This July marks the 75th anniversary of Batman. ‘Batman Day’ will be celebrated by DC Comics and Warner Brothers Studios on July 23rd with a re-release of the original Detective Comics issue that featured the first ever story of Batman in 1939. These celebrations will mostly take place in comic book stores, with libraries following suit on Saturday (July 26th). This year is also full of new merchandise, special edition, and other re-releases of all things Batman, including a 75th anniversary comic collection, an HD remastered re-release of the full live action television series, among others.
I’ve always liked Batman. While many of the other superheroes had special abilities from being aliens, mutants, magic, or radioactive spider bites (among others), Batman is closer to a well-trained spy with cool Q-esque techno gadgets. To me, this made him 100% more badass – he worked really hard to stay at the top of his game. Someone like Superman, on the other hand, was just born awesome. The dark side of Batman also always appealed to me – he wasn’t the goody two-shoes that many others were, exploring the grey areas of being a superhero.
While I am a Batman fan, I’ve not read nearly enough of the original material to do a celebration of his 75 years justice. As such, I’ve turned to a friend for help. James Freeman is one of the biggest Batman fans you’ll find and he has graciously shared some of his favourite, must-read comic story lines for us. You can follow James online at Tumblr and Twitter.
A Death In The Family by Jim Stalin – 1988
A Death in the Family is crazy important to not only Batman but comics in general. The basis of the plot is that the second Robin, Jason Todd, goes searching for his biological mother in the Middle East. Bruce finds out Jason’s done a runner and catches up with him in Lebanon, which just so happens to be where the Joker is selling missiles to terrorist. Long story short, B&R find the joker in a warehouse where the Joker proceeds to beat Robin half to death with a crowbar, then blows up the building with Robin still in it.
The story is so important, as DC knew that Jason Todd was a really unlikable character and wanted rid of him. In the penultimate issue of the story arc, they printed a 0900 number for readers to call and vote whether he lived or died. This was a time when comic book characters stayed dead, not the six month sabbatical that counts as a death these days, so it was a really big decision by the fans. It also gives you a good look at Bruce Wayne dealing with Jason’s death and his failure to save him.
Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison – 1989
The idea behind Arkham Asylum is pretty cliché: the loonies have taken over the asylum, holding hostages, while Batman has an hour to save the day or they all die. The difference with the story is that it takes the gauntlet format and looks at it from a psychological standpoint rather than physical endurance. It examines the villains mental state, when Batman is confronted by Two Face he has had his two headed coin switched by Arkham’s therapist to a six sided dice. This takes away his good/bad, yes/no decision making process and renders him pretty much useless. The USP though has to be Dave McKean’s art, that shit is fucking haunting.
Batman and Robin by Grant Morrison – 2009
Batman and Robin takes place after Grant Morrison has killed off Bruce Wayne (six month sabbatical not Jason Todd dead) and follows Dick Grayson as he takes over the mantel of Batman with Bruce’s son Damien becoming Robin. It’s a more light hearted read than some of the other Batman story arcs (there’s a conversation between a nameless cop and Jim Gordon where they discuss if Batman used to be taller) and you can tell the reigns have been relaxed a little as Morrison is given the opportunity to create some rogues of his own. It takes a fresh look at Batman and you don’t have to read the years of work Morrison has put out to be able to enjoy it.
The Cult by Jim Starlin – 1988
Looking at my list it appears there may be a theme with some of my choices, I apparently like to see Batman go through some fucked up shit. In The Cult, Batman has been captured by a chap named Deacon Blackfire and his cult. They proceed to break Batman both physically and mentally. Throughout the story you get to see him have a full on breakdown and the second Robin, Jason Todd, has to help him get his shit together. The Cult is one of the few comics where Batman genuinely has to fight for his own survival, no hostages, no bombs in Gotham, just Batman having to save his own ass. (Also, the underground cult has been credited as inspiration for Bane’s underground army in The Dark Knight Rises)
Gothic by Grant Morrison – 1990
Grant Morrison again… I might be giving this guy too much credit. Anyways, Mob Boss’s are getting knocked off left and right in Gotham and they go to Batman for help. Curiosity gets the better of him and he starts to investigate the disappearances. It’s a story with roots in Bruce Wayne’s childhood, the main villain goes by the name Mr. Whisper. He was a teacher at Bruce’s boarding school and after killing one of Batman’s classmates he had also planned to kill a young Bruce prior to his parents deaths.
Hush by Jeph Loeb – 2002
Hush is a really good place to start for a comic novice. It features almost all the key villains and a lot of allies too, some more well known than others. You also get to see Batman knock the shit out of Superman with the aid of the kryptonite ring he keeps in his utility belt (no doubt he keeps it next to the shark repellent).
The story isn’t the best ever written, credit has to go to Jim Lee’s absolutely fantastic art for keeping they story going during the one or two lulls. (Honestly, the art alone makes this worth the read.) The story goes like this: Killer Crock has a kid hostage, and while Batman is busy saving him, Catwoman fucks off with the ransom money. Batman follows her but his Batrope (Bat grappling hook?) snaps and he falls hard enough to crack his skull. Alfred gets another of Bruce’s old school chums, Thomas Elliot, to fix him up, leaving Batman to continue doing what he does best. Shortly after, a new villain named Hush turns up and claims to know Batman’s secret identity. Batman fights his way through his rogue gallery to track down Hush, who surprise, surprise, turns out to be Thomas Elliot (who we get introduced to at the start of the story arc). It doesn’t end here though, it turns out Hush is Vader to Riddler’s Palpatine and Batman has to do a little more ass kicking. Also, Krypto the Superdog turns up in the last few pages.
JLA: Towers Of Babel by Mark Waid – 2000
I’ve tried to keep it purely to Batman books rather than delving in to all the Crisis story lines, Justice Leagues and team-up’s, however this has to get a mention, with Batman at his best and Bruce Wayne at his worst. Over the years, Batman has been creating contingency plans to defeat the members of the JLA, should any of them go rogue. Ra’s Al Ghul digs up the coffins of Thomas and Martha Wayne, sending Batman ape shit and seeking revenge. Whilst he’s out, RAG sneaks into the Batcave, steals said plans, and proceeds to take out all the members of the JLA.
When Batman finds RAG with his parents’ coffins RAG offers Batman the chance to bring them back to life via a Lazarus Pit (if you don’t know what they are, they’re essentially DC’s get out of jail free card. They use them to bring the dead back to life, or cure life threatening conditions i.e. in Hush, The Riddler has cancer but cures it via a Lazarus Pit). Batman declines the offer, preferring to honour the memory of his parents. By this time the JLA have freed themselves from the contingency plans and stop RAG from plunging the world in to chaos.
This is where it gets a bit tasty – the 7 members of the JLA take a vote to decide if Batman gets to retain his membership. 3 vote for and 3 against leaving Superman with the decisive vote, Batman, however, has already made the decision for them and he fucks off.
I really dig this because it shows the lengths that Batman will go to in order to save the day and that he is clearly by far the strongest member of the JLA, being prepared to do what none of them could should the worst happen. But on the other hand, it shows just how damaged Bruce Wayne is that he has “just in case” plans to murder the small group of people he might actually consider friends.
Knightfall by Various – 1993
MOTEHR FUCKING BANE!!! Sorry to get carried away, but a very large part of the first of the three books are what Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight Rises. Much like the film, Bane breaks all of Gotham’s criminals out of Arkham, the plan being that Batman will tire as he rounds up all the escapees, giving Bane the chance to cripple the Bat. Batman is initially reluctant to let Robin help, fearing the sheer scale of the task at hand would be too much for him to cope with, creating tension between the two. Batman starts with the low level bad guys like Mad Hatter and Zsas, eventually working his way to Two Face, when Robin has to save his ass. Each battle takes more and more out of him before Bane seizes his chance and gives Batman the famous backbreaker, and becoming king of the underworld.
This is pretty much where the film left it, this story arc goes on for 3 very thick trades, I’ll try to keep it as brief as I can.
Consigned to a wheelchair, Batman decides that Dick Grayson isn’t ready to take up the mantle of the bat and hands the cowl over to John-Paul Valley, aka Azrael. JP is given strict instructions not to directly challenge Bane, which he duly ignores and gets his ass handed to him. Eventually JP gets his shit together and squares up against the Scarecrow. Unfortunately, he gets his ass handed to him again. Scarecrow uses his fear gas on JP which sends him off the reservation.
Whilst mentally unstable, JP decides to start building himself a new bat suit, with each iteration becoming more and more robotic. This new, scary-as-shit, Batman has another go at Bane, this time defeating him and sending him back to Blackgate Prison.
After the battle with Bane, Robo-Bat becomes more and more unstable, savagely beating the lowliest of criminals, forcing Jim Gordon and the Robins to question what the fuck is happening. Bruce eventually thinks enough is enough and kindly asks JP to stop being Batman. Unsurprisingly, his response is no. Bruce starts the long process of rehabilitation and eventually gets himself back in fighting shape, and kicks the daylights out of Robo-Batman. Bruce brings back Batman proper and JP is left homeless.
Like I said, this is a crazy long arc but it’s totally worth the investment, not just for the inspiration behind the film but to see how Bruce would deal with Batman being taken away from him.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller – 1986
So this is it, the undisputed champion of Batman comics, look at any top 10 lists online and they will all have this at #1. Set in the late 80’s, a 50-year-old Bruce Wayne has hung up his cape and is struggling with the tedium of being a billionaire playboy philanthropist. Gotham has gotten pretty bad since Batman retired, being overrun by a gang called The Mutants. Wayne decides that something needs to be done and suits up once again, saving young Carrie Kelley in the process. Batman then takes in Carrie and trains her as his new Robin with the remaining members of The Mutants rebranding themselves as Sons of Batman, using their trademark excessive violence for the forces of good.
However, the return of Batman also inspires Joker to cause chaos again. After killing a studio full of people, Joker is tracked down to a fairground, where Batman beats him to within an inch of his life. Now this is the genius part, Joker does what he has never been able to do before and actually defeat Batman. With the cops closing in on the fairground, Joker snaps his own neck, framing Batman, resulting in GCPD hunting Batman for the murder.
Whilst Batman has been in retirement, Superman has become somewhat of a pawn to an oppressive government. When Russia makes a nuclear strike against the USA, Superman stops the nuke, but the EMP blast knocks out all the power, descending the country into chaos. That is, everywhere except Gotham, who has Sons of Batman to keep the peace. The government see this as a personal slight and send Superman to make an example of Batman. During the ensuing brawl, Batman has a heart attack and dies. At the funeral, Superman hears Batman’s heartbeat start again, realising that it was all part of the plan. Batman, Robin, and the Sons of Batman ride off into the sunset to assemble an army capable of saving the country.
The Killing Joke by Alan Moore – 1988
This is pretty much everyone’s #3, which is amazing considering just how short it is. This is the definitive Joker origin story; a nameless, struggling stand-up comedian, trying to support his pregnant wife, agrees to help some criminals break into the chemical plant where he had previously worked. Whilst breaking in, Batman comes along to save the day. Our nameless man attempts to escape via the chemical plants waste system. Upon escaping he realises he has been permanently disfigured and is slowly driven insane, thus marking the birth of The Joker.
The Joker attempts to prove that even the most upstanding citizen can be driven insane and all it takes is one bad day. To prove his point, Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, shoots his daughter, paralysing her from the waist down, locks Gordon in an abandoned funhouse, and shows him photos of his daughter naked and wounded. Eventually, Batman shows up and frees Gordon, tracks down Joker and subdues him, giving Gordon the final say on The Joker’s fate. Gordon decides to prove Joker wrong and does everything by the book.
Genuinely the best story you will ever read in about 10 minutes.
The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb – 1996
The Long Halloween is one of the books that influenced The Dark Knight. Told over a 12-month period early in Batman’s career, it establishes how Harvey Dent became Two Face and heavily involves Carmine Falcone. It differs from most of the books on this list as its a straight up murder mystery, and does what no other comic has ever done before by making Calendar Man a credible character.
Dark Victory (Sequel to The Long Halloween) by Jeph Loeb – 1999
These should only be sold as a pair, you need to have read TLH to follow Dark Victory. Again, set over a 12-month period, the holiday killings of TLH are being mimicked and its up to Batman to solve the clues and save the day. During Dark Victory Loeb fleshes out Dick Grayson’s origin and has Batman dealing with the fact that he failed Harvey Dent. DV gives more of the rogue’s gallery a chance to shine whilst still having the mob at the focal point of the story.
The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker – 2005
Where The Killing Joke is Jokers origin story The Man Who Laughs is what Joker did next. Someone (Mr. J) starts killing off Gotham’s elite and the next clue suggests that Bruce Wayne is up next. The best thing about TMWL is that it finds the Joker’s perfect balance; between the crazed psychopath in The Killing Joke and the prankster in the Batman Animated Series.
Venom by Dennis O’Neil – 1991
After failing to save a young girl from drowning, Bruce Wayne struggles to deal with his physical limitations. To make sure he never fails again he starts taking an experimental drug named Venom. (Yes, it is the stuff that gives Bane his super strength). I love this purely because it asks questions that I would never have thought of. What if Batman became a junkie? What would he be willing to do to get his fix? How would he cope going cold turkey?
Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader by Neil Gaiman – 2009
WHTTCC is an incredibly odd tale in which Bruce Wayne/Batman narrates his own funeral, where various allies and foes give different accounts of his death. It’s a sort of love letter to the different versions of Batman throughout the years.
Year One by Frank Miller – 1987
I’m going to assume you don’t know what the Elseworld tales are (if you do give yourself a high 5 and move on). Elseworlds take the superheroes we know and love and place them in alternate realities, for instance this list has Batman in Victorian London, Communist Russia and also takes a very literal look at Bat-Man. There are some I’ve not put on here because the story isn’t as strong as the idea (like what would happen if Batman got hold of a Green Lantern ring or John Cleese reimagining Batman as a villain with a cricket bat lodged in his chest in Superman True Brit) but these are the best of the ones I own.
Gotham By Gaslight by Brian Augustyn – 1989
Set in 1989, Gotham By Gaslight opens with Bruce Wayne touring Europe, not unlike Year One. After returning to Gotham, Jim Gordon explains that Wayne’s wife has been killed and the murderer has attempted suicide in prison, leaving him with a permanent smile. Shortly after, a series of women are murdered and Bruce becomes Batman. It is soon discovered that Jack the Ripper has made his way to Gotham, only for Bruce to be convicted of being the Ripper and sentenced to hang. Bruce escapes, and, as Batman, catches the actual Ripper and proves his innocence.
Nine Lives by Dean Motter – 2002
Nine Lives is a 40’s-style noir tale in which PI Dick Grayson investigates the murder of Selina Kyle. It re-imagines the more famous villains as mobsters, hired goons, and card sharks. Noir works really well with Batman so I’m quite surprised something like this hasn’t been given an extended run.
Red Rain by Doug Moench – 1991
Essentially, Batman does Blade. Dracula and his followers are bleeding Gotham dry, Batman gets bitten and becomes bad ass Vampire Batman! Another book where the art alone is enough to warrant a read, you’ve never seen Batman look anything like this before.
Thrillkiller by Howard Chaykin – 1997
So where to start with Thrillkiller? It’s set in the 60’s, Barbra Gordon isn’t in a wheelchair but she is Batgirl and is the story’s main character. She’s sticking it to Dick Grayson, who is still Robin, but has douchey facial hair. Joker’s a hot babe and she’s still not sticking it to Harley Quinn. Bruce Wayne is still a billionaire, but isn’t too eager to throw on the cape. It’s Batman, just not as we know it.
Superman Red Son by Mark Millar – 2003
So, clearly not a Batman tale, but its worth reading as a Bat-Fan. Red Son looks at what would have happened if Superman crash-landed in communist Russia instead of Smallville. Russia takes over the entire world with superman as their WMD, with only the USA holding out. Luthor is the president, who sends Batman into Russia as one last gambit. Batman is a fucking psychopath in this. He captures Wonder Woman and uses her as bait for Superman. She nearly kills herself escaping Batman, who eventually blows himself up when his plan doesn’t come to fruition.
JL8 (webcomic) by Yale Stewart
If that doesn’t get you reading JL8 then you’re dead inside. The premise is simple: the members of the JLA are 8 years old and have 8-year-old problems to deal with.