(2006) Matt Wagner, Titan Books, £8.99, trdpbk, 144pp, ISBN 1-84576-346-7
This is a collection of issues 1-6 of Batman and the Monster Men, a re-telling of "Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters" from Batman no.1 (Spring 1940). Strange had made his debut in February of 1940 in Detective Comics no.36 and both these tales were written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane (with inks by Jerry Robinson). Strange has a good claim to being the first returning villain among Batman's foes, beating the Joker by a couple of months; he was an 'evil genius' who first terrorised Gotham City with a fog and lightning machine then, after his initial capture and prison breakout, he took madmen from an asylum and created the monster men. Back in 1940 Batman would, on occasion, take life if there was no other option - his Batplane had a mounted machine gun (though the monsters wore bullet-proof clothes!) and he hanged one of the creatures to death. Strange supposedly died in Detective no.46, but was resurrected in issue 471(!) in August of 1977 during the acclaimed run on the title by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin (which tales can be found in the collection Batman: Strange Apparitions) - this creative team were recently re-united for a six-issue series, now also collected, Batman: Dark Detective which brought back some of the old support characters, notably Bruce Wayne's then girlfriend Silver St.Cloud. Strange, however, died in issue 472, after having learned the Batman's secret identity. He was beaten to death by the thugs of Rupert Thorne in the now-classic tale "I am the Batman!", only to re-appear as a ghost, killing Thorne in issue 476. Issues 471-2 also featured the monster men (and a woman), all of which died. Now, following the success of Trinity, Wagner brings us this "Year One" tale, considerably expanding the original 1940 story.
Strange, though still an 'evil genius', is painted as an early genetic experimenter whose connection to crime is through the loans he takes from the mob to fund his researches - though he also murders rich people to pay the mob back. Bruce Wayne is still working on his crime-fighting identity, and Jim Gordon (not yet a Commissioner) is still dealing with the events of Frank Miller's Batman: Year One plotline. The father of Bruce's girlfriend, Julie Madison, also borrows from the mob as his company has a problem paying its employees. The spiralling plotline refers to all the history (past and future) outlined above, harking back to some key scenes from the 1940 stories and foreshadowing the events of the 1977 appearances (though lack of familiarity with the above will not spoil the enjoyment of this tale). Of course, all continuity is up for grabs at the moment, bearing in mind these comics came out during the recently finished Infinite Crisis, but Wagner doesn't take any liberties, cleverly preserving the 1940's outcome and Miller's Year One (especially in the art and caption areas). All in all, this is another unqualified success for Wagner and I hope we can expect to see more from him in the future. Highly recommended for old and new readers alike.
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