It’s probably easier to introduce Batman to a new reader than any other comic book character. There are three self-contained stories that are at the top of any “Best Of” list—among the five best comic books ever according to a Wizard list—and then there are a handful of other stories that include other oft-referenced elements of the series.
There is an obvious place to start.
Frank Miller’s Batman
Frank Miller will always be considered the best Batman writer on the strength of his two stories about the beginning and end of the caped crusader’s career. Batman: Year One with artist David Mazzuchelli focused on Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham City after years of training, contrasting his story with Commissioner Gordon’s. The Dark Knight Returns has a middle-aged Batman coming out of retirement after a decade away. There is heated debate over which of the two is the best Batman story, with the general understanding that the other story is still second-best.
The Dark Knight Returns has defined much of what we associate with Batman, showing the vigilante as a grim methodical action hero. It represents a dark future for the hero, although it is very much a work of the 1980s, with Gotham City similar to Pre-Giuliani New York City, as politicians opt for what is trendy over what is effective, psychologists blame law enforcement for the actions of criminals, and the cold war threatens even Superman. In recent years, especially after Flashpoint, elements of the story have been incorporated into the regular Batman books, to say nothing of the antagonistic take on the Batman-Superman relationship.
Year One is the best prequel in comics, focusing on the icon as a novice. Much of the story was incorporated in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, with the introduction of Carmine Falcone, the corrupt cops in Gotham City and certain memorable tricks of Batman’s. One surprise is how much the story focuses on James Gordon, paralleling his discovery of what Gotham City is really like with Bruce Wayne’s.
Plus, as a friend in High School noted while looking over my shoulder, the art sure is pretty.
Batman: The Killing Joke
This 48 page story is the most significant encounter between Batman and the Joker. It took about two years of artist Brian Bolland’s life, although writer Alan Moore has come to regret it for various complicated reasons. He’s wrong. It may be the best story to deal with what makes Batman tic as he tries to bring the cycle of violence with his archenemy to an end, just as the Joker commits his worst atrocities yet. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the sad story of an out of work comedian struggling to support his pregnant wife, getting drawn into the Red Hood gang. This is one of those definitive works in which superhero comics grew up. It was also a major influence on Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker in The Dark Knight.
The Killing Joke was recolored for a deluxe hardcover, along with commentary and a seven page short story Bolland wrote and drew for the Batman: Black and White anthology. Under most circumstances, a cover price of 18 bucks for 55 pages of content is a bad deal, but it’s worth it for a story this rich and detailed. If you’re cheap, it has been reprinted in a TPB of Alan Moore’s DC Universe work, including his Superman stories. And you should be able to find one of the multiple printings in back issue bins for the five dollar cover price.
Batman: Strange Apparitions (Detective Comics #469-476)
The short-lived run by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers is the best argument for allowing good creative teams to tell one story with a character, and sending them on their merry way before things get stale. The eight issue arc features key moments from the Batman comics, including the second most iconic battle with the Joker, one of Batman’s greatest romances, and key battles against Hugo Strange and Deadshot, two villains who went from obscure members of the rogues gallery to mainstays of the DC Universe over the course of the story.
Batman: The Long Halloween
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale build on the crime families introduced by Miller in Batman: Year One with a murder mystery that pits the new hero against many of his greatest foes. The story includes defining appearances by Scarecrow, Riddler and Poison Ivy. It also features the best comic book version of one of the most iconic Batman stories: the downfall of Harvey Dent. The violent transition from a world in which crime families ruled Gotham City to one in which the freaks were in charge was used by Christopher Nolan in The Dark Knight.
The Joker/ The Joker Returns from Batman #1 (1940)
There is a value in experiencing the Batman comics by the Golden Age creative team of writer Bill Finger, and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, but those comics don’t tend to hold up very well. The major exception is the first appearances of the Joker, two stories published in Batman #1. He almost seems too vicious to be a comic book villain, like something out of a different series, combining Batman’s Shadow inspired trappings with the great unseen horror movie. Good stuff.
The Best of Dennis O’Neil/ Neal Adams (Batman #232, 243-244, 251)
“Daughter of the Demon” from Batman #232 introduced Ra’s al Ghul, who would quickly become one of the most notable villains of the entire DC Universe, while Talia al Ghul would be one of Batman’s main love interests. The Demon Lives Again! from Batman #243-244 featured a climactic battle with Ra’s, which also introduced the concept of the Lazaras Pit, a device that turned him from an interesting new villain into a legend, with the deep history that centuries of ass-kicking can provide. These issues were collected in Batman: Tales of the Demon, and it happens to have some excellent art from Neal Adams, possibly the most acclaimed Batman artist.
The other essential O’Neal/ Adams story, the Joker’s Five Way Revenge! from Batman #251 reintroduced Batman’s greatest enemy, and includes some of the most iconic visuals from the series’s history. It’s much of the stuff we would associate with the Joker, restoring a sense of menace to the clown prince. Because before this issue came out, the exploding cigar was just an innocent gag.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
A rare superhero comic from artist Dave McKean, this was Grant Morrison’s first take on Batman, a mainstay on top ten lists. This was the story that established Arkham Asylum as the creepiest place on Earth, although more terrifying than that is the story of the guy who built the place. Fair warning, the expressionistic art may be off-putting.
Future Courses For Batman Majors
There is a lot of other great material available with Batman, and I’ll cover that in later entries. Many of the other great Batman stories are self-contained, and readily accessible to any inquiring reader. The stories listed here provide the essentials, to best appreciate all the other stuff. IGN made a list of the Top 25 Batman graphic novels, which had a lot of overlap with the Complex.com list.
It’s also conceivable that recent stories by Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder will come to be seen as essential to understanding the character, although it is too soon to gauge the impact. Those also aren’t the best places to start reading the Batman comics, just because both runs build so effectively on the earlier foundations.