Batman and the Monster Men takes place roughly one year into Batman's career. It's a retro story placing an older storyline into current continuity and has Batman dealing with the mafia as usual, but for the first time faces a much greater challenge he's never dealt with before.
At this point in his career, Batman believes he is on the brink of putting an end to organized crime in Gotham once he puts an end to the much talked about, but never seen, Carmine Falcone's operations. In addition to the Dark Knight, our main cast of characters includes Professor Hugo Strange, Sal Maroni, Jim Gordon, Julie Madison (Bruce Wayne's love interest), and her father Norman Madison.
What initially brought this novel to my attention was Matt Wagner. I had read Trinity and enjoyed his thoughtful insights on the characters as well as his beautiful artwork. Some have criticized Wagner's illustrations as being too simple, but he captures the characters' facial expressions and mood so vividly, you don't even need to read the text to know what they're thinking about. And speaking of dialogue, the characters have some great lines in addition to solid character development through their inner thoughts. Typically, I'm used to just reading stories told from one character's perspective, but in Monster Men, we get to know each of the previous characters listed personally through their thoughts, which was a unique way of narrating. There were a few times in Trinity where I wasn't sure if Wagner quite had Batman's character down, but here he nails his personality exactly how he should be portrayed. Dark, moody, secretive and most importantly, determined.
I won't give away too much of the main plot, but basically going into this, expect things to get mysterious and action packed about halfway through. Once the action starts, it doesn't slow down. I must say, this is one of the more violent Batman stories I've read in a while, up there with DKR. Let's just say the monster men have a taste for human flesh. It was also nice to be able to see Sal Maroni in a starring villain role, considering he is later notorious for creating Two-Face, but I never really knew much about his past up until now.
If this novel has any faults they're minor. Bruce's girlfriend, Julie, wasn't the most fascinating love interest he's ever had. At times she seemed like she wasn't very necessary to the overall plot and was only used when it was convenient. She often would talk playfully in legal terms just to remind us she was a going through law school and that got a bit irritating after awhile, but I wouldn't have necessarily written her out. Her father Norman plays a more important role and goes through the most character development out of any other. I would have liked to see Gordon used a little bit more, but this wasn't his story, and the times he is focused on are well written. I always enjoy reading stories of Batman and Gordon early in their careers and their controversial "partnership" taking form.
Wagner also remembers the little details, such as the creation of the bat-mobile and Alfred's suggestion to put fins on it to make it more bat-like. Putting Vicky Vale's name on the newspaper article featuring the Red Hood on the first page. Setting up Maroni's vendetta against Harvey Dent. The line after Gordon asks "Are you joking?" to which Batman responds, "I'm no joker". It's the small stuff that makes it feel that much more like a Batman novel and not just a generic story you could stick any other random DC hero in and have it feel the same. It's always a pleasure reading something like this when you can sense the author truly gets it and makes it his own. Don't pass this one up.