Balance is important, both in beer and in superhero storytelling. A hero needs to be good, but not so perfect that they are not compelling, though neither can they be flawed to such an extent that they’re unlikable. The stakes need to be high and the threat needs to be real, but not so much that the story becomes something too grim, too serious and just plain not fun. But not so much fun that it just becomes sheer silliness (unless sheer silliness is what the story is aiming for, of course.)
Beer is confronted with a similar balancing act, and it is never more pronounced than in the India Pale Ale style. This is a style of pale ale (which is to say, a beer using mostly pale malts, top-fermented with a yeast at a warmer temperature) with a whole lot of hops added to impart lots of bitterness, with noticeable pine and citrus taste, sometimes even pineapple notes. Hops are a hell of a strong flavour, with a myriad varieties to choose from, some noted for their aromatic qualities, others better for adding bitterness. What I always look for in an IPA is balance; obviously, I want that hoppiness in my IPAs, but it can’t be so bitter (or too fruity) that it overtakes all the other flavours. I still want to taste the malts – when it’s done just right, malts work wonderfully to smooth out the sharp edges of those hops. It’s a complex beer style, and if I want an IPA that I know I’m going to like, I usually look to Muskoka Brewery. They offer not just one, not two, but three different IPAs, all handily packaged together in their Hoptorial Sampler.
If I want a Batman comic that I know I’m going like, I might very well choose Matt Wagner’s Dark Moon Rising, which is actually comprised of two separate six-issue miniseries. Both volumes take a Golden Age Batman story and supplants it into Year One’s new continuity, striking a balancing act right out of the gate: on one side, it is designed to provide a follow up to Frank Miller’s landmark work, while on the other, it aims to remain faithful to the classic comics it retells. On top of that, Matt Wagner then must balance all those other elements of superhero storytelling I mentioned, and he absolutely nails it.
Starting into the first volume, Batman and the Monster Men, I open a bottle of Muskoka’s Detour IPA. At 4.3% alcohol per volume, it’s not going to leave you on your ass after a single bottle, which is good, because we’re just getting started. Likewise, Batman and the Monster Men might not leave you on your ass either, which is probably why it’s not often mentioned in the same breath as The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. It’s actually a whole lot better than that, and yes, I do actually think Batman and the Monster Men is better than The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. Big stories are easy; big stories have an easy, obvious hook, and a license to shatter the status quo. Big stories are opera; Batman and the Monster Men is a superhero comic, uninterested in being bigger than that, interested instead in doing that really damn well.
The book immediately positions itself in continuity, with a Gotham Gazette headline detailing how the Red Hood is assumed dead after tumbling into a chemical vat after a confrontation with the vigilante “Bat-Man.” (This famous encounter, we can assume, takes place between chapters, or even panels, of Year One, but is detailed in The Killing Joke and gets a modern twist in Zero Year – I don’t fuss much over continuity, but either telling will fill this gap if it concerns you.) It isn’t just the reference that positions the book as a follow-up to Year One, however: colouring wunderkind Dave Stewart uses the same greys and browns used by Richmond Lewis used to colour Year One, and even though Matt Wagner is a very different artist from Dave Mazzuchelli, this evokes that same Gotham. If you’re inclined to pay attention to colourists in comics, chances are you will know the name Dave Stewart, and if you’re not paying attention, I’d advise you to pick up any issue of Hellboy and marvel at the colour compositions on every single page.
Monster Men is not as simple a story as Year One, but in short order, Matt Wagner establishes his principal players and their respective plot threads: Julie Madison, Bruce Wayne’s Golden Age sweetheart, and her father Norman; Sal Maroni, an ambitious gangster managing the importation of drugs into Gotham in the service of Year One’s antagonist, Carmine Falcone; and Doctor Hugo Strange, introduced in a brilliant fake-out:
Doctor Hugo Strange, though an infrequent Bat-antagonist, is fairly recognizable, due in large part to a central role in the second Arkham video game, Arkham City. Rumours even circulated prior to the production of The Dark Knight Rises that he would be portrayed in the film by Robin Williams (and I can’t help but feel that this hypothetical film would be better than the one we got.) In the hands of Matt Wagner, Hugo Strange is an absolutely fascinating study in Batman’s privilege, wrapped in the trappings of a Bond villain (complete with generic hulking Arabic assistant, Sanjay). A man no less brilliant and no less motivated than Bruce Wayne, Strange is limited, both by resources and by his own body. Short, bald, near-sighted, and bow-legged, Strange could not be more different from the perfect physical specimen that is Bruce Wayne. It’s interesting to wonder what lengths Bruce Wayne, if stripped of his god-given privileges, would go to in order to carry out his war on crime, and how quickly it might turn to something more villainous if he became desperate enough. Placed in this position, Strange seeks to better himself through genetic research, but without his own fortune to fund his project, he is forced to borrow money from a loan shark: Sal Maroni.
It turns out, he has this in common with Norman Madison, though his daughter knows nothing of his involvement with gangsters. All these plot developments unfold at a fancy charity gala, which is also where we first meet Bruce Wayne outside the costume. Year One (and most subsequent stories) tended to treat Bruce Wayne as a shallow facade for the dark, brooding Batman within, but Matt Wagner’s Bruce is charismatic, if quiet, a little reserved but nevertheless genuine.
People take for granted that Batman is a tormented loner (despite his enormous supporting cast), but this is a Bruce Wayne still within his first year as Batman; at this point, his greatest loss is still his parents, a loss which undoubtedly undid him, but which motivated him to do something about it. This is a Bruce Wayne who exorcises his demons by beating up criminals at night, keeping himself well enough adjusted to assume that he can have an ordinary life, and a girlfriend who he truly hopes to have a future with:
Like a Detour IPA, it’s all about balance; Bruce maintains a balance which seems less precarious than it is disciplined. Matt Wagner, of course, is performing his own balancing act, juggling both art and writing duties, and he knows entirely what he’s doing. The attention to balance is a Chekhov’s gun in this story, and Wagner doesn’t waste time to set events in motion which will topple that careful equilibrium. To that end, I’m dialing up my beer choice, and switching a Muskoka Mad Tom IPA. Not an all-day IPA like the Detour, the Mad Tom clocks in at 6.4% alcohol, but also amps up it’s flavour: hops, as I’ve mentioned, adds bitterness to beer, and that bitterness is measured on a scale of International Bitterness Units (or IBU). Whereas the Detour registers at 30 IBU, the Mad Tom more than doubles that with 64. Thus, it still maintains that coveted balance, but simply amplifies each element. Whereas the Detour offers fresher citrus notes, the Mad Tom is pinier and a little more assertive.
All pieces now in place, the plot of The Monster Men asserts itself, when a severed human arm is fished out of the Gotham City sewers. Captain James Gordon is called to the scene, and this gives us the first canonical Gordon-Batman consultation. It’s an iconic, familiar beat, and moments like this are one reason I like this book: this feels like the truest, essential Batman, similar to Batman: The Animated Series.
That severed arm points the way toward the case which gives this book it’s title, and it’s structured as a fairly straightforward mystery story, inexorably leading back toward Doctor Hugo Strange. His unsuccessful efforts to overcome genetic imperfections have led him to create, well, Monster Men, which he is now using to violently clear his debt to Maroni. This moves the plot effectively toward it’s conclusion, with Strange using his Monster Men to stage a full scale assault on Maroni’s safe house. Norman Madison, cracking under the pressure of his own debt to Maroni, finds himself in the crossfire as he too goes to confront Maroni. Of course, Batman, as Batman does, rushes to save the day, using a new tool in his arsenal to get the job done, and introducing another iconic element of the Batman mythos:
Though Batman and the Monster Men ends with this explosive collision of its plot thread, the story doesn’t really end here; the Monster Men case is closed, with the Monster Men themselves neutralized. Norman Madison is saved though thoroughly rattled, and Hugo Strange has escaped and is hiding in plain sight: as a pop-psychiatrist who denounces Batman on television. But the overall story, which is the story of the tenuous balance which Bruce is striking between his dual identities, is really just starting: with Norman Madison’s involvement with Maroni, Bruce’s personal life and his relationship with Julie are poised to collide with nighttime crime fighting hobby. This is what carries the story forward into Batman and the Mad Monk.
The Mad Monk is not just a simple continuation; it is very much it’s own narrative. Like The Monster Men, it structures itself around the case which Batman is investigating: bodies are turning up in Gotham, savage bites to their necks, drained completely of blood. This is the work a cult referred to only as the Brotherhood, which is presided over by the titular Mad Monk, Niccolai. Whereas Hugo Strange was a corrupted reflection of Batman’s intent, Niccolai seems designed as a corrupted reflection of Batman’s otherness, the symbolism of the bat which is meant to inspire fear. Because Batman’s capacity to inspire fear plays a significant role in this story, as Norman Madison begins to unravel due to his paranoia that the Batman will come after him due to his entanglement with Maroni. Norman’s daughter, meanwhile, grows suspicious of her beau, due to his chronic lateness and his tendency to cancel plans last minute.
As the balance that Bruce so carefully struck begins to teeter precariously, let’s step up to the last IPA in Muskoka’s sampler: The Twice As Mad Tom. Almost as mad as the titular monk, this beer ups it’s bitterness: whereas Mad Tom delivered a boldly flavourful IBU of 64, it’s crazier compadre is dry-hopped twice to push it to a decidedly more aggressive 71. At 8.4%, one can start to taste the alcohol, pairing with the malts to give it some bourbon-y notes behind all those piney hops.
As in The Monster Men, Matt Wagner is pretty quick to pull his plot threads together. A goth girl named Dala trawls Gotham’s bars and nightclubs to lure impressionable socialites into the Brotherhood’s clutches, and Julie, concerned for her father’s mental wellbeing and her boyfriend’s evasiveness, is the next impressionable socialite who lands in Dala’s sights. Admittedly, this is a pretty big coincidence, but Wagner makes it seem effortless enough that, while reading, the implausibility never pulled me out of the story – implausibility arguably deserves a sliding scale in a story in which the antagonist both looks and behaves like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. I mean, the guy even sleeps in a coffin.
Julie is drugged and hypnotized by Niccolai, who intends to not just drink her blood, but influence her enough to gain access to the Madison fortune to fund the Brotherhood, which evidently neither has a revenue stream nor requires members to pay dues. The conspicuous bite mark on Julie’s neck, combined with her unusual behaviour, leads Bruce to suspect that she’s tangled up in this “vampire” case, and while earlier it was Julie staking out Bruce’s house, it is now Bruce’s turn to follow Julie, which is perhaps fair indication that their relationship is doomed. Following her to Niccolai’s sprawling gothic castle, Batman then fights wolves. For five pages. It’s badass. He then evades Temple of Doom-style death traps. This, too, is badass.
Like a Twice-As-Mad Tom IPA, this book is decidedly further over-the-top than it’s predecessor. Whereas The Monster Men straddled it’s line between Year One and the Golden Age comics on which it was based, The Mad Monk toes that line more toward the Golden Age in tone. Appearances from Catwoman and Harvey Dent, as well as Jim Gordon’s supporting role, still comfortably position this book in Year One’s continuity, mind you, and though the case which gives The Mad Monk might be a little absurd, the narrative begun in The Monster Men is given an effective, tragic end here, which cements these two books as all-but-essential in Batman-canon, at least in my view:
Norman, seeing himself as a man with nothing to lose, aims to right his wrongs before Batman can visit his wrath upon him, and attempts to kill Sal Maroni, but himself gets shot and killed by Maroni’s men. Batman, after rescuing Julie from the Brotherhood, reveals his identity to her, and justifiably, she ends their relationship, and, with her father dead, leaves Gotham entirely. Batman is left with the realization that he was naive to assume that his war will ever end, and neither will it ever allow for him to have a normal, happy life. In it’s final pages, Matt Wagner links his book to Year One’s final scene, and offers a glimmer of optimism by teasing a future partnership for Gotham’s Dark Knight:
The war continues.