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Batman and the Mad Monk

With all the Silver Age love that Grant Morrison is giving Batman and Geoff Johns is showing Hal Jordan, it’s nice to see a little reflection back towards the Golden Age, which is generally forgotten (it helps that many of the comic book heroes that we have today only really emerged during that Silver Age, and that the writers would have grown up during it). Here we have a contemporary retelling of one of the early Batman stories, as reimagined by Matt Wagner in a follow-up to another Golden Age adaptation, Batman and the Monster Men. It’s a lovely little fun story that stands tall among the many, many early adventures in Batman’s career.

Who let the dogs out?

Who let the dogs out?

Gotham is changing. Gordon asks himself “What the hell is happening to this city?” Batman himself wonders if he is functioning as a sort of a lightening rod to the crazy (Wagner throws in a cameo from Catwoman and a sly reference to The Killing Joke as an indication that things are changing). But maybe the world itself is changing. Batman himself makes reference to a flying man appearing in Metropolis. Gotham is slowly fading from a pseudo-realistic world into fully-fledged comic book hell.

As with Wagner’s original ‘early years’ story (Batman and the Monster Men), he gives us Batman’s first encounter with another Golden Age rogue, the Monk, who first appeared in 1939 – several months before the Joker. Unlike Hugo Strange, who has been reestablished from time-to-time, the Monk has remained a more esoteric opponent, appearing only once more in Batman’s history between then and now. Oh, and he’s also a vampire. That too. Wagner is smart enough to keep most of the supernatural elements lowkey, instead relying on the more grounded tropes of the subgenre – abandoned castles, pet wolves, cults. It’s still spooky, and pulpy and – above all – fun.

The walls are closing in...

That word pretty much defines the miniseries. Fun. It manages to capture the characters of James Gordon and Batman quite well, and fits in a cameo from Harvey Dent (with some light foreshadowing thrown in), but it is primarily concerned with just being an entertaining read.

Best of all the series manages to form a segue between Frank Miller’s gritty and grim Year One and the  fantasy of The Long Halloween. Gotham is still infested with corrupt cops and Gordon is still a bitter cesspool run by the mob, but host to a satanic cult and with drained bodies turning up. It’s a nice and fluid change – the corruption of the city that manifested itself in crooked cops and paid-off officials slowly feeds into the decadence of Gotham’s wealthy families and the abandoned mansions and castles on the outskirts of the city. There is still evil in the roots of Gotham, but it is growing in strange new ways.

Under the hood...

Under the hood...

Wagner writes both Bruce and Gordon’s duelling narrations well (it’s a stylistic element that holds over from Year One and into similar stories like The Man Who Laughs), giving both a dstinct voice, but one that seems natural. He grounds and defines both characters by their fear – fear of what is happening to the city, fear of what can happen to their loved ones.

It’s cool to see the love and attention paid to the early Batman stories, but it’s also nice to see that the author doesn’t feel too tied to what came before (arguably the problem with Ed Brubaker’s follow-up The Man Who Laughs). Traditional elements (like the Monk and Bruce’s early love interest Julie Madison) stand alongside retroactively-inserted characters in Batman’s origin (Sal Moroni or Carmine Falconi), and it’s all up-to-date. Madison is now a socialite rather than an actress – and the Monk disguises himself as a self-help guru.

Cat scratch fever...

The book also closes several of the plot threads opened by Wagner’s original story – Julie’s father and his involvement in the mob; Bruce and Julie’s romance. It helps that there seems to be a flow going on here. Elements from Wagner’s earlier story carry through to this, with elements leading on into The Man Who Laughs. It seems like Batman’s early years couldn’t have happened any other way.

I love the artwork by Wagner here, it’s fluid and crisp. It’s more than a little cartoony, which suits the subject matter and the style that Wagner has adopted. It does also seema little like the style adopted for Year One, without seeming as gritty – which seems quite reasonable, considering the subject matter.

Up on the roof...

It’s a solid recommendation for a book which manages to retell an early Batman story, but infuse it with much more meaning and resonance than it originally had. Wagner doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with his take on Batman, he just tells a good story really well. What more could you ask for?

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