Batman & The Monster Men

After a brief sojourn, I’m back in Batman-Land.

I’d say it feels good to be back, but honestly, there’s a whole lot of darkness in these comics.  Thank god I have my own little happy comics (I’m looking at you, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl) to help cope with all of the depressing realism.

This collection is a fairly recent release, published in 2007 but set in the 1980’s, during Batman’s early years after the Crisis event.

The dark, ominous tone of these comics is even more noticeable after my travels through Metropolis with the ever-colorful Superman.  Sometimes I wish Batman would stray from his signature black and break out a multi-colored cowl, just for a little variety.

I have a feeling I’m going to be waiting in vain for that one.

The story doesn’t delay in creating an unsettling tone.  Earlier Batman comics had somewhat scary elements at times.  Some of the images here aren’t just frightening, they’re downright gruesome.

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Yes, that is a disembodied arm, found in a sewer.  Matt Wagner, who both wrote and drew this comic, doesn’t shy away from such startling images.  Many of his panels are splattered with blood, and the above is not the only dismembered body part to grace the pages of this trade.

This tone is a far cry from the absurd and downright comical villainy of the 50’s comics.

Wagner creates a well-rounded story in this collection.  Bruce Wayne, fully committed to his role as Batman, has recently begun dating a young woman, Julie Madison (Yay, a name I know! Mistah J told me reading all those early comics would pay off, and he was right.)

Bruce attempts to juggle dating with his vigilante work, as he battles both Sal Maloni and Hugo Strange.  Maloni is your standard ruthless mobster, thriving on intimidation and causing others pain.

Strange, on the other hand, is completely unhinged, hell-bent on creating genetically modified individuals so that he may one day overcome his own physical inadequacies (a shrink would have a field-day with him).

He has not quite mastered his formulas though, and so his creations are grotesque, hulking figures, the “Monster Men” of the story.

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This story is taken right out of an early Batman issue (Yay, something else I know!), but Wagner’s version is so much more in-depth and involved.  The additional elements of Maloni and Wayne’s love interest add a whole new level to the story, allowing it to span multiple issues rather than the original one-off.

Chronologically this story takes place right after Batman: Year One, and it’s interesting to see how natural the story progression feels.  In Year One, Batman is a wanted criminal, with essentially all police officers viewing him as the enemy.  This comic naturally progresses that opinion, showing cracks in the mob mentality as Batman strives to prove that he’s one of the good guys.

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I like seeing the uncertainty among the general population, as there would undoubtedly be opposing viewpoints when dealing with a vigilante crime-fighter such as Batman.

Despite the widespread violence in this comic, I’m happy to see Wagner continued to use Alfred as comic relief.  One of my favorite moments in this trade involved Alfred snarkily commenting that Batman’s new car should have wings added:

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Nevermind the fact that we all know the Batmobile did have wings.  Alfred’s tongue-in-cheek remark is just one of the many reasons I love Batman.  Even with all the doom and gloom in Gotham, there’s still time for a small joke or two.

The comic closes with a rather open ending.  Batman defeats the Monster Men, but Hugo Strange escapes.  Batman rescues Julie Madison’s father (who had borrowed money from Maloni and almost repaid his debt with his life), but makes the mistake of addressing him by name, leaving Mr. Madison frantic and a tad psychotic, trying to figure out how and why Batman knew who he was.

I’ve looked ahead and know that this collection is the first in a two-part series Wagner wrote to fill in the early years of Batman’s career.  Luckily, the sequel happens to be the next on the shelf.

As I head into it, I’m left with a handful of questions: How will Bruce Wayne balance crime-fighting with a love life?  Will Julie Madison learn the secret identity of her beau?  Will Mr. Madison go off the deep end over his unanswered questions about Batman?  Will Hugo Strange make another appearance?

Hopefully the next trade answers these questions for me.  Given how well the first collection was put together, I have a feeling it will.

-Jess

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