Quarantine Book Club – Batman & The Monster Men

Welcome back to the Batman News Quarantine Book Club, where this week we will be covering Batman & the Monster Men by Matt Wagner. This story is a fleshed out version of Batman #1, and was requested by one of our readers after we covered Batman: Prey. As you might expect, this book features Hugo Strange, but is an alternate take and follow-up to Batman: Year One. The real question is which one will we prefer and choose to keep as our personal canon.

Josh: So, Batman & the Monster Men was chosen after we covered Batman: Prey, and this is our first official request of a specific title. Now, this is actually a book I’ve never read – I’m not the biggest fan of over-the-top Batman stories. I prefer him when he’s more street-level, and the word “monsters” automatically make me think that this will be “over the top.” Anyway, for the first time since starting the book club, we’re covering a book that’s new to me… So, I was excited to read Batman & the Monster Men! What were your thoughts on covering this?

Michael: I was intrigued mostly because of Matt Wagner being both writer and artist on the book. I remember him being a guest artist on Tom King’s run and wanting to see more of his work so this was good timing. I like smaller “street-level” stories the most as well, but I’m a big horror guy and I generally like when Batman faces more horrific adversaries as long as the scale remains intimate. 

Nick: Well as someone who enjoys both monsters AND men, this series seemed like a reasonable choice to me.

Matina: While I tend to prefer Batman dealing with more street level stories, I also don’t mind some bigger things tossed in from time to time. However, the real reason I was interested in this is because I remember a lot of people talking about it back when Night of the Monster Men was coming out, so I was curious to see how the two stories might play together. 

Josh: Yeah, anytime you try to reapproach a story, you’re always going to find people talking. I mean, look at what brought us to review this book. We covered Batman: Prey, and it sparked a conversation about people’s idea of what their idea of Hugo Strange is. It made for an interesting conversation, and helped fast-track us to cover this book.. 

Also, Batman & the Monster Men is interesting because it is a recreation of Batman #1. Matt Wagner decided to look back and pay homage to the creation of the Batman title, and I think that’s respectable. Pus, it makes you wonder how many other golden age stories could be remade for modern comics. 

Nick: I’ve read Batman #1 – I have it next to me right now – and those early issues remain very charming to this day. That said, I’m not opposed whatsoever to seeing them be retold, as I had a great time reading The Man Who Laughs when I found that on shelves – which, I believe, was also a recreation of a story from Batman #1.

Josh: Yes, I do believe you’re correct. Also, that is a book that I want to get to for the book club sooner rather than later. 

Now, for this story, we’re once again covering a book that features Bruce early in his career as Batman. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how he’s presented here, what you liked, and how you feel it compares to some other stories that feature him during this era. 

Matina: Something I liked in this was how hopeful Bruce was about cleaning up the streets in Gotham. I was actually surprised that his goal in this book was aimed more at Maroni and his men/superiors instead of Hugo, but I think that was the result of my just not knowing much going in. I did like how focused he is on it though, and how it drives him through the book. I was a little frustrated that the story never really circles back around to that hope, or even him being upset at Hugo and his monster men interrupting everything. 

Josh: Agreed. 

Nick: I’ve found it’s a very consistent theme in some of Batman’s earlier stories that gives his tale an innate sense of tragedy: his first few years are spent hoping that he can reduce crime, genuinely believing he’s close, before the era of the supervillain emerges.

Josh: Yeah, I think tragic really is the best word to describe it. I felt dread for him when he expressed that he felt he was getting close to stopping crime.

Nick: On the one hand, I’d like to see stories about Batman struggling with losing hope in the system when crime worsens yet again once criminals like Joker show up – but on the other hand, that’s not really a problem that can ever be solved in-universe (on account of supervillain marketability), so maybe that’s not something I want to see covered too much. It’d probably just be really depressing. Then again, I did love Ego, so I guess it depends! That’s a little off-topic though.

Josh: One of the aspects that I really liked about this book as well, was that Bruce was still, actively seeking a love life. Based on the timeline, this is most likely the moment where he started realizing that balancing Bruce Wayne, Batman, and a relationship would probably be impossible, so long as he tried to keep his day life and his night life separate. 

Nick: Yeah, him making legitimate efforts to balance romance and his commitments felt surprisingly refreshing? It’s strange that they thought dropping that dynamic entirely was a more interesting approach, which… I don’t really think it is, to be honest. Not until Catwoman became a major player in his love life. In the meantime, Julie makes an excellent romantic interest.

Josh: Absolutely! In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that there isn’t that much that goes on in this book that makes Bruce interesting, but Julie definitely brings a certain charisma and charm to the table on his behalf.

Matina: I have to say that I really enjoyed Julie. I was worried as I was reading that she would turn into a damsel in distress, and I like that she didn’t end up in that position. She gave life to Bruce and the story outside of the mystery and Hugo, and she also made reading this feel like a part of something bigger.  

Michael: Whenever Bruce has a love interest as a main character, my eyes tend to glaze over since I know it never really goes anywhere. However, I found Julie to be a compelling character even if she never takes a very active role in the plot other than being a potential damsel in distress.

Nick: I’ve always really enjoyed Julie Madison in Batman stories, and honestly feel she was a big part of what made Snyder and Capullo’s Superheavy so compelling. She’s really an underused asset in the Batman mythos, so it’s nice to see her front and centre here. She’s a very smart character, and that supportive yet perceptive attitude is a great combo. Her chemistry with Bruce definitely feels natural, even if the dialogue seems a little stilted. I dunno, I never buy it when people unironically say “daddy”. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

Michael: I totally agree about Julie being underused, I thought she was a great character here even if she spends most of her time ping ponging around to listen to her dad and Bruce’s problems. I didn’t realize it was her in Superheavy but remember liking her character then too. (Superheavy is probably my favorite Snyder arc, don’t tell anyone).

Nick: It’s up there for me with Zero Year and Court of Owls, I love it more and more every time I revisit it!

Josh: What!?!?! Haha! There are definitely strong aspects to Superheavy, but I wouldn’t consider it my favorite. That’s a conversation for another day, though. 

As for Julie, yeah, I think you both hit the nail on the head. There’s just something about her charisma and zest for the world, and the way that she bounces between Bruce and her dad that brings a certain realism to the universe. While she doesn’t necessarily serve a large purpose for the plot itself, she does a lot to bring Gotham to life. 

I also agree with Nick that I didn’t’ necessarily believe some of the scenes she had with her father. She was a little hysterical, for my taste, and her father’s drunkenness seemed to fall in and out. It was also a little comical – which wasn’t the intention – so, that’s a shame, because I like how Norman is used overall. 

Michael: I was also pretty compelled by Norman by the end of the book, though it took time for me to become invested in his plight. We have a pretty good idea that it’s hard for cops and average citizens in Gotham City. I liked Norman’s arc because it touched on how even the elite can fall victim to the evil that lives in Gotham. 

Nick: Norman seems like a good example of the adage “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, in how his attempts to make a difference cause him to involve himself with crime. I’d like to have seen the good he’s actually done to be more emotionally invested in him and where he’s coming from, but I understand what they’re going for.

Josh: Oh, yeah! I tend to like stories when they include texture like that. I mean, it’s clear he was having financial problems with the paper, and that he was ultimately looking out for his employees and his legacy/ career, but I feel like we found out about it after the fact. Had we been introduced to this earlier, seen the effects of his business losing money, then actually have gotten to see him reach out to Maroni for help after being denied by banks – or, at the very least, denied for the amount he needed – then it would’ve created a greater sense of dread for the path he was heading down. 

Nick: Yeah – plus, when Julie asks Norman why he didn’t go through official channels, the non-answer he gave made it seem a little more like the reason wasn’t really thought-through. Not that we need the financial specifics of “rich guy has money trouble”, but still, it felt a bit weak.

Josh: Agreed. It made you question whether or not he’d actually been involved with the mob from the start, and I don’t think that was the intention – especially based on how his paranoia grew throughout the book. 

Matina: I totally agree with you guys on Norman, I really wish we’d seen a bit more of his financial troubles earlier on to get a better grasp on how everything falls apart for him later on. 

Michael: Oh, the ending! It’s an odd ending page, but I loved how the book ends on Norman having a panic attack because Batman knew his name at the mansion finale.

Nick: To cap this section on the Madisons, I want to take a moment to appreciate this line from Alfred:

Josh: Haha! That’s what I do to all of my girlfriends now, thanks to Batman! (I’m KIDDING. I’m gay. I haven’t had a girlfriend since the 8th grade… And now I’ve just made it seem like I don’t drug girls simply because I don’t date girls. Great. I don’t drug anyone. And… I’m going to stop talking now. )

Nick: Watching you dig yourself into this hole is a treat <3

Josh: Welp, speaking of drugging people – which is something that criminals do – let’s talk about the criminals in this book, specifically, street crime!

Michael: I get excited whenever a story features Gotham’s crime families, so Sal Maroni being such a major player in the book was a definite plus. 

Josh: Definitely!

Michael: I do think Wagner could’ve done more to add some flavor to Maroni and his thugs personalities. My gold standard for “comic book gangsters” is Garth Ennis’ Punisher who always gave his mafioso characters strong personalities. Here, I never really got much out of Sal and his crew, but I do like their inclusion nonetheless.

Matina: I see what you mean with them needing a little flavor, but I think they did what they needed to do in the story, and acted as a really interesting kind of antagonist to just about everyone in the story, Batman, Hugo, and the Madisons. I read them as more the force bringing everything together, and that pushed a lot of the story, and to me they didn’t need to have a lot of personalities. I think if the story had felt more about them, I’d have wanted more out of Maroni and his men, but for what we got I enjoyed them. 

Michael: Yeah, You’re spot on that the Maroni’s serve as the connecting force for all the moving pieces more so than fully fledged personalities. Just give me a “Bada Bing” here and there though. 

Josh: Or a “capiche?” I don’t think we got a “capiche” either. 

Honestly, there were times where I confused Maroni and his main enforcer, but aside from that, I thought they were fine. I really liked the aspect that Matina brought up. The mob really was a threat to everyone, and it made it feel as though they were inescapable. It’s kind of this idea that, no matter what, if you live in Gotham, you’re going to be connected to the mob in some way. Also, I loved that they kept throwing around “The Roman.” I felt it was a nice set-up for future stories like The Long Halloween. 

Nick: Agreed on the references to Falcone! I also see your point about this idea of the Mafia having its fingers in everything at the start of Batman’s escapades; it reminds me of the tales I’d hear about the Porn Mafia in my hometown (I’m not kidding). 

Honestly, I can never get enough of ultimately stereotypical mobsters – Goodfellas might be a fantastic movie, but we all saw it because it had Robert DeNiro making those fun gangster mannerisms that he does. So, I liked Maroni fine – though things like “wow I oughta get that Harvey Dent some day” were very on the nose.

Josh: You know, we’ve talked about the mob, and our surprise that Batman’s focus was on them more so that Strange, but I do feel that Strange is the main antagonist here, so I want to focus on him. 

Nick: Oh my god, the bait and switch of the silhouette training while delivering a Batman-esque monologue, only for it to be revealed as Hugo Strange? Perfection. It definitely sets a different tone for Strange than what we saw in Prey.

Matina: I loved that bit, because I was solidly convinced it was Bruce until the reveal and the surprise was wonderful. 

Michael: That sequence was great and definitely set the tone for this depiction of Hugo Strange. After reading Prey and now this I’ve become a big Hugo Strange fan, but I do prefer Prey’s interpretation a little more. 

Josh: Same.

Michael: He came off much more unhinged and truly dangerous, whereas the Hugo here, while obviously immoral, didn’t exude a sinister vibe. 

Josh: That’s exactly why I preferred his depiction in Prey. I like Hugo here, but I think the psychological approach to stopping Batman. 

Michael: Though this book does end with Hugo as a TV personality so it’s easy to view this Hugo as not having fully formed yet.

Josh: Very true.

Matina: Yeah, I can see how this Hugo doesn’t feel as threatening or quite as formed as he did in Prey. He seems very much like he’s still figuring himself out too, as a doctor with goals that crosses the lines of legality, but not quite a full fledged villain yet. 

Nick: To me, this book feels decidedly more “comic book-y” than Prey, with Strange having more traditional motivations: shunted for his nature, lashing back against the world with violence. It makes for an excellent scale, but I can’t deny I like the Strange of Prey a little more. This is certainly a Strange that’s in a more formative state, but all that really does is give him more base motivations, which I can’t say I’m a fan of.

Matina: I’m also far more familiar with him being a psychologist and not an actual doctor of any kind of medicine, so seeing him working on genetic mutation threw me off a bit, even if I can see his reasons for wanting to go in and be able to change and alter genes. 

Michael: If Hugo had just invested in some lifted shoes all of this could’ve been avoided. Or he could just learn to love himself. Oh well. 

Josh: Matina, you mentioned Strange’s work in genetics, so let’s talk about the titular subject of this book… The monster men. 

Michael: My initial trepidation on this aspect of the plot was because the Rebirth crossover event Night of the Monster Men, which also featured Hugo Strange, was fairly lackluster to me. 

Josh: Agreed.

Michael: That story had a huge scale and resembled a Cloverfield/Kaiju film more than a Batman story. Here the monster men are more so tools that Hugo is able to use against Maroni and others as he lacks the physical strength to battle them on his own. Their designs are a little lackluster, but I’m glad they really are just very large people and not all out fleshy monstrosities.

Josh: Its weird because they depict Strange as not being physically able, but then go into how he’s actually muscular for his small frame. They even show him training and doing flips. I know its minor, but I felt as though Wagner wanted to have his cake and eat it too. 

Matina, what were your thoughts on the Monster men?

Matina: I think my expectations were colored by the crossover too. I was sure we were going to see some kind of monsters similar (if smaller in scale) to that that I’d seen in Night of the Monster Men, and at one point I thought there might be some almost Man Bat kind of things happening after Hugo’s run in with Batman. 

Josh: I didn’t think about that. That could’ve been interesting. 

Matina: That said, I also liked the fact that they didn’t turn out to be any of that it really did feel very much like Hugo was just starting to try and work with modifying genes and not good at it yet instead of something more sophisticated. 

Michael: Thats a great point and maybe why this Hugo feels so different than his usual depiction. His plans usually involve him using his psychological knowledge somehow but here he’s more of a standard mad scientist. 

Nick: I like the idea that they toyed with in this story: the concept of the monster men being people who have simply experienced a tragedy that led them to being guinea pigs for Strange’s experimentation. That said, while it does make for one good moment at the climax of the book, it’s not developed enough for me to consider it anything but an idea Wagner plays with in the writing process. 

Josh: I agree, Nick. I feel as though the monster men were introduced too late in the story, and as a result never felt like a full threat once we actually met them. 

Shifting directions, while brief, there were some interesting developments with the GCPD and Gordon. Any thoughts on that?

Michael: To be honest, I had to flip back through the book to remind myself of Gordon’s relevance in the story. I do love the moment where Gordon reveals he has a remote bat signal on his person in case his office is ever searched for something to connect him to Batman. I like when Gordon is finds himself torn between remaining loyal to the GCPD and doing the “right” thing for Batman. 

Matina: I liked Gordon in this, mostly because I again enjoyed seeing the tension of him wanting to work with Batman contrasted with the other members of the GCPD and how in this story Batman is still new, and quite the unknown to many people. I really enjoyed his confrontation with Grogan, it felt very Jim Gordon.

Josh: Yeah, I enjoyed that Gordon was called out for the case against Batman ending abruptly. 

Matina: Side note, who else thought Grogan was a mistake the first time they read it? That name is so close to Gordon I seriously thought there had been a mistake. 

Michael: Yeah I’m not sure who’s in charge of the character names but I did a double take once or twice. 

Nick: I’m not sure where to put this, but this moment between Batman and Gordon felt like it was taken straight out of the Gotham TV show..

Josh: Haha! Yeah… I get what Wagner was going for here, but it is pretty cringey. 

I also want to discuss the art. I’m personally torn on the artwork. There are moments where I love it, then other moments where I’m just not a fan. I felt like his proportions were all over the place. 

Michael: My first exposure to Wagner’s art (that I’m aware of) was his one-off issue in Tom King’s run. I’ve never read Mage or any of Wagner’s other work, but I think his story telling is extremely clear and precise. Aesthetically, I don’t think it’s my favorite style, but I appreciate how well his characters emote, which makes dialogue driven scenes very fun to read. Dave Stewart’s colors suit the pencils extremely well, which is no surprise, and the book has this interesting sort of brown palette throughout. It’s surprisingly subdued, but it works surprisingly well even in the action sequences. The art doesn’t rely on high contrast colors to sell the action beats, which some books do.

Nick: I liked the art a little more when the lines felt less shaky and freeform, but overall there’s a really compelling style here: simple yet accessible, but definitely succeeding on account of the colors. I’m reminded a lot of the vibes I had when reading Year One, which I have to assume this book was gearing for. My only criticism is that there is no consistent way of telling which text box belongs to which character, as their borders and colors often switch around. Luckily, the narration tends to only correspond with scenes solely involving the relevant character, but it bugged me as I went through the pages.

Matina: I enjoyed the art quite a bit in this, and yes I really loved the colors here. I think they fit the tone of the story perfectly. The more somber, muted tone kind of gives you that feeling through the whole book that this is serious, and the moments with brighter colors like greens and oranges really draw your eye and attention. 

Michael: Basically every page in the last issue’s action climax is gorgeously colored. Those splashes of orange Stewart throws in really work in getting your attention. 

Josh: Alright, before wrapping up, do you have a preference between Prey or Monster Men when it comes to following up Batman: Year One?

Michael: Despite featuring giant monster men in its plot, I thought Prey was a much more over the top story that felt more “comic-booky”. To me, Monster Men felt fairly subdued despite its brief flashes of ultraviolence. The central tension deals with loan sharks and Maroni’s threats against Julie due to her father’s debts. Hugo gets much more to do in Prey and his psychological arc there feels more fully formed. This feels like a beginning for Hugo, which is definitely aided by the fact that he never gets brought to justice for his role in the mayhem.

Matina: I agree, I know a lot of the worries going into this were about it potentially being too over the top, and I really enjoyed how the story was quieter than all that for the most part. I think it definitely feels like a start for Hugo, and with the ending I almost feel like Prey could fit pretty well set right after this. 

Nick: It’s a shame that Batman had the Batmobile in this – not for story reasons, as its role in the climax is excellently done – but because if he didn’t have it, this would definitely make a great prequel to that book. I have to disagree in the assessment that this is less “comic booky” though – the vibe and style of the book definitely gave a more traditional, accessible vibe than Prey did, and the writing seemed a little more simplified to match. To me, that made it feel a little less “real”; not to say that’s a problem for me though, as I often like when a comic book embraces the nature of its medium. I think that there’s more to gain on a literary level with Prey, but I have to say I had a more enjoyable time with Monster Men – it’s a lot easier to jump in and read without having to linger on each page.

Josh: Yeah, I would agree that Monster Men was more fun, but I prefer Prey. I agree that there’s more to gain on a literary level with Prey, but I do wish the elements with Maroni and the Madison’s could be infused into Prey. That just might make that book even better for me. 

Michael: If there’s one main advantage that Monster Men has over Prey is that I thought Hugo’s henchman, Sanjay, was a great side character. He doesn’t say too much, but the reveal that he is helping Hugo in order to potentially save his brother’s life is a small, but extremely effective touch.

Josh: I agree with you on that, Michael. 

Michael: It might have just been me, but I was mostly invested in Sanjay’s safety during the climax and was curious as to how his story would end. Of course, it doesn’t end well for him, but his situation adds just a tinge of grey to a storyline that could’ve easily settled for “monsters evil, must kill them” situation. There’s something legitimately sad at seeing Sanjay’s brother shot to death while trapped in the net.

Matina: I wasn’t sure about Sanjay until the end, and once his story was revealed I found myself more endeared to him. I’d loved to have seen his story come up sooner in the book because I feel like it could have added another layer of conflict to everything going on. We’re not really supposed to root for Hugo, but I’d also want to if it meant Sanjay possibly getting his brother back. So to have all that kind of offloaded at the end really took away what could have been even better for me. 

Nick: “The Gods are cruel to some of their children” is a very effective and resonant line – a highlight of the book for me. I also like Hugo and Sanjay’s relationship being one of mutual respect. It was legitimately tragic to see his fate at the end of the book, and I’d love to see him reappear in modern continuity.

Michael: Sanjay’s interior struggle should’ve definitely been introduced earlier to make him more fully fledged. Maybe it was me wanting a little more flavor to the book but I just liked Hugo having a unique henchman. Perhaps it’s antiquated, but Sanjay reminded me of a classic henchman that you’d see in a Bond film like Oddjob or Jaws. 

Michael: I really enjoyed Batman & the Monster Men even if I found it strangely subdued despite its out there premise. It’s hard not to think of Batman: Prey when reading this, which was in my opinion a much more extravagant and boisterous comic, particularly in its depiction of Hugo Strange. Maybe it’s Monster Men’s subdued colors, the mobster’s somewhat dull personalities, or just being in Prey’s shadow in general but there is a certain lack of spring in this books’ step. Things really click together in the final issue and I think Wagner’s plotting is extremely precise in how he has almost everyone converge at the mansion. It was pretty exciting to see all those pieces collide. However, there’s this nagging feeling that Monster Men never really fully takes advantage of the medium to tell this story in a more unique way. It doesn’t have Prey’s luridness, The Cult’s psychedelic imagery, or Dark Knight, Dark City’s sense of humor, but on its own terms it’s an extremely solid book that deserves to be read. 

Matina: I found myself enjoying this book a lot more than I initially thought I would. I think it balanced all it’s various plots and pieces really well and I agree the way everything comes together in the end is very satisfying. It’s a story that left me wanting more in a good way. When I finished it I was actually disappointed there wasn’t more to read, and I think that’s a great place to be. 

Josh: Batman & the Monster Men is a fun, over-the-top story that features Hugo Stange genetically manipulating people, turning then into monsters… And yet, the entire thing still manages to be subdued thanks to a heavy focus on Gotham City, organized crime, and a focus from Batman that remains tied to his original mission as opposed to the monstrosity of Hugo Strange’s experiments. 

Nick: Why was there the subtitle “Dark Moon Rising”? That didn’t seem to add anything.

Anyway, I had a really good time with this book. While I wouldn’t consider it particularly deep, I think it did a great job of establishing a version of Batman that I really like: one who is making a concerted effort to eliminate crime and balance his own life. I’d like to see more of that, and I’m wondering what the sequel to this book was, seeing as it ended on several ambiguous notes.

I’m also glad we’ve FINALLY gone a week without seeing Bruce’s parents die! Well, mostly. It’s mentioned and we see Martha’s pearls in a dream sequence but hey, baby steps.

Thanks for joining us this week! We’d love to hear your thoughts on Batman & the Monster Men. Do you agree with our assessment? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments! Check out our previous discussions onBatman: Nightwalker and Batman: Overdrive and be sure to join us next week as we dive back into some younger titles with Dear Justice League and Shadow of the Batgirl!