Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

29 January 2010

Batman and the Mad Monk

Collects: Batman and the Mad Monk #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: April 2007 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401212810

What is this?: A Golden Age story of Batman vs. a vampire, retold by Matt Wagner

The culprit: Matt Wagner

Let’s not get into DC continuity. Trying to unravel it gives some people Spontaneous Bolt Syndrome (SBS, where a long piece of metal appears out of nowhere and spears the victim’s skull), and saying, “It just doesn’t matter” gives others “Irritable Mouth Syndrome” (IMS, where all manner of foul diarrhea streams from the sufferer’s mouth — or, in later mutations of the disease, keyboard).

So I’m declaring all the tellings of the story of the Monk in DC history are irrelevant to a review of Batman and the Mad Monk, written and drawn by Matt Wagner. It doesn’t matter what happened in the ‘30s, when the Monk first appeared in Detective Comics #31, and it certainly doesn’t matter that Batman took the rational decision to shoot the vampire with silver bullets while he slept in his coffin. And Gerry Conway’s pre-Crisis story in the early ‘80s certainly doesn’t matter, because Batman being turned into a vampire before being given a “special serum”37 is kinda silly. So let’s just concentrate on this one.

Batman and the Mad Monk coverSo: in what is essentially Batman: Year One territory, there are three main stories being told together: Batman is learning to be Batman and being Bruce when he needs / has to; Norman Madison, industrialist and father of Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Julie, is slowly transforming from paranoid to insane; and Jim Gordon has to deal with crime and corruption on his own force. Only the middle thread is new, but it’s the least convincing.

Admittedly, Mad Monk shows only the bottom of Norman Madison’s character arc; I haven’t read the first of Wagner’s Batman miniseries, Batman and the Monster Men, which dealt with the paranoid Madison getting into debt with the mob and Batman getting him out of it. Batman calls him by name, which causes Norman to become obsessed with the thought that Batman is trying to terrorize him in Mad Monk. He keeps trying to repay his forgiven mob debt; he loses touch with reality, and he doesn’t recognize his daughter’s peril. With Madison starting off the book as unbalanced, we never see him as anything but an insane man who does illogical things; when he decides to kill his loan shark (who has said there’s no debt, I don’t want to see you again, stay away), it makes no sense, but it’s no worse than anything else in the story. Since Madison’s actions barely make an impression on the main plot, it seems a waste of space.

The overriding story is of Niccolai Tepes — The Monk — and his followers. Niccolai is a vampire; his followers want to be. Together, they bring women who won’t be missed to Niccolai, and after he feeds, they share in the leftover blood. Niccolai’s vampirism is supposed to be the first time Batman has met a supernatural opponent, but he’s as steady and rational as a Golden Age character about it — which is impressive, as the Batman should be, and entirely appropriate. Julie gets sucked into the plot as another victim, bringing home the danger to Batman.

Although vampires and Batman are not exactly a new combination, the story is well enough done. Unfortunately, because the story has to share space with Jim Gordon vs. bad cops and Norman Madison’s descent into more madness, two stories that feel tangential, the entire book feels padded. That’s deeply impressive for a 144-page book. If this had been a four-issue mini, Batman vs. Niccolai the Mad Monk, that might have been exciting. Maybe it would have allowed him to write a better ending, one in which the heroes intentionally defeat the villains. But instead Wagner has made Mad Monk into the second half of a two mini arc concentrating on Batman’s early career …

Maybe that’s what I’m missing here. Maybe I need to read Batman and the Monster Men to get the overall effect. Maybe … I don’t know. But if you’re going to be telling a larger story, why retell this story? I promised I wouldn’t get into continuity, but was the original story or Conway’s retelling such an undiscovered classic? Why choose the Mad Monk? I don’t know.

Mad Monk does hit the “Year One” beats we expect, with Jim Gordon battling corruption on the Gotham PD, Batman still trying to get a handle on what it means to have a Rogue’s Gallery, and Harvey Dent as a DA. The coming of Robin is teased at the end. If you have a jones for early Batman and can’t take Golden Age writing / art, this will help ease that craving.

Wagner’s art is a draw here. He draws a beautiful Batman, managing to reflect the Golden Age while simultaneously making Batman look modern. Based on his work here, I have to say Wagner draws one of the great Batmen, and he even makes Batman look good when he takes punishment. And he takes a lot of it in Mad Monk, a convincing amount for a novice superhero taking on dangerous men and women. On the other hand, I’m not sure about other parts of Wagner’s art. For some reason, Wagner seems to believe all women should have a bare midriff — either that, or he has a navel fixation. Every female character wears shirts that show off her stomach at one point or another. And female faces, especially Niccolai’s assistant Dara, occasionally feel wrong, with overlarge eyes for no apparent reason. (I’ll write off the accordion-like walls of a pit trap as a tribute to the movies rather than a mistake.)

Mad Monk takes an old story and makes it new. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a great story to begin with, and the newer trappings don’t help it any. There are some saving graces, but mostly, this is a forgettable Batman adventure.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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