Batman: Where to start? The Definitive Guide
Comics and Graphic Novels
Comics and Graphic Novels
The best way to introduce yourself to the Batman universe is to indeed, read the comics. Nothing will give you the true feel of Batman and his universe than reading (and looking at) the actual stories in comic form. Let's take a look at the essentials you need to read. We suggest that you read them in the order we list here, but of course, thats not necessary to understand Batman at all. The main thing is to read them, at whatever pace and order you feel comfortable in.
One more thing to keep in mind, is the order in which these are listed are done so for the convenience of the reader, and are not ranked in the quality of content. For example, No Man's Land might be a better Batman story (which is listed lower down below), but it is suggested to read The Man Who Laughs first to get a better idea of the Joker, for example.
We've tried to avoid any major spoilers in the descriptions below.
Batman: Year One
Year One is still one of the most important Batman stories ever. Heck, its one of the most important stories written in comics in general. Written by Frank Miller and with art by David Mazzucchelli and with Dennis O'Neal as Editor, this series helps define Bruce Wayne's early journey to become the Dark Knight, while also telling the story of James Gordon and how they both begin to trust each other.
Christopher Nolan's 2005 hit film, Batman Begins also takes various elements from this story to make its own. In some ways, you could say that Batman Begins is just a big budget live-action hollywood take on the novel.
This story was also made into an animated film of the same name, which is actually pretty good quality and faithful to the source material. If you can't easily get a hold of the comic, or simply want to watch the animated film first, then I would recommend that. Interestingly, the person voicing Gordon is Bryan Cranston (Walter White from Breaking Bad) and the person voicing Bruce Wayne is Ben McKenzie, who played Gordon in the TV Series Gotham.
You can read our full review of Batman: Year One to further appreciate the story.
The Man Who Laughs
The Man Who Laughs is supposed to start off from where Year:One left off. This serves as a nice continuation of Gordon and Batman's journey and serves as a base to understand the most famous Batman villain - The Joker.
This story has great throwbacks to the original roots of the comics, right back to Batman #1. The character of the Joker was partly the result of inspiration from the book The Man who Laughs by Victor Hugo and The look of the Joker in the comic takes a lot of inspiration from actor Conrad Veidt's look in the film adaptation of the book. The same kind of look is maintained for the Joker portrayed in this story.
In this story we get a sense of just how crazy this maniac called the Joker is, and how much of a threat he is to everyone in Gotham.
The Killing Joke
The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore and with art by Brian Bolland, is a seminal one-shot graphic novel released in 1988 tracing the origin of The Joker and his psychosis. This story expands on Bill Finger's origin story of The Joker, while at the same time making it hazy. The story managed to give another dimension to the crazed villain, and added an additional and important level of depth to the character. The story also begins the trend of The Joker going to great lengths to make his attacks highly personal in nature, with long running consequences.
Once you've read The Killing Joke, come back and read our take on why The Killing Joke is one of the most important comics in the Batman universe.
The Long Halloween
Written by Joeseph Loeb and with art by Tim Sale, The Long Halloween is a definitive Batman graphic novel meant to be in continuity to the Year:One storyline. It further elaborates on the bond between Batman and Gordon - and more interestingly - Harvey Dent as well. Together they made an impressive crime-fighting trio. The story then delves into the war between the Maroni and the Falcon families, and features the origin story of Two-Face. All through the thread, there is a mysterious killer known as Holiday- who as the name suggests, murders people on a holiday, every month.
In the hollywood film The Dark Knight, you can see that there are various elements inspired by this novel.
A Death in the Family
This story is extremely significant in Batman canon. During the late eighties, the character of Jason Todd was getting increasingly unpopular. DC decided to create a public vote, where anyone could dial up a 900 number to vote on whether Jason Todd should live or die. As it turns out, the public vote went in favor of him dying, which he did in this 4-issue story, by the hands of The Joker. As a result, Batman seriously considers killing The Joker, and in general acts more violently in the story than normal. Reading the story provides a snapshot of the political situation of the time it was written in, with things like Reagonomics, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the contra affair, Terrorism in Northern Ireland, the isreali-arab conflict, as well as the famine in Ethiopia being mentioned or hinted at.
The death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, had far reaching influences in the Batman canon. Besides making Batman more reluctant in taking on additional help for a long time in the future, it also made the animosity between Batman and the Joker take a much more personal turn. Jason Todd would return as a character to become The Red Hood.
Knightfall is the major story arc involving the introduction of Bane. Even though the character was introduced in 1993, Knightfall quickly cemented Bane as one of Batman's most dangerous foes. Knightfall introduces Bane as a complex villain who besides being absolutely physically dominating, is also an extremely intelligent character. Knightfall involves Bane causing major damage to Batman, with one particular panel becoming iconic over the years. The story also involves Bruce Wayne handing over the Batman mantle over to Jean-Paull Valley, who becomes increasingly violent before being brought back to sense by Bruce Wayne, who takes it back.
This comic run is significant because of the introduction of the character of Bane, and how intelligently the writers treated the character. They've made him a truly awesome villain, and nowadays is one of the most 'popular' villains in Batman's rogues gallery. Bruce Wayne's defeat at the hands of Bane and his road to regain his mantle of Batman forms part of the storyline of the 2012 movie The Dark Knight Rises.
No Man's Land
No Man's Land is part of an epic year-long comic run detailing Batman's journey at helping Gotham in the event of a devastating earthquake. Major portions of Gotham are destroyed, and Batman is comes face-to-face with an enemy he can't win against - Nature. This epic story arc is divided into four storylines, namely - Cataclysm, Aftershock, Road to No Man's Land and finally No Man's Land.
Besides seeing Batman dealing with an enemy he can't defeat - nature, the story has a lots of other important moments and events. The storyline formally introduces the character of Harley Quinn into the comic world (she was first introduced in Batman: The Animated Series). We also see Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, the story of Azreal in a new costume, Nightwing helping Batman in a major capacity, Superman trying to help Gotham (with him making things even more complicated) and the Joker doing major damage at a personal level to a major ally of Batman. The run features almost every major Batman villain and even good stories featuring characters like Dr. Leslie Thompkins.
Some elements of this story seems to have inspired the 2012 movie The Dark Knight Rises.
With Joeseph Loeb writing, and Jim Lee doing the artwork, Hush was released in 2002 and has quickly become a classic. This story introduces the villain known as Hush, who seems to disrupt Batman at every opportunity. The storyline features a number of villains from Batman's Rogues Gallery, as well as several very interesting moments between the characters (even including Superman briefly). Jim Lee's artwork in this series especially, has been praised by a lot of fans (though some still have their nitpicks).
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth was writer Grant Morrison's first crack at writing Batman, and boy did he deliver. Morrison was inspired by Frank Miller's take on Batman and wanted to write a story where he adds his own unique perspective, not just to Batman to many other characters in his world too. This story analyses and at times deconstructs the psyche of many major villains in the Batman universe including the Joker, Two-Face, Clayface, Killer Croc, Mad-Hatter and more.
Dave McKean provided a distinctive dreamy and abstract style to the artwork, which adds further depth to the kind of story being told. Apart from the actual illustrations, it was also one of the first graphic novels to feature distinctive lettering for every major character - done by letterer Gasper Saladino.
Elements of the story would later be used in Rocksteady's game "Arkham Asylum".
The Court of Owls/ The City of Owls / Night of Owls
Writer Scott Snyder and Artist Greg Capullo introduce The Court of Owls - a secret organization pulling the strings of Gotham City right from the time the city was founded. They maintain control by using assassins known as Talons to do their bidding and assassinate people. This is a foe much more formidable to Gotham than most others. Batman thought he knew the City like the back of his hand, but with this foe he encounters a force more intimately familiar with the city than he could ever be.
The Dark Knight Returns
It's safe to say that The Dark Knight Returns changed course of comics. For a long time, comics were hamstrung by the Comics Code Authority, and their strict rules on portraying violence and dark themes in comics. In the eighties, the environment was starting to beginning to ripen for allowing more adult and dark themes. For a long time, especially because of the Silver Age and the 60s TV Series, Batman was relegated to being a campy cartoon hero. It was time for a change.
Writer-artist Frank Miller was brought on to revive the character and have a new take on Batman. Miller tried to bring back the dark brooding character initially envisioned by Bill Finger. He started from there and took it to a whole another level. The story features an old Bruce Wayne who has retired and has been out of action for more than a decade. Certain events happen to bring him out of retirement, and culminates with him facing familiar faces like the Joker and ends with him going toe to toe with Superman.
What The Dark Knight Returns accomplished was extraordinary. Along with Alan Moore's Watchmen - it changed the way comics were approached and the themes they talked about. Besides taking the character of Batman to a more adult and dark place, it also ushered a new era in comics (especially Batman comics) and marked the end of the Silver Age. Comics from now from then on started to care less and less about the Comics Code Authority's rules and started to experiment with more complex themes, commentary about the modern world and contemporary politics, and more experimental artwork instead of the standard cookie cutter artwork which was employed before this comic.
You can also read our review of The Dark Knight Returns which goes in-depth into the details of the story and artwork.
This year-long story arc continues one of the best teams in comic book history - Writer Scott Snyder and Artist Greg Capullo. Zero Year intends to follow Bruce Wayne's journey into becoming Batman - but the time period before he was a fully formed Batman as we know him today. It is a new take on the character's origin, and incorporates certain aspects of Batman: Year One in it.
Besides offering a look at the crime-fighter before he became Batman, the story also features the character of the Red Hood - and could be interpreted by some as the story of the criminal before he became the Joker. His origins are never really clear, so it is up to interpretation on that one. The story culminates with The Riddler taking over Gotham, and has quickly become one of the character's most important stories.
The real reason you should pick it up is because of the sheer artistry and color work done on the comic. Every frame and every panel just bursts with color and life, and it's truly a visual joy like no other. If for nothing else, just read it for the pure art and color work. The telling of such an important origin story, along with probably the most beautiful and lively art and color work makes Zero Year a must have in every book collector's list.