...has he actually fallen prey to some curse and condition that exists outside the rational world? On the other hand, there is a man in Metropolis who can... fly and bend steel in his bare hands.
--Batman, Batman and the Mad Monk #5.
Title: Batman and the Mad Monk #1-6
Written and illustrated by Matt Wagner
This retro-mini-series functions as a sequel of sorts to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's celebrated Batman: Year One, and a sequel in fact to Wagner's own, less successful Batman and the Monster Men. Both Monster Men and Mad Monk harken back to Batman's earliest days, on the street and on the page. Wagner has based both stories on early tales from the Golden Age of comics. The original Mad Monk story appeared in Detective Comics #31 and 32, 1939. It holds a place in the genre's history because it represents one of the first conflicts between a major superhero and an adversary who may be more than human.
I find the "early years" tales of major superheroes appealing, set as they are in a world just (re)adjusting to superheroes, rather than one where large numbers of metahumans (and years of established continuity) must be addressed. Wagner gives his take on the start of the Batman/Gordon relationship and hints at the origins of Robin and the Bat-signal. Batman also wonders to what degree he has inspired Catwoman (who makes a cameo) and the Monk himself-- if the existence of Batman has "inadvertently given license to every crook with a flair for the dramatic"(#1). In these early stories, we're located a little closer to our world than the standard Batman comic, and the characters wrestle with the fresh strangeness they encounter. Is the Monk a literal vampire? Does he have supernatural powers? And, if he does, how does a man grounded in science and reason face such an adversary?
For that matter, how would people react to the appearance of a vigilante dressed in a Halloween costume?
The story begins well, and contains some effective cliffhanger plotting. Key developments happen with the end of each issue. Bruce Wayne discovers that his girlfriend's family has some sinister secrets. And, after defeating trained attack wolves, Batman finds himself trapped in a room with, yes, collapsing walls that sport spikes. Against these obvious clichés, Wagner sets some passable character development, weird, cultish trappings, and a subplot involving more plausible criminals.
While retro-setting and story carry the readers along nicely, the conclusion resolves too little. I didn’t mind the references to the larger DC world and to other projects which concern Batman’s origins, but this story should have felt contained to its six issues.
The art, like the story, is predictable but impressive. Wagner has created some excellent covers using a limited palette; the illustrations evoke past comics without simply copying them. Within, he employs a deceptively simple style to create the world of the story, dark and filled with gothic and comic details. Tough guys have square jaws. Super-villains give themselves bizarre nicknames and hang out in dingy, atmospheric hideouts. One of the Monk's victims sports the schoolgirl uniform; her kilt has been made from that comic-book tartan that presents as perfect squares from all angles and under all conditions.1 When Dala, the Monk’s female sidekick, meets Bruce Wayne’s love interest in a bar, she looks like a stripper dressed for a convention of people with an Edwardian widow fetish. The "Old Ralston Castle" has been drawn from the 1939 original, although this comic tries to justify its existence, just outside of modern Gotham.2 If the story avoids the most extreme comic-book flourishes, it remains firmly set in a world where supeheroes are possible.
Batman and the Mad Monk isn’t literature for the ages, but more comic book should read like this. It's a fun page-turner with an interesting take on a favourite DC character. You get what you'd expect from something entitled Batman and the Mad Monk and, for many comic-book fans, that is enough.
1. Thanks to Rob Staeger for reminding me of this standard feature of older comics.
2. The original version of the story had the Batman tail the Monk to Europe.