Batman and the Monster Men
Matt Wagner, writer/artist
DC, August 2006
A retelling of the first Batman story to involve superpowered antagonists way back when, Batman and the Monster Men would be the baseline of quality for Batcomics in a better world than this one. It’s unlikely to stick in your craw in terms of its depiction of Batman’s sadness or mania, which for me at least is the effect achieved by the best Batman stories. Nor does the scripting necessarily rise above the usual comic-book treatment of such stock figures as Mad Scientist, Gotham Mobster, Spunky but Naive Heiress, Crooked Commissioner and so on. The narration tends to spell out what’s happening and why, and the prose isn’t stylish enough for me not to be bugged by that. And Wagner’s art is sometimes startling crude.
But–well, if you’ve stuck around long enough to hear the “but” in the first place, my guess is this book may be for you. Reason number one would be Wagner’s art, crudeness and all. His Batman is a big hunk of marble that throws itself at its targets with a real wallop. Though we’re about as far from Paul Pope’s fashion-textbook realism, the combination of Wagner’s meaty design and Dave Stewart’s plain black and gray color scheme for the outfit truly makes Batman feel like a big, fast guy who puts on a creepy outfit to punch people in. Given that the threat in the story is basically three or four big huge mutants who punch people too, the effect is sort of like watching a Kimbo Slice streetfighting video on YouTube. That’s pretty much how I want a Batman comic to feel.
Wagner also somehow pulls off the delicate alchemy of the “detective” aspect of Batman’s idiom, having the character follow a trail of clues that we of course would never trace to the same conclusion but never coming across as manipulative or shoddily constructed. If the whole thing kind of pales in comparison to Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One—the project to which it seems meant to be a sequel in terms of look, tone, and time frame—it’s also astute enough to fairly accurately ape that feel in the first place. Even the occasional bizarre and wonky facial expression or disproportionate body harkens back to the primitive Golden Age artists of yore. If I were presented with Batman comics like this on a regular basis, unspectacular but entertaining and satisfying efforts akin to a good solid Law & Order episode, I would be a very happy Batfan indeed.