There are few superheroes that have as lasting an impact as the Dark Knight himself, Batman.
Since his inception in 1939, Batman’s story has been shaped and reshaped by the artists that have given words to his actions or drawn the iconic images that have left a lasting impression on generations of comic book readers.
The story may change but the details often remain the same; an orphaned son of a billionaire hones his mind and body into the ultimate weapon against the criminal underclass. Adopting the symbol of his primal fear, he lurks in the shadows, avenging the murder of his parents by striking fear into the heart of the criminal underworld.
Though that tale may have passed into American folklore; transcending the medium that gave birth to him to appear in TV series, movies and video games – it’s the comics where Batman is at his best. Be it small scale noir-filled crime tales or epic superhero showdowns, Batman always seems to be a cusp of every change in the industry, thanks to the ever-growing roster of writers and artists that have come and gone throughout his history.
Now sit back, pull up a Bat-chair as we list our 12 favorite Batman stories:
1. Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker & Doug Mahnke
Who is Batman without his arch-nemesis? While The Killing Joke showed us the origins of The Joker, Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs gives us a fair representation of what it’s like to deal with that level of psychosis on an issue-by-issue basis.
Much like Batman: Year One, this retelling of 1940’s Batman #1 (the title refers to the Victor Hugo novel which was turned into a silent Universal horror film with a lead character that would go on to serve as the visual reference for the clown prince of crime) is perhaps the only Joker story to suggest that The Joker had to hone his craft; arguing that his insanity is nothing more than disciplined chaos – there is a method to his madness.
2. Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin & Jim Aparo
It’s ending might have been spoiled and its storytelling a little old fashioned, but A Death in the Family still retains its power to shock.
Telling the tragic story of the death of Jason Todd, the second and probably least favourite of all the Robins, who, regardless of his irritating and grating character (who wants to be told how much it sucks to be Robin while reading a Robin comic?), totally did not deserve his fate at the hands of The Joker. The brutal, inelegant death of Jason Todd was made all the crueler by the fact it was decided by a telephone vote where readers gave a ‘thumbs down’ to Todd and sentenced him to death in their thousands.
However, that image of Batman cradling the bloody, broken body of Todd still gives me goosebumps now.
3. Batman: Gothic by Grant Morrison & Klaus Janson
Schools out for Bruce Wayne and Batman as a series of grisly murders in the early days of the Dark Knights career point to a time in master Wayne’s life before his parents were brutally murdered.
A detective story, a horror story, and a psychological thriller all rolled into one (along with several high-minded references including Doctor Faustus, Don Giovanni, and Fritz Lang’s M), Gothic teams up comic superstar Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson to present another look into the fractured psyche of Gotham’s greatest heroes and villains – it’s another perfect Morrison head trip.
4. Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb & Jim Lee
Jeph Loeb had by this point already proved to be a master of the long story resolution and much like the peerless The Long Halloween, Hush is another example of a superb writer using the Dark Knight’s Rogue’s Gallery to tell a somewhat controversial tale of a mysterious new villain attempting to dismantle Batman’s life one villain at a time.
While the ending doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the preceding issues, Hush’s stunning artwork by Jim Lee and the well-rounded relationship between Batman and Catwoman (something the current run of Batman has been exploring with similar success) are reason enough to have his one in your Batman library.
5. Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale
One of a number of influential Batman stories to take on a life of it’s own beyond the comic books (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight borrows heavily from it), The Long Halloween is a textbook Batman story, containing all the ingredients you would now expect: a mysterious killer, appearances by notable villains, striking visuals, and an imperfect ending to the case.
If nothing else the story reinforces just how much of Gotham was up for grabs during the early years of Batman’s career – and just how close to the edge he would go to wrest control away from the ever-changing power struggle between his foes.
6. Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland
The most influential of Batman’s adventures, time hasn’t been kind to The Killing Joke (some of its controversial story elements have rightly been called out for the kind of lazy agency we need to address when writing rounded female characters – and that questionable practice of using horrifying means to set them up as props in a wider, male-driven story) but this outlier tale of The Joker’s origins and his challenging rivalry with Batman, where each character pushes the other, is the benchmark from which we judge all Joker/Batman stories that came after it.
As The Joker sets out to prove that anyone is literally one bad day away from madness, Moore and Bolland tell not only the best tale of Batman/The Joker’s eternal struggle but also the universal tale of good versus evil – Good guys will always push back against evil-doers but evildoers will always take good guys to the edge.
All it takes is one push…
7. Batman: Year One by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli
What would drive someone to dress up as a bat and fight crime? Perhaps the more pressing question would be: Who would stand beside such a man?
In Batman: Year One, Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordan arrive in Gotham at the same time and, over the course of a year, both learn the true nature of corruption, make plenty of mistakes, ruffle a few feathers in both the law enforcement and criminal underworld and forge a union that will last their entire careers.
That unlikely friendship is not only the spine of this remarkable tale but also, Batman’s entire history and it’s something of an achievement that, come to the end of this year, where both men are bloodied and bruised by their pummelling encounters with corruption, you want them to win their unwinnable fight to turn the dark heart of Gotham towards the light.
8. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
AKA Batman V Superman: Dawn of the Movie. Yes, Zack Snyder borrowed heavily from Frank Miller’s groundbreaking, gritty take on the Dark Knight as an obsessive, near-sociopathic crime fighter, but nothing that movie did or the army of imitators that borrowed its posture and swagger for years to come, could ever rob this story of its power.
Miller’s gift as a storyteller is to overload pages with detailed, info-heavy panels – be they social commentary or inner monologue – without ever straining the pace, building towards a surprisingly optimistic climax for a book hewn from the darkest of materials.
If nothing else, the story answers the eternal nerd question: Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? …and it leaves the mothers out it too.
9. Batman: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
The most essential story of the failed ‘New 52’ DC Comics rebrand, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo Court of Owls was the first arc of their award-winning run on Batman and it’s as entertaining today as it was when it was released.
Providing twists, turns, and conspiracy theory fun for even the most well-versed of Bat-fans, the story of an underground society behind all of Gotham’s power structures does something new with one of the core traits of Batman’s character; it shows that maybe he doesn’t know everything about the city he has sworn to protect.
10. Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder, Jock & Francesco Francavilla
Two separate tales told by two distinct artists, The Black Mirror unites both into one of the most captivating – and potentially polarising – modern Batman tales.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to get over for new readers is that it isn’t Bruce Wayne behind the cowl but Dick Grayson – with Bruce Wayne believed to be dead. It makes for a testy beginning for the new Batman and his closest ally, Commissioner Gordon, but, much like Year One, the pair soon form a fast bond.
It’s a union that will be severely tested when James Gordon Jr., the Commissioner’s psychotic murderer of a son who committed several atrocities including one that may prove too controversial to Bat-fans.
Much like The Court of Owls, Snyder makes Gotham the central character – in this case, the way the city bends to the personality traits of its heroes to break them ways unique to their character.
11. Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope
Imagine everything you think you know about Batman and then strip most of that way and replace it with a dystopian future where Gotham is under control by a tyrannical government using fear to suppress the population of this crumbling nightmare.
If you love Paul Pope, you’ll love Batman: Year 100 – bringing in his seedier, indie sensibility from 100% and adding to the idolized version of what Batman means to the citizens of Gotham – it’s a fun, often uncompromising ride and a tribute to the Dark Knight all at the same time. It’s tethered too and respects the Bat-mythos while providing something new and dark to that canon.
12. Batman: Ego by Darwyn Cooke
Stripping Bruce Wayne down to his essence, Ego by the late, great Darwyn Cooke, sees Batman confront his alter ego after he’s injured while witnessing a small-time hood kill himself rather than face the law or The Joker.
Facing himself, Batman isn’t the figure of virtue we expect but a broken creature, desperate to take control of Wayne and fight crime with lethal force. Few writers have managed to break down the core components of both Bruce Wayne and Batman with such precision as Cooke; presenting Batman’s id, ego, and superego in a way that never feels heavy-handed or forced.
If you really want to get under the skin of Batman, look no further than the excellent Ego.