With Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy now in our rear-view mirrors, it’s safe to say that interest in the Caped Crusader’s ongoing war with the criminal element of Gotham City has never been higher. It’s a good thing that Batman is getting so much press (he deserves it after Batman and Robin nearly relegated him to pop-culture limbo), but the problem is that a majority of movie-goers and television fans think that they know everything about the Dark Knight because they’ve watched The Dark Knight, and that is simply untrue. As good as Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is, the truth is that we have yet to see a Batman movie that honestly succeeds in capturing the true feel of Gotham City’s obsessive guardian (outside of Bruce Timm’s brilliant animated universe). Throughout the decades, Batman has undergone many changes as many different writers have taken on the character, but the essential themes of loss, obsession, justice and vengeance remain constant. These ten gems, birthed from the graphic novels, are not only the single best examples of great Batman stories, but also happen to provide the source material for many moments and set pieces that were blatantly ripped off in Nolan’s films.
Note: Quite a few of these stories have been adapted into DC animated features, so if you absolutely must, you can check those out instead.
10. Year One
Frank Miller’s 1987 masterpiece, penciled by David Mazzucchelli, chronicles young Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham after years of training abroad, and his subsequent transformation into the crime-fighting vigilante of the order Chiroptera (look it up). The idea of a Batman just starting out, testing out his tools through trial and error, and making mistakes (though never the same mistake twice) gives the character some much-needed humanism. It’s awesome to see an amateur Batman that doesn’t have every single detail plotted out beforehand, relying on instincts and improvisation. Miller also makes the brilliant choice of having much of the story play out through the eyes of one Detective James Gordon, a morally compromised young cop just starting out in Gotham PD who’s about to learn exactly what it takes to be the only honest cop in a den of corruption. Many of the ideas from this story found their way into Batman Begins, including Batman summoning a cloud of bats to cover his escape, and the character of Detective Flass. It’s also worth noting that are no colorful or garish villains in this story, only ordinary criminals and the corrupt officials who have long profited from their actions. This is how Batman introduces himself to them:
9. The Long Halloween
Someone is murdering the family members of crime boss Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, but only on holidays. Who is the serial killer the papers call “Holiday”? Is it the Calendar Man? Harvey Dent? The Riddler? One of Falcone’s own men? Batman aims to find out. Jeph Loeb’s story, combined with Tim Sale’s amazing artwork come together to create an intense and altogether intriguing Batman mystery involving a serial killer, Solomon Grundy and the origin of Two Face. Loeb expertly navigates the psychology of Batman, as well as Bruce Wayne, and brilliantly shows how the two co-exist. He details the beginnings of the Batman/Harvey Dent/Commissioner Gordon partnership portrayed in The Dark Knight, as we see the three not only scheming to take down the biggest crime boss in Gotham, but also figuring out a way to do it clean. As Gordon says: “We can bend the rules, but we can’t ever break them”. All of the best Batman stories play out more like a noir detective story than a scifi superhero tale, and The Long Halloween is no exception. Loeb effortlessly intermixes the bizarre Batman rogues gallery with the more mundane, but just as deadly, mob bosses that in this point in Gotham’s history, still run organized crime.
8. The Killing Joke
As this collection is only two issues long, it’s the shortest entry on this list, but easily the most intense. From the opening panel as Batman enters Arkham Asylum to speak with the Joker, in fact to plead with him to end his insanity before one of them kills the other, he finds not only that the Joker has escaped, but he’s stepping up his game a notch. This was bearded necromancer Alan Moore’s brief foray into the world of the Dark Knight Detective, but damned if he didn’t rock the annals of the Batman mythos for years to come. This was the story that forever set up the Joker as a dangerous and unpredictable psychopath with no moral center and no inhibitions (in the years prior to the 80’s he was always more or less…well…a joke). It’s also one of the first stories to suggest that perhaps Batman is every bit as insane as the super-criminals he hunts down. Of course no review of The Killing Joke would be complete without mentioning the single most far-reaching and long lasting change to the Batman status-quo, which was the crippling of Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl.
It was a moment that rocked the DC universe. This wasn’t an Elseworlds story or an imaginary tale. The actual Batgirl was actually shot in the stomach and confined to a wheelchair as a paraplegic for years. Brutal.
7. A Death in the Family
We gotta be frank here. There’s no way around it. Jason Todd was a toolbag. Knowing that the character, with his anger management issues, smart lip and just overall douche-baggery was widely loathed by the fandom, Batman editor Denny O’Neil sought out a way to remove the character from the books, but wondered if killing him might be viewed as a tad harsh. So comic book fans were given an unheard-of level of editorial control. Ads were run in all DC comics in the months leading up to this story, giving the fans the choice to call one of two 900 numbers to vote for the new Robin to live or die. The gimmick, however, is not the only reason we included this story. Writer Jim Starlin took the opportunity to take Batman global, which was rare in those days, and put him square in the middle of politics and foreign relations with the Middle East. The Joker not only kills Robin, but ultimately gets away with it due to his finagling a position as a UN ambassador for Ayatollah Khomeini himself. Batman’s staunch defense of justice and the law is stretched to the breaking point as the Joker flaunts his diplomatic immunity in front of the Dark Knight, and it takes no less than Superman to stop Bruce from killing him. As much as you hated Jason, you couldn’t help but feel the loss.
I just want to take a moment here to shake my fist once again at the cinematic fiasco that was Batman and Robin, because even with Arnold and Uma chewing the scenery for all they were worth, even with the cringe-worthy dialogue, even with Chris O’Donnel’s extreme whinyness, yes even with the bat-nipples, the whole debacle could have been serviceable if they hadn’t gone and ruined one of the greatest, scariest and most bad-ass Batman villains of all time. I’m referring of course, to Bane. This is a guy who was *born* in a South American prison, was given super-steroids, figured out Bruce Wayne was Batman, blew a hole in Arkham Asylum, waited a few weeks, and then when he was at his weakest, WAS WAITING FOR HIM IN THE FREAKING BATCAVE!
This was the story that shook things up in Gotham for years to come, as Bruce chose a new Batman in the person of costumed vigilante/murderous psychopath Azrael, who promptly went off the deep end while Bruce was out getting his stuff together. I included this whole arc, which went on for well over a year, because it perfectly encapsulates the essence of Batman as a symbol. At his core, Bruce Wayne is a human being, and ultimately can be hurt, killed or paralyzed, even if it’s only for a little while. The mantle of Batman, however, is immortal and indomitable, and will always go on fighting.
5. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Of all the characters occupying the dark corners of Batman’s turf within the DC universe, one stands ever in the background, as present as any super-villain or costumed crime-fighter. I’m referring of course to Arkham Asylum. The sanitarium with the revolving doors and most colorful inmates this side of Briarcliff has a personality all it’s own. Written by the legendary Grant Morrison, this story paints a grim and rich mythology for the asylum as interesting as Batman’s own. The story is recognizable enough to anyone who has played the best selling video game. With the Joker at the head of the pack, the inmates of Arkham have taken over and Batman is trapped inside with them, and after a while starts to feel their insanity creeping in at the corners of his cowl. This story is told alongside the story of the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham, who ended up becoming a patient in his own facility. The artwork by surreal artist Dave Mckean (who would go on to direct Mirrormask), and the distinctive lettering by Gaspar Saladino give the story a creepy, hallucinogenic feel.
There are many examples of Gothic literature in which the reader can find themselves immersed in tales of the supernatural and macabre. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey or Johann Wolfgang von Goeth’s interpretation of the German legend of Faustus are some examples that spring readily to mind; stories of monsters and ghouls and demonic pacts. Batman was an innovation in storytelling; the first Gothic *protagonist* of modern myth – a superhero who adapts a creature of the night as his motif. Gothic, our second entry on this list by Grant Morrison takes the regular Batman detective story and adds some truly disturbing otherworldly terrors. The story finds the Dark Knight investigating a string of murders of Gotham crime bosses, which in turn leads to a decades-old mystery of a Gotham serial killer, and then to a centuries-old legend of a German monastery with a tragic history. The deeper Batman goes, the more unsettling the case becomes, and when it starts to tie in to Bruce Wayne’s past, it looks as though Batman may be dealing with forces he doesn’t quite fathom. Klaus Jansen’s pencils really evoke the darkness of the story. His backgrounds are also astonishing. The Batcave is fully realized, and we see Gotham City as it should be, all sharp angles and dark alleyways. It’s not all somber and spooky however. Alfred’s dry wit is as keen as ever, and there’s even a throwback to the 60’s Batman TV show, as the caped crusader is caught by the antagonist and left in a Rube Goldberg-esque deathtrap. One can almost hear the announcer saying “same bat-time, same bat-channel”.
In the world of comics, any changes made to the status-quo of a long-established character is likely to evoke anguished cries of impotent geek-rage from every corner of the fanboyosphere. Thus, the guts it took for Jeph Loeb to take the Batman continuity and basically level it in order to tell this year-long story arc is nothing short of super-heroic in and of itself (The fact that most of these changes were undone in later issues by other writers only takes away from it a little bit). Add to that the pencils by the legendary Jim Lee and you have a graphic novel that’s not only fun to look at, but never fails to evoke a response at where DC was willing to go. After years of stagnation we witnessed Batman and Catwoman hooking up, Jason Todd’s grave suddenly empty, an old friend of Batman’s betraying him, one long-time villain reformed, another discovering Batman’s true identity, and a brand new villain introduced. All of Batman’s enemies are coming at him in new ways, atypical of their usual MO’s, and someone else seems to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes; someone who undoubtedly knows his most guarded secrets. Loeb makes some risky moves in the course of his run, not the least of which was opening the door for the #2 story on our list.
2. Under the Hood
An unknown figure, using the often utilized identity of “The Red Hood”, (most famously used by The Joker prior to his ‘service with a smile’ makeover) is violently taking over the organized crime in Gotham. Current reigning underworld boss Black Mask is less than thrilled about this newcomer, and Batman himself has a few words he’d like to share with the interloper. The only problem is that this new kid not only seems to know every trick in Batman’s arsenal, but also seems to know way too much about a certain millionaire playboy’s nocturnal activities, and *man* does he have a mad-on for Joker. Judd Winick’s follow-up to (and slight retcon of) the events in Hush lead to one of the most dramatic and emotionally resonant Batman stories in recent memory. What could have been a cheap and groan-worthy publicity stunt instead became a highly entertaining reflection on the relevance of Batman’s methods in his ongoing crusade in these modern times. In Under the Hood Batman is forced to answer some very hard questions when he’s confronted not only with his own past failures, but also seeing the effectiveness of a vigilante who seeks to control and minimize crime from the inside instead of ostensibly waging a never-ending war from without. Would Batman be more effective if he allowed himself to deal out a more lethal form of justice? Is that justice? And how many lives could Batman have spared if he’d killed the Joker years ago? The answers that Winick comes up with are intelligent and thought-provoking, and provide some really compelling moments.
1. The Dark Knight Returns
As Frank Miller wrote the definitive story of Batman’s debut, it’s only fitting that he should also write the definitive story of Batman’s last case. (Neil Gaimans’s incredible Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? comes in a close second). Written and drawn by Miller, DKR tells the story of a Batman aged to around 60 years, coming out of forced retirement to fight criminals in an actively hostile dystopian future which has outlawed superheroes, and especially doesn’t want him relapsing to his old ways. When faced with violent gangs that seemingly have given up on being human, a government that is looking to lock him up (even if they have to let a certain Kryptonian off the chain), and a new age pop psychiatrist clamoring for the release of a supposedly reformed Joker, what does an ordinary man who once walked with gods and triumphed over demons do? This is the book that reestablished Batman as the Dark Knight, shaking him free of the camp and self-satire he’d been awash in since the sixties, and allowing him to reemerge as the grim and tragic figure that we know him as. This was the story that Tim Burton looked to when making the 1988 Batman movie that nearly dominated the world. If any of you out there wonder why almost every comic book fan you talk to insists that Batman can defeat any other foe, I refer you to this book.
Now that I’ve made you aware of the essential, must-read Batman stories in order for you to truly call yourself a Batfan, I should be fair and warn you off of a few stinkers floating around out there. These books not only fail to grasp the concept of Batman as a character, but in turn completely undermine the character with unrealistic motivations, trite, unbelievable plotlines and no small amount of self parody. Here they are in descending order from “forgivable” to “absolute mess”.
3. The Dark Knight Strikes Again
While Frank Miller undoubtedly has written two of the best Batman stories ever, it’s kind of ironic, yet contains a weird kind of symmetry, that he should also be responsible for two of the worst Batman stories of all time. The first, a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns is the kind of story that makes you wonder why Miller didn’t scrap it five pages in and start on a new story that actually makes any freaking sense. It’s hard to know where to start with all the things that went wrong in this book. We know what Miller was trying to accomplish, throwing in a slew of DC heroes in an attempt to recreate the out-there kitsch of the Silver Age, but he fails on just about every level. (Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold attempted this to much better effect). The story flits from character to character so often that Batman finds himself relegated to the background. Carrie Kelly, who was a great addition as Robin in DKR is now a fetishized Catwoman wannabe on rollerblades. Miller’s fixation with satirizing media-obsessed culture, brilliant in the original book, comes off here feeling like an old man complaining that young people don’t write letters anymore. Miller’s pencils are sloppy and unappealing and Lynn Varley’s digital colors are as reminiscent of a bad acid trip as Photoshop Elements is likely to get. Just go watch Brave and the Bold and spare yourself the twenty bucks.
2. All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder
After the dreadful misstep that was the previous entry, We were skeptical about trusting Miller with another Batman vehicle, even though he had two admittedly amazing Batman stories under his belt. When Jim Lee came aboard as artist, though, everything seemed to be clicking into place. This was going to be epic. Then we actually read the book and got subjected to this:
That’s Bruce Wayne, the “G@dd@mn Batman” shortly after he hospitalized a team of cops and abducted a small boy whose parents were just murdered. When he gets him home he’s gonna leave him in a dark wet cave to feed off the rats. No, really. Later the kid becomes Robin, because…stockholm syndrome I guess, and the two of them paint themselves and a whole room yellow to fight Green Lantern.
Points to Jim Lee at least for his near herculean attempt to make this nonsense at least visually appealing.
1. Batman: The Widening Gyre
Kevin Smith has been losing points with me for years now. Yes, I loved Clerks. Hell I even liked Jersey Girl. But through the years, Smith’s unwillingness to put any sort of effort into evolving as a visual director coupled with his near-constant whining about people criticizing him, and his incessant need to pass off toilet humor as something ironically sophisticated has started to get under my skin. Around the time he started bragging about all the copious amounts of weed he was smoking and how it’s like totally inspiring him to do his “best work”, he also took on this little writing job for DC. Let’s play a little game. I’ll list a number of plot points and you see if you can guess which ones I made up and which ones are the result of Kevin Smith’s “genius”:
- Poison Ivy uses her powers to synthesize a cannibus plant to get Batman high.
- Batman gets a girlfriend named Silver St. Cloud who he spends all day every day with on a tropical island before flying back to Gotham every night to fight crime.
- Said GF calls Batman DD, because the first time they “did the deed” they hit double digits. (Ask your parents if you don’t know.)
- Batman becomes BFFs with a crime fighter called Baphomet who’s totally awesome and Batman invites him back to the batcave and unmasks in front of him despite him mentioning a few panels back that he totes wants to murder super villains.
- Batman recounts the story from the above panel of Year One to aforementioned new BFF, and admits that in that pivotal, iconic moment, he peed himself.
- Batman takes his new GF to the Fortress of Solitude and gives her an alien flower.
- Batman, out of nowhere, nearly smacks his new GF around because he thinks she’s a robot.
- New GF gets her throat slit by new BFF because Batman is an idiot.
Can you guess which one I made up? Yeah, none of them. All of this actually happens in an actual Batman comic, not a fanfic. It’s like a disturbed thirteen year old wrote out his sexual fantasies, left them in the DC offices and somebody picked them up and thought they’d make for a great Batman story. Smith does no one any favors by getting his friend Walt Flannagan to do pencils. Flannagan has done well in the indie market, but his work is not up to Batman standards and his graphic violence and penchant for drawing supervillainesses in sexually suggestive poses only makes the end result feel creepy. This book is an example of everything that’s wrong with comics and comic fans nowadays. Avoid like the plague.