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CLASSIC COMICS: DETECTIVE #s 31 & 32
Author: Robert Reineke
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On the eve of Matt Wagner’s update of “Batman vs. The Mad Monk,” I thought to take a look back at the original story which is remarkable in many respects. The story promises in the introduction that “The Batman – weird menace to all crime – at last meets an opponent worthy of his mettle” and delivers arguably the first costumed villain in comic books, takes Batman on an international adventure, introduces a score of new ideas, and adds a gothic element that will be returned to on many future occasions.

The original story is really just a string of memorable events tied together. Batman encounters his fiancée, Julie Madison, apparently hypnotized and trying to kill a random person. He takes her back to her place, in a sequence that may have inspired the “Descent into Mystery” sequence of BATMAN (1989), and urges her to talk to Bruce Wayne. Bruce takes her to a doctor who advises her to take “an ocean voyage to Paris…And perhaps later, to Hungary – the land of history and werewolves”. (Perhaps Gardner Fox was tipping his influences here, but Hungary was the home of Bela Lugosi and it also reads like a NOSFERATU reference). Bruce is suspicious, the Doctor has a glazed look when he says it, but agrees to let Julie go. But he follows her with the Batgyro and a series of encounters with the mysterious, hypnotic Monk follows.

We get fights with a gorilla in Paris, an obvious MURDERS IN THE ROGUE MORGUE reference, Batman’s first escapes from elaborate death traps, and finally tracking down the Monk and his assistant Dala, discovering they are vampires, and after escaping from one final deathtrap, putting an end to them with silver bullets -- one of the few incidents where Batman actually uses a gun. Lots of action and ideas for only 20 pages worth of story.

That said, the story is more influential than actually good. The Monk, other than a memorable design, is lacking in defining characteristics and personality. The art, even by Golden Age standards, is fairly crude albeit atmospheric. And the plot and dialogue is fairly lacking, although full of interesting incidents. The fact that Batman is a rather silent figure throughout the story adds to the atmosphere generated by the hero. Gardner Fox, Bob Kane, and Sheldon Moldoff would all do technically better work on Batman over their careers, well into the 1960s in fact on Batman. And yet, it is a memorable storyline that has inspired other writers and artists to update it. Why is that?

First, take a look at the cover of DETECTIVE #31:

The Batman looming over a castle with a full moon and the villain carrying a damsel.

This is one of the most famous covers ever produced for a Batman book, full of atmosphere, depicting Batman as larger than life, and depicting the villain as a true monster. Neal Adams paid homage the cover for BATMAN #227. The third chapter of Gothic also shows clear influences. And, Matt Wagner is, of course, honoring the cover to kick off his new mini-series.

The basic conflict of the story also influenced many stories over the year. Beyond the overtly supernatural aspects, the basic conflict is of the scary looking hero going up against equally scary villains and instilling fear in the villains. There might be no more primal story for Batman than that. Add to it the fact that it’s a man that dresses up like a bat vs. a vampire to truly appreciate the underlying theme of the story.

This is also the first story that really expanded Batman’s means and methods. Other than a costume and lasso, Batman was fairly ordinary in his methods. DETECTIVE #31 unveils Batman’s most famous weapon, the Batarang, which is used in a variety of ways over the course of the story. Batman is also shown as being a master of escaping death traps improvising with the weapons and items that are handy. The versatility of the Batarang is particularly played up in his escapes. Beyond that, we’re given the first evidence of Batman’s use of high tech gadgets. Knock out gas capsules are put to use in the story. And his first customized vehicle, the Batgyro/Batplane, is wheeled out.

Finally, Julie Madison is introduced as Bruce Wayne’s love interest. And it’s right away a different dynamic than the Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman angle as Bruce Wayne already has the girl. Other stories will pick up on the different dynamic with the ultimate conclusion that Julie Madison will leave him and set up a string of heartbreaks for the character that lasts to this day.

There’s a crude power to the story that still lasts. But it’s not iconic enough that it can’t be expanded and embroidered upon. Considering the Monk has been only been used sparingly since the original story, it’s a perfect opportunity for Matt Wagner to create something new while honoring the old.

BOF contributor Robert Reineke is a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin. He’s earned a BS and MS degrees from the University of Wisconsin and has been reading Batman comics since the 1970s.

He’s of the firm belief that there are plenty of Batman comics
written before Frank Miller that are worthy of discussion.

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