My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Batman and the Monster Men is another tale by Matt Wagner that is set in the early years of Bruce’s war on crime. This book is really part one of a two part story continued in Batman and the Mad Monk. While these were collected separately, the books are really one story. Wagner does of great job of giving this Batman tale an old school, gangster noir kind of feel. Some of the set pieces seem to be lifted right out of a Chandler novel mixed with a dash of Univeral Monster flick. Matt’s bridging the gap between Batman’s early battles with mobster types and the freakish creatures he would eventually encounter. I like that Bats is starting to have to put aside the rational and explainable and accept that there are some things even his brilliant mind can’t wrap itself around. I couldn’t help but think about Batman: The Animated Series while reading this one too. This book has similar qualities to classic episodes like “On Leather Wings” or “Moon of the Wolf”.
Wagner’s love of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One is obvious here. Bats is still honing his skills as a fledgling crime fighter. Rookie Bats is cool. He’s also learning how to balance being Batman with being Bruce Wayne. Bruce is still flirting with the idea of having a life without Bats at some point. Batman’s relationship with Gordon continues to evolve in this one as well. They are just starting to build trust in each other. Wagner also gives a lot of artistic nods to Year One. A couple of images are clearly meant to be a tribute to Mazzucchelli’s masterpiece. Matt’s art is simple by today’s standards, but it’s for that reason his stuff has always appealed to me. Here’s a couple of bits from both books.
You get the idea.
This book also acts as something of an origin story for Hugo Strange. He is more of the “Dr. Frankenstein” type instead of the diabolical psychiatrist in this one. Personally, I like the twist. I never really bought into the demented Sigmund Freud persona. Not that I don’t think most shrinks are crooks, just not “scary” crooks. Other notable appearances include Sal Maroni, the original Batmobile, and a cameo by the Red Hood. This one’s loaded with fun little tidbits.
Matt is great at telling uncomplicated stories with a “classic” feel to them. He squeezes in just enough action and violence to keep my attention. I recognize that my love for most of Matt’s catalogue of work probably prevents me from giving an unbiased review, but fuck it. And while it’s not what I would label “required reading” for the average comic fan, I would certainly recommend a look-see if you’re a fan of any of Wagner’s other stuff, enjoyed Batman: Year One, or Batman: The Animated Series. The average Bat-fan will probably find a little something to appreciate in this one. And if you like it, make sure to check out Batman and the Mad Monk.