The first of a series of graphic novels expanding on Frank Beddor's as-yet-unfinished young adult fantasy trilogy, The Looking Glass Wars, Hatter M (Automatic Pictures Publishing) continues the writer's violent re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's beloved Wonderland books. In Beddor's world, young Alyss Heart is the princess of Wonderland, forced to flee to our realm when the evil Red Queen attempts a violent takeover. The once loony Mad Hatter is now a hard-nosed royal bodyguard with a variety of blades at his disposal; his top hat is itself a weapon, though how it specifically works is not clearly explicated in the first volume of the GN series. Using a portal called the pool of tears (puddles of water that appear where none should be), our title hero travels through space — first briefly popping up in 1859 Paris, then Budapest, where most of volume one's action is set — diligently seeking the missing Alyss.
Volume One of the trade collects the first four issues of Beddor's comic book expansion, created in collaboration with writer Liz Cavalier (who I suspect did the bulk of the actual scripting) and artist Ben Templesmith. For those (like me) coming to this world for the first time, it isn't until the third chapter/issue that Hatter M provides the background story of how our grim hero and Alyss were driven out of Wondertropolis and subsequently separated. The first chapter, in particular, is more than a mite confusing as our hero Hatter Madigan pops up in Paris with little explanation as what the heck is going on here. Beset by street thugs, gendarmes, and the walking dead, our hero wreaks havoc in the city – attracting the attentions of a sinister necromancer in the process.
In Budapest, he uncovers a sinister orphanage where young girls are being drained of their imagination by members of a mysterious organization called the Baanskrätar. Aided by an ambitious young lady reporter named Magda Pushiken, Hatter attempts to rescue a girl he believes to be the princess (though we, the readers, know she isn't – else the series would end too soon) from the brain-sucking fiends of Baroness Dvonna's Orphanage for Lost Girls. Observing all this through various glass reflections are two mysterious figures who clearly don't mean our hero good.
Title hero Hatter Madigan proves to be an appealing, if fairly one-note, creation: consumed with guilt over letting his charge slip away from him, he remains focused on finding and rescuing young Alyss from our "dark world." He has a courtliness that suits him well in meetings with the likes of a young Jules Verne and is attracted to the light of imagination, which in Beddor's world is a force to be reckoned with. He also is, of course, capable of seriously wielding his blades.
Cunningly illustrated by Ben (30 Days of Night) Templesmith, the first volume of Hatter M ultimately proves strong enough to stand on its own as a story, though I'm sure Beddor wouldn't mind if the graphic novel drew readers to his prose takes on the Looking Glass Wars. Beddor's liberties with Wonderland lore are frequently quite amusing (as when the voluptuous Red Queen directs her henchmen to lop off her enemies' "stinking, boring heads"), while his embellished dark fantasies are compellingly rendered by artist Templesmith. (Carroll's world has always had its dark side, of course, though not as dark as this.) The gray world of the evil orphanage is especially well realized, with its grim-faced "Conformist Art" instructors and appropriately early industrial draining machinery.
As an artist, Templesmith can occasionally let his love of atmosphere override his storytelling clarity, but I've personally grown fond of his jug-eared characters. He arguably has the most difficult task when it comes to swaying the readers: the John Teniel caricatures that accompanied Carroll's original children's books are so firmly entrenched that we can't help comparing 'em to Templesmith's. Occasionally nodding toward Ralph Steadman's takes on Lewis Carroll, his cartoony inkwork manages to both evoke and expand upon the original, capturing a hint of Carroll-ian whimsy in the midst of all the heightened nightmares. He's the graphic novel's not-so-secret weapon: a high-hatted soldier of sardonic imagination.