Despite Batman being one of the most iconic comic book characters, there are a lot of fans of the Caped Crusaded who’ve never read any of the comic books or graphic novels featuring him. This is due to the fact that Batman is present in other media, people generally know him through movies, video games or TV shows, but Batman’s lies within the comic book narratives that a lot of people skip. This is why we have decided to continue our Batman comic book guides with the 10 best Batman comics to start with if you plan on reading the comic books.
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 – An Introduction
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.
This is our list of the ten Batman comics you should start with if you want to read the stories involving the Dark Knight:
1. 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, but it also sets the tone and the setting for his later adventures.
Since this is chronologically the first case Batman has ever solved in his long-running crime-fighting career, it is more than obvious why this is the best comic book to begin with. It has also 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.
2. Batman: The Long Halloween (1997)
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.
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 tone and genre of this story are 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. This is actually one of Batman’s earliest cases.
It combines elements from the pre-Rogues Gallery area (the mobs of Gotham, including both Falcone and Maroni) with his Rogues Gallery in creating a uniquely interesting and entertaining story that is a brilliant way to enter the world of Batman.
3. The Man Who Laughs (2005)
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Doug Mahnke
Plot: Set in the early days of Batman’s crime fighting career, The Man Who Laughs tells the story of the Joker’s first crime in Gotham City, while simultaneously affirming the character’s origin story presented in The Killing Joke. In this story, Joker embarks on a killing spree to challenge Batman, who must stop the new supervillain before he poisons Gotham City’s water supply.
Significance: The Man Who Laughs was met with very positive reactions upon debut, with critics comparing it positively to Moore’s The Killing Joke. While we’re talking about Moore, this storyline affirmed the Joker’s origin as was described by Moore in his pivotal graphic novel.
Continuity-wise, The Man Who Laughs seems to be a sequel to both Year One and Batman and the Mad Monk, whose last scene is the first scene of this graphic novel.
This story had to be on our list because it is not just a great story from the beginning of Batman’s career, but also a very important work that establishes and outlines the basic elements of Batman’s mythos, which is why it serves as a truly great introductory work that you should definitely consult when starting to read Batman comics.
4. Dark Victory (2000)
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Tim Sale
Plot: Set several months after the events of The Long Halloween, Dark Victory is actually a direct sequel to the afore mentioned 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: Although not considered to be as good as The Long Halloween, Dark Victory has still received positive reactions and is considered a must-read for Batman fans.
This comic is the conclusion to the main arc of the Loeb-Sale series (Catwoman: When in Rome is a tie-in story set outside the main arc, even outside Gotham) and gives an even better insight into Batman’s early days. It is still a very realistic story and makes good use of Batman’s advanced detective skills.
Due to having a very similar tone to its predecessor and still being set in the early days of Batman’s crime-fighting career, Dark Victory is certainly a great story to get you into the world of Batman.
5. 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.
As for it being a good starter, The Killing Joke is an in-depth look into the origin presented in The Man Who Laughs, but with a much darker twist. The twist (main story) is not set that early in Batman’s career, but the complete narrative of the graphic novel as well as its connection to Batman’s early days secured it a place on this list, as a comic book that is definitely a great introduction to the darker side of Batman’s stories.
6. “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.
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. It is nearly impossible to start reading Batman comic books and skip “A Death in the Family”, one of the most important narratives involving the Dark Knight.
This story is a really good insight into the Batman mythos, presenting a narrative that has shaped the Dark Knight’s career in so many ways.
7. “Under the Hood” (2006)
Writer: Judd Winnick
Artists: Doug Mahnke, Eric Battle, Shane Davis
Plot: Years after Joker’s murder of Jason Todd, the second Robin, a mysterious figure calling himself Red Hood – a reference to Joker’s first criminal alter ego – emerges in Gotham. Batman seems to be connected to the mysterious newcomer, but he cannot believe that the Red Hood really is who he is. Red Hood wants revenge and his intended victims are both Joker and Batman, but in very different ways.
Significance: “Under the Hood”, although not a direct sequel, is a tie-in to the famous “A Death in the Family” storyline that we’ve already mentioned in this article.
This story ultimately retconned Jason Todd’s death in the best possible way, simultaneously reintroducing the character to the main narrative continuity and exploring Batman’s shattered psyche. “Under the Hood” deals with the consequences of a famous event, its implications and further explores not just Batman’s relationship to his friends and family, but also his moral code.
If you add the positive reviews, you have a truly great Batman story that you must read. Why is it good as a starter story? Well, although it happens later in Batman’s career, “Under the Hood” is an important part of Batman’s mythos and a story that is a great introduction to a lot of the basic elements that one must know if he wants to fully explore Batman’s world.
8. “Zero Year” (2014)
Writers: Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV
Artists: Greg Capullo, Rafael Albuquerque
Plot: The origin story of the New 52 Batman, “Zero Year” chronicles Batman’s return to Gotham after being absent for years and commencing the career of a masked vigilante. His main enemy? The mysterious Edward Nygma, who is very soon going to become one of Batman’s greatest foes – The Riddler.
Significance: Batman’s redefined origin story for the New 52 imprint was significantly different than the origins presented in Year One and related materials.
Writer Scott Snyder wanted something different, so he pits a young, inexperienced Batman up against an emerging Riddler. Although Snyder kept some elements from Miller’s story, this was a completely original take on Batman’s origin and just like all of Snyder’s Batman stories, an unbelievable and amazing ride.
Assuming that you are going to move on to newer comics at one point, “Zero Year” is the best way to start the contemporary Batman stories, as it chronicles the Dark Knight’s beginnings and sets the tone for all future New 52 stories featuring the Caped Crusader. So, when beginning with the newer stories, this is the one you should start with.
9. “Night of the Owls” (2012)
Writers: Scott Snyder
Artists: Greg Capullo
Plot: Despite this being a very large event taking place in several comic book titles, Synder’s Court of Owls saga is primarily a Batman story that deals the Dark Knight’s fight against a secret organisation that is as old as Gotham City itself. Digging deep into the history and mythology of Gotham City, the Court of Owls saga pits Batman against one of his most dangerous foes ever.
Significance: After you finish “Zero Year”, the “Night of the Owls” is certainly a must-read. This original story introduced a new group of supervillains to Batman’s Rogues Gallery and was met with critical acclaim for its original approach and the expansion of Batman’s mythos.
The Court of Owls saga has quickly become a classic and a must-read for all Batman fans, but it is also an essential modern starter work that chronicles the beginnings of Batman’s New 52 career.
10. 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: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns 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.
As for this list, we’ve decided to put it here despite its alternative Earth setting because it is really one of the most important Batman stories ever. It is a good insight into a darker, more serious Batman and a great introduction to all those stories main continuity stories that deal with darker topic.
Essentially, there is no list of important or best Batman comics without Miller’s master-piece. 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.
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!