I was pleasantly surprised by this week’s Gotham City Sirens #1, which featured a so-so but not awful story and fantastic artwork. This was by far my least favorite part, though:
That’s a portion of a panel near the end of the book, wherein a character named “The Broker,” an evil real estate agent with evil customers, is leaving the book’s protagonists in the abandoned cat shelter he just sold them, and is apparently talking to classic Batman villain Jervis “The Mad Hatter” Tetch (In the previous panel he answers his cell phone with a, “Hell-oo, Jervis! I’ve lined up something very special for you.”
Note that last bit, “best of all, just down the street from an all-girls academy.”
The implication being, of course, that The Mad Hatter isn’t just a crazy, colorful criminal obsessed with stealing various hats for his hat collection, and/or obsessed with Lewis Carrol’s Alice books, and/or a mad scientist who has perfected mind control through super-science hats. No, he’s also an honest-to-goodness pedophile.
This element of The Mad Hatter isn’t original to Dini, and certainly wasn’t present in the script for the “Mad as a Hatter” episode of Batman: The Animated Series that Dini wrote back in 1992.
According to my bookshelf and longboxes, the implication that the Mad Hatter was a pedophile or child molester first arose Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s 1989 original graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, although I think it’s safe to say that the events and characterizations of that book haven’t always carried over directly into later versions of the characters, and whether or not it is considered “in continuity” or not could probably be debated.
The only other example of this characterization of the Hatter that I can find among my comics is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s 1994 Legends of the Dark Knight special, Batman: Madness. In that, Batman is frantically hunting for the villain, while narrating to himself that on Halloween, “Children should be allowed to dress up as spooks and fairies an collect candy…without having to worry about being poisoned…molested…or worse…”
Ultimately, there’s never anything more than an implication regarding the Hatter preying on children though. The Hatter rescues young Barbara Gordon from two knife-wielding would-be rapists, the dialogue points out that she changes into an Alice costume for him herself, and the missing runaways Batman is looking for aren’t being raped and murdered, but are apparently living with the Hatter semi-voluntarily.
Dini’s off-handed comment doesn’t have any of that sort of subtlety or ambiguity, and man, I’d never thought I’d find myself using Loeb as an example of the more subtle of two writers (The Loeb and Dini of the early ‘90s are obviously different writers of the Loeb an Dini of late aughts though).
I’m not terribly shocked and offended that Dini wrote this line, or that editor Mike Marts left it in, nor am I suggesting that pedophilia and child-rape is something that Batman comics should never, ever, ever address or deal with (although a persuasive argument could be made on that front, and it’s probably not the best place to do it).
But it is not, in this first issue at least, presented as a necessary part of the story, it’s just a tossed-off joke line uttered by a minor character as he walks off-panel, perhaps never to return. That is, it doesn’t have to be there the way it would if it were the subject of the story—so why put it there in the first place? Why have readers dwell on such a repulsive crime (even if only briefly) if you don’t have to? (It doesn’t necessarily paint our protagonists, at least two of whom are sometimes crimefighters, in a very good light either, as they ignore the comment entirely).
Am I making too big a deal out of a single dialogue bubble of a single panel? Probably. But the thing is, this single dialogue bubble comes just seven days after the same writer’s Batman: Streets of Gotham #1, which also featured a scene referring to child-rape.
A tiny girl wearing a lot of make up and some very tiny clothes is standing blank-expressioned next to a pimp, who’s talking her up to an old man sitting in the back of a limousine. We hear her thoughts, as she psyches herself up: “Look away, don’t be scared. If your’ not scared, Clay won’t hit you again. Don’t scream, Katy. It’s not you. You’re not even here. You’re just a shell” and so on.
A big guy comes along and asks her how old she is, and when she says 18, he scoffs, “I’d say ten, twelve tops.” When her pimp tries to scare the interloper away, he breaks the pimp’s arm, and then punches the man that was just trying to buy Katy with some sort of brass-knuckles that leave the word “Abuse” branded in a bruise on the pedophile’s head.
In this instance, Dini’s obviously going somewhere with this. The mysterious stranger will surely appear again later in future issues, and probably come into conflict with Batman over the morals of vigilantism. So unlike the example in Gotham City Sirens, Dini brought up an ugly, ugly topic for some sort of reason.
Of course, there is a problem with bringing it up at all, which Tucker Stone brought up in his review of the issue over at The Factual Opinion:
Apparently Paul Dini is worried you aren’t paying enough attention to him, beyond saying “oh the cartoon fella, the one who works with that Dustin Nguyen guy.” His solution is to go for skeeving it out as much as possible…
The nice thing about it, and by nice, read disgusting, is that Dini does such a fine job of presenting a tiny tot rape victim that one can’t help but think “hey, save her now, sure, but she’s clearly been raped multiple times before, where was Batman then, pardon my weeping.” While it’s true that this is the sort of depravity that the aging Bat-reader apparently demands—not just costumed supervilliains, but abused little girl rape victims—that doesn’t make it any more tolerable, especially when the story’s climax reveals that the little girl probably was incinerated by the Firefly.
The problem with adding real-world crimes like child prostitution and rape into the DC Universe is that it really breaks the universe, even if only temporarily, and makes the superheroes look like complete monsters. No one in the world should get raped in a world with Superman in it, and even if he’s picky about which sex crimes he chooses to stop, certainly Superman wouldn’t allow child prostitution, would he? (Do DCU pimps keep their child prostitutes in lead-lined dungeons, so Superman can’t see them or something?)
If Batman can’t stop every crime in Gotham City himself, even with the help of Robin, Nightwing, Batwoman, The Outsiders, The Birds of Prey and the 15,000 or so super-pals who all pitched in during Battle for the Cowl, maybe he could at least prioritize the child prostitution rings, instead of taking a year off to recharge his batteries after Infinite Crisis?
I understand that Dini is trying to tell his idea of a grittier, darker and more mature story, but it’s a very 1989 sort of idea of the way to tell grittier, darker, more mature stories in super hero comics (Arkham Asylum is now 20 years old; Andrew Vachss’ prose novel about Batman fighting child sex tourism, The Ultimate Evil, is now 14 years old). And if the thought was that it would be more realistic to show child prostitutes working in Gotham City, well, Dini needs to work a lot harder on his scripts if “realism” was what he was going for, as the police letting a woman who knocked out a jewelry store owner and through a police officer through a window walk simply because someone burned down the police station, well damn, no wonder Gotham has so many criminals—it’s the softest city on crime in the world.
Hopefully these two books coming out back-to-back like this and both including a particularly skeevy moment is just a coincidence, and a quirk of the schedule, and not the first two points of an emerging pattern.
Because, call me old-fashioned, but I like to read Batman comics to watch him fight and beat crime, and, if there are compelling comics to be told about child abuse, then I’d rather read about it in a comic book that doesn’t involve a guy dressed like a bat fighting a a villain named Firefly who is causing citizens to burst into flames via bug-shaped microchips.