Even as the filming of Batman: Dark Knight Rises unfolds in the streets of Pittsburgh, and DC Comics and their legions of tired fans gird themselves for yet another continuity re-boot, I have to remind myself that there are always folks coming to this stuff for the first time. With that in mind, here’s one longtime Bat-fan’s quick and dirty primer on what makes “essential” (YMMV*) Bat-reading.
If you ask it of them, most comic book fans worth their weight in mylar bags will tell you the most important Bat-stories are one or both of the following titles (and they’d be right):
Batman. Year One / Frank Miller, writer ; David Mazzucchelli
Batman. The Dark Knight Returns / Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley
Frank Miller wrote both of these seminal Bat-stories in the 1980s. Although Dark Knight Returns came first and helped to re-define a much grimmer and grittier Batman, Year One takes place at the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s career as the Caped Crusader, while DKR presents him at the twilight of his run, battling for meaning in a dystopian America where a crytpo-fascist government reigns, crime and violence make the streets a living hell, and the Cold War never ended. You can read these two collections in whatever order you choose, and you will find that both deliver the goods. I personally prefer Year One because the story possesses a bit more coherency, and David Mazzucchelli’s amazing artwork really complements Mr. Miller’s stark script.
Beyond this pair of looming comic giants things can get a bit fuzzy. A lot of really tremendous Batman stories have been published amidst a sea of Bat-drek, but few of them rise to the level of the preceding two stories. Let’s have a quick look at some other “high points” in the character’s long run. Here they are in no particular order:
These classic tales from the old newspapers will give you insight into the origins of Bob Kane’s Batman–the original Caped Crusader. Kane’s artistry and command of his craft make these old tales a delight to read, and they hold up remarkably well considering their age.
Batman. The Killing Joke / Alan Moore, writer ; Brian Bolland, art and colors
You simply will not find a more moving or disturbing Batman story than this one. Writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland raise the Joker to the absolute pinnacle of Batman villains in this chilling tale of how one contends with the evil of madness. Without this story, Heath Ledger’s amazing performance in The Dark Knight would not have been possible.
Batman. The Long Halloween / Jeph Loeb, writer ; Tim Sale, artist ; Gregory Wright, colors
This amazing story possesses the look and feel of Year One, and artist Tim Sale’s bruising style and simple line-work accentuate Mr. Loeb’s thirteen part tale. In it Batman and district attorney Harvey Dent try to stop the killer Holiday, who times his crimes with the various holidays that occur throughout the course of the year. The story also expertly re-envisions Harvey Dent’s tragic transformation into the villainous Two-Face.
Showcase Presents Batman And The Outsiders. Volume One / written by Mike W. Barr ; illustrated by Jim Aparo
This one might not rank that highly on a lot of Bat-fans lists, but it does on mine for a number of reasons. Before Miller’s ultra-gritty re-imagining of Batman he was largely a team player and a mainstream hero. This Showcase volume details his first break with the Justice League, and to my knowledge this is where the character first gives voice to his preference for being feared over being respected. In keeping with this he leaves the “Super Friends” and forms his own team of “Outsider” heroes. This sets the table for what Mr. Miller does three years later with his DKR. It also features amazing artwork from long-time Batman artist Jim Aparo, a man who many current artists could learn a lot from when it comes to layout and storytelling.
Gotham By Gaslight : A Tale Of The Batman / Brain Augustyn, Michael Mignola, P. Craig Russell, David Hornung ; introduction by Robert Bloch
Ever wonder how Batman might do solving the mystery of Jack the Ripper? This “Elseworlds” chronicle from Bryan Augustyn and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola pits a Victorian-era Batman against the Ripper himself! This story created an entire sub-genre of comics that placed modern characters in historical settings.
Cosmic Odyssey / Jim Starlin, writer ; Mike Mignola, penciller ; Carlos Garzon, inker
Not strictly a Batman story, but featuring the Caped Crusader as part of a truly eclectic ensemble cast, this tale manages to work in some truly gritty and scary scenes amidst its cosmic trappings. The Mike Mignola/Carlos Garzon art team shines, and Jim Starlin expertly blends Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters with DC Comics icons Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern.
Batman & Robin. Batman Reborn / written by Grant Morrison ; art by Frank Quitely, Philip Tan with Jonathan Glapion
What if Bruce Wayne “died” and an adult Dick Grayson (Robin) took over the mantle of the Caped Crusader? Quirky British scribe Grant Morrison answers the question in his own inimitably strange and zany style, and Frank Quitely’s amazing artwork highlights this six-issue collection. Again, not what you might consider classic Batman tales, but it’s Grant Morrison and it’s good. Say no more.
Two other stories I’d like to mention are currently not in print and therefore not readily available at the CLP libraries. Batman: A Death In The Family details the brutal slaying of Jason Todd, the second Robin, at the hands of the Joker. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo turn in some excellent work on this gripping tale, but its most notable attribute came from the fans. When given the opportunity to vote via telephone on whether Robin lived or died, they chose to send the second Boy Wonder to an early grave. The second tale I want to highlight is Batman: The Cult. Pairing the talents of writer Jim Starlin and noted horror artist Berni Wrightson, this chilling tale is actually available at one of the suburban libraries, so go ahead and request it–it will be worth the wait!
Of course, more awesome Batman stories exist than I have time to discuss in this post, but I would invite comments on your favorite tales. Remember, the only thing better than reading comic books is talking about comic books!