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Matt Wagner's new Batman graphic novel puts the Caped Crusader squarely in a 1940s Monogram B-movie.

Book Review: Batman And the Monster Men

Packaged under the meant-to-be-evocative title "Dark Moon Rising," writer and artist Matt Wagner's Batman mini-series, Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk, look to the character's early years, a lá Frank Miller's graphic novel, Batman: Year One. But where Miller's sensitivity when considering of Young Batman took from hard-boiled cheeseballs like Mickey Spillane, Wagner is more akin to Edgar Rice Burroughs or Lester Dent, proudly boyish in his treatment — even if we do get to see Bruce Wayne's latest ladyfriend in a moment of post-coital bliss. If the results lack the "significance" of Miller's over-elevated Dark Knight books, in their own way they're even more fun: comic book versions of forties Monogram B-pictures.

Both Monster Men (currently released as a trade paperback collecting all six issues of the limited run title) and Mad Monk (just beginning its six-issue DC Comics run) focus on a Bruce Wayne still so new to the crimefighting biz (in the first series, we get the debut of a Batmobile) that he's actually optimistic about the fact that he has a "girlfriend." Said object of his doomed affection is one Julie Madison (a briefly seen player from early Detective Comics), whose father is on the hook to shady underworld types. (This is Gotham City, after all.) Though Bruce and Julie are going at it hot and heavy, it's clear Dad's gonna eventually gum things up as we watch him deteriorate into full-blown alcoholism over the series.

The heavy in mini-series one is Dr. Hugo Strange, who gets to play mad scientist to the hilt: genetically manipulating criminally insane inmates of Arkham Asylum into knobby, cannibalistic giants. Strange is abetted by a sinister Hindu named Sanjay who hopes that the professor's unconventional researches will help his invalid brother. (What? Strange couldn't find a hunchback for his second-in-command?) To finance his researches, the mad doctor is in debt to the same gangsters holding a leash on Julie’s father. Gotham City is just one big small town.

As written by Wagner, Strange is the type of arrogant, insecure baddie whose response to a rich bitch's sneering put-down is to toss her and her drunk boyfriend into a cell with his flesh-eating creations. Kind of puts a lie to the guy's assertions that he's doing his vile researches for the good of humanity, but, then, long-time Bat readers knew that was a crock anyway. Besides, it's no different from what George Zucco would've done. As the various players — Strange, Julie's Dad, gangster Sal Maroni — dance around the subplot of illicit loans and IOUs, we the readers mainly look forward to a final confrontation 'tween Batman and Strange's monster men.

This finally happens, though the results are dampened by artist Wagner's seeming inability to get a handle on just how big his gigantic-ized monster men are (a captionless cover showing our hero dangling by the cape from a MMan's grip doesn't help matters here either.) All of a sudden, we've moved from Monogram Pictures to Bert I. Gordon, and the results ain't pretty. Also, a bit where one of the creatures appears to have died, only to pop up later in true horrorflick fashion, is seriously bobbled. Wavering giants aside, however, Wagner's art has a rough edge to it that is appealing, even if he does occasionally make his ingénue heroine look like a sharp-chinned harpy. In a perverse way, it hearkens back to comics' Golden Age, when city boys with only a smidgeon of art training could become comic artists, and their kid audience was completely satisfied with every undue body construct.

Wagner has fun working with the World of Early Batman. Though much of the action in Monster Men is set indoors (as if further replicating the soundstage look of B-movies), he still manages to convey a believably retro Gotham City. His caped crusader is not as hard-cased as he'll later become in the present day Dark Knight rubric, and is more interesting for it. Bruce even commits a clear strategic blunder by calling Julie's father by his first name, while wearing the costume — an act that you know will impact on future episodes of "Dark Moon Rising."

Mad Monk follows not long after the events in Monster Men: Bruce is still dating Julie Madison, while her father is descending even further into pathetic alcoholism. Future Commissioner Jim Gordon — seen for brief bits in the first Wagner graphic novel — has more a prominent role in this second outing, facing off a trio of corrupt policemen on a station rooftop while waiting for the Bat to make an appearance, escorting the costumed crimefighter into the city morgue. Monk's primary heavy doesn't make an appearance in the first chapter (though Golden Age afficianados and readers of DC's Batman Archives might understandably wonder if he's connected to the werewolf Monk who appeared in Detective Comics #31 and #32), but the villain who does — an exotically tattooed, leather-clad seductress — proves sufficiently pulpish to pique our interests. (Newly-borne Catwoman also makes an appearance in the first issue opening, but it's unclear whether she'll have a more prominent role in the storyline.) If the horror tone in this second outing is a trace more modern than it was in Monster Men — there's a hint of C.S.I.work in the coroner scene — it's still agreeably B-pic. (Howling 2 perhaps?)  Works for me!

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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