He is vengeance. He is the night. And he has existed since the 1930s.
If you want to read the best Batman comics, there is seventy years of material at least. He has many iterations, from the somber vampire hunter of the Golden Age to the comical late Adam West from the 1950s. Below are my recommendations for the best Batman comics and stories. And in case you need to hear it: There be spoilers.
Trade Paperbacks and Collections
1. The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, Volumes One and Two
This goes without saying. We will be looking at some of the issues in here, as they do stand out and are remarkable and they reprint some of the single issues mentioned. Batman has changed in many ways, but he’s also stayed the time. Volume Two has Jason Todd’s origins, and reminds us that you can change the art, the sidekicks, and the outfits, but you can’t change Batman’s lasting legacy.
Batman has many rogues, but the Joker tends to steal the show. He has some of the most creative stories, dating from his murderous Golden Age appearance. Yes, Joker killed people when he appeared, and he would have killed the first Robin if not for Batman’s excellent timing. If you want to see how Mr. J has changed and stayed the same over the years, this collection is for you.
3. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
We can argue the merits of The Dark Knight Returns, but its impact is unmistakable. Bruce grows old, loses Jason, but still has to fight for Gotham. Retirement has offered a strange peace he doesn’t want. Before the sequels made everything about an elderly Bruce creepy, he is someone who still cares about the city.
Batman isn’t the only hero in Gotham putting his life on the line. Many cops do as well, like Renee Montoya. After the events of No Man’s Land, where the villain Two-Face helped her rescue earthquake victims, Renee developed a tenuous respect. Of course, Two-Face mistakes this for entitlement and decides he and Renee belong together. In doing so, he misses a key fact when he outs that Renee has a girlfriend: she’s not into him, and she’s lesbian.
Mainstream Batman Comics
I love the Silver Age so much sometimes. We can get really wacky stories with stretches in logic. In this one, Robin in civilian guise wrecks his arm and witnesses a crime in action. Batman waits for a chance to ID the thieves, and in the meantime changes his wardrobe. Robin and the press are equally confused, since Batman normally goes for the mute, night-colored hues. But he has a reason, as absurd as it is.
In this episode, Jim and Batman have a serious conversation about whether Batman trusts and respects Jim. Batman tries to give up his biggest secret.
Neil Gaiman Plus Batman equals Comedy gold. Here, we see a Roger Rabbit–like world where there is no fourth wall, it seems. Batman and Joker are actors going through the motions for their audience. It can be easy to forget that they are entertaining us first.
On that note, the Joker works with a former film legend to make his image better. “Better” translates to being treated as the criminal he is. Batman finds out he’s the unwilling costar when Joker starts faking crimes as a means to get better publicity.
For the Joker, getting a tough room can be murder. This time, however, he has a personal reason for going to a comedy club for his stand-up routine. While I don’t approve of The Killing Joke, this is a nice hint of continuity to remind us that the Joker was once a normal person. It makes his transition into a supervillain much scarier.
In a complete 180 from the previous recommendation, the Joker takes a game show hostage, but does not kill anyone. Of course that doesn’t reassure the contestants since the Joker could kill them at any time. It’s what makes the Joker scary; we know the joke but not the punchline.
Poison Ivy is a villain who grows sympathetic the more time passes. She’s an ecoterrorist who becomes part plant and seeks to save the Earth from humanity. Batman rarely finds common ground with her, but in this story he’s able to sympathize with her good intentions.
Bruce Wayne takes several kids out camping. Each has their own perspective on who Batman is, and they scoff when Bruce tries to show them the real Dark Knight. It’s a nice riff on what Batman means to the next generation. Later on, The New Batman Adventures would unknowingly borrow the same idea, albeit homaging the various Batman eras via the kids’ stories, and Bruce in the DCAU doesn’t hold random camping trips.
9. JLA: New World Order 1-4
If aliens invade Earth, and start trying to “solve” its problems, you better have Batman on your side. The Justice League is suspicious when aliens bring their White Man’s Burden and convince everyone on Earth to turn against the League.
You need a story that replaces the vile qualities of The Killing Joke, and Oracle: Year One is that. It covers the emotional and physical fallout of Barbara Gordon getting shot and tormented by the Joker, and her determination to reinvent herself, to make something new out of her trauma. The art is also detailed, and conveys Barbara’s distress, making her a person and not someone stuffed into the fridge.
The Pre–Car Thief Jason Todd Stories
These deserve their own entry because Jason didn’t get justice. The original Jason was a circus kid, much like Dick, and the two had a sibling-like relationship. Before Jim Starlin turned Jason into an angry punk and car thief, he was a cute blond goofball that dyed his hair to become Robin.
- Detective Comics # 525–26 This was Jason Todd’s origin. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, asks Jason’s parents to assist in staking out Killer Croc. He knows them from the circus business. Their detective work doesn’t end well. Jason, in the meantime, finds out Bruce’s secret and decides to join in on the fun, while showing he’s able to think on his feet and highly acrobatic. Joker then discovers an ultimate villain team-up and wants to use it to benefit himself.
- Detective Comics #571 Scarecrow captures Robin and giving Batman a toxin that removes all of the Dark Knight’s fears and inhibitions. Batman has to battle. It turns out he’s been running an extortion ring for thrill-seeking athletes. We get reminders that Jason, for all his bravado and acrobatics, is still a kid. He’s new to the Robin job, and wants to do his best, but it means that villains can catch him off-guard. Batman also has to remind himself of the greatest fear he has—losing Jason—to save his partner.
- Batman #412 She is the Mime, a performance artist that plays to steal, shoot or shock. Without words, she appears almost helpless. Jason makes his opinion on mimes clear: he hates them. Batman is soon inclined to agree, because the Mime, for all her puppy dog eyes, is putting on an act.
The Batman Adventures, Batman & Robin Adventures, and Gotham Adventures Comics
These were the spinoff comic that went with both Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures. It is quite remarkable in how many stories, from the lighthearted to the serious, could dominate this sphere. If you want to read the whole series, check out the complete Batman & Robin Adventures, and Batman Adventures.
Mad Love is THE comic that defines why the Harley Quinn and Joker relationship is messed up. We see how Harleen Quinzel fell for the Joker when she was interning at Arkham, and how he used his multiple tragic backstories to convince her he was a misunderstood soul. With that said, I would recommend that if you are going to see any version of Mad Love apart from this comic, I prefer The New Batman Adventures‘s take on it. We get a lot more depth, and more sympathy from Harley’s perspective. The comic here implies that Harleen manipulated her way to an MD, while the episode shows that she made her way legitimately.
2. Gotham Adventures No. 19 by Scott Peterson
The second Robin, Tim Drake, is depressed by typical grim and gritty Gotham. He wants a typical silly clown in a costume who isn’t a real threat. Nightwing and Batgirl try their best to comply by dressing up as cartoonish villains. While Tim is amused, he can see through their disguises and snarks about their themes. We get some great dialogue, and insight into what Tim wants out of the hero life.
It’s one of the few times that both sides of Two-Face—the good Harvey Dent and Big Bad Harv—agree to get revenge. They hijack a game show where their abusive father is playing to win. Two-Face reveals that his father was a gambling addict who hurt him and his mother. Revenge sometimes feels great, when it comes in twos.
The movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm showed that people could do dark stories, with a lot of heart and humor to go with the tragedy. Shadows and Masks is a follow-up to the film, to show what happened to the Phantasm and Andrea Beaumont. Batman, still reeling from the tragedy and his broken heart, refuses to keep water under the bridge.
A publisher commissions Harley to write a book, for the publicity. Harley is willing to type away; Joker doesn’t want her to finish the story, believing it to be a tell-all. It turns out that Harley isn’t just doing the writing for the money. There’s also some dark comedy with how Joker plans to murder Harley for writing about their life, but then plans to murder her on learning her story is a novel about Harley’s author avatar dating “Catman.”
If you need a hilarious story, then you have this one. Ivy manages to snare Robin when he corners Harley, and he soon becomes a formidable henchman while brainwashed. In the meantime, Harley grows jealous because Ivy pays more attention to the criminal Robin.
This story is about a humanitarian who, out of grief for his son, puts a bounty on the killer. Unfortunately, the killer is the Joker. It’s a huge question for Batman on how often he can save villains.
The Joker gets insulted when he finds out the Batman comics that are produced always show him losing. (Try not to think about it too much.) So he tries to kidnap the artist to make a story where he does win. It doesn’t go well.
The Joker decides to hack into Gotham’s television systems and host his own channel, JTV. He acquires guests by kidnapping them, including Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. The Batman cartoon would later use the JTV concept, with a lesser impact.
Batman rescues a baby that has nuclear codes in its DNA. He then gets some lessons on child-rearing from Alfred as well as from some muggers and their would-be victim.
Batman Strikes! Comics
These were the comics released in tandem with The Batman, the Matsuda show that aired in the early ’00s. The comics in general read better than the show, because they’re given more license to appeal to an older audience. I would totally recommend reading all fifty issues if you can, and checking out the trade paperbacks: Volume One, Two, and Three. One key difference in this universe is that Poison Ivy is Barbara Gordon’s age, and Harley Quinn was a talk show host rather than a clinical psychiatrist. Also, Kirk Langstrom likes changing into Man-Bat, and the first Clayface is Ethan Bennett, a detective and Bruce’s childhood friend.
Joker and Harley Quinn go on a rampage when a comedian claims he’s the funniest man in Gotham. (Never do this in Gotham if you want to live, mind.) They take poor Corwin and gas him up, while preparing for a better show, or so they claim. The Bat-Family comes to the rescue as a frozen Corwin deals with paralysis and unwanted fans.
Poison Ivy breaks out of Arkham, and each time her goal is different. When she’s incarcerated the first time, it’s an adjustment period for her and her friend Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl; Barbara doesn’t want to see Ivy locked up, having known her as Pamela Isley, who was a normal if extreme activist. Batman also has mixed feelings since Pamela is young compared to his other rogues. The comics in general handled the relationship between Barbara and Ivy better, and showed more character on Ivy’s part. Barbara regrets how things have gone, but Batgirl won’t restrain her blows against her friend. The second time, it’s just Batman and Robin, but we see how isolating Ivy’s incarceration is due to the Arkham guards having to avoid her mind control. Ivy wants compassion, plants, and freedom, but she can only use plants to hurt others when free.
Batman puts Batgirl in charge of Gotham while he takes Robin on a training mission to Tibet. Cleaning up rogues like Ragdoll is child’s play, but Catwoman and Harley Quinn are another story. Before Batgirl can take them in, however, she finds out they’re trying to rescue Poison Ivy from a cigarette company where she vanished. Since she and Ivy have a history, Barbara decides to team up with the villains to rescue her friend. Unlike in the DCAU spinoff comics where a similar scenario happened, Batgirl wins the endgame. There’s a reason that Bruce trusts her.
Harley Quinn is a few years older than Ivy, so they can’t have the same relationship they had in previous versions. The age difference means that Ivy is a “kid” to the former talk show host, who does want to help people but will not engage in an ambiguous romantic relationship. For another, Ivy really has no power over Harley to reason with her or offer her a better life. Instead, Harley ends up doing that in this issue when she frees Ivy on a whim after busting out of Arkham. (Also note that in this universe, Joker WILL send Harley means of escaping out of Arkham with no thought to his personal gain.) Harley tries her best to cheer up Ivy, the “kid” of the villains, by taking her on lavish outings at flower shops and restaurants that serve steak. Ivy is having none of it, until she and Harley have an honest conversation about what they wanted out of life. They want to have normalcy, and a chance to be happy, but being Gotham villains their sense of “happiness” causes a moral hazard. As Batman and Robin point out to Commissioner Gordon, at the end, it could have been much worse.
Batman really hates it when his former friends become villains. In this case, Ethan Bennett, a former cop, was poisoned and became Clayface by losing his mind to Joker’s serum. Batman and Detective Ellen Yin, Ethan’s partner, hope to save their friend, but seem to lose him every time. In this issue, Clayface poses as Catwoman to commit burglaries, and Ellen Yin has to confront her former partner for having become a shadow of his former, non-criminal self.
Some psychology students are visiting Arkham. It turns out that one of them had Dr. Langstrom as a teacher. Soon Man-Bat turns the asylum into a horror house, but he’s not the only bat that the students are fleeing. It’s a perfect tale for Halloween. People can run, but they can’t hide from the dark knight, especially in the shadows.
As the Batman and Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred rarely gets sleep. This time, it’s because Penguin sent an owl to assassinate Batman. Bruce Wayne has to balance his many social obligations with finding this Rogue, but he can multitask. Alfred also shows he doesn’t need a gun to pose as a threat.
1. Dark Night: A True Batman Story by Paul Dini
This is an autobiographical comic about when Paul Dini was mugged, while he was working on Batman, and why he had to turn to the Dark Knight for guidance. It’s very bitter, honest, and hopeful; Dini isn’t amused when the cops joke that Batman should have been there for him, but Harley Quinn’s voice actress Arleen Sorkin would have interrupted her date to help out her writer friend. Dini bares his soul, and his injuries from the mugging, for the reader to see.
Robin, confirmed in the 2003–06 animated Teen Titans universe (FINALLY) to be Dick Grayson and not Tim Drake, remembers the anniversary of his parents’ death. He doesn’t want to spend it with his friends, though they are sympathetic and want to help. Cyborg spars, while Raven offers her insight and Beast Boy his humor. Starfire has to tell Robin that it’s all right to grieve, and to show vulnerability. It turns out Batman is watching over his adoptive son from afar, and is relieved he isn’t alone.
This is a really cute webcomic with a hilarious take on the Bat-Family. Batman’s Robins—Dick, Jason and Tim—and future Batman Terry are his sons, making them one big happy family. Rather, they’re happy most of the time. Batman balances crime-fighting with parenting, competing with Green Arrow, and making sure Terry never grows from babyhood. You have to read this just for the mood lift.
4. Dwayne McDuffie’s Batman pitches
Sadly, they’re offline from his website, but one of the late Dwayne McDuffie’s pitches can still be read here: a sequel to The Killing Joke where Barbara seeks to avenge Batman and the Joker paralyzing her. The other was an Elseworlds where an elderly Bruce Wayne tells the neighborhood kids that Batman was a black man—and had to face many obstacles to fight crime. If anyone can find this pitch, can you let it go for me?
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