining it with the classic storybook look of the character from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
For Van Sciver, his debut in The Dark Knight #16 on Jan. 30th represents a return to drawing monthly comics as an ongoing artist. After the bi-monthly mini-series Flash: Rebirth experienced delays, Van Sciver took a break from monthly comics, instead focusing on special projects. Then he started co-writing on one of the 2011 New 52 comics, The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men, even trying his hand at penciling again on the comic before leaving the book earlier this year.
But it was his recent gig on Green Lantern Annual #1 with his frequent collaborator Geoff Johns that got him itching to pencil regularly again.
He takes over Batman: The Dark Knight from David Finch, who launched the comic. Van Sciver will be working with Hurwitz, who just joined the book in June.
Newsarama talked to Hurwitz and Van Sciver about their Mad Hatter story, what it's like to work together, and what readers can expect from Batman: The Dark Knight going forward.
Newsarama: Gregg, as Ethan Van Sciver starts working with you on Batman: The Dark Knight, how will that affect the comic? What does he bring to the make-up of the book?
Gregg Hurwitz: Well, I don't just get artists. I get, like, the Ferrari of artists.
Finch was leaving, and he'd kind of done his run. As you know, he'd been on the book longer than I had. And we had to figure out who to go to next, obviously. And Ethan was my and [Batman editor] Mike Marts' pretty much only choice. I'm not sure what I would have done if Ethan hadn't wanted to do it.
I wanted an artist who's in that all-star category, but who had a different feel. What I didn't want to do was go to someone who just felt like "Finch-lite." I needed someone with a really distinctive point of view and their own voice. And Ethan was perfect.
The Hatter arc, I think, is really suited to him because it's got this real undercurrent off off-kilter violence. And Ethan does a really good job with horror, with the grotesque, but always with a little bit of a wink, or a twinkle in the eye. There's a theme of humor that runs through it also. And so for this story in particular, I think he was really suited to tackle it.
Nrama: Ethan, we saw you back away from doing monthly comics for the last couple years. But last time we talked, before Green Lantern Annual, you were itching to draw comics more often. Is this a by-product of that desire?Ethan Van Sciver: Yeah. It happened with Green Lantern Annual. Working with Geoff [Johns] is always inspiring. And when that was finished, I just didn't want it to end. And so I wrote Dan DiDio and Bob Harras, and I just said, boy, I'd really like to keep going. "Do you have something for me that's either Green Lantern or BATMAN?" And Batman was all caps. All caps.
And he was just like, "As a matter of fact, David Finch is leaving Dark Knight right now and Gregg Hurwitz actually dropped your name. So how'd you like to take over that book?"
And I think I wrote back in all caps. Like, "YES, THAT BOOK IS MINE AND DO NOT GIVE IT TO ANYONE ELSE. THAT IS MY JOB."
There's something really awesome about just devoting yourself to telling comic book stories again, to the point where it's most of what my life is. I'll sleep for eight hours, wake up and go right to the board, and start attacking a new page. It's what I was meant for.
Nrama: Do you think your art will be a great departure from what's been done on the book? I mean, you have a different style from David Finch, but you're in the same general area of town.
Van Sciver: Thank you! I consider that a great compliment, because I love Dave Finch's stuff. I think it's cool.
My hope is to keep up the visual quality that he already established for this title. I mean, the book always just looked great. Batman was in his heart the same way Batman's in my heart. And I think he did a great job.
But I think my Batman looks different from his in a lot of ways. We have different ideas about what Bruce Wayne looks like in that costume.
But we're both very detail-oriented. And we both have spooky imaginations.Nrama: Gregg, you mentioned that you think Ethan was particularly right for your take on The Mad Hatter. Can you tell us what this villain is about?
Hurwitz: One of the things I noticed with Hatter in a lot of the stories is he's sort of obsessed with finding his Alice. You know? That's sort of the motif. He's got a thing with girls or women who look like or resemble Alice. And he's always sort of off-kilter and getting himself into trouble and slurping tea.
But I never really read the story that, for me, everything clicked into place with what the overarching theme was for why that's the case. Like, why is this is predominant archetypal narrative? That he's in the pursuit, that he has this obsession.
And so I wanted to explain where he gets that compulsion, and where that obsession arose from. And I wanted to reach back and find, what are the events that made him, that gave him this incredibly violent and menacing fixation? What are the stages that brought him to that, and then also sustained that unwavering fixation on finding his Alice and recreating this fantastical wonderland.
Van Sciver: From the Mad Hatter's perspective, it's about trying to reclaim a perfect moment from your youth, now that your adulthood has forced your life to go awry. There was a time in his life, you'll see, where things were good. But it's not the clichéd supervillain origin. Mad Hatter's very different from that. His story is unique.
Nrama: Ethan, what were your thoughts behind the Mad Hatter character as you designed him?
Van Sciver: You know, I'm getting to know him, because I didn't know much about Mad Hatter when I took the job. I'd given him zero thought. Obviously, it's an opportunity to create a character that I don't think many fans have given much thought to.
Gregg and I talked about this early on. What is the best Mad Hatter story? What's the singular Mad Hatter story? And there are one or two — you know, in the animated series and I think there's been a couple of comic stories. But really, there's no Killing Joke, you know? There's no definitive Mad Hatter story. So we felt free to rethink him. Or not even "re"-think him. Just "think" him.
And to start with, I thought about Timothy Leary, the LSD guru from the 1960s, and Charles Manson, and all these kind of strange '60s radical cult leaders. And I put a lot of that into the kind of classic Alice in Wonderland Mad Hatter that existed in the old storybook artwork.
So we landed on that classic appearance of Mad Hatter, but with something Charles Manson about him. And we came up with a new take on him, where he's cute but also bizarre and scary and dangerous. So he's scary and disturbing, but there's something likable about him, hopefully. As I draw him, I chuckle. So I hope he's amusing.
But it was important that we make him, even though he's a small guy — he's only about four and a half feet tall — it was important at the same time that we make him physically menacing. He's a frightening guy when he gets eye to eye with you. And sometimes he needs a little help to get to that eye level.
Hurwitz: There's an incredibly perverse sequence in the first issue that involves a step-ladder. [Laughs.]
Nrama: Gregg, you've also brought Catwoman into this story. Can you describe what she brings to the plot?Hurwitz: One of the things, for me, that's really interesting is how each villain finds a resonance with a different part of Batman. And so there are certain things about Mad Hatter and his unwavering commitment to the past that has a sort of resonance in Batman.
And so Catwoman appears not just because I thought it would be neat, but because she actually plays into the theme and the issues that are arising inside of him. In a way, you can look at Gotham as a sort of churning unconscious to Batman himself, and as these images and specters are thrown up, they're there to represent and to confront and call forth his inner demon.
Van Sciver: Bruce goes through some questioning of himself in this first story arc. Some things about himself that he's taken for granted. He second guesses. Catwoman kind of helps him get there.
And Gregg is doing something with Bruce Wayne in this story that I don't think has ever been done before. For Bruce, this is going to be a story about trusting someone — really trusting someone, other than the "Bat-family," you know, Robin and Nightwing. Should he let someone in, and what the consequences for that might be. It's a heavy story. But It's funny and charming and everything that a good superhero drama is.
Nrama: Ethan, I can't help thinking you were meant for Batman too. Even when you were drawing Green Lantern, fans were always thrilled by your Batman. And when I've seen you at conventions, a lot of people have you draw that image of Batman with the ring on, right?
Van Sciver: Yeah! Yeah, you know everyone loves Batman. And I certainly did. Every time I got a chance to kind of draw him, where he'd be peripherally in a story, I really enjoyed it. I always had my own idea about what Batman looked like.
First and foremost, I'm a fan of Golden Age comics. I love the old Bob Kane. You know, the first Batman story I think I read was Detective #27 in one of these great big reprint comic book volumes that I got for Christmas when I was 10 or 11. And I loved the way he looked then. I loved the whole clear theme of the book. It got me excited.
I think over the years, Batman kind of changed his look. Obviously, it's gone away from Bob Kane and the kind of fun, for-kids aspect of Batman and Robin.
But I really just want to go back to the Detective #27 version of Batman, where he actually looked like a bat. That's what I've always drawn my inspiration from for this character.
And I've just always been waiting in the wings for a chance to draw a Batman book, where Batman is the star. So yeah, I'm excited about it.Nrama: Gregg also described Gotham as being representative of Bruce Wayne himself. How would you describe your Gotham City?
Van Sciver: I think if you're flying over Gotham City, it just looks like an old gothic cemetery. The only difference I had with the Christopher Nolan movies is that Gotham City looked like Chicago, because it was. But Gotham City, as has been said before, it's a character in and of itself. And those skyscrapers don't look like skyscrapers that exist in our world. They're very strange, spooky, tombstone-like structures.
I don't think I've gotten to draw much of Gotham yet in the work that I've done so far in the book. I think I drew some Gotham 10 years ago with Batman/Catwoman: Trail of the Gun, but I look forward to getting the chance to establish that a little bit more in the series.
Nrama: Ethan, you mentioned earlier that you were just coming off another collaboration with Geoff when you started this book. Are you getting the same kind of excitement from collaborating with Gregg? Or is it different?
Van Sciver: Well, working with every writer is different. Geoff is super, super familiar to me, so I'll read his script and although I might ask a few questions, I know what he wants all the time.
With Gregg, he's really coming from a much more television/movie background, so he has very, very clear ideas of what he wants all the time. And he wants to sit with every script and go over it panel by panel — like a mental transference, so that I know exactly what he was thinking when he wrote it.
And I won't always do it exactly the way he describes it. Because sometimes I just think I have another way to do it that might put across his idea a little bit better.
But he's very, very detail oriented. I think more than anybody, he describes little elements in every panel that he wants that aren't really plot-oriented. They're just little interesting nuggets of visual details for the reader to pick you.
And like I said, the think about Gregg is that the whole story exists in his head from the very, very start, in a much more real way, I think, than I've ever experienced.
You know, he was on an airplane and he just came up with the idea for this Mad Hatter story in his head. And he called me when he landed and said, "I've got the idea for the story. I'll make it through the first script tomorrow."
And I said, "Well, take your time, Gregg." And he said, "No, no, no, I'll have it for you tomorrow."
And sure enough, the next day, I had a 20-page script in my email in-box. And then the next day, I had the second issue. And the day after that, I had the third issue. By the end of the week, I had all six scripts. He wrote six scripts in one week. It was in his head! It just flowed out! And they're all great. The whole story's great.
The whole story is already written. He had it in his mind, it was demented. It was fully realized. He just had to kind of type it out. And it reads that way. It reads like one, fluid thought.
Nrama: And readers should note that it's very rare to get everything in your hands like that at once.
Van Sciver: Oh yeah. And in this case, it's very, very important because there are little clues — visual clues — in the first issue that pay off in a big way by the time you get to the sixth issue. So it's almost vital that you have the whole chunk of story all at once as the artist.
I've never worked like this before, Vaneta. Ever. Where I've had all six scripts sitting here. The closest I think of was Grant Morrison, where New X-Men scripts were coming in so fast that we couldn't keep up with them. But this is the entire story all at once. I appreciate it. I think it's cool.
I'm getting a Batman book at a time when this great new writer has come on board. He's gotten warmed up with six issues of Scarecrow that are phenomenal. And Dave Finch and I are good friends. I almost have to laugh at Dave for leaving Batman: The Dark Knight at this point, when Gregg Hurwitz is on board and writing this marvelous story. And I get to kind of grab it from Dave as he moves over to Justice League of America. Don't think he doesn't realize the opportunity I'm getting.
I'm thrilled to be working with Gregg Hurwitz. I think he's absolutely magnificent. The way his mind works, it's unlike any writer that I have worked with yet. It's wonderful.
Nrama: Gregg, you've described this upcoming story arc. But can you let readers know anything about your overall plan for the comic going into 2013 and the themes you'll be exploring as the book further evolves with this new creative team?
Hurwitz: Well, right now, I'm all about Ethan Van Sciver and the Mad Hatter. There's still a lot of work to be done, and we're really doing everything to make sure every detail is right and is in place. There's so much nuance to Ethan's work. So we take a lot of care to talk through the scripts — how I'm seeing it, how I'm seeing, and how he's going to improve it because he's an artist and I'm not, obviously. So that's really the predominant focus.
One of the ways I think of the book — and Ethan and I have talked about this too — is one of the great opportunities of The Dark Knight is that we write our own distinct Batman movie in six issues. And that's, in a way, what this is with the Mad Hatter.
It turns into a huge story. It turns into a story that shakes and horrifies Gotham down to the cornerstone. And it will have an incredibly deep blow struck at Bruce by the Hatter. And so it's going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
And I think moving forward, there are some hallmarks to the series that are important to me. I mean, one of them is a focus on the villains and the way that the villains reflect and foil Batman. And another one is to have this one foot sort of into the horror train. Not just grotesque violence for its own sake, but violence that has either a very strong point or statement that it's making psychologically about the characters, or that hides a little theme of the wicked in it.