BATMAN ON FILM, 'The Dark Knight Fansite!' Est. 1998.

INTERVIEW

Interview: MATT WAGNER
Saturday, September 30, 2006
Author: "Jett"

© William E. Ramey. All rights reserved.

When I first heard about BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN, I thought “meh.” I’ve never been a fan of The Batman in surreal or fantastical surroundings, and I assumed that would be the atmosphere of that miniseries.

I can sum up that way of thinking with one word: ignorant.

Not long ago, DC Comics sent me a box full of Batman comics and included was issue #1 of BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK. I read it and absolutely loved it! I immediately ventured down to my comic book shop and picked up the TPB of Mr. Wagner’s BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN. I then proceeded to read the thing from cover to cover in one sitting.

I love the YEAR ONEish Batman -- The Batman in his early years. Consequently, MONSTER MEN instantly became one of my favorite Batman stories of all time. And there have been a lot of Batman stories in my (nearly) 41 years on Earth.

Like the epiphany I had when I watched Michael Uslan on the BATMAN SE documentaries, I again thought “I’ve got to talk to this guy.” So I found Matt’s website and shot him and email requesting an interview. He agreed and voila -- here it is!

Here’s Matt’s bio from his official website:

Matt Wagner has enjoyed a career in comics for nearly twenty years. Born and educated in Pennsylvania, his first published work was for the fledgling '80s company, Comico - a short story that would introduce one of comicdom's most respected creator-owned characters-the mastermind assasin, Grendel. Best known for this epic creation and his other, more personal allegory, Mage, Matt has also worked on a variety of established characters. These include his ground-breaking work on the character of Batman villain, Two-Face, in the graphic novel, Faces, as well as a five-year stint spent developing and generating the stories for the fan-favorite Vertigo title, Sandman Mystery Theater. His most recent efforts in this vein have included writing the Dr. Mid-Nite miniseries for DC Comics.

Known for his character-driven stories and his obvious love of the world's mythologies, Matt has also enjoyed the distinction of being one of the only writer/artists allowed to team his own creation with one of DC's flagship characters in two successive Batman/Grendel crossovers.

Creatively prolific, Matt has recently returned to familiar ground over the past several years with the release of his long-awaited sequel, Mage: The Hero Defined, published by Image Comics. Fans and critics alike have recently hailed the grand finale to this second installment in the adventures of Matt's alter-ego, Kevin Matchstick; a planned trilogy that will eventually culminate in the The Hero Denied.

1998 also saw Matt return to another of his best-known characters, the Hunter Rose incarnation of Grendel, in a star-studded Dark Horse miniseries - Grendel: Black, White & Red - winner of two Eisner Awards, for Best Anthology and Best Short Story.

Matt lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Barbara Schutz, their two children, and three cats.


BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN #1 by Matt Wagner

Matt, I loved BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN. What was your inspiration for that story?

MW: Well, it’s no big secret that I’ve actually farmed these stories (both MONSTER MEN and its sequel, BATMAN & THE MAD MONK) out of some of BATMAN’s earliest Golden Age adventures. MONSTER MEN is taken from a story that appeared in BATMAN #1 and MAD MONK is actually an adaptation of the very first multi-part story that appeared in DETECTIVE COMICS #’s 31 & 32. In fact, the cover to MAD MONK #1 is a direct homage to DC # 31’s incredibly iconic cover image—one of the most famous BATMAN covers of all time!

I wanted to do a story that examined how Batman made the transition from battling the more ordinary ranks of Gotham’s organized crime scene to his more famous roster of costumed crazy that have done as much to define the Batman legend as his own heroics.

How does that story fit -- time and continuity-wise -- into say, BATMAN: YEAR ONE, THE LONG HALLOWEEN, and DARK VICTORY as they all feature the younger Batman.

MW:These stories take place immediately after YEAR ONE, or should I say, inside the spaces of the last several panels of YEAR ONE. In my tales, Gordon is now a Captain in the GCPD and the former Police Commissioner (Loeb) has been disgraced, arrested and replaced by a mayoral appointee (Grogan).

When you read LONG HALLOWEEN, Batman already seems quite familiar with most of the villains that are featured. Bruce Wayne knows Selina Kyle and seems to know that she’s Catwoman. In the first issue of MAD MONK, I show his second encounter with, as he puts it, “This…Cat-woman.”

Additionally, the first page of MONSTER MEN shows that this story takes place JUST following his fateful and tragic encounter with the Red Hood but, obviously, BEFORE he then encounters The Joker.

I loved how MONSTER MEN featured these huge, science fiction-like monsters, but they were very believable in context of the story. Do you enjoy Batman in more realistic or fantastical settings?

MW: One of the great things about Batman is how many disparate elements and influences make up the sum that we have all come to know and love. He’s part super-hero, part pulp avenger, part creature-of-the-night -- it all combines to make one of the most unique and enduring characters in comic book history, a true American archetype.

One of the best factors of Batman is how grounded he is in the “real” world. He’s not an alien with super powers, nor an earthbound god, nor some genetic mutant. He’s a man with a truly heroic purpose who puts his own life on the line, night after night to defeat the dark forces that had so ruptured and destroyed his own childhood.

Did you enjoy using Hugo Strange as a villain?

MW: Again, I wanted to show the transition of Batman’s crusade against crime to the more bizarre and dramatic opponents with which the world has all become so familiar. As such, I thought Hugo would make a great stepping stone to that ends. On one level, he’s the classic pulp mad-scientist and the source story provided me with another classic pulp facet to play with—the experimental monsters run wild.

Additionally, Hugo Strange has always had a neurotic obsession with Batman and, eventually, becomes the first villain to crack the secret of Bruce’s secret identity. I wanted to explore how that obsession rose and, at the same time, provide just a BIT of empathy for Hugo.

Again, the whole point was to show the transition. If I suddenly had Batman fighting a whole bevy of side-show psychotics, that works against that narrative purpose I was trying to achieve.

Any epiphanies ahead or The Batman during the course of BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK?

MW: Well, OF COURSE! Otherwise, what’s the point? On the other hand, Batman is particularly single-minded in his pursuits. He’s certainly not gonna be so incredibly shaken by any event that he would cast off his crusade. He’s certainly the type that would take any loss as more of a challenge than as a defeat. He’d try to figure out how to not make those mistakes again. Of course, though, we also know from experience that Bruce’s life is rife with tragedy of all kinds.

Being the most "realistic" of the super heroes, what was it like to write about Batman taking on vampires?

MW: Again, we come back to the aspect of transition. The genetically altered creatures he encounters in MONSTER MEN certainly verge on the fantastic but at least they ARE grounded in science (okay, it’s comic-book science, but you get the point).

The seeming presence of a vampire in the Gotham nighttime is an admission that would certainly be hard coming for our detective hero. He’s got a much too analytical mind to leap to such fanciful conclusions very quickly. I take some pains to point out and maintain this aspect throughout the MAD MONK series.


Cover of BATMAN #634 by Matt Wagner

It seems that in the current comic books (BATMAN and DETECTIVE specifically --The Batman has sort of returned how he was written in the 70s (Still dark, but more heroic and less cynical). Any thoughts on that?

MW:It should come as no surprise that I take that same approach to Batman’s psyche myself. I prefer to think of Bruce as a decent person driven to extraordinary means to achieve a nearly un-winnable goal.

I think a lot of the current depiction of Batman comes from a lot of so-so writers being swept away and confused by THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. It’s important to remember that the megalomaniacal nuttiness we see Bruce exhibit in TDKR is a state of mind he takes on after years and years of dark adventures and further tragedies. He wouldn’t necessarily be that way at the beginning of his career.

If you look at YEAR ONE, you see a much-less cynical character—a personality who still harbors hope that he will one day win his one-man war on crime. Still, TDKR was so powerful and had such an effect that, I think, the various creative talents who have worked on Batman have lost sight of—again—this TRANSITION! I mean, looking at ALL STAR BATMAN, it seems even Frank Miller’s forgotten it.

Would you be interested in taking on one of the Batman monthlies?

MW: Maybe some day.

So, how did you like BATMAN BEGINS? Any thoughts on the “Burton/Schumacher” series of films?

MW: Well, obviously, BEGINS shares my opinion of Bruce as a decent person. He refuses to kill to achieve his goals and THAT’S what makes him a hero instead of simply some nutso vigilante. The style of the film was quite cool but it did have some problems. I hated the gotta-have-one car chase in the middle—wherein Batman takes to bombing cop cars that are chasing him, seemingly undoing his vow to not kill. Still, the film was generally strong.

The Burton films were strong on atmosphere but obviously showed that Burton was more interested in the misfit villains than in his title character. In fact, BATMAN RETURNS is often credited as being a better film but I f***ing HATED how it made Batman little more than just another costumed creep, little better than the villains he’s pursuing.

Additionally, Burton is so blatantly NOT an action director. That aspect of both his films just sucked.

The Schumacher films are such a tragic waste because they actually had some pretty good talent involved. I thought both Kilmer and Clooney would’ve made really good versions of Bruce/Batman if they weren’t so hampered by the all the camp, costumed nipples, bad jokes and ludicrous plots.

What did you think about the casting of Heath Ledger as The Joker?

MW: I think this is an AWESOME development! The reason is that it’s casting against type. I mean Nicholson was certainly entertaining as The Joker but he’s ALWAYS a mad-cap crazy. That’s one of the things that ruins THE SHINING for me as well. King’s book is about the slow downside of a decent man as he’s possessed by a madness over which he has no control. In Kubrick’s film, you see Jack for the first time and you think, “Oh, that guy’s f***ing NUTS!”

The same rings true for the latest Joker casting. You know there were tons of rumors that it’d end up being Robin Williams, especially because he’d already worked with Chris Nolan in INSOMNIA. But, again, that’d all be just too damned OBVIOUS!

Think of Heath Ledger and the somewhat dour characters you’ve seen him play in the past. Now, when that guy’s face is twisted into a permanent, psychotic grin…THAT will be f***ing scary!

Do you have a favorite Batman comic or story?

MW: Oh, I’ve got tons and tons. I’d have to say that I view Batman as a whole rather than the sum of his parts. I've gotta say though...I'm AM rather fond of any and all of Matt Wagner's efforts with the character! ;-)

What’s in the works for Matt Wagner? Upcoming projects?
And PLEASE tell me that you'll be returning to “Gotham” in the future!

MW: Well, next year (2007) is GRENDEL’s 25TH anniversary (!) so we’ve got quite a few projects on deck over at Darkhorse.

But, as the case has been so far, I’m sure I’ll always have one foot in The Dark Knight’s domain!

I want to say thanks to Mr. Wagner for taking the time to answer those questions for me and all the BOF readers -- THANKS MATT! If you haven't checked out MONSTER MEN or THE MAD MONK, I highly recommend them!

Bill Ramey, AKA "Jett," is the founder and editor-in-chief of BATMAN ON FILM.

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