‘Night Of The Monster Men’ And The Re-Re-Re-Reinvention Of Hugo Strange
The Batman titles have always had an uneasy relationship with events. As much as it's easy to look back and see how those big crossover stories like Knightfall or No Man's Land or even Batman RIP have driven the line over the years, and as good as those stories might've been, it's also true that the books tend to be at their best when they're working with self-contained storylines that focus on a different aspect of the character.
That's been especially true with the Rebirth era, where Batman was relaunched with grand, over-the-top superhero action and Detective Comics put the spotlight on the Batman Family operating as a team under Batwoman, and where Nightwing was specifically about distancing Dick Grayson from his mentor --- at least for a while.
With that in mind, it was pretty easy to worry that "Night of the Monster Men," a six-part crossover from Steve Orlando, Tom King, Tim Seeley, James Tynion IV, Riley Rossmo, Roge Antonio, Andy MacDonald, Ivan Plascencia, and Chris Sotomayor that ran through all three of those books, would derail that focus. Instead, it shored everything up, tying those ideas together in a way that strengthened all of it, and managed to pull off one of the best revitalizations for a villain that I've seen in a long time.
It's worth noting that "Night of the Monster Men" feels like a vastly different kind of Batman crossover than what we've seen from the character before, but I'm honestly not sure if that feeling has more to do with the story itself than with the context in which we're reading it.
After decades of the Batman franchise being (justifiably) dominated by the noirish approach to superheroes that you see in stories like Batman: Year One, the same aesthetic that you can see in stuff like the post-No Man's Land run of Detective and Gotham Central, "Night of the Monster Men" feels like it's coming from a completely different place. Year One still casts a pretty long pointy-eared shadow, but I'm starting to think that Bat-Mite showing up in RIP might've been the last nail in its coffin.
This is a crossover for the post-Morrison, post-Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo Batman, a Batman whose origin is rooted in Zero Year rather than Year One, with all the aesthetic trappings of a character who rode a dirtbike around a pseudo-post-Apocalyptic Gotham City and wrestled lions, rather than a Batman who told crime families they had eaten well and then kicked a crooked cop through the wall of a condemned building. If there's any sign that the pendulum has swung back towards embracing the strange and unusual, then "Night of the Monster Men" as the first crossover of the Rebirth era is it.
Don't get me wrong --- it's not like the Batman events of previous years have ever been understated or reserved. Just in the ones I've already mentioned, we've had a super-luchador and an earthquake that sends the entirety of Gotham City into a full year of Mad Max cosplay, and there are more besides that have super-viruses unleashed by immortal eco-terrorists. At the same time, those were also stories that at their heart were built around very realistic, human ideas. Defeat at the hands of a foe with superior strength, a natural disaster, disease. Those are things that we can relate to, even when they're dressed up in superheroic trappings.
"Night of the Monster Men," on the other hand, is literally about a giant zombie kaiju baby shoving over buildings while Batman and his friends try to stop it with a jetpack and a rocket-powered motorcycle.
Admittedly, there is a metaphor buried underneath there, but even if you strip this story down to the core idea, zombie kaiju baby and its other giant zombie kaiju friends are still right there in the very structure of it. When the metaphor finally becomes literal in the third act of the story, they're still forming the foundation of something that goes even further, with even bigger, weirder metaphors.
More than anything else, I'm pretty sure this story is going to go down in the annals of Batman history as that time that Batman used his real estate holdings to turn Gotham City itself into a Megazord piloted by his sidekicks.
But it's also going to go down as the return and reinvention of Hugo Strange.
Strange is a character who's been around almost as long as Batman himself, making his debut in 1940's Detective Comics #36 in a story where Batman describes him as a "scientist, philosopher, and a criminal genius" who ranks as "the most dangerous man in the world." In that original form, he's clearly intended to be the Moriarty to Batman's Holmes, but by his next few appearances, he skews a lot further into mad scientist territory. He even has a plot a year later to take over Gotham City with fear powder, serving as a sort of prototype for the Scarecrow.
The most memorable story of his Golden Age appearances, though, was undoubtedly the one where he unleashed fifteen-foot Monster Men, but after Strange took a hiatus that spanned three decades, that aspect of his character fell by the wayside. Instead, when he was revived by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers --- in the same run that gave us the modern take on Deadshot, another Golden Age also-ran --- he took on a new aspect that emphasized the psychological aspect of his character. Unlike other villains, who stand in opposition, Strange was built around the idea of not just discovering Batman's secret identity, but replacing him.
That's where we get that image of a bearded, bespectacled Hugo Strange, shockingly ripped, wearing his own Batman costume, and it's an image that later creators ran with. After Crisis, Strange was retooled again by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy as a psychologist and profiler, again reflecting that darker take on superheroics. And again, more recently, Matt Wagner's genuinely great Batman and the Monster Men offered a synthesis of those ideas, reviving the mad scientist aspect and combining it with the psychology.
But now? Now Hugo Strange sits upon a throne of Psychology textbooks, making giant zombie baby kaiju as part of his diagnosis, and turning Nightwing and Gotham Girl into monsters.
If "Night of the Monster Men" is the Batman event for the Rebirth-era's Batman --- the Batman who's focused on being part of a family, who fights crime with jetpacks and motorcycles and chainsaws, who goes over the top at every opportunity --- then this Hugo Strange is the villain who wants to be that Batman.
That idea is fascinating to me, which is probably unsurprising. I mean, Batman against Batman's Biggest Fan (Bat-Mite excepted) is a pretty solid concept, and when that fan talks about spending all of his time analyzing Batman and putting together his perception of how he does work and how he should work, well, it's easy to see where the appeal is for me.
But more than that, this Hugo Strange is someone who realizes that if you're going to get to Batman, the route goes through superheroics. It goes through weirdness, through manipulating the contingency plans for the bizarre situations that Gotham City finds itself pit against with alarming regularity. It means putting the emphasis on Strange.
In that respect, "Night of the Monster Men" works as an event in a way that I didn't expect it to, and encapsulates the feeling of why the Rebirth-era Batman books are so compelling.