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Batman and the Monster Men (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I really liked both of Matt Wagner’s Dark Moon Rising miniseries, offering a modern retelling of two classic Golden Age Batman stories, fit within the context of the Caped Crusader’s early career. I honestly don’t think that we get enough Golden Age nostalgia within DC comics – the focus of the recent wave of revisionism seems to have been the decidedly wacky and zany Silver Age. Still, between this and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics, perhaps we can start a trend. This is a story transitioning between Frank Miller’s iconic Batman: Year One and Jeph Loeb’s slightly more colourful The Long Halloween, built on the idea that Batman inhabits a comic book world – too much “realism” or too heavy a focus on “gritty urban crime” might rob the character of some of his appeal.

He sure knows how to make an entrance…

Frank Miller casts a long shadow over Batman. Despite a relatively limited amount of work on the title, the writer redefined Batman at a pivotal moment in the character’s long and rich history. While Denny O’Neil had already begun the transition away from the camp of Adam West, Frank Miller underscored that Batman was a very serious character. While his villains had already regained their standing as homicidal maniacs, Miller put Batman in a grim world of street peddlers, prostitutes and mobsters – a world not too far removed from reality. This attitude towards the character seemed to stick, with writers trying to keep the Batman stories darker and grimmer and increasingly serious, downplaying the sillier or supernatural aspects of the character’s history.

Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men reads as something of a rebuff to this grim and dark approach. While he retains quite a few of Miller’s trappings – including the supporting cast of gangsters and drug runners and the backdrop of corrupt cops – Wagner channels some of the stranger aspects of the character’s rich history. Indeed, Batman and the Monster Men is a modern retelling of one of the stories contained in the original Batman #1, all those years ago. It sees Batman fighting the mysterious Hugo Strange and his monsters, something decidedly outside the realistic framework of Miller’s more grounded portrayal.

In the clutches of the villain…

There are hints of Miller’s voice to be found in the pulpy narration. “Animals like this understand one language only,” Batman observes, dragging a mook off into the shadows for a quick word. “The very FEAR they so casually inflict upon others.” However, Wagner’s Batman is shown to be quite shy of the more aggressive iteration that Frank Miller gave us – he’s sympathetic, and understanding. Witnessing a victim of torture shivering in fear, he notes, “The costume works. At times, too well.” Even though the victim of the brutal torture was a criminal, the kind of person Miller’s Batman would have left there to tell scary stories, this version shows genuine concern, “You are on the verge of shock stemming from your mistreatment. The police and emergency medical team will arrive shortly. Rest assured those who did this to you will not escape punishment.”

It’s telling that, when Wagner includes the mandatory Miller-esque shot of Batman running across a rooftop, he doesn’t set it against the dead of night like we saw in Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns. Instead, dawn is breaking as Batman makes his run. This is a version of the character who seems to be having a little bit of fun in what he’s doing, rather than acting out a joyless “war.” When the black Sedan from Year One is totalled by a bunch of crooks, Batman prepares “something better.” He doesn’t build a tank like the one from Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Returns. Alfred jokes about his aesthetic choices, only to realise that Bruce is consciously playing up the “bat” elements of the car.

Talking with Batman is such a drag…

In contrast to the darkness of Bruce’s pysche in Year One, here Wagner has the character act in marked contrast. Far from preparing for an eternal all-consuming war on crime, this Bruce seems almost optimistic, displaying something close to a “home for Christmas” attitude to his adventure, harbouring the romantic notion that he can just sweep all the criminals off the board and be done with it. “Mother, Father,” he remarks, “soon the city you loved will be clean again. I even have a girlfriend now. I think you’d both like her.” Of course, those words seem ironic in light of the craziness that lies ahead, but Wagner seems intent to portray Batman as a more unambiguously heroic character than the version written by Miller, one who isn’t just feeding an empty void inside himself without regard to anything else.

He even writes a love interest for Bruce in Julie Madison, one of the girls who appeared in the early Batman comics. Rather than some of the billionaire’s looser associations, Wagner makes it clear that Bruce is in love with Julie, and that he wants her to be happy – to the point where Bruce even seems to compromise his own moral code to protect her father from the gangsters he owes money to. And, credit to Wagner, he writes Julie as a clever young lady, who seems to be the only person in the story who suspects that there’s more to Bruce than he’s letting on. It’s a nice relationship that Wagner writes, and one which humanises Bruce – showing that there is a hint of childish romanticism beneath the cold exterior.

The Monster Mash…

Instead, Wagner relegates the role of the story’s cynic to Jim Gordon, which is a smart move. I honestly think that Jim Gordon was the hero of Miller’s Batman: Year One, and there’s something tragic about James Gordon, the man who had nobody else to turn to but a man who dresses like a giant bat. Gordon is smart enough to realise that this is just the beginning, in contrast to Bruce’s innocent optimism. “What the hell is happening to this city?” he asks, “I try not to notice the details that add up to an answer I don’t want to consider.” While he might condemn the dirty cops, he’s well aware that he is conspiring with a vigilante, trusting the city’s welfare to a man in a cape. “What kind of cop does that make me?” he wonders, articulating the sense of responsibility that weighs on his shoulders.

The key to Batman and the Monster Men is that it makes an effort to move Bruce outside his comfort zone, showing Batman facing a foe who isn’t just a gangster or a hired goon. This is something very strange and almost other-worldly. We’re used to thinking of Batman’s world as a relatively grounded and rational one, so the use of “giant mutant cannibals” makes for an interesting foil for a guy who was gatecrashing fancy dinners or breaking into mob penthouses only a little while ago. This is something fascinating. Batman muses, of the eponymous creatures, that this is “like nothing I have ever encountered. Like nothing I have ever imagined.” When Bruce mentions the situation to Gordon, the cop responds, incredulously, “You… You’re serious?”

Something Strange’s going on…

I like most portrayals of Batman. It’s hard to find one I don’t have a certain fondness for. Pulpy action hero? Yep. Sci-fi weirdness? Why not? Gritty detective? Ah, go on. Camp crusader? Sure, we all like a bit of that from time-to-time. Urban spirit of vengeance? With a healthy side of noir, if you don’t mind. Cartoony fun? Count me in! The strength of the character is in his versatility. So I have no problem with a version of Batman who fights monsters and vampires, and I think that Matt Wagner does an absolutely stunning job melding that world with Miller’s gritty urban realism – it genuinely gives you a sense that this is the transition that Batman must have faced at some point in his life. Grant Morrison writes a Batman who was all these things at one time or another, looking back on a career. In contrast, Wagner gives us a Batman who is learning what he’s going to have to be in order to survive in Gotham. That, in a nutshell, is what makes the book so good.

Of course, there are other touches. Hugo Strange is a weird Batman foe. He’s been around since Batman #1, but he’s relatively seldom used. Perhaps because he lacks a distinctive physical gimmick (among comic book villains, being short and bald is hardly exceptional), Strange has been something of a background presence in the character’s history. He enjoys moments of prominence – Strange Apparitions or Arkham City or The Batmananimated television show – but is hardly an iconic Batman villain. Still, it’s nice to have Wagner write the first encounter.

Julie is a knockout…

Indeed, Wagner writes Strange as a counterpart to Bruce at this stage of his career, playing up the similarities between the two. Sure, nearly every Batman villain serves as a foil to some aspect of the hero, but Wagner gives us enough to make it interesting. “I am a product of this city,” narration tells us. “My early childhood scarred by trauma and grief.” It’s only when we turn the page that we see it’s Strange speaking. He even grew up “not far from Crime Alley.” However, if Strange built “the Monster Men” to clean up the world and make it better (in his own sick way), then does that mean Bruce created Batman as a monster to do the same? Answers on the back of a postcard.

I don’t usually care too much about continuity, but I appreciate how the end of Wagner’s tale ties into Prey, a story set during the early days of Bruce’s career which sees Hugo Strange hired by the Gotham Police Department to track down Batman. It’s a great story, one that was rumoured to serve as the basis of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and one that I’m hoping might get a nice deluxe hardcover release in the next few years. I know I’d buy it.

They’re a little tied up…

There are other interesting ideas contained within the story. I do like the suggestion, from Julie’s father, that the Red Hood might be Batman’s very first “rogue.” “And now some petty thief gets the idea to put on a cape and a mask as well,” he proclaims, as if the Red Hood is the first masked villain covered in the newspaper. That would be a fitting addition to continuity, consider who was (possibly) under the mask. I know Catwoman appears in Miller’s Batman: Year One, but she’s generally more of an anti-hero. I also like the way the press refer to him as “the Bat-Man”, and the sketch features absurdly long ears, calling back to the original design of the Caped Crusader.

Wagner provides the art for the collection as well, which has a decidedly more cartoon-ish feel than either the harsh and muted Year One or the watercolour The Long Halloween. I love his style, as it reminds me quite a bit of Batman: The Animated Series, which remains one of the most perfect distillations of the Caped Crusader’s long and distinguished history, as well as serving as my introduction. If I do have a complaint about the collection, it’s a minor one: the covers are relegated to small snapshots inside the front cover. I like the comic book covers to serve as chapter breaks in the story that I’m reading, but that might just be me.

Hugo has a short temper…

Batman and the Monster Men is a great story, an adventure that serves as a wonderful bridge between the noir of Miller’s dark origin story and the bright insanity that would follow. It’s a story that dares to put a bit of fun into the character, while offering solid character work all the way through. In short, it’s a monster of a story.

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