Arkham Asylum is a nightmarish structure that holds some of Batman's most dangerous foes. Its hard to believe, but there was a time when Arkham didn't house Gotham's vilest villains and Batman's number one foe was organized crime. Beginning this November, writer/artist Matt Wagner takes readers back to that time with the six-issue "Batman and the Monster Men," the first of two mini-series by Wagner that examine the early exploits of the Dark Knight. CBR News spoke with Wagner about the mini-series.
Following the completion of "Trinity" for DC-- the story of the first team up between Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman-- Wagner was going to chronicle the early adventures of Superman with a "Superman: Year One" series, instead of "Batman & The Monster Men." "That sounded great, but then Mark Waid did 'Superman: Birthright' which kind of was a retooling of 'Superman Year One,'" Wagner told CBR News. "While Mark was working on it, I had lunch with him one day and we talked about it. There was still plenty of stuff I could have covered, but I didn't feel comfortable calling it 'Superman: Year One.' And for me, part of the attraction was that title.
"I've always liked formative beginning of the career stories. It kind of occurred to me that there was something missing from the early years of Batman; his transition from gangsters and mobsters and the kind of ordinary level of crime that is featured in 'Year One' to his interaction with what would eventually be known as supervillains."
The period of Batman's career that Wagner's stories depict occurs near the end of Miller & Mazzuchelli's "Batman: Year One." "I jokingly call it 'Year 1.5,'" Wagner said. "In regards to 'Year One,' it kind of takes place in the last 3 or 4 panels. So, before the Joker, but after the Red Hood, in between that sequence."
Wagner chose to chronicle the transition point between organized crime and supervillain crime in Gotham City by updating two classic Batman tales, "Batman and the Monster Men" and "Batman and the Mad Monk." "What I'm doing is-- and it should be evident from the titles-- is taking two of my favorite pre-Robin Golden Age stories and updating them for a modern audience," Wagner said. "'Batman and the Monster Men' actually ran in Batman #1 and features Hugo Strange, who creates the Monster Men. And the follow up series, 'Batman and the Mad Monk,' I think originally appeared in 'Detective' #31 and #32.
"When you look at those old Golden Age stories they still draw upon kind of the Pulp traditions that preceded them," Wagner explained. "Before the Joker and all those guys showed up the characters he confronts are very much like Pulp villains. They're mad scientists or, in the Mad Monk's case, more an element from the classic horror genre."
The original "Batman and the Monster Men" story had Hugo Strange using an injection to create a legion of freakish monsters whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc. Readers of Wagner's retelling of the story will learn the origin of Strange's obsession with Batman, but Wagner will be portraying the professor in a different light. "I tried to make Hugo a tad more sympathetic," Wagner stated. "He's a radical genetic researcher and he's trying to figure out genetic manipulation to a point where he can guarantee human perfection. Of course it keeps going wrong and he keeps ending up with these monstrosities."
Wagner's portrayal of Batman in the story however has more in common with past depictions of the Dark Knight, by writers like Steve Englehart, than the dour and obsessed version of Batman that currently appears in the DCU. "There's a tendency to make Batman such a grim bad-ass, that he verges on being a bad guy himself," Wagner said. "I prefer to view him much more heroic. He's certainly driven but he is kind. He's polite. He's a good guy. He's a hero. He adopts these scary methods because he feels that's the only way to truly combat the criminal element around him and drive away the nightmares that haunt him. He's not just this grim soldier who just assumes this is the way the world is going to be forever. He wouldn't be fighting back if that was the case."
"Batman and the Monster Men" also depicts a Dark Knight at the beginning of his career with different views on his crusade against crime. "His goal, in my mind, is to clean up Gotham," Wagner explained. "He feels that's achievable. Gotham is the city that meant so much to his parents and it's the city that claimed their lives.
"He thinks he's winning at this point," Wagner continued. "He's definitely made a dent in the day-to-day operations of organized crime in Gotham and he feels like he's close to cracking the back of organized crime in the city. He's going to help clean up Gotham and then retreat into the shadows. I think that he doesn't think the world needs Batman forever. He's got a bit of what could almost be called youthful arrogance at this point. He's concocted this nighttime persona, this costume, which scares the piss out of the bad guys. What happens when he starts to run into characters that aren't part of the organized crime scene and aren't scared of the costume? That's got to throw a wrench into the works."
Hugo Strange is the primary villain in "Batman and the Monster Men," but the Dark Knight will also face opposition from an organized crime figure familiar to long time Batman readers, Sal Maroni, the mob boss who will become infamous for scarring Harvey Dent and turning him into Two-Face. Maroni has come to prominence since regular top Gotham crime lord, Carmine Falcone AKA the Roman, has taken to being discreet with his appearances.
While regular supporting characters like Alfred and Jim Gordon play roles in "Batman and the Monster Men," the series also marks the return to modern Batman continuity of a supporting character that hasn't been seen for a long time. "Here again I'm digging into the Golden Age stuff and following up with the way I'm portraying Bruce. He thinks he's going to have some semblance of a normal life some day so he has a girlfriend. He's got his Golden Age girlfriend, Julie Madison," Wagner explained. "In the Golden Age stories she's an actress and in mine she's a budding law student. The big supporting characters are her and her father."
"Batman and the Monster Men" and its follow up, 2006's "Batman and the Mad Monk," are both self-contained stories. Julie's relationship with Bruce and her father is the connecting thread that runs through both stories.
Fans of the style of storytelling seen in the great Golden Age comics of the past will be excited to learn that Wagner is drawing on those traditions with "Batman and the Monster Men." "I draw in the Pulp traditions," Wagner explained. "And it's Batman's early days so I try to include some formative stuff that we hadn't quite considered before."
Wagner's art for the series will also be done in a style similar to the Pulp magazines. "It's being colored by Dave Stewart, who colored 'Trinity,' but it looks nothing like 'Trinity'," Wagner said. "Even my rendering style doesn't really look like 'Trinity' for which I tried to keep a little more open, a little less free of details and shadows and such because it featured Superman and Wonder Woman who are such bright and vibrant characters."
Reinterpreting the Dark Knight's Golden Age adventures has been lots of fun for Wagner. "I'm really thrilled with it. I'm having such a blast," he said. "I think DC's really happy with it to. Bob Schreck told me, 'People are going to keep reading this.' In today's market place I can't imagine a better compliment."