Hatter M: Zen Of Wonder is part of the growing collection of works surrounding Frank Beddor's "Looking Glass Wars" story. There have been three prose novels, a webcomic, a card game and this is the fourth graphic novel. Zen of Wonder has not been published yet -- it's up on Kickstarter now -- but Beddor sent over an electronic review copy.
To recap, Wonderland is a very real place, though not quite so innocent as Lewis Carroll's story would have you believe. Princess Alyss saw her parents killed by her own Aunt Redd, and Alyss only escaped by crossing over into our world. Her bodyguard Hatter Madigan tried to follow, but lost her en route. The prose novels follow the overall story, while the graphic novels focus on Madigan's search for Alyss here on Earth.
This story really starts in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1870. Madigan somewhat inadvertently falls in with a strange girl named Nekko. She is very playful and seemingly wise, but she speaks largely in fortune cookie proverbs. She convinces Madigan to take her back to Japan, after he comes across a samurai sword that bears another Hatter's insignia. After a brief layover in Hawaii, they arrive in Japan where Madigan soon finds himself battling demons using unconventional techniques taught to him by Nekko. Madigan soon comes to find that the other Hatter is none other than his brother, and the two escape with Nekko to her former monastery and then onward to find Alysss...
This book is by the same creative team who did the last two, and seem to be working well together. That said, Zen of Wonder has a very different tone than the previous books in the series. Madigan has been the central focus of the comics and, as a deliberately dour character, the stories have been fairly grim and serious. While he remains fairly dour here as well, the character of Nekko is exceptionally light-hearted, not only providing some comic relief, but changing the overall tone of the whole book. It's kind of like watching Worf from Star Trek go on an adventure with Pippi Longstocking.
The other thing that's a bit of a change from before is that, as I suggested, Nekko's dialogue is largely a string of vaguely oriental sounding platitudes. Further, many of them are deliberately anachronistic and actually attributable to 20th century figures. So not only is the basic tone different, the text itself has a different rythm to it.
Neither of these is inherently a bad thing, of course, just a marked difference from previous stories.
The story is designed to put Madigan on a more internal, spiritual journey than the ones we've seen before. There's an apparently conscious effort to throw many variations of Zen teachings into the story, none of which however touch on specific religions, but rather seem to reflect an ongoing theme of broadening one's horizons. Instead of trying to "follow the glow" of Alyss' imagination, which has gotten Madigan no closer to finding her over the better part of a decade, he should instead "go with the flow" and take a less dogmatic approach to his job. Nekko, then, and her Happy Cat Monastery represent not a specific sect or set of Buddhist teachings, but rather a more generalized approach to knowing yourself.
I have to admit that I had a little trouble getting into this one as much as the previous stories. I see how something like this was necessary for the overall story arc, and I really liked that Nekko's approach and style very much did NOT mimic the way most mentor characters are shown any more. She not only has a different look, but also has a radically different teaching style than what you see in most Western media. The fortune cookie approach, I think, does a bit of a disservice to the overall story, though. Much of it comes across as a series of almost non-sequiturs in the context of the story, and it's only in the epilogue that everything gels together and makes sense. At least to me. Perhaps coming at this without a deeper connection with the previous stories would allow a reader to see it more readily, or perhaps I was just unusually thick-headed when I read through it initially.
I think the creative team here had to walk a really fine line to get this installment to work exactly the way it should, and I hate to admit that I'm not convinced they nailed it. It's not a bad story, certainly, but I think it strays a little far from the path of the others to really be as engaging to existing readers. Then again, the very theme of the story is being able to veer off the path in order to find what's at the end of it, so maybe this book works better on a meta-textual level for the creators and the readers both.
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