By Erik Grove
I’ll be honest. As a kid, Batman wasn’t my favorite. In fact, the first superhero books that really hooked me were Marvel books. I was an X-Men kid, like so many others in the early 1990s, and compared to Wolverine, Batman just didn’t seem as cool to me. I had seen and loved the Tim Burton Batman movies (yes, even Batman Returns which I still consider underrated) but the monthly comics didn’t really hook me until Knightfall which hooked me and then quickly lost me with the seemingly infinite number of tie-in issues. I started reading Robin and then Nightwing when they launched and through those books and catching up some classics, I finally gained an appreciation for the character. Thinking about Batman now, more than 20 years after I first tried to connect with the character and 75 years after he first appeared, I find that more than anything Batman remains a cypher and that’s a good thing.
For me, while there are definitive Batman stories and iterations of the character I like more than others, there’s no one Essential (or Eternal) Batman. There are dozens of valid and engaging interpretations of the character and his mythos, from Adam West doing the Batusi to Frank Miller’s infamous God Damn Batman. So, in putting together a column on Batman, I find that I’m picking some stories that are collectively recognized and some that are just personal favorites. Everyone that loves, or grows to love Batman, has Essential 8 Batman Comics, these are mine.
This one almost feels like a cheat but it’s a great single source for a variety of Batman stories from the 30s to the early 80s. This collection was curated and released around Batman’s 50th anniversary and is unfortunately not in print but can still be found with relative ease at used bookstores. This collection includes several notable Batman stories, the first appearance of the batarang and batplane, the original Joe Chill story and a slew more by big name creators including Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Dennis O’Neil, Jim Aparo, Steve Engleheart, Dick Giordano, Neal Adams and a lot more. This collection really runs the gamut from Batman’s earliest pulp origins to campier stories and finally to early hints of the more serious Dark Knight that would follow. Chronologically this is definitely where you’d want to start but the art and story in this collection could be difficult for contemporary comic book sensibilities. These are stories best consumed by someone that’s open minded to golden and silver age storytelling. Don’t expect a lot of brooding or a lot of realism. Do expect fun, quick moving stories that feel like a real breath of fresh air and change of pace all these decades later.
The later 1980s is when Batman changed forever. After DC’s game changing Crisis on Infinite Earths, Batman continued a dramatic transformation that would take him from the campy silver age and into the (then) modern era. First Frank Miller and then Alan Moore released comics that redefined the character (I’ll get to those books shortly). Burton’s first Batman film was on the way and had fans and the general public really talking about Batman in a new way. The only problem was Robin. The reinvention that Batman was headed for though didn’t had a lot of room for a character that had become incredibly unpopular with fans, Jason Todd. So editor Dennis O’Neil, writer Jim Starlin and artist Jim Aparo gave Batman fans A Death in the Family.
The story of this book is infamous with a lot of comic book fans. After a brutal beating at the hands of the Joker and a now iconic crowbar, fans were given a chance to vote for Robin to live or die by a 900 number. Presumably, even if he’d lived, he would not have been Robin anymore. It was a savvy and polarizing stunt that rivals anything I’ve seen in comics in decades. What makes A Death in the Family so interesting to me is that it’s a book that seems trapped between eras. Batman is still wearing a blue and gray costume that has more in common with the look from Hanna Barbera cartoons that the black armor in the movies. He still says “lad” an awful lot. On the surface, this still looks like pre-grim & gritty Batman story but as it unfolds there are jarring moments of violence and the intrusion of very real contemporary nuclear and terrorist fears. From the vantage point of a modern reader looking back at this comic, that was released not long before Burton’s Batman and the return of the character to pop culture prominence, there’s a sense that this was a turning point. This storyline crossed the Rubicon and Batman creators and fans have never looked back.
If A Death in the Family was the last story for an older era of Batman, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns was the first story of the new. Set in a dystopian out of continuity future, Miller made Batman work again by breaking him to pieces. This a brutal, wounded Batman all but defeated by the world and by crime before he comes back, grittier and more determined than ever. This book exploded a million bombs in the heads of comic book readers and future writers. It was a bold and audacious move. Miller’s script and signature pencils create a mood that felt more real and present to many readers struggling with cycles economics recession, drugs, gangs, terrorists, AIDS and the Cold War. Miller made Batman into modern America, disillusioned and weakened by grief, and then he sets him against the most powerful force in the comic book world, Superman, and Batman, modern, battered America, defeats the Norman Rockwell, idealized and corrupted classic Superman America. It’s no wonder that after this bombastic and visceral story, the old representation of Batman felt a little too shallow.
After Dark Knight Returns, DC comics gave Miller the keys to the Batmobile. While the rest of the universe had been largely rebooted and retooled during Crisis On Infinite Earths, Batman had been left relatively unchanged. With Year One, Miller and David Mazzucchelli changed this by retelling the origin of Batman and many of his supporting cast members. The changes can’t be understated. Every facet of the origin and every character is given a grimy, bleak facelift. The story is simple and elegant. The art is masterful. Year One, out of everything else on this list is my personal favorite.
My second favorite Batman story ever is The Killing Joke. Sometimes, The Killing Joke and Year One even fight it out on my favorites list but Year One always comes out just a hair ahead. This book paved the way for A Death in the Family in a big way. It spun the Joker in the direction that he needed to go to do what happened in A Death in the Family and it tested fans by paralyzing Barbara Gordon, a remnant from the old Adam West era of Batman on TV.
Above and beyond anything else, this is an incredibly cynical story and there are those that hate it because of that cynicism or because it attempts to give an origin to a character that has always been mysterious or because the maiming of Barbara Gordon seems to have been given so little consideration (a proto “fridging” before the term was coined perhaps). I think there’s validity to all of that but I still find a lot to really like about this comic. First, Brian Bolland’s art is just spectacular. Especially now when you can get a reprint colored to his specifications, the comic is a visual tour de force that is comfortably one of the best ever. Second, Alan Moore’s story and script is so ominously sparse. He demonstrated a real comfort with the visuals and leaves some things just ambiguous enough that those final pages remain hotly contested decades later. The Killing Joke is the greatest Joker story ever told.
Sliding in the timeline between events described in Year One and The Killing Joke, The Man Who Laughs, is a retelling of Batman’s first encounter with the Joker. Written by Ed Brubaker and with art by Doug Mahnke, this is a finely written and rendered book that manages to bridge continuity and stylistic gaps. Brubaker smartly chooses not to wallow in the same overwhelming hopelessness as Year One (though make no mistake, this is still a pretty dark story with a lot of dead bodies) and delivers a comic that feels like it could almost fit in Batman: The Animated Series. It’s easily my second favorite Joker story and a solid and compelling sequel to Year One.
Batman can be cast as the lead in a cerebral mystery, a campy romp, a hard boiled crime fiction story or he can just be the lead in a big gaudy popcorn action movie. Hush is a big, simple, fast paced summer blockbuster by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee that showcases a who’s who of Batman’s rogues and allies in a 12 issue whodunit full of red herrings and cliffhangers. Loeb at his most successful focuses on big ideas and iconic characters and moments. Lee at his best draws big action. Together they constructed an evergreen Batman story that fits into and embraces the character’s long history. The plot and mystery is thin and almost beside the point because Loeb and Lee are most interested in giving readers exactly what they want; a tour of Batman’s rich world in splash pages. There are more psychological Batman stories. There are more emotional ones and ones with deeper, more compelling mysteries but Hush aims squarely for the bat emblem at center mass of the character and hits right on target.
Prior to the New 52 launch in September 2011 DC made the surprising decision to let Grant Morrison kill Batman and give the cowl to the original Robin, Dick Grayson. Paired with Damian Wayne, Bruce’s borderline psychotic son with Talia al Ghul, the new Batman had several fresh and interesting adventures, my favorite of which was the Black Mirror. While Morrison wrote the dynamic duo, Scott Snyder and artists Jock and Franceso Francavilla focus squarely on Grayson’s new 21st Century Batman and craft a long form story that acts as a spiritual and literal sequel to Year One. Snyder has contributed a great deal to Batman in recent years, continuing to deliver stellar stories starring the “original” Batman in the New 52 Batman title but Black Mirror stands alone as a complete and expertly constructed story that hits all of the right notes. Jock and Francavilla meanwhile draw Batman and Gotham City with incomparable visual flare and grace. The only disappointing thing about Black Mirror is that it exists as a strange orphan now that Bruce Wayne has been returned to the Bat. This book remains my favorite Batman story from the last 10 years.
Special thanks for this column to Michael O’Connor, a friend and fellow comic fan with deep Batman knowledge. He gave me a list of books to study which I happily did but didn’t end up including many of them for various reasons but there’s always hope for a sequel. I suggest you follow Michael on Twitter @oconnoblog and check out his website http://oconnoblog.com/ for blogs about film, excellent fiction and beer reviews. He’s also a swell guy with pretty good taste in barbecue.
Agree with me? Disagree? Lets talk comics!
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book reader in Portland, OR. Follow on Twittter @erikgrove and check out his personal website www.erikgrove.com for amazing and free fiction goodness.