After these last two trades, I’ll say this:
Matt Wagner certainly knows how to weave a story.
Batman and the Mad Monk is the second collection Wagner created to provide details into Batman’s early years as a crimefighter. As with his last trade, Batman and the Monster Men, this collection borrows its premise from an early Batman comic from the 40’s.
In this story, Gotham is plagued by a series of murders, all the same: victims with strange puncture marks in their necks who have been drained of all their blood. Batman tries to get to the bottom of this case, all the while desperately trying to avoid the most obvious possibility: vampires.
As Batman investigates, the reader learns that a cult of wannabe vampires is responsible for the killings, being led by the Mad Monk, aka Niccolai, who claims to be a true creature of the night.
While all of this is transpiring, Batman is also dealing with his lady-love, Julie Madison, who just so happens to get mixed up with the Mad Monk.
It’s a lot going on for one story, but Wagner manages to seemlessly weave the tale so that it all fits together.
It’s not surprising that modern writers would draw on some of the earliest Batman issues for inspiration; it’s likely that few readers today would be familiar with the original stories, and it’s a nice way to pay homage to those who helped create the character. It was no big surprise, then, to see the Mad Monk story reappear. What was surprising was just how close to the original story Wagner remained.
The use of wolves as Mad Monk’s demonic beasts is straight out of the original story, as is the ensuing battle Batman faces against them.
I enjoyed the fact that Wagner drew inspiration from one of the original Batman comics, but what I liked even more was that he did so with sincerity. Given the nature of some past Batman issues, a modern writer could have easily taken a tongue-in-cheek approach to the story, asking the reader to laugh at the absurdity of it all. This particular story certainly would have lent itself easily to that angle. A vampire cult complete with a shrouded leader and wolf bodyguards? That could easily be turned into a farce.
Matt Wagner instead treats the story with respect, taking it at face value and simply embellishing the details so as to provide a more complete scene. For that, I respect him and his artistic choices.
The above blatant reference to the original story is not the only one of its kind here. Direct parallels are seen later as well when Batman falls into a pit whose walls are quickly closing in, threatening to crush him:
I don’t fault Wagner for drawing on these stories. Indeed, they are classic moments in Batman lore that deserve to be brought to future generations. I applaud him not just for using these stories, but for making them his own.
This story is so much more developed and thought out than the original. Scenes which had once been a few panels are spread out over multiple pages, creating a real sense of tension and action for the reader. It was so much more compelling watching Batman try to escape his crushing doom in the panel above than it was to see him effortlessly escape such a fate in the original comic, a scene that, if memory serves me correctly, spanned a mere three panels.
Therein lies part of the genius in these collections. They build upon pre-established Batman lore but mold it into something much more evolved and interesting.
The other side of Wagner’s brilliance is seen in the way he so deftly ties everything together. As mentioned above, there’s a lot going on in this trade. There are a number of supporting characters, all with their own side-stories. Wagner depicts them all in such a way that the reader is never confused, but instead leaves the comic with the feeling that she has been fully immersed in an alternate reality. At times omniscient narration feels convoluted, but here it allows the story to flow while still keeping the reader up to speed on everything that’s happened.
Wagner takes a number of disjointed stories and characters and manages to fit them into a single, unified world. Mad Monk may be the star of this particular story, but Catwoman and Harvey Dent still make their appearances, reminding us that they’re waiting in the wings for their own moment in the spotlight.
Wagner even teases future storylines, dropping a reference to the Joker…
As well as a brief foreshadowing of Robin:
These hints are subtle enough to keep new readers intrigued while being clever enough to cause untold excitement among old readers.
I suppose, at least in regards to the continuity, I fall into the latter category, because I was certainly freaking out when these references were made. I can’t even say I know why. I know these characters will be reappearing at some point, so it’s not surprise that they’re referenced here. I suppose it’s just how well everything ties together. Batman commenting on the Joker before he really knows what a massive enemy he will become, or sailing past an advertisement featuring an image of his future partner: it all gives the reader a bit of a thrill, knowing something about the future that the hero doesn’t. That brief, sly smile crosses my face as if to say, “If you only knew…”.
I find that to be one of the most exciting aspects of reading all of these “new” backstories. I have a general idea where things are going from here, but our hero is still in the dark. It’s interesting to watch Batman slowly learn what I know to be the inevitable. There’s a certain power in it, which as the reader is a nice change of pace.
I’m not sure if any of the other comics coming up draw upon classic Batman tales for inspiration. My guess would be absolutely, but who knows? Maybe writers will prefer to branch out and write their own original stories. If they do decide to journey into the past though, I can only hope they handle the stories with the same reverence and respect Wagner did.