Batman is certainly one of the most iconic comic book characters out there. Whether it’s the comic books, the movies, the featured or animated series, or even the video games – Batman has always attracted a lot of fans and a lot of attention. This is why today, we are going to be dealing with Batman again. After a list of his best detective stories and a list of his best Elseworlds stories, we are bringing you a list of the 10 essential Batman comic books each fan absolutely must have in their collection!
DC Comics, for those of you that are not familiar with the story behind the comics, is a major American comic book publisher founded back in 1934. Along with Marcel Comics, it is the most popular comic book publisher in the United States. DC Comics is a major player in the comic book business and is the “home” of many famous comic book characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and many others.
Batman is probably one of the most famous (if not the most famous) comic book character in history. The stories about Gotham City’s Dark Knight have been popular for decades now and have created a multimedia franchise consisting of movies, TV shows, video games and a lot of other merchandise. But, who is Batman?
Batman is the secret superhero alter ego of Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy based in Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is the owner of Wayne Enterprises, a successful company based in Gotham City and is the heir of the Wayne estate. He lives alone in Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham, with his butler and trusted friend, Alfred Pennyworth.
Wayne’s life has been defined by a tragedy he had witnessed as a child. Namely, one night Bruce went to the movies with his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. His father decided to take a shortcut through an alley after exiting the theatre, but he did not know that an unknown mugger was standing there, waiting for his prey. The mugger attacked and ultimately killed both Thomas and Martha Wayne, but spared the life of young Bruce, who was left to the care of Alfred Pennyworth. The mystery of his parents’ murder played an important role in Bruce Wayne’s life and was a key fact in his decision to become the vigilante Batman.
Believing that criminals are a “a cowardly and superstitious lot“, Bruce Wayne decided to put on Batman’s cowl, taking inspiration for the name and the design from a childhood experience with bats.
Frank Miller’s important Batman: Year One comic book depicts Batman’s beginnings as a vigilante in Gotham and since that moment, he has become a symbol of Gotham City and a name used with fear among the city’s criminals. While fighting regular villains and members of his Rogue’s Gallery, Batman has also tried to solve the murder of his parents, ultimately finding out that they were killed by a street criminal named Joe Chill.
The Batman mythos has grown with time and with it also Batman, who has evolved from a solitary vigilante to the leader of the Batman family (or Batfamily), which includes several other superheroes like Batgirl, Batwoman, former Robins Nightwing, Red Robin, Spoiler and others. Currently, Batman is aided by his son Damian Wayne (his mother is Talia al-Ghul, Ra’s al-Ghul’s daughter), who is also the fifth and incumbent Robin.
Batman has been present in other media, as well as in the comic books. The first major adaptation was the 1960s camp TV show starring Adam West, after which there have been several animated adaptations. An important event was Tim Burton’s 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton, that launched a film series during the 1990s. In the same period, Paul Dini created Batman: The Animated Series where Batman was voiced by Kevin Conroy; the show gained a cult following and is generally praised as one of the best adaptations of Batman ever. Christopher Nolan revitalised the movies with his Dark Knight trilogy. Batman is currently a part of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), DC’s response to the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As promised, here’s out list of the ten essential Batman comics you just have to have in your personal collection:
1. The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Klaus Janson
Plot: In a dystopian 1986 Gotham City, Batman has retired and there are no superheroes protecting Gotham. Crime is, once more, rising in Gotham and – after hearing of a possible larger plot from James Gordon – Batman comes out of retirement to end the chaotic reign of “The Mutants”. But, his return also sparkles the return of his nemesis, Joker, who had been in a catatonic state for years. Batman has to fight on two fronts but manages to get help in the form of a girl, Carrie Kelley, who becomes the new Robin. Batman manages to save the day, but his presence becomes a threat to the dystopian government, which sends Superman to talk to Batman.
Significance: If we had to pick just one most important Batman comic it would, without a doubt be Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This comic book is not just the most important Batman comic, it is arguably the most important DC Comics title in history (along with Moore’s Watchmen) and the most important American comic book ever.
Why? Well, it was a game-changing story that marked a completely new area in the history of comic books. The campy Golden, Silver and Bronze ages were done and with this comic came a new, Modern Age of comic books. They became darker, more serious and had a profound artistic quality that made them better than just a weekly source of entertainment.
It could easily be said that with this story – American comic books truly became an artistic genre, and not just a commercial product. The influence of this comic is also enormous and it is without a doubt a story that every Batman collector has to have at home.
Miller also released several sequels and tie-ins, so if you want the complete picture also check out these titles – The Dark Knight Strikes Again, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade, and The Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child.
2. Batman: Year One (1987)
Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Plot: Miller’s legendary story follows Batman’s first year as the Dark Knight of Gotham. It is a completely realistic story that follows his fight against Gotham’s criminal underworld long before the appearance of his Rogues Gallery, but also his first encounter with James Gordon and the development of their future alliance and friendship.
Significance: Miller’s Year One is without a doubt one of the most important and best Batman comics. Not only does it provide a canon story about the beginning of his career, it sets the tone and the setting for his later adventures.
It has been adapted in the form of a great animated movie and has influenced Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy. As far as the story is concerned, due to the fact that this is a realistic story set long before Batman’s Rogues Gallery appeared, it relies heavily on Batman’s investigative and detective work. Because of all of these reasons and its truly vital historical importance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find it on our list.
3. The Killing Joke (1988)
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
Plot: The story follows an unnamed comedian whose life becomes a complete chaos after having just “one bad day”. His pregnant wife was killed in an accident and he is recruited to help a bunch of mobsters break into the local chemical factory. There, after an encounter with Batman, he jumps into a pound lock of chemical waste to escape him. He survived, but with his skin permanently bleached, his hair green and his mind completely shattered. Thus – the Joker was born. Three years later, Batman visits Arkham to end his feud with the Joker, only to realize that he villain had escaped. Meanwhile, Joker went to Jim Gordon’s place, shot his daughter in the spine and kidnapped Gordon, wanting to turn him insane, just like Batman. Batman has to find the Joker, save Gordon, but also his own sanity.
Significance: It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Alan Moore’s work, with The Killing Joke certainly being one of his best graphic novels ever. In this dark, psychologically twisted and disturbing tale, Moore decided to fully embrace the depth of the Modern Age of comics and create a morbid origin story for DC Comics’ most famous supervillain, the Joker.
The story is as frightening as it is brilliant – and it is indeed brilliant – showing us that the line between sanity and complete, utter madness is very thin. Joker wanted Batman to experience that “one bad day” that turned him into the psychopath he is, and he truly did his best to push the Dark Knight to his limits.
The ambiguous ending is one of the most talked-about, most interpreted comic book endings in history and there is absolutely no doubt that The Killing Joke is a must-read and must-have for every Batman fan.
4. A Death in the Family (1988)
Writer: Jim Starlin
Artist: Jim Aparo
Plot: Batman relieves Jason Todd of his duties as Robin, after which the later storms off and goes on the search for his biological mother. Meanwhile, the Joker escapes Arkham once again and gets hold of a nuclear weapon he plans on selling in the Middle East. Batman and Jason reunited in the Middle East and work together, until Jason finds his mother, Sheila Haywood, who – blackmailed by the Joker – hands over her son to the Clown Prince of Crime. Joker tortured Jason with a crowbar and ultimately blows up the warehouse he and his mother were held captive in, killing both of them before Batman can arrive. Batman must confront both the Joker and his own feeling of guilt for not saving Jason.
Significance: While it might not be one of the most cheerful stories involving the Dark Knight, “A Death in the Family” certainly is one of the most important ones. Namely, not only does this story contain a pivotal event in the history of Batman – the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin – it is also famous for the way the storyline was crafted.
Namely, legendary DC editor Dennis O’Neil decided to put Jason’s fate in the hands of the readers. DC Comics opened a special telephone line which the readers would call, choosing whether to keep Jason alive or let him die. It was a truly unique event in the history of American comics, with the readers deciding to kill off Jason Todd by a margin of just 72 votes (5,343:5,271).
This event had a lot of implications in later stories, especially in the exploration of Batman’s psyche and was one of the most famous comic book deaths in history. Luckily for him, Jason Todd was revived in the later Red Hood storyline, reconciling with Batman and becoming a superhero himself.
5. Batman: Knightfall (1993-1994)
Writers: Chuck Dixon, Dennis O’Neil, Doug Moench, et al.
Artists: Jim Aparo, Eduardo Barreto, Klaus Janson, et al.
Plot: This large scale storyline consists of three major narratives and a series of prequel, sequel and tie-in stories that take place over a period of six months. In the first major narrative – “Knightfall” – a new supervillain appears in Gotham. Bane, as he calls himself, is a “super-steroid” criminal mastermind who launches a tactical attack on Batman, draining him both physically and mentally until he finally defeats him in a fight, breaking his back and almost killing him. Batman is saved but is unable to wear the cowl due to his paralysis. In a surprise move, Batman names Jean-Paul Valley, also known as Azrael, as his successor. Although a worthy replacement, Valley is a very different Batman, much more brutal, arrogant and paranoid, which causes problems and alienates him from his helpers. Valley built a new, mechanical Bat-suit and ultimately challenged Bane, defeating him and leaving him broken mentally and physically, just like he did with Batman. Deciding not to kill him, Valley sends him to Blackgate and continues watching over Gotham.
“Knightquest” follows two narratives and is a direct sequel to “Knightfall”. The first narrative follows Valley’s controversial tenure as Batman and his fights against Gotham’s criminals and supervillains; this narrative includes the notorious scene where Valley let the serial killer Abattoir and his victim to die. The second narrative follows Bruce Wayne and Alfred on a quest to find Jack Drake and Shondra Kinsolving.
Ultimately, “KnightsEnd” follows Valley’s breakdown and him becoming a brutal and unacceptable version of Batman. Bruce Wayne demands he step down, but Valley refuses, so Bruce starts to prepare for a confrontation. The final battle is held between Valley and Wayne in the caverns surrounding the Batcave below Wayne Manor. Bruce outsmarts Valley and then manages to defeat him, ultimately letting him go because he himself appointed him as his successor, therefore – he is to blame for his wrongdoings.
Significance: It would take a lot of time and space to talk about how the Knightfall saga changed Batman and his stories. This very large series – now available in three omnibus volumes – was a seminal 1990s storyline that not only introduced Bane to the main continuity, but also went even deeper in Batman’s psyche and became even darker in tone. It changed a lot.
It changed how the readers viewed the until-then unbeatable Batman. It introduced the possibility of an “out-of-control” Batman other than Bruce Wayne himself and it gave a larger role to Jean-Paul Valley, who was until then a supporting character known as Azrael.
Knightfall was a truly entertaining and important story that set the tone for future stories, and it still remains as one of the most important and must-read stories in the Batman mythos. These three omnibus editions are must-have for every true collector.
6. The Long Halloween (1997) / Dark Victory (2000)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Plot: The plot is set during Batman’s early days as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. A mysterious serial killer calling himself Holiday is killing people in Gotham on holidays, one victim each month; the murders are always holiday-themed in some way. Batman has to work with James Gordon and DA Harvey Dent to track down the Holiday Killer, while balancing the power games involving Carmine Falcone and Gotham’s other criminals.
Set several months after the events of The Long Halloween, Dark Victory is actually a direct sequel to the aforementioned story. It follows Batman and Robin in their quest to track down a new serial killer in Gotham, The Hangman, whose methods are very similar to Holiday’s, with his gimmick being the famous word game, instead of holidays. Alongside this, Batman has to deal with Two-Face’s plot to take revenge on Gotham for turning him into a monster.
Significance: The Long Halloween is not just one of the best Batman stories of all time, it is a pivotal story in the development of his character. Unanimously praised, this comic book has gained a large following and has influenced both Christopher Nolan and Matt Reeves in their directorial approaches to Batman.
As far as the detective aspect is concerned, The Long Halloween is a true-crime thriller with very little “supernatural” or “superhero” elements and it could easily be presented as a real-life crime with some “weird” characters, like those you’ll find in David Lynch movies.
Although the case was not solved in a classical Sherlockian manner, Batman’s detective skills were really put to the test. As for Dark Victory, we could simply repeat everything we’ve just said.
Dark Victory is a truly phenomenal sequel that not only capitalizes on the success of The Long Halloween, but does great on its own in developing Batman’s story, his character and the whole mythology.
7. Batman: No Man’s Land (1999)
Authors: Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon, Paul Dini, et al.
Writers: Alex Maleev, Dan Jurgens, Sergio Cariello, et al.
Plot: Following up on the events of Cataclysm, where a strong earthquake struck Gotham and cut it off from the rest of the world, No Man’s Land follows the struggles of Batman and his family, and the GCPD to contain the villains causing chaos in the divided city. The heroes of this universe also get help from other heroes like Superman. No Man’s Land is a truly epic event with a lot of interesting stories, focusing on a lot of individual storylines, both hero- and villain-related.
Significance: No Man’s Land is a seminal and highly influential Batman storyline. It was a truly major in-universe event that showed what would happen when the criminals divided Gotham and took over the city in an already chaotic environment.
This storyline has been loosely adapted in the TV series Gotham and in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Although it didn’t change much globally – although it did impact individual stories – No Man’s Land is without a doubt one of the most interesting and innovative Batman stories ever and is definitely worth your time.
8. Batman: Hush (2003)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Jim Lee
Plot: Batman is stalked by a mysterious new supervillain calling himself Hush, like the children’s lullaby. He seems to know everything about Batman and can predict his every move, which is why the Dark Knight is having much trouble coping with him, while simultaneously dealing with his other foes, a lot of which seem to be – in one way or the other – connected to the mysterious Hush.
Significance: Hush is a pivotal Batman story from the modern area and yet another masterpiece written by Jeph Loeb. The character of Hush debuted in the best possible way and became one of the most interesting and dangerous members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery.
Although it’s not your classical detective story, Hush features a lot of detective elements and the mystery of Hush’s identity is truly great. If you happen to come across an animated movie with the same name, don’t get your hopes up – it’s just a rough adaptation and it’s actually pretty bad, so don’t bother unless you’re a die-hard fan.
Hush is really one of the essential modern stories of the Dark Knight and it really dwells deep into his psyche, which is why we had to include it on our list.
If you manage to come across to the unofficial sequels – Heart of Hush, House of Hush and Hush Money – do not hesitate to complete the story, although a fair warning – they’re very hard to come across because they haven’t been reprinted.
9. Batman: Earth One (2012-2015)
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Plot: Set in the world of the alternative Earth-One, Johns’ original story explores a different development for Batman and Gotham, similar, but slightly different than the original narrative. In the first volume, Johns explores the implications of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne on the “birth” of Batman, who has to fight the corrupt mayor Oswald Cobblepot. Volume Two explores Gotham’s first real supervillain, Riddler, as he tries to fight the corruption of the city using his unorthodox methods. There’s also a “Killer-Croc” down in the sewers of Gotham and a teaser for Volume Three suggesting the appearance of the villain Two-Face.
Significance: Although Johns’ Earth One is not part of the main continuity, it’s still a great Batman story and a nice alternative interpretation of a well-known story. Johns’ narrative is much more realistic than the main Batman stories, making even the supervillains more authentic. If you combine that with Gary Frank’s great artwork, you really get a dark, gritty and down-to-earth story that could easily be ripped from real life headlines.
Johns tried to create a world where Batman could be a real person, where his villains and his stories could be something we read about in the news, and he succeeded with flying marks. Earth One has, despite being a relatively new story, been highly influential and is certainly a piece of comic book art that must be read and owned if you want a good Batman collection.
Be sure to pick up both volumes and keep your fingers crossed for the already teased release of Volume Three.
10. Batman: Endgame (2014)
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Greg Capullo
Plot: After mysteriously disappearing in the “Death of the Family” storyline, Batman’s archenemy Joker returns to Gotham. His first move? Jokerizing the Justice League and ordering them to kill Batman. Batman manages to subdue his allies, but soon realizes that Joker has something bigger in plan. something that’s bigger than anything he’s done before. Joker’s plan is to Jokerize everyone and it is his most ambitious, biggest and scariest plot yet. Batman will need the help of his whole family, but also some anti-Joker enemies to face the Crown Prince of Crime in what promises to be their most epic, but also last confrontation ever.
Significance: The New 52 caused a lot of controversies during its run, but I for one must say that I am a big fan of the whole series and I think it offered some great stories, with the Snyder-Capullo take on Batman is one of the best things the whole series had to offer.
Scott Snyder proved himself to be a true narrative genius, while the art created by Capullo is certainly one of the best Batman comics have ever seen.
While pondering what to pick as an example of the modern stories you have to have in your collection, we considered “Death of the Family”, the Court of Owls saga and this storyline.
Although this is Volume 7 of the Batman ongoing series, we decided to pick it because it was a truly fantastic ending to the Snyder-Capullo saga that started with “Death of the Family” and without a doubt one of the best Joker-centered storylines in the history of Batman comics.
This is a story where both Batman and Joker gave it their all and the final fight between them even landed a spot on our list of the best fights in the history of comic books.
Our advice would be to collect the complete New 52 Batman, but if you’re aiming for just one story – “Endgame” is definitely a must-have. Oh, there’s also a Joker-themed companion book entitled The Joker: Endgame, so be sure to check out those stories as well.
And that’s it for today. We hope you had fun reading this and that we helped solve this dilemma for you. See you next time and don’t forget to follow us!