A lot of sites are probably putting together several lists right about now in honor of this Friday’s release of The Dark Knight Rises that would name most of these as “must-reads if you’re wanting to get into Batman comics,” or something to that effect. But how I’d like to phrase this entry is in more of an academic sense. These books that I’m about to suggest to you are being referred to as “Read these first” because a lot of the more “higher learning” readings require a sophisticated palette that must be developed by learning the different takes on the character of Batman prior to jumping shoulders’ deep into the complex and clever stories of these more advanced works.
Now, that’s not to say that any of the comics listed are bad. Sure I may not like some of them as much as others, but based on my research and personal experiences, the comics listed here in Batman 101 are some of the books that have gotten most hardcore Batman fans to start loving the character in the same way I do. Keep in mind that this is a list of comic books, so you’ll look elsewhere to see things like Batman ’66 and Batman: The Animated Series. So, if you’re ready, let’s get started with something I like to call Batman 101: A Beginner’s Guide To The Dark Knight.
Quite honestly, this entry level book by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee is my leasts favorite comic on this list, and in my opinion it has plenty of flaws. However, many folks out there have listed this as their favorite comic in part because it’s the first Batman comic that they have ever read. And for a first Batman story, it’s a great way to start. It’s not a great way to start in that it’s one of Batman’s finest stories, but it’s a great way to start because this is one of the most prominent takes on Batman as a character in the modern era. In this book, Batman is a dark loner who asks for no compassion, and certainly doesn’t give any. He’s angry, lives in the shadows and likes to punch things, including Superman. Did I say he punches Superman? Yes. That’s another thing that gets you jump started on the mythos of The Bat, in Hush, Batman goes up against a gauntlet of enemies including a familiar hero who was turned to the dark side by a tempting Poison Ivy. For someone who has no experience with the comic book Batman, it’s a crash course.
The story itself leaves a little to be desired, but it’s a standard mystery villain and Batman must solve the problems to lead him to his answer. Unfortunately, for an advanced reader, you can pick apart the story and find yourself answering the questions from the first page, but if you’re unaware of the way comics make revelations, you might find yourself enjoying this comic way more than I did. Either way, it’s a mystery, it’s got post-90s Jim Lee interior art, and it gives you a running start into the world of The Dark Knight.
In contrast to Hush, which was also written by Jeph Loeb, The Long Halloween is one of my most favored comics of all time. You see, this is the book that got me reading comics again, so it had to make the list. The way Loeb and Tim Sale craft a story about a serial killer who only murders on holidays works so much to its advantage because it creates a mystery in what is essentially a mob tale. Sure, it’s got the patented Jeph Loeb “let’s throw a bunch of villains at the reader” thing going on, but the story and creativity behind taking the serial killer story and applying it to a super hero book is always something that impresses me when I read and re-read it. And can we talk about the art for a moment? This was the first time I had ever seen Tim Sale’s art and holy crap, I was completely blown away. Sale’s take on characters like Scarecrow are what I believe to be the definitive looks of the characters. The lanky, pseudo-stylized art adds a bit of a dark psychedelic flavor to them, which fits the tone of the story perfectly. If you’re a first time reader, or a returning reader looking for the “Best of the Bat,” and this is the first book you read, you will fall in love. The story is simple, but enjoyable, the art is simply amazing, and it tells the kind of story you don’t often see in super hero comics. Plus, you know, Christopher Nolan used parts of this comic as a basis for The Dark Knight, which you can totally tell if you give this comic a read.
This is another one that polarizes comic book fans. It’s a masterpiece on the relationship between Batman and The Joker. It compares and contrasts the characters and truly explains why The Joker is Batman’s greatest villain. It breaks down the seminal villain and looks at both his questionable origin, and what lead to him becoming a homicidal maniac. Alan Moore brilliantly crafts a story, as only he could. It’s classic literary tale, which is, unfortunately, not very common in current comics. Then, you have one of the best artists of all time in Brian Bolland as he takes his unique style and applies it to all of the characters of Gotham City. The Killing Joke is one of the greatest books, artistically, of all time. This book is a must read for any Batman fan and the reader has to respect it for these reasons. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of female characters in comics, especially Barbara Gordon, this is going to be a book that infuriates you, and it should. The female characters in this book (i.e. Barbara Gordon) are barely expounded upon, and they basically don’t count as an actual character. Barbara Gordon is used only as a plot devices as she is shot, paralyzed and sexually assaulted. It’s honestly very hard to read, and when you realize that it’s done to move the story forward and make Joker look like more of a villain than he already did, it’s even harder to read. However, obvious flaws aside, it’s my opinion that this book is important to read for both its great parts and its failings, and it’s a book that you should when you’re starting off.
Batman Year One is one of the greatest comic books of all time. In the 1980s, post-Crisis, DC Comics was looking to give a new origin to some of DC’s biggest name characters. Enter Frank Miller. Frank Miller had just come off his brilliant mini-series The Dark Knight (Returns), which we’ll get to in a minute, and obviously fans and editorial loved Frank Miller, so he was given a chance to recreate Batman’s origin. And where this wins, is that Batman’s origin doesn’t really change, but it’s just detailed. Year One looks at, well, the first year in Batman’s career as Gotham as he figures out how he’s going to approach crime fighting in Gotham City, and it just so happens that those criminals are the wealthy and powerful in the city, including the police department. Batman forms an alliance with Captain James Gordon, fresh out of Chicago, and the young upstart attorney Harvey Dent. And with the subtle, yet stunning art work from David Mazzucchelli, all point are hi-lighted in a beautiful, golden age tone. I pointed out earlier that Christopher Nolan took a lot from Long Halloween for The Dark Knight, well he took a lot from Year One, as well, for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. This is a book that I read annually, and it’s a must read for an comic book fan.
This is a book, like Year One, that must be read multiple times. One of the most popular and most well known interpretations of The Caped Crusader at the time of this comic, was the 60s, Adam West version that was featured in one of the most popular television shows of all time. Frank Miller, a writer and artist who specialized in hard-boiled, tough guy characters, used that interpretation to make the impact of a retired Batman have that much more weight to it. You don’t need to be a fan, or even familiar with the 60s Batman to enjoy this book, though. The idea of an older Batman coming out of retirement is enough to pique a reader’s interest, but the quality of Frank Miller’s work keeps you going, and most likely, it will be one of your favorite comics after you finish it. Not only that, but it’s one of the most important comics of all time, and alongside Watchmen, was one of the books that completely changed the face of the comic book industry for decades.
This one hasn’t been around that long, and actually, it’s the most recent Batman story on this list. In fact, it’s just now wrapping up the storyline in the current single issue comic books, which is partially why it’s on this list. In 2011, DC Comics relaunched its entire line of comic books and placed Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion in charge of Batman, and these guys ran with that opportunity. Snyder turned the comics world on its head by placing an old threat within Gotham City that could have completely destroyed The Dark Knight, as we know him. They used the Court of Owls to completely dismantle Batman and forced him to question everything he thought he knew about his city. Specific things happen in this storyline that truly do change the face of Batman comics, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll refrain from going into detail. Alongside the writing, though, is the amazing artwork of Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion, who provide dark, beautifully haunting art that provides both heavy action and the overwhelming sense of dread that the writing calls for. Why is on this list? Because it’s quite possibly the best, easiest way to get a reader into current comics. In my opinion, Scott Snyder provides a wonderfully complex and interesting mystery in the first 75% of his Batman work, but seems to go for more of an obvious conclusion. This is not a condemnation of his work, at all. As a matter of fact, in the sense of gaining new readers, it works to the comic’s favor. There’s no better way to get to know what’s currently happening in the ongoing Batman world, because Snyder’s Batman gives a self contained feel, while also telling an exciting, while still simple, story that new fans are going to love.
Clearly, some of these comic books are not my favorite Batman stories. The quality varies throughout these six stories, but one thing remains completely consistent, these are all good ways to start if you’ve never actually read a Batman comic, or if you’re looking to get into more books, but haven’t really gone all the way yet. While not always perfect, these comic books will all do one thing for you, they’ll make you want to read more. And if you truly want to read more, comic back in two days with Batman 202: Intermediate Reading For The Caped Crusader.