Get Your Mad On: Matt Wagner talks "Batman and the Mad Monk"

Tue, June 13th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

I should admit upfront that I've been a fan of Matt Wagner's work since I was 13 years old. From the moment I first discovered "Grendel" and "Mage," I was hooked. Since that time if something is published with Matt Wagner's name on it, you can count on my $2.99 for whatever it may be.

This August, Wagner offers up the first issue "Batman and the Mad Monk," where he revisits the early career of the Dark Knight. This series follows "Batman and the Monster Men," but it's not required that you read that earlier series to understand what's happening in "The Mad Monk."

Last week I spoke with Wagner extensively about "Batman and the Mad Monk" as well as another subject dear to Wagner's heart, but we're not going to tell you what that is quite yet - it's a surprise! Today we present the interview regarding his upcoming DC Comics work as well as some of the plans already in place to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Grendel in 2007. Then, return tomorrow for the second part of our conversation where we discuss… well, you'll just have to return tomorrow to find out. All I can say is all the bachelors reading this may learn something important tomorrow.

[Editor's Note: As we were conducting this interview, Wagner was busy at work on the third issue of "Batman and the Mad Monk."]

Hi Matt, thanks for talking with CBR today. Let's get to the subject at hand - "Batman and the Mad Monk," which follows your last Batman tale, "Batman and the Monster Men." Give us the background on the book and then we'll move onto the story you've cooked up.

It's no secret that for both of these series I've basically farmed the very fertile pit of Batman's initial golden age adventures. Hugo Strange and the Monster Men and the Mad Monk were two of the stories - to my mind - that really stuck out of his initial rash of pre-Robin tales in the Golden Age. This is basically my approach to how he graduates from fighting the established mod in Gotham that we have seen so prevalent in year one and how he transitions from that to all of a sudden having this cast of costumed loonies that seem to be the best part of any Batman tale.

[sharpens pencil]

I figure it couldn't have happened all at once. It had to be a bit of a progression. To my mind, he all of a sudden couldn't be fighting the Joker. So, if you read "Monster Men," you realize it's not the monsters themselves aren't even so much the villains, it's Hugo Strange. And Hugo Strange, for all his kind of ruthless methods of dealing with people who disagree with him, doesn't quite fit the mold of Batman's normal cast of what will eventually be called Super-villains. The Mad Monk certainly fits more into that category.

He's kind of the transition villain, in a way.

Yeah. But, as is true with any of my work, the most important thing to me is human characterization and human relationships, so I decided to include his Golden Age girlfriend in this as well. At this stage in Bruce's career, he hasn't started encountering these ever-growing cast of crazies, and he's got to be a very goal oriented person. He wouldn't go to all this effort to concoct this elaborate disguise and frightening nighttime personae if he didn't think he was going to win eventually. It seems like too much effort for what would be an endless and hopeless crusade.

So, as a result, he's met and fallen in love with this woman, Julie Madison, and ultimately he thinks in his own mind that one day the war is going to end and he's going to crack the back of crime in Gotham. Really, that's his goal. He doesn't think he's going to wipe out evil worldwide. He's driven, but he's not crazy and he's not megalomaniacal to that degree. He wants to clean up Gotham -- the city that stole his parents' lives and stole his childhood. And he thinks he can do it. And if you look at the end of "Year One," it seems like he's well on his way.

Of course, we all know that turns out not to be the case.

Sure, but in his mind it's still a possibility at this stage in the game.

Speaking of his Golden Age girlfriend Julie Madison, one thing you seem rather skilled at in your writing is when you bring in a love interest, you don't introduce them in any sort of typical way. She's not just there for eye candy or a simple distraction; she always brings something more to the table. Case in point, your work on "Sandman Mystery Theatre" with Wesley and Dian. She added so much to that character. What does Julie bring to this story, as well as to Bruce and Batman?

Well, she reminds him of his humanity. I'm sure there's a part of Bruce that knows he's not normal and that this life isn't normal, but he longs for normalcy. His crusade is to protect normalcy. He goes out and confronts the dark and horrible things that go bump in the night so that your everyday citizen will never have to confront that. I'm going to quote myself here. In "Trinity" there's a line where it says, "And so he fights for justice, so that no other need hear the echoes that haunt his dreams." So, she's a reminder of normal life.

She grounds him.

Yeah, she grounds him and I really play up the fact that her father is a single parent and her father means quite a lot to her, so she's very drawn to strong men and Bruce is obviously a strong man. He's a little mysterious, so that intrigues her because she can't figure him out in certain regards. There's a scene in "Monster Men" where after he's just fought the monsters for the first time and gets all banged up, she discovers him all bandaged up and he has to explain his way out of that. And there are a few more instances of that in "The Mad Monk." As will be evident to anybody that reads Batman, of course this relationship is doomed. [laughs] The fun is how did it get that way and how dies it affect Bruce and Batman. We'll discover that at the end of the series.

Tell us a bit more specifically about the story you've worked up for "Mad Monk." What route will you be taking your readers down?

Again, one of those things I really loved about those Golden Age stories is how they are so pure and unfiltered. In a very joyously pulp tradition, they're still plenty blood thirsty. In fact, at the end of the original Mad Monk storyline, it ends with him point blank shooting the Mad Monk and his vampire girlfriend as they lay in their coffin with silver bullets. Just bang bang, you'll never again bother humanity, end of story.

Similarly, in the original Monster Men story, there's a scene where Hugo's set the monsters free in Gotham and they're wreaking havoc and he's flying around in the Batplane with a Gatling Gun mounted to the front of the Batplane [laughs] and he says, "Normally, I frown on taking human life, but in this case … ratatatata." [laughs] So, one of the things I liked so much about the Mad Monk is that he's just this classic, classic Saturday matinee pulp serial villain. I mean, just look at him - he looks like he stepped out of the Spanish inquisition with that red KKK robe he wears. [laughs] And he lives in a giant castle and has a gothy girlfriend. It's all those elements that make up, to me, the kind of unique synthesis that Batman presents as a comic book super hero. He's got equal amounts of mystery and detection and the super hero costume thing and the lone-masked vigilante thing and even little bits of horror creep in. As I said, in the Golden Age storyline, the Mad Monk is a vampire/werewolf creature. Similarly, in the Golden Age Mad Monk storyline is one of the first examples of one of the many elaborate death traps that will become a part of Batman's milieu. So, I decided to include one in here. Certainly, he's obviously found himself in many scrapes before, but this is the first time he's in a situation that's deliberately meant to slowly torture and kill someone. And, of course, that's all just a fun window dressing - the point is what's the human toll and how does it affect Julie and her father's involvement with this as well since he's in with the Mob and owes money to the Mob in the first storyline and that's had a devastating effect on him.

Help me out with some history here -- was Julie the daughter of a single father in the Golden Age story?

Nope, I added all that myself.

Right, OK so you're bringing your modern spin on to a Golden Age story. Would something like that have flown back in the world of comics in 1940s?

No, certainly not. And as you mentioned "Sandman Mystery Theatre," Dian's mother is dead and she's been raised by her father who's the district attorney. Similarly, in the Golden Age story, Julie is an actress and in mine she's a law student because I wanted to instill her father with a sense of moral fiber and civic responsibility. He's a captain of industry who, when he was younger, entertained going into law and being a public defender and now that's the direction that Julie's now headed. On one hand, that builds him up to have certain similarities to Bruce that she obviously finds attractive, but it also makes his fall from grace all that much harder. He really is a decent guy and it's a big damn shame that he finds himself in this situation.

You pointed out a recurring theme in at least two of your works where you have two strong female characters where they both grew up without their mothers. If you'll excuse me getting personal for a moment, are you pulling from personal experience with these stories?

No, not at all.

Why do you think you've gravitated towards that theme?

I don't know. I've done lots of female characters and they're not all like that.

Certainly.

Hrmm …

You think it just fit for these two characters?

I think it's probably just to make the woman, herself, the young women, Dian and Julie, a little more strong-willed because they've had to exist without a mother and have had to fend for themselves a little more. Also, ease of character - I have one less character to deal with. [laughs]

So, it's the easy way out - just kill the Mom! [Laughs]

Right, knock off Mom! She's unnecessary, anyway. [laughs]

When we finish this call, I'm calling your Mother! [laughs]

All right, at this point in your career, you can really pick and choose the direction you want to go. You could go off on a flight of fancy about something you're really passionate about, or you could work on the big characters like you're doing right now. What's the attraction for you doing these updated Golden Age stories, as it were?

My parents are slightly older and they are of that generation, that kind of war generation. My Dad was in World War II. So, he's probably a good 20 years older than most of my friends parents. As a result, I kind of have an inherited nostalgia for that time period. I don't know, there's just something delightfully innocent about those times that really appeal to me.

I spoke to someone the other day how we're reaching a point with world technology and communication where in a lone masked vigilante isn't going to be very possible to the common mind. When there's enough photographers to catch Tara Reid's boob every time it pops out of her dress, [laughs] somebody's not going to be able sneak around in the shadows that readily.

You're absolutely right. You could catch a guy on closed circuit video cameras changing into his costume in an alley way quite easily.

It's funny you mentioned the innocence of that age. My Father was much older as well. He was born in 1921 and often said that the early 20th century only had the veneer of innocence.

Right, and I obviously showed that in "Sandman Mystery Theatre" as well. It wasn't that innocent.

Right.

Maybe, I don't know if less complicated is the best term…

I think it comes down to that we didn't have nearly as much media access back then.

I think so. I guess that's the point that back then there's still a sense of mystery to the world.

Perfect. You couldn't gain access to everything back then like we can today, because the distribution methods just weren't available.

Exactly. Look at Orson Welles' "War of the World" broadcast. The sense of mystery was still so prevalent in the world that people actually believed that was happening. Compare that to the actual war going on today, to which people seem utterly numb to.

Wow, that's a scary little point you made there.

You know? That's a big difference.

Now, you've told these two Golden Age stories for Batman, you've done your thing with "Trinity." Are there other characters you'd like to explore their pasts as well?

Well, this series came about as a result of DC offering me "Superman: Year One." I don't know why they did that because Mark Waid was already well into the production of "Superman: Birthright" and that's basically Superman: Year One. There was still plenty of stuff I could have covered in Superman's first year, but I didn't feel comfortable calling it "Superman: Year One" and the cache of that title was part of the attraction of doing it. It was about this time that Bob Schreck and Dan DiDio said to me, "You know what? We've got the new Batman movie coming out and if you'd like to do a Batman early years story, that sounds good." I'd still like to try my hand at Superman at some point.

But not necessarily a Year One story?

No, not necessarily.

So, what's next? I hear you've got quite a bit of Grendel news to come.

Well, next year is the 25th Anniversary of Grendel and we have a lot on deck. We pretty much have either a new edition or a newly remastered edition of a variety of things coming out every month in 2007. We're going to be offering "Devil By The Deed" in a newly recolored hard cover edition, colored by Dave Stewart, who of course colored both "Trinity" and the Batman series I'm doing.

There are a variety of storylines that have yet to go into trade that will. We'll be doing an "Art of Grendel" book that will be ready in time for San Diego 2007. That'll be the same format as "The Art of Sin City," "The Art of Usagi" and "The Art of Hellboy." And the whole thing culminates at the end of the year with me doing a whole new Hunter Rose original graphic novel I'll be writing and drawing that'll be along the lines of 200 pages or so.

You've wrapped up the Hunter Rose story pretty nicely…

I know! [laughs] [My Editor] Diana Schutz and I were talking about this and she said if I was to come back and draw a Grendel story myself, it should be Hunter Rose and it should be something important. And I said, "Holy shit, I've told everything important!" [laughs]

Well, after about a week I had an idea that I could do. So, I've got an idea in mind that'll play.

Any hints?

Nah, it's still too far away.

I'm guessing with all that you have coming up with Grendel, you have no time for your third chapter in the Mage saga right now.

Right. And the funny thing about Mage is I feel like I have such little control over it, it has such control over me. I can't really decide when I'm going to work on it. I just know when it's Mage time. That's what happened with the second one. That's why I wrapped up my commitments on "Sandman Mystery Theatre" at the time because once Mage entered my life again I knew there would be no room for anything else. So, it'll certainly be after this 25th Anniversary, but I don't know particularly know when.

Do you think most creative people and most artists have a project like that that takes them over, or is it a unique experience?

Well, it's unique for me, but it's not unique to me. What's more unique for me is the way I work on it. I don't write anything down, I don't thumbnail, I don't plan anything out, I just sit down with blank pages and start going. Not to say that I don't have certain lynch points in mind that I'm trying to work my way towards, but I let it be kind of a Zen journey and let it take me where it takes me.

It sounds like you take a very organic journey when you're working on Mage compared to any other project.

Absolutely. That's because it's so personal. It's such an allegory of what happens to me.

Maybe you just haven't reached that next chapter or generation in your life yet.

Oh, dude, I'm in my mid-40s - sure I have! I just haven't gotten there yet.

You know, as we wrap up this first part of our two-part interview, I'm going to share a little something fun with you. Now, I'm 10 years younger than you and I first met you 21 years ago at Golden Apple Comics in Hollywood when I was just 13. You were the first comic creator I ever met.

Wow. Was that during the tour?

Right. The Grendel tour. You had the Pander Bros. with you and all that stuff. So, I was this shy little brat of a kid and I wanted to get a sketch, but I was afraid to go up to you. You saw me standing over to the side with my Mom, pointed right at me and told me to come over. And suddenly you and everyone else were sketching on back boards for me and I still have them to this day.

Right on!

So, thanks for making my first creator introduction a good one!

That ends part one of CBR's two part interview with creator Matt Wagner. Tomorrow, we'll explore a completely different subject with Wagner and you may just learn a thing or two about him that you didn't know before.

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