Review: Man-Bat trade paperback (DC Comics)

Dave Wielgosz and Sumit Kumar’s Man-Bat series collection arrives out of time through no fault of its own. Meant to be published in 2019, it was instead shunted to 2021 due to pandemic-related issues. As such, a book that would have originally coincided with the start of Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom appearing in the new Justice League Dark series instead comes just as that book is winding down.

I hadn’t paid much mind to this title originally, given creators I wasn’t familiar with, the long delay, and a mistaken sense that this wasn’t in continuity (perhaps confused with various Elseworlds and other non-continuity Man-Bat books previously). You dear readers set me straight that the Man-Bat here was the same as the one found in James Tynion and Ram V’s Justice League Dark, which is about all the selling point I needed — the monstrous lab-coated and be-spectacled Man-Bat of Dark was among its best parts, their weird science guru not unlike another hulking fellow. I’m happy to support that character within his own book.

[Review contains spoilers]

In the end, Man-Bat is enjoyable, certainly enough for me to give notice to Wielgosz and Kumar’s work again. Difficulties here are the same as endemic to much of DC and that anyone would face with a Man-Bat book. For one, like many DC characters Man-Bat has wanted for a consistent continuity since the New 52, some 10 years ago now, and the Man-Bat miniseries marks a change even from earlier in the Rebirth era that we’re supposedly still in. Second, much as I enjoy Dark’s Man-Bat, he already bore little resemblance to most depictions of Man-Bat so far, so trying to reconcile any kind of original Man-Bat with this one was always going to be a heavy lift.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Man-Bat is not, as one might have hoped, a real horror story. It is not deeply psychological like recent Bat-villain-focused Black Label titles, which is not to say Wielgosz doesn’t achieve any smart insights — far from it. Rather I was increasingly put in mind of Gregg Hurwitz’s series of New 52 Batman: The Dark Knight volumes, multi-part Bat-villain spotlights with a smidgen more origin than normal layered on top. Ultimately I’m not sure those really came to anything — none of those, I think, made lasting changes to the villains' origins — but at least here this miniseries coincides with Justice League Dark to prove its provenance.

Wielgosz’s story posits Francine Langstrom as wholly uninvolved with Kirk’s Man-Bat shenanigans, which doesn’t mesh with a Harley Quinn story that ought still be in play. For most of the story it also posits Kirk and Man-Bat as two separate entities within the same body, really not unlike Bruce Banner and the Hulk or Harvey Dent and Two-Face. It’s that latter comparison especially that makes this whole thing feel in some ways not like a Man-Bat story at all, in that it’s not Kirk-as-Man-Bat but rather Kirk and Man-Bat warring against one another. Again, Wielgosz has to swing all the way from that to the Kirk-Bat of Dark (one can even wonder if that was always how this miniseries was intended to go), and while he makes the landing, it is never as though this miniseries is about the funny, studious bat-man in the Hall of Justice’s cellar.

And yet, I had a sense Wielgosz was on to something early on in a scene where the Suicide Squad is supposed to bring in Man-Bat, and then the page cuts to Harley Quinn specifically sitting back from the fight as Deadshot quips that Langstrom is “just some low-rent scientist whose ambition got the best of him.” Lumping Man-Bat in with Harley is smart on Wielgosz’s part, recognizing (at least with more modern versions of Harley) that neither is “bad” per se so much as that they are scientists whose experiments got the better of them.

Thus humanized — after Man-Bat has a therapy session with Dr. Harleen Quinzell — the book moves to its best sequence, Kirk Langstrom seeking shelter at the home of his deaf sister. I don’t think I’m mistaken that the sister is Wielgosz’s invention, and she’s a good addition to Kirk’s motivations — no longer is he a scientist just randomly interested in hearing loss, but that he’s seeking to treat a family member; at the same time, we see that Kirk’s ego is such that he’s determined to “help” his sister even when she has no interest in being “fixed.”

From there, Man-Bat moves swiftly to its conclusion. That Scarecrow is portrayed here using “subliminals” instead of fear gas felt also a bit off — yes, Scarecrow could use subliminal messaging and the Mad Hatter could use mind-control gas, but neither quite feels a “fit” for the characters. However, I did think it was nicely tragic how Kirk prefers to remain in a “subliminal” dream if it means a normal life with Francine, vs. Man-Bat having to play the villain and pull them both out.



In short, Dave Wielgosz’s Man-Bat is smart enough and moves swiftly enough (five issues is just perfect) to be entertaining even if it’s not necessarily ground-breaking, and it ties directly in to Justice League Dark Vol. 1: The Last Age of Magic in the end. Sumit Kumar is fine in the Man-Bat scenes but particularly good in the non-Man-Bat scenes, depicting a haggard, on-the-run Kirk Langstrom very well, with shades of Riley Rossmo, and maybe a touch of Jim Aparo in Kirk’s half-transformations. I had just read a couple long books and I was looking for something shorter; Man-Bat fit that bill and it was a good read, too.

[Includes original and variant covers, character and cover sketches, page pencils, script]


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