…has he actually fallen pretty to some curse and condition that exists outside the rational world? On the other hand, there is a man in Metropolis who can actually fly and bend steel in his bare hands.
–Batman, Batman and the Mad Monk #5.
This retro-mini-series, based on a story which appeared in Detective Comics #31, 1939, finished this week. It features a young Batman taking on a menace who may or may not have supernatural powers.
Title: Batman and the Mad Monk #1-6
Written and illustrated by Matt Wagner
Early in his career, the Batman takes on a bloodthirsty menace known as the Mad Monk.
I find the “early years” stories 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 has a fair bit of Year One-like fun (without merely imitating Year One), showing the start of the Batman/Gordon relationship and hinting at the origins of Robin and the Bat-signal. Batman also wonders to what degree he has inspired Catwoman 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 conclusion happens too abruptly, and does not feel like a satisfactory resolution.
Originality: 2/6. Wagner has taken and expanded upon a story from a Golden Age comic, and his development employs few really original elements. We’ve seen Batman like this before; the appeal is that Wagner does the familiar well.
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 account for its existence, just outside of modern Gotham.
Story: 4/6 The story begins well, and contains some effective cliffhanger plotting. The conclusion needed to be stronger. While I didn’t mind the references to the larger DC world and other projects which concern Batman’s origins, this story should have felt contained in the six issues of the mini-series.
Characterization: 4/6. Wagner creates a credible characterization for the early Batman. The other characters—the villains, in particular—are comic book stock.
Emotional response: 4/6 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.
Overall: 5/6 You get what you’d expect from something entitled Batman and the Mad Monk.
In total, Batman and the Mad Monk receives a score of 29/42.
1.Thanks to Rob Staeger for reminding me of this standard feature of older comics.