My friend mentioned one day that he liked Batman, but aside from the The Dark Knight trilogy of movies, he knew very little about the character. I assured him that those movies, by Christopher Nolan, provided enough background story and character development to fully enjoy the myth that is Batman. I was surprised by his question given the fact that the character has been around for quite a few years. He mentioned he would like to research and read more about the character. He asked for help and I explained the best way is to go directly to the source: the comics themselves. He liked the idea, but, like many people, he did not have the time to read every comic out there. I thought about it. In the process, I developed a list, and turned him loose.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of Batman I am providing that list here for all the fans who, like my friend, want to know more about the Dark Knight. After reading these titles, I hope one can understand how Batman has remained popular for so many years.
Batman: Year One
This story written by Frank Miller is considered by many to be the definitive origin story. It is told from the perspective of James Gordon. It follows a young Gordon early in his career as a cop. Having recently moved from Chicago to Gotham, he is trying his best to stay above the corruption that has infested the city. A parallel story is told of Bruce Wayne dealing with the tragic death of his parents and the eventual rise of the Dark Knight to help James Gordon fight the corruption. The visual style is simple and gritty, while the color palette is muted and stays within the darker spectrum.
If time is short, there exists an animated movie of this story. It is faithfully adapted to the point where it is like the graphic novel sprung to life.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
This is the sequel to Year One in some respects. Written by Frank Miller and illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson, it sees Batman as an older, but tougher Dark Knight. Yes, his hair is white and the crow’s feet are deeply etched, but this Batman is far from decrepit. He kicks butt and does not bother to take names.
The story takes place in the future where a gang of mutants have taken over the streets of Gotham. Ten years prior, Bruce Wayne had hung up the cape and cowl. He may have retired from active crime-fighting, but he still keeps an eye on his city. It is only when Harvey Dent, thought cured of his condition, regresses that Bruce is convinced that Batman is needed. Breaking the anti-superhero law, Batman emerges from the cave to face the likes of the Joker, the Mutants, and even the Man of Steel. This is an awesome story that transformed comics in general and Batman in particular from the silly, outrageous plots of the sixties to the modern era of the dark, gritty tales. It is the quintessential Batman story.
Like Year One, the art is simple and beautiful. The color palette is muted and dark.
Its legacy can still be seen in the animated movie of the same name. It was one of the inspirations for The Dark Knight series of movies and the Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie. There was even an episode on the Batman: The Animated Series which took inspiration from the Graphic Novel. Time Magazine named it one of the ten best English language graphic novels ever written.
Who is Hush? Batman is on the case to find out the identity of this person who knows so much about him. Is he friend or foe? Why is he trying to sabotage the Batman? Why are all of his foes acting out of character? This mystery must be solved quickly. In addition to the big mystery, this story provides a look into Bruce Wayne’s childhood and even a rare look at Thomas Wayne’s past.
It is not an overly long story comprising nine chapters. It features some of Batman’s more famous rogues weaved seamlessly into the plot. The art is very strong and heroic. It harks back to the Dick Tracey style comics with the sharp angular lines and colored with glorious fervor.
The Killing Joke
By: Alan Moore
Art by: Brian Bolland
This graphic novel was a game changer as far as the Batman universe goes. Once again the Batman faces off against The Joker and it has devastating consequences. This story is unique in that it is one of the first to examine the relationship between the foes. It brings in a bit of the philosophical nature as these two are locked in an eternal struggle. It also brings forth The Joker’s more sadistic side. The Joker targets the Gordons with malice and Batman must race against the clock to stop him. He must try to track down his jovial foe before any more damage is inflicted. While both James and Barbara will be mentally scared from this incident, only one will walk away. This story changed the lives of the Batman family in a dramatic way. It has had a lasting impact in the continuity of the story up to and into the New 52. References have been made to this story in recent video games and in other DC Comics titles. Because of the controversial events of this book one character was forever changed.
A Death in the Family
In this story, Batman had to deal with another huge loss as a tragedy hits very close to home. Once more The Joker is involved and executes the heinous act. Though, it has been argued that the fans were cruelest of all.
It was a crucial story that made history. This was the first time that the readers had killed off a major character. The art was complex compared to that of Year One. The story flowed well as it progressed to that dramatic moment. Even in the aftermath, a powerful picture was painted as a bloodied Batman knelt on the ground holding a battered and broken body. A highly recommended story for any one remotely interested in Batman. The impact of the event can still be seen throughout the Batman realm through dialogue, or visual references in the panels of the comics and thus in the animated motion pictures.
Batman: The Long Halloween
This was originally presented as a thirteen part maxi-series. It started on Halloween and concluded on the following Halloween. Each chapter featured a crime for that particular month with the theme of that particular holiday. This takes place in Batman’s earlier years and features many of his adversaries. The best thing about this story is it focuses more on the mobs of Gotham and the war between the two biggest families. Someone is killing off the members of these families and Batman does not like the idea of a gang war breaking out in the streets of his city. The only pattern seems to be, the killer strikes on holidays. Who is this killer dubbed Holiday? What is the motive? Drawn in a near black and white style with simple lines it conjures up memories of the old noir detective movies from the forties and fifties. It is a long story that reads quickly and will keep one guessing to the very last page. This is another story from which Christopher Nolan took inspiration for the Dark Knight Series.
Batman & Son
This story is part of the New 52 where DC Comics reset the comics universe. This story begins when Talia shows up in Gotham and tells Batman someone is after her and her son. She pleads for asylum, not for herself but for their son. She asks Batman to protect and teach him. Batman must find out what has Talia spooked and why are they are after their son. It is a bitter-sweet story about a father-son relationship that is reminiscent of the one Tim Drake has with Bruce Wayne. The art is good with great detail embedded in each panel. The story is strong and moderately paced. While the length of the story is on the shorter side, it is a good sampling of the new Batman universe.
Batman: Birth of the Demon
By: Dennis O’Neal
Art by: Norm Breyfogle
This is the third title in the demon trilogy. The story focuses less on the Dark Knight. Instead, the story revolves around Batman’s adversary, Ra’s al Ghul. Providing background on the mysterious character, one sees the events that have shaped the young, aspiring doctor into the ruthless man of today. It shows how he went from poverty to acquiring the power he commands presently. It is a wonderful peek into the life of such a complex character that has had a rich life.
The writing is tighter providing a more fluid story while the art is very detailed. The colors are brighter than most Batman stories making the panels seem to have a depth of vision very few comics achieve.
Dark Knight/ Dark City
This is a tale about The Riddler bringing in a darker aspect to the character. This story updates the character from the old, playful, non-threatening version of the past to a more sinister and dangerous one. His clues are more intricate. His traps are more lethal. His goal is to kill Batman. Why? And for what purpose? This is a shorter story consisting of 60 pages, but they are exciting pages as the Dark Knight dances through the illusory maze constructed by the Riddler.
The colors are somber and the art is soft where the characters fade into the ever-present darkness that hugs the city.
Batman: Dark Victory
Somebody is continuing the Holiday murders killing more of the mobsters of Gotham. Batman thought the case was closed. Apparently, he was wrong and he hates to be wrong. The sequel to The Long Halloween continues the story with more misdirections and introduces new characters. The chief among them is a young Dick Grayson who will go on to become Robin. His origin is told here in a way tied neatly to the events of the plot, but keeps the basic elements of his original origin story. This story is presented by the same team as The Long Halloween, delivering the same visuals and plot pacing. And like the The Long Halloween, it was deployed as a thirteen part maxi-series beginning in October. It is an exciting conclusion to a very long Halloween.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
What happens to the most dangerous and unstable criminals that Batman faces? They are sent to Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Take a walk down the dark halls of this psychiatric hospital that is the home of such personalities as The Joker, Two Face, The Scarecrow, and The Mad Hatter.
On April Fool’s Day, the madhouse becomes madder as the inmates have taken over. They are lead by none other than that colorful and charming personality, The Joker. There is only one person crazy enough to break into the asylum and skilled enough restore order to that chaotic corner of Gotham City. Batman takes the job in his usual grim manner. Though it is a Batman title, the story focuses more on the Joker and the history of the asylum and its creator; Amadeus Arkham. This book shines a fading light into the dark corner that houses one of the two inanimate characters central to the Batman universe: the asylum itself. I say this because, much like Gotham City itself, the place has romantically taken on a vestigial personality.
The art has a unique style. It is darkly disagreeable and done in a blurred, water-color style. It adds a haunting madness to the somber story told within those pages. It knocks the reader off-kilter in the beginning and keeps the reader wondering if they might truly belong in there as well.
Batman: Son of the Demon
It is one of the classic stories featuring Ra’s al Ghul (the demons head). Ra’s is looking for an heir to his empire and he finds it in the Batman. First, Batman must be tested. He enlists the Batman on this quest to test Batman’s strength, character, and will. His daughter, Talia, volunteers to help, and soon the two are off on a global manhunt. Batman and Talia have always had an on again and off again, relationship, but here they become closer than they have ever been before. After a night of steamy romance, she tells him that she is expecting his child. Batman changes, but how? What happens next is an exciting yarn similar to the wildest James Bond tales filled with adventure, romance, and world domination.
Batman/ Scarface: A Psychodrama
This is another graphic novel about one of Batman’s rogues. This is story of the ruthless mobster known as Scarface. He commands respect and is feared by many. He is, also, a wooden puppet with a gash across his nose and down one of his checks. The Ventriloquist is the man holding the puppet, but is he really in control? This book examines the origin of the Scarface puppet in a brief flashback. Then, the real drama begins. The Ventriloquist is separated from the dummy known as Scarface. As he deals with the trauma of separation, he begins to go through a healing process. It is a brief and intriguing look into Multiple Personality Syndrome Disorder and its effect on a fragile mind within the dark and sleazy city known as Gotham.
The writing is intriguing and the art is well-done, though nothing too complex. It incorporates a bit of the animated series style of Art Deco, especially with the design of the characters.
This is another long, but rewarding story. It is a collaboration of all of the writers and artists at the time. It begins when all the inmates of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane are busted out. As these dangerous personalities run wild in the streets of Gotham, Batman watches on with concern. As he sets out to round them up as quickly as possible, he discovers that this was, but a first step in a larger plan. The longer he plays this game, the closer he gets to the answer. The answer being, the discovery of the devious mind who executed this twisted game. What will be the price Batman must pay to find out? This story was rolled out over a summer and spanned several titles. It has been reprinted and collected in three large graphic novels: Knightfall volume 1, Knightfall volume 2, and KnightsEnd. It introduced two new characters that would change the landscape of the Batman universe for a little while. It spotlighted a recently created villain that would usher in a major event that changed the Batman.
This is the origin story of Harley Quinn. One of the most recent rogues added to Batman’s continually growing gallery. She was created for the Emmy winning animated series of the 1990’s as a throw away character, but she became popular enough to transcend the series. She was moved into the monthly books and became a regular character. Paul Dini, one of her creators, has said in an interview that he believed that not since the late 60s or early 70s has there been a character with this type of appeal.
This story tells the tale of true love twisted in such a way as to fit perfectly into the dark realms of Batman’s world. It follows the events of a young girl finding the man of her dreams in the ever-grinning psychopath that is The Joker. One could ask; who would be loony enough to date a psychotic personality such as him? Isn’t it obvious? She risks everything to be with him, and together they form a perfectly dangerous pair of criminals.
The art is done in the Art Deco style of Batman: The Animated Series, replicating it perfectly. It is like an episode was captured and frozen on a page. The writing is lighter in tone and has a childish veil over a darker theme.
Batman: Through the Looking Glass
This graphic novel tells the story of Batman’s first encounter with the Mad Hatter. Like most of his villains, he is a couple fries short of a Happy Meal. His world revolves around the Wonderland stories by Lewis Carroll.
Batman believes he sees a white rabbit. It is not an ordinary one. This one talks and is late for an appointment. Batman follows him and is thrust into a world where nothing is quite what it seems. It is a strange tale of a nightmare gone awry. But as Batman continues to plunge deeper into this weird world, he meets a young girl who takes him on a journey. Along the way, he sees clues to other cases that have perplexed him. Do these cases all fit together, and how? If not, then why are they presenting themselves now? And who is Alice? The answers will surprise the Dark Knight as he journeys through this twisted land.
The story is a murder mystery blending the elements of the wonderland fantasy.
Illustrated in a slight, Salvador Dali style, it conveys the events as if one was peering through a warped looking glass.
These are some of the best of the Batman stories written through the years. There are many other stories that have been published throughout the 75 years the character has existed. These will not be the last as Batman continues his roll as the Dark Knight in the unceasing war on crime. In that span of time, his legend has grown. As time rolls on, this personal crusade will have him confront new challenges and new enemies. He will meet new allies to help in the battle to clean up the streets of Gotham and beyond. Here’s hoping there will be another 75 years.