Batman and the Monster Men, or, Year One ruined comics

The internet’s self-professed Hate-monger has called me out for my no-post post yesterday, which he reckons was a non-no-post post. All right, “Dick”, it’s on. Just wait until the shocking reveal, when the world will finally see the man behind the mask.

And now, a review.

Batman and the Monster Men, Matt Wagner, Dave Stewart and Rob Leigh. DC, 2006. $14.99, 144 pages.

Frank Miller has a lot to answer for.

And not just the sub-noir narration, casual sexism, the goddamn Batman, and Holy Terror. No, Miller’s greatest crime against comics remains Batman: Year One.

By itself, Year One is a decent slice of semi-sophisticated super-heroics, detailing the first time Batman wore his underpants on the outside. The subdued tone of Miller’s scripting was nicely matched by moody, European styling from artist David Mazzucchelli and colourist Richmond Lewis. Originally published in serial form in 1987, Year One was an obvious and heavy influence on Christopher Nolan’s film Batman Begins. This influence ranged from several scenes and set-pieces, which the film reproduced wholesale, to the focus given to noble-but-flawed Commissioner Gordon.

But if the influence of the book on film was generally positive, its influence on comics has been disastrous.

Comics aficionados often acknowledge its bad influence, lumping it together with Miller’s other big Batman book, The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These books heralded a dreary age of “grim and gritty” writing, or so the common wisdom goes. Legions of lesser talents tried in vain to ape their “dark” surface, while ignoring everything that was actually interesting about the books, namely the thematic and formal depths beneath that surface.

The common wisdom is mostly right, but that’s not the worst of Year One‘s influence. The worst of its influence has been that every second Batman story since then has been set in the character’s past.*

Seriously, look at the DC solicitations for titles coming in May 2007. Of twelve books in the “Batman family” (including Robin, Catwoman and so on), five of them occur in the “past”. Sure, some of that is due to the relisting of several Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale books, but the point holds generally–especially of the countless spin-offs, graphic novels and mini-series published alongside the continuing Batman series.

Since Year One, we’ve seen the early days of Robin, the early days of Batman and Robin, the early days of Commissioner Gordon, the early days of Catwoman, the early days of the Joker, the early days of Two-Face, and no doubt also the early days of Bat-Mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, the utility belt, and the aftershave Batman uses when he’s out on “patrol”.

And now, thanks to Matt Wagner, the early days story we’ve all been waiting for in Batman and the Monster Men, the early days of Hugo Strange.

Hugo who?

Well, exactly. A stock mad scientist figure, Hugo Strange was one of Batman’s very first recurring villains. They fought a couple of times in the 40s, after which Strange didn’t reappear until the 70s, in the fondly-remembered run by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin.

To his credit, Wagner at least seems to recognise how unnecessary this book is, a tale of the first battle between Batman and this fourth-tier villain. In fact, it’s even less necessary than that, it’s a re-telling of their first battle.

There’s a nice two-page gag early on, demonstrating Wagner’s attitude to the material. The first page is a sequence featuring a shadowy figure in athletic training, complete with hard-bitten, Miller-esque narration boxes: “I am a product of this city. My early childhood scarred by trauma” etc. We naturally assume this is Batman himself, until we turn the page to find that it’s actually Hugo Strange, a little bald geezer with glasses.

The message is clear: this is not the portentous dreck we usually get from Batman stories, particularly the Year One variety. There will be no brooding on vigilantism, hearts of darkness or urban ennui, no laboured parallels drawn between Batman and his foes. This is pulpy fluff, pure and simple, with no greater pretension than to entertain.

That it does, well enough. Wagner’s work here isn’t spectacular, but his Toth-influenced clean line propels the action competently. And the script doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence too much–given that she’s reading a book called Batman and the Monster Men in the first place.

Dave Stewart’s colouring scheme, by contrast, is a curious choice. Most pages are washed-out monochromes, in which one colour prevails, typically faded greys, blues, greens and browns. It’s not obvious what effect Stewart is going for–homage to Lewis’ colouring on Year One? General visual cue that this story takes place in the past, like a faded photograph? Whatever the intended effect, the actual effect is to dull the action, and action is everything in a book like this.

For what it’s worth, Batman and the Monster Men mostly delivers what it promises. Batman meets Hugo Strange, fools around with Julie Madison, fights some monster men. Faces are punched, batarangs are thrown.

The problem is, that ain’t worth much. This is six issues re-telling what was originally, what, a throwaway ten-page story with a decidedly minor villain? What next, a ten-part series revealing what happened between panels 5 and 6 of the back-up story in Detective Comics #136?

On the other hand, I would totally buy Bat-Mite: Year One.

*Granted, there was always a market for “untold stories”. Hence all those goofball silver age stories where Bruce Wayne’s dad, in bat costume for a fancy dress pretty, foils a robber, or where we see the origin of the Batphone, or whatever. But there wasn’t as much of this stuff back then as there is now, and they generally didn’t just retell still older stories

Recommended? Not really, unless you’re really jonesing for an adequate, meat-and-potatoes retelling of an old Batman story. Then again, given how bad most super-hero comics are these days, maybe you are.

IYL: Batman: Year One, competent super-hero stories

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4 Responses to “Batman and the Monster Men, or, Year One ruined comics”

  1. Dick Hyacinth Says:

    I don’t hate blogs. Some of my best friends are blog–no, it’s not true. I can’t go on living the lie. None of my real-life friends blog. Very few of them know I blog. I only told my wife yesterday. I’m a self-loathing blogger!

    Re: Year One stories, I place the blame more on the continuity hounds, who won’t read potentially “imaginary” stories (unless there’s some weird point of continuity in question, like “WHAT IF THERE WERE NO SUPERMAN???!!??” or something). Did Mort Weisinger worry about continuity when he was forcing his writers to adapt the sugar-fueled fever dreams of neighborhood kids who were probably just fucking with the crazy old dude? Hell, no. Contrary to the brayings of the continuity fiends, there is way, way, way too much respect shown for continuity these days, and Marvel/DC comics are suffering for it. That’s why they do these stupid Year One stories, to give fans “pure” versions of their favorite characters, unpolluted by years of continuity baggage.

    As for the comic in question: I read the first issue and thought it was boring. Matt Wagner just isn’t my bag, no matter what he’s drawing/writing.

  2. And then I would introduce a character called “Mary-Sue”, who would totally rock « Let’s you and him fight Says:

    […] I would introduce a character called “Mary-Sue”, who would totally rock A propos Bat-Mite: Year One, more “Year One” books that wouldn’t […]

  3. Graphic Novel Review » Elsewhere on the Web: Batman and the Monster Men Says:

    […] One of the Jones Boys didn’t like the book much. But it’s not Wagner’s fault. It’s Frank Miller’s. Apparently. See here: Since [Miller’s Batman: Year One], we’ve seen the early days of Robin, the early days of Batman and Robin, the early days of Commissioner Gordon, the early days of Catwoman, the early days of the Joker, the early days of Two-Face, and no doubt also the early days of Bat-Mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, the utility belt, and the aftershave Batman uses when he’s out on “patrol”. […]

  4. Comics | illeat.com Says:

    Comics

    Marvel Comics and DC Comics profiled, reviewed and illustrated along with additional […]

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