The Ultimate Batman Reading Guide (Part 1)
Everyone (at least everyone on the internet) knows who Batman is. The best selling blockbuster movies, the campy television shows, the big budget video games, the Saturday morning cartoons, the truckloads of merchandise in every toy shop – there are dozens of ways for the public to get their fill of Batman. In fact, it’s fair to say that more people have seen Batman in the cinema than have read the comics. Many, many more.
With the rise of popularity of the dark knight, one may find themselves considering doing something they’ve never done before: picking up a Batman comic. You head down to the comic shop, head the new release shelve and reach for…what, exactly? There’s multiple titles currently in circulation featuring a wide cast of characters, cross-overs, reboots, alternative timelines and more. Jumping right in is not the recommended approach.
Instead find the graphic novel section. Here you’ll find self-contained stories that make for better purchases. Even then you’ve got shelves and shelves of Batman to choose from. As you may have guessed there’s a long and complicated publication history behind this title, with many different approaches to the character and stories. Luckily for you we have, starting right here, a guide to what you should read divided up into the different types of Batman stories available.
Let’s start in the logical place…
Brace Wayne and Batman’s story is a well known one, especially since the release of Christopher Nolan’s awesome film Batman Begins. He comes from a wealthy family and sees his parents murdered by a mugger, after which he vows to do everything in his power to wage war on crime. This leads him to donning the cowl and becoming Batman. This is a basic premise is straightforward, but filled with questions. What compelled him to dress like a bat? how did he train to become Batman? What were his early days like? If you want to delve into the mind of a younger Bruce Wayne, here’s your suggested reading:
BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Frank Millar
Along with Alan Moore, Frank Millar is credited with redefining the way comics are written during the 1980s. Whilst he’s better known these days for his own creations Sin City and 300, his first real masterpieces featured Batman. Year One was the first time that an author had delved into the psychology of a man tackling crime in a rubber suit and cape. Taking a much more realistic, and gritty, approach gives the mini-series surprisingly more credibility and much more depth. The book also focuses heavily of Jame Gordon, creating a wonderful parallel between the two characters, and also features the beginning of characters such as Catwoman. Also available as a fairly awesome animated film.
ROBIN YEAR ONE by Chuck Dixon
Just as Batman has his origin story, Robin has his. Although they share similar motivation (both orphaned as a result of crime) the characters have always had glaringly different personalities. This was even more apparent during Dick Grayson’s early days as a superhero sidekick. Being of a young age and coming from a circus background he shows a much more cavalier approach to tackling the criminals of Gotham and despite reservations from Gordon and Batman trying to reel him in, Robin often went on ahead. Not that he was unskilled, taking out Killer Moth and Blockbuster. Where this story earns it’s stripes is when the bright young vigilante comes face-to-face (and face) with a genuinely dangerous man: Two-Face. One particular page feature a bound boy-wonder, the madman and a baseball bat will leave you stunned, and show you exactly why the character has endured even after Batman went dark.
THE BATMAN CHRONICLES VOLUME 1 by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and others.
Whilst the above titles provide an insight into an established character, you may want to give yourself a sense of history by seeing the origin of the comic itself. The original Batman would be almost unrecognizable to new readers, without any allies or even the Batcave (which first appeared in the 1940’s serials). The simple, gimmicky stories to live a world away from other superheroes, however, having more in common with classic detective stories than the rest of the spandex crowd. Whilst mostly worth reading from a comic history perspective rather than an entertainment perspective – for example, the first story focuses on the mystery of who the Batman really is and the big reveal may not come as a shock to many.
As it has been said many times, the Batman couldn’t exist without The Joker. He represents the equal opposite to Batman. Whilst one stands for order the other spreads chaos, one follows a strict moral code and the other refuses to conform to any rules and while Batman seeks to help people and The Joker destroys everyone whose path he crosses – especially the Batman. The most intriguing part of the dynamic comes from the Joker’s ultimate goal. Batman has oft considered that by killing the Joker he can prevent the madman from destroying others – such as the second Robin and the original Batgirl – but knows that breaking his oath never to take a life would destroy him as a person and a force for good. The Joker seeks to drive Batman to that breaking point, and as almost succeeded on a few occasions.
THE KILLING JOKE by Alan Moore
If that name above looks familiar, then you’ve heard of his other works such as Watchmen, V For Vendetta or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. At the height of his ability (before fully giving himself over to being a deranged lunatic) he was commissioned by DC to write two important stories. One was the complete end of Superman and the other was the back-story to the Joker. Prior the story was simply about a criminal who fell into a vat of chemicals, and Moore fleshes the story out give him a life, a motivation and a tragedy that almost makes him sympathetic. This tragic tale is balanced by one of his most infamous acts, an attempt to drive James Gordon insane that has lasting implications on the characters. The final confrontation on the edge of a roof is some of the best writing in comics.
THE MAN WHO LAUGHED by Ed Brubaker
The original image of the Joker was taken the visage of Conrad Veidt from the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’, based on a book y Victor Hugo. Brubaker uses this reference in the title to set the scene for Batman’s first encounter with his arch-nemesis. Retelling the first appearance of The Joker from the 1940’s this is the classic story of the killer clown using his venom to poison the Gotham water supply. It also represents the first time Batman is confronted by a genuine madman instead of a petty crook, forcing him to test him limits in a way that he hasn’t had to before. The Joker owns the story – he’s vicious, deadly and frightening, applying the modern perception of the character to the original story.
JOKER by Brian Azzarello
For the reader looking for something akin to Nolan/Ledger’s version of the Joker, this is the book for you. Beginning with the Joker being let out of Arkham Asylum it follows his climb back to the top of Gotham’s crime ladder told from the perspective of an underworld thug who he takes into his employ. Instead of the cold, calculating perspective of the Dark Knight we see the madman from the point of view of someone who is as much in awe of him as he is frightened of him. This story depicts the brutal, bloodthirsty and unstoppable force of chaos that The Joker is.
MAD LOVE by Paul Dini
These days there’s no including The Joker without having his better half standing in the sidelines. Harley Quinn was created for Batman: The Animated Series and proved so popular that she made the leap to the comics. The bat-brained Jester is never far from the side of her ‘pudd’n’ and is almost equally as insane. This book collects her original stories, as told by her creator, including her back story which is one of the more imaginative origin stories in modern comics. A more cartoony depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime, but sometimes that’s needed!
Check back in soon for the next installment of the BATMAN READING GUIDE – we’ll be tracking down the best Batman Detective tales and the best showcases of Batman’s villain line-up!