Batman #492: Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas, Written by Doug Moench, Art by Norm Breyfogle, Colors by Adrienne Roy, Edited by Denny O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“It’s one of the Arkham inmates, all right—the one called Film Freak…headin’ for the Alley.”
“You stay here while I kill him.”
In my brief tenure as a writer, I have often found myself walking away from a finished work filled with pride and satisfaction. Yet when I sit down to write the next thing, I am plagued by fear and worry. Will I do as well as the first time? Will this piece be as good as or better than the last, or a real stinker? Am I just a one-hit wonder, or do I have staying power? When you operate in a world of deadlines and you have to produce, no matter what, you are constantly struggling with your last performance.
As we approach the second episode of KnightFall, I can’t help but consider how good the lead-in story was. How do you follow a piece that just pulled the rug right out from under the entire cast and sent them tumbling into the uncertain abyss to wrestle with the monster that is Bane? How can you build on that foundation?
Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas sees Jim Aparo replaced by Norm Breyfogle, a man who could be considered the “young gun” of the KnightFall artists stable. An art student from the tender age of twelve, Breyfogle had set off early on the road that would lead him to DC Comics. He won awards in his home town throughout his youth, and at age sixteen was profiled in the Daily Mining Gazette of Houghton, Michigan, in an article titled “Norm Breyfogle: Near Master Cartoonist at 16.” He kept his hand in the comics world while in college, studying painting and illustration. He then worked as a draftsman, and can count among his credits technical illustrations of the Space Shuttle in a training manual for NASA.
He came to DC in 1984. From 1987 to 1993 he worked extensively on Batman and Detective Comics. Working alongside Alan Grant, he gave us The Ventriloquist (who will join us in the next issue) and Gotham’s own serial killer, the self-mutilating Zsasz (whom we will also meet soon, in the lonely halls of a girls school, where terrified students cower beneath the cold empty eyes of the killer, waiting for a Dark Knight to come to their rescue). His art is less realistic and more stylized than Aparo’s, and yet still avoids the tendency towards caricature that is endemic to comic book art.
Dave Moench is still our writer, and he is still knocking them out of the park. Where The Freedom of Madness was all about a massive disruption of the status quo, Crossed Eyes and Dotty Teas uses a classic Mad Hatter caper as a vehicle to illustrate just how far gone Batman is, and how far off his game the Arkham breakout has put the Dark Knight. I think Moench is at his best when he has a fast paced story to tell, and he doesn’t disappoint here. He also continues to work his rapid point-of-view shifting, giving us a comprehensive view of the happenings in Gotham, as the police and the media both grapple with the ramifications of a city saturated with madmen.
The story opens with the Mad Hatter, having secured his own freedom, going about the liberation of his closest companion, a chimpanzee. I did a bit of a double-take at this. I am not familiar enough with the Mad Hatter’s publication history to determine when he became close friends with a monkey. Regardless, DC comics has a long and storied tradition of employing monkeys as villains (Ultra Humanite, Gorilla Grod, Titano) so I went with it.
The Mad Hatter has a plan. It’s the same plan he always has, really, but that why it’s a classic – he invites a bunch of Arkham escapees to a tea party, where he has them don hats implanted with mind-control circuitry. When Batman arrives, the Hatter will order his minions to attack.
Meanwhile, Bane has his men keeping tabs on Batman’s rouge’s gallery. Bane intends to stay informed as to the goings on in Gotham. His primary tool for this job is the falconer, Bird, and his trained attack falcon Talon. Despite the amusing moniker, Bird is no pushover, and he has been tracking the Mad Hatter since the breakout.
The Hatter, however, may be mad, but he is not stupid. He manages to attach a tracking device to the falcon, and sends one of his new mind-controled minions to spy on Bane. The little known villain in question is Film Freak. With a modus operandi of committing crimes based on classic movies, Film Freak is not the most intimidating or powerful of Batman’s enemies. Yet he serves a very important purpose in the story. He will be the first person to die “on screen” at the hands of Bane.
Meanwhile, the Batman is hot on the Mad Hatter’s heels. In a sequence that really smacks of the Adam West/Burt Ward television series, Batman and Robin track the Hatter by listening for outrageous crimes on the police scanner, focus in on a haberdashery which the Hatter has robbed, then retrieve a personalized invitation to meet the Hatter for tea at a location with an Alice in Wonderland theme.
If I sound like I am making light of the story, that’s because I am, a little. On the surface, this should be a fun and exciting romp, with a little Silver-Age cheese thrown in for taste. I mean, we have a monkey, a guy named Bird who has a trained bird – a villain who is exactly what the Critical Masses own Matt Dunn would be if he decided to become a super villain – and a plot involving mind-control devices implanted in cowboy hats. This should be funny.
And yet, it is not.
Breyfogle’s art is emotive and full of motion. His action scenes drive home the unavoidable fact that lives are at stake. His stylized characters resemble the work of Tim Sale, who is one of my favorite modern Batman artists. When he draws the Batman in the middle of an attack of physical illness and mental weakness, it is simply gut-wrenching. You feel genuine fear for the World’s Greatest Detective.
The visceral bone-cracking murder of Film Freak at Bane’s hands is tortuous to read. Bane devastates the weaker man, breaking him like a bundle of dry twigs. Breyfogle’s clever use of panels allows us to cut back and forth between Bane’s brutal victory over Film Freak, and Batman and Robin’s triumph over the Hatter.
Moench takes what should be a simple and amusing Mad Hatter romp and turns it into an exhibit of the weakened condition of Batman. It is a true classic – drawing on a very traditional theme, he puts a different spin on it and in doing so creates something new. Moench plays to his strengths, telling a story with clear exposition, fast build up, and a dynamic and action packed climax.
The astute reader will notice that Moench and Breyfogle are marked by the Bat-Computer as Arkham escapees. They might also be able to see evidence of Frank Miller’s influence in the TV psychologist who talks about how the Arkham escapes are not bad people, just sick and overly fixated on Batman. While not as dark as The Dark Knight Returns, there is still an element of dry sarcasm to this that I like.
As this episode closes, there is no doubt that Batman is not doing well. Not only is he in obvious pain and nowhere near the top of his game, but he is operating without good information. He knows next to nothing about Bane, but the criminal mastermind from Santa Prisca is watching Batmn’s every move. The Dark Knight is in the dark, and danger is looming. Will he be able to fight through it? Can he save Gotham? Can he even save himself? Only time will tell.
“Maybe there is no plan, Bullock.”
“You’re thinkin’ someone sprung ‘em for the hell of it, Montoya?”
“Or, at most, a smoke screen – to distract us while something else goes down.”
“Then this’s bad, babe, wicked bad…”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next time – Maxie Zeus, the Battle of the Birds, and puppets…lots of puppets.