Batman rocks. This much is fairly undisputed, and in seventy years of Comic Book existence the Dark Knight has racked up a fair few classics. Director Christopher Nolan is obviously aware of this, as he has has cited some of them as a direct influence on the upcoming Dark Knight movie. Smart man- with material as strong as some of these outings, it's no wonder The Dark Knight is being hailed as the greatest Batman movie yet.
So for those as yet uninitiated in Batman's comic book career, we've compiled a list of the top ten stories that must be read.
10. A Death In The Family
1980's Batman readers had a serious problem with Jason Todd, AKA the second Robin. With the character being widely denounced as 'lame', the writers of the series found themselves under pressure to do something about it. In an eerie premonition of the recent Simon Cowell television reign, readers of the comic were given the power to call a telephone line and vote as to whether Todd lived or died.
Cue one horrible death, and a massive surge in the popularity of the series.
The shocking thing is that a marketing stunt spawned one of the defining moments in Batman's history. The Dark Knight being emotionally destroyed by the loss of his young apprentice, and thirsting for revenge he for the first time seriously considers murder as an option.
The Batman is supposed to be dark, and this incident steered the series firmly away from the direction of garish colors and lighthearted romps. Oh, and it also featured the Joker getting a job working for Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Weird.
9. Gotham by Gaslight
Seventy years is a long time for anyone to be knocking around, so it's inevitable that at some point someone's going to start really thinking outside the box. Hence the 'Elseworlds' series, a number of stories in which Batman and other DC heroes are taken out of their usual surroundings and placed in alternate universes or timelines.
The first of these innovative stories was surely born from one of those amazing three word pitches that usually get thrown about in the wee hours after too much coffee and/or booze: 'Batman vs Jack the Ripper'. Bear in mind that this is no Alien vs Predator scenario- Bats is the greatest detective in the world, so this is a proper Victorian mystery. And it's illustrated by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, so full of purdy pictures.
8. The Man Who Laughs
The Man Who Laughs takes its name from the 1928 silent film starring Conrad Veidt which inspired the look of the Joker (check it out on youtube here- creepy stuff).
Based around a race against time to end a brazen killing spree, a rookie Dark Knight is horrified and disturbed by a challenge far removed from your basic 'thugs with guns'. The plotline of the one-shot story is taken directly from Batman #1, adding dark modern elements to the classic first meeting of Batman & The Joker. So a hefty bodycount and a great example of just how demented The Joker can get. It's regarded as a natural followup to Frank Miller's Year One, and thematically the closest you can get to Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. More on them later.
7. Arkham Asylum
Considered by many to be one of the darkest Batman stories out there, this short graphic novel stands out mainly because of its unbelievable artwork.
Illustrated by Dave McKean, famous for his Sandman covers & children's stories with Neil Gaiman (Mirrormask, Coraline), whose distinctive and iconic imagery is lent to a tale of the inmates taking over the asylum.
Just check out the page pictured above (click to enlarge), and head out to buy it.
6. The Cult
In The Cult Batman comes up against Deacon Blackfire, a crazy Charlie Manson type who may or may not be several hundred years old. In a rare case of 'didn't see that coming', Bats gets abducted and forced to join Blackfire's growing legions of mindless slaves. With her protector out of action, and only Robin (pssh) to rely on, Gotham city goes to hell quite quickly as the shit hits the fan big time.
Notable for the display of weakness from our hero, who when he gets a chance very nearly turns tail and buggers off. And as was the thing with Batman in the 80's it pulls no punches with the ol' ultra-violence. Which is fun.
5. Birth of the Demon
You'd be forgiven if until seeing Batman Begins you had no idea whom Ra's Al Ghul was, but aside from the Joker he's probably the Batman's greatest nemesis. A seven hundred year old terrorist and sometime assassin, Ra's is no loon, but a calculating genius who has a beef with humanity and a desire to see it wiped off the face of the earth. Not pleased with Bruce Wayne's persistent thwarting of his plans, or impregnating of his daughter (oh Bruce...), Ra's indluges on many an occasion in beating the Bat to within an inch of his life.
This story by Dennis O'Neil and Norm Breyfogle tells the tale of how humanity earned Ra's' hatred, and throws in a classic showdown between himself and Batman for good measure. Twisted and epic with fantastic artwork, this is a one-stop shop for appreciating the fact that Ra's Al Ghul is a vastly superior villain to the Penguin, the Riddler and most of the better known faces in Batman's rogues gallery.
4. Batman: Year One
Batman was created by Bob Kane, but special mention must go to Frank Miller for reinventing the character not once but twice. In Year One Miller gives us his account of (guess) Batman's first year of crimefighting, and to fantastic effect. The short 4-part story hit the nail on the head to such a degree that it has become the accepted 'true' origin of Batman, despite the fact that it was written nearly fifty years after the character first appeared.
With striking no nonsense artwork and a powerful take on the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon, it's a great read, and one of the few Batman comics that is universally regarded as essential.
3. The Long Halloween
An epic, meaty read, The Long Halloween is the kind of story Batman was created for. Set over the course of a year, this sprawling murder mystery features a host of villains, with readers kept guessing as our hero sifts through clues and suspects aplenty. Writer Joseph Loeb has here played to all Batman's strengths as a detective, while Tim Sale's cinematic artwork perfectly accents all the noir elements of the story.
This story arc is notable for being the definitive telling of Harvey Dent's journey to becoming Two-Face, a tragedy which is expertly played out as a contrast to the bog-standard 'radioactive toxic waste' origin stories of lesser comic books.
The Long Halloween is one of two Batman stories which has been singled out by Christopher Nolan as a source of inspiration behind the Dark Knight, so we can expect Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent to be a million miles removed from Tommy Lee Jones' offering. Which, clearly, is a good thing. Shame on you, Joel Schumacher.
2. The Dark Knight Returns
The rebirth of Batman, DKR is the moment where Frank Miller returned Batman to the shadows, lending a psychological edge to the series that had been absent for too long. In graphic novel format, this offering deserves to be counted alongside Watchmen as a truly great work of literature.
Set in the near future, an aging Batman has retired and the world is without superheros. Superman is a government patsy, and Gotham is terrorised by a gang of cyber-punks called Mutants. Events conspire to bring the Bat out of retirement, and our hero returns to struggle against the Mutants, his own age, and cold-war politics.
It's a vast piece of work, original and fresh- offering an unparalleled take on the character of Batman, and painting the world of Gotham & Metropolis as an ominous vision of our own.
On a cerebral scale there's nothing quite like DKR in the Batman world. And on a sheer comic-book-fun scale: it features an almighty showdown between Batman & Superman. Enough said.
1. The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke is possibly the greatest Batman story ever told. Written by the most acclaimed comic-book writer of all time, Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell...), this single issue story pits Batman against the Joker in a match that is both enthralling and chilling. The Joker has never been more twisted, and the battle between the two characters is tinged with madness and violence before reaching it's climax. At the same time, Moore takes the reader through the tragic origins of Batman's arch nemesis in a telling that, like Year One, has become the generally accepted version of the story.
With stunning artwork by Brian Bolland, and writing from Moore that's second to none, The Killing Joke has all the right ingredients to create a Batman story that's as close to perfect as you're gonna get. Thankfully, this is the version of The Joker that Christopher Nolan has chosen to bring to the screen for the Dark Knight: a demented and unstable murderer; and if Heath Ledger's portrayal is in any way close to the mark we're sure to be treated to an unforgettable incarnation of one of the Comic-Book world's greatest villains.
Jul 24, 2008