Little known fact: there’s a new movie about Batman opening this weekend.
Now, before you open up a Wikipedia tab desperately trying to figure out who this “Batman” character is, chances are you’ve probably already heard of him. After all, the character has been around for 73 Goddamn years and has been featured in the most popular and beloved superhero TV shows and movies ever made. These days, the character is best known for director Christopher Nolan’s mature version in his Dark Knight film trilogy that wraps up in a matter of days. If you find yourself walking out of the theater from The Dark Knight Rises this weekend with tears in your eyes lamenting the fact that Nolan’s psychologically twisted and real-world based Batman is no more, then fear not!
Provided that you don’t have an aversion to reading, there are plenty of stories out there dedicated to the Cape Crusader with a very similar style and tone. Nolan may have perfected a specific version of Batman for the big screen, but not without being influenced by years of dark n’ intelligent graphic novels that established the seemingly fresh cinematic take that we all know and love. With that in mind, we’d like to humbly present a list of the five finest graphic novels on the market for fans of Chris Nolan’s Batman. If you’re an avid comic book reader, you will have finished these graphic novels long ago, but an extra round won’t hurt. However, if you’ve never dipped into Batman comics or only read the classic tales from continuity, get ready for your mind to be blown all over the pages of these magnificent books. I recommend lining your floor with newspaper before reading. You can just never predict when brain explosions or bodily fluid surges will happen when the material is this good.
5) Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth (1989)
Combining the dream team talents of superhero writing superstar Grant Morrison and painterly Sandman artist Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth was released the same year that Tim Burton’s Batman movie kicked off another round of Bat-mania and was a ludicrously successful book in 89. It’s not exactly an action packed adventure for anyone desperate to see Batman knock around bad guys with his fists (though there is a pretty sweet Killer Croc fight in there), instead it’s a more poetic and almost surreal dreamlike journey into the Dark Knight’s psyche. Backed by some wall-mount worthy impressionistic visuals by McKean, this is almost like an art film twist on the concept of the obscenely (and deservingly) popular Arkham Asylum videogame. Much like that tale, the lunatics have literally taken over the asylum and The Joker has specific plans for Batman. He wants to turn Batman insane like the many villains he’s incarcerated over the years and along the way we also learn of the secret origin of Arkham founder Amadeus in a story more suited to a mind-fuck horror movie than a comic book.
Arkham Asylum is closer to a work of art than a funny book story and while the artist/writer’s twin ambitious can reach a little too far at times (like, ahem, the “Batman as Jesus” parallels), this is easily one of the most successfully serious spins of the Caped Crusader. Batman has always been the most psychologically complex superhero kicking around comic book shops and this book delves directly into his metal issues, with the Joker and a host of freaks playing psychiatrist for our favorite superhero with issues. Other comics on this list will give you more bang and ass-kickery along with thematic complexity, but if you’re looking for a think piece about a man in tights, it doesn’t get much better than this. McKean’s art alone is worth the price of admission, transforming familiar sights and characters into hallucinatory imagery that showcases Batman’s world as a place of madmen and nightmares. Holy Freudian analysis, Batman!
4) Batman: The Long Halloween (1996/1997)
If there’s one comic book take on Batman that’s closest to the tone of Chris Nolan’s world, it would have to be Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s seminal The Long Halloween (Nolan has name dropped it many times, so that’s not just me being silly). Published in the late 90s, the 13-issue run came out of Loeb and Sale’s impressive collaboration on a series of Halloween specials for DC’s Legends Of The Dark Knight Series. Those were all fun one-offs, but The Long Halloween was something special. Opening with an homage to The Godfather, the series tried to transfer Batman into a similar epic crime narrative (sound familiar?). Someone in Gotham has decided to get a little attention by killing off high profile mob members on every major holiday. Dubbed the Holiday Killer (creative, right?) he seems like a new gimmicky villain for Batman at first, but as the case wears on the crime appears to have more personal ramifications. All of Batman’s rogue gallery villains make an appearance at some point in that distinctly real/oddball Sale art approach. Yet, the heart of the story is in Gotham’s gangsters. That milieu is closer to our world than a city run by costumed psychopaths and simply plopping Batman into that setting makes him a far more realistic character by association.
Of course, like any great graphic novel, the material is driven by the writing. Loeb crafts a long, twisty, satisfying narrative worthy of the classic crime movie comparisons he invites. Without delving too deeply into spoilers for the uninitiated, the way the mystery wraps up is more than a little reminiscent of a major plot threat in The Dark Knight and the world in general feels closer to Nolan’s creation than most Batman tales. If you’re a long-time fan of the character, it’s amazing how many aspects of the mythology Loeb weaves into this alternate history tale set early in The Dark Knight’s early days. For the unfamiliar, it’s a great entry point. Almost like a continuation of a certain famous twist on Batman origin story that we’ll be getting to soon enough on this list. Loeb and Sale would return to this specific version of Batman in the direct sequel Dark Victory and while it’s not quite as strong, it’s also a must read particularly for fans of The Long Halloween. In addition to wrapping up the few threads left open here, the dynamic Batman-loving duo also managed to create a credible origin for Robin, which ain’t exactly easy unless you have an uncomfortable understanding for grown man/young boy relationships.
3) The Killing Joke (1988)
If you’re a fan of Batman, then you’re a fan of the Joker. It’s as simple as that. There are few ying-yang relationships as perfect in the history of comics and no Joker tale is greater than Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s psychotic one off dedicated to the crown prince of crime at his most sadistic. There had been many Joker outings that established the characters darkest impulses before The Killing Joke (like say The Laughing Fish or The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge), but nothing quite like this. Moore and Bolland’s twisted Joker origin tale changed the character forever. Within a year he had killed Robin in DC Universe continuity and Tim Burton would declare it his favorite comic book, inspiring him to take the reigns on his groundbreaking Batman feature. It’s also impossible to imagine Heath Ledger’s instantly iconic take on the character without The Killing Joke providing the actor with such incredible source material. All that and Alan Moore has still disowned the book. Oh that wacky bearded man.
The plot concerns The Joker’s attempt to prove that one bad day is all it takes to turn a good man into a psychopath (again, sound familiar?). In this case, he desires to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, and has permanently paralyzed Gordon’s daughter to do so. We also get to see the character’s pathetic origin as a wronged, failed comedian determined to inflict similar tragedies on the lives of others and laugh hysterically about it. The book is a masterfully and simply told tale. Moore nimbly juggles thematic concerns and narrative momentum as only he can, turning in a ripping yarn with a satisfying emotional and intellectual core. Bolland’s artwork is equally memorable, churning out a Joker design much copied and never equaled (his panel depicting the moment the Joker snapped is one of the great images in comics). Joker stories just don’t get any better than this, with even Nolan/Ledger borrowing heavily from these game-changing 48 pages. A must read, even for someone who has never picked up a comic book.
2) Batman: Year One (1987)
Bob Kane may have created Batman and God bless him for that. However, if we’re talking about the contemporary damaged human version of Batman that has become the standard, equal credit must be given to Frank Miller. Than man who loves kung fu fighting hookers changed the way the public viewed Batman with two seminal series in the 80s. We’ll get to his first and most infamous take in a minute, but for now let’s focus on Miller’s take on Batman’s origin in Year One. There’s no major villain in this piece (unless you count the BDSM cameo from Cat Woman), instead the focus is on the mindset of a man who decides to dress up like a bat to fight crime. There’s no reliance on one-liners or a city destroying threat as Miller follows the twin narratives of Gotham’s lone honest cop Jim Gordon and the city’s craziest billionaire Bruce Wayne at the moment they both become disgusted with the filthy, corrupt streets of their city and choose their own noble paths to stop it. In the process, the pair form their lifelong partnership.
Miller’s Gotham is more like the filthy streets of Taxi Driver than a comic book world. His Batman is hardly an expert crime fighter at first, as prone to idiotic mistakes and potentially deadly injuries as any nutcase in a costume. At the same time, his Jim Gordon is almost like a righteous Clint Eastwood action hero, a man who will deal out justice with his fists (or a baseball bat) before he has Batman to do it for him. The whole thing comes wrapped up in the same hyper-masculine tone that has earned Miller scorn in recent years. Yet in the 80s and in the world of Batman, it was a revelation. By the time this four-issue series was complete, the nature of the character was never the same again. It was a massive influence on Batman Begins, with Nolan borrowing the general concept and throwing in references to several key sequences (when Batman calls on an army of bats, the extended Batman/police chase, the general Batman/Gordon relationship, etc). It’s not quite the same of course, but then Nolan and Miller’s takes on Batman aren’t quite the same either. In a perfect world we also would have also gotten a chance to see Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan, Pi) planned R-rated collaboration with Miller on a direct adaptation of Year One in addition to Nolan’s film. That didn’t happen, but fortunately books still exist in the digital age and Batman: Year One is still available to be studied and cherished.
1) The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Finally, there’s really only one book that could possibly top this list. An ambitious young whippersnapper version of Frank Miller was given unprecedented control to reinvent Batman for the growing adult comic book readership of the 80s and created something that, without exaggeration, changed comic books forever. His four-issue graphic novel imagined a future where Batman came out of retirement as a 55-year-old man and returned to crime-fighting with a vengeful bloodlust that turned a cartoon superhero into a possible psychopath. Through Miller’s usual wacko style, Batman took on a series of vicious mutants, murdered the Joker, and eventually Superman was brought in as the only person who could take the Dark Knight down. It’s a fantastic story that has aged surprisingly well. Sure a few Regan references and some of Miller’s cyberpunk designs unavoidably date the comic, but at least in a charming way.
While this dark take on Batman has informed both Burton and Nolan’s interpretation of the character, Miller pushes his anti-hero psychosis father than has ever been attempted in a film. When it was announced Nolan’s trilogy capper would be called The Dark Knight Rises rather than the more obvious moniker of The Dark Knight Returns, my hope was that meant somewhere years down the line Nolan and co. might return to the universe for a variation on what is arguably the finest Batman story ever told. Chances are that’s just wishful thinking, but you never know. Every other book on this list has been pillaged for a film, animation, or videogame adaptation. The Dark Knight Returns remains the definitive Batman story to exist entirely in comic books. Now, that will change this year when DC releases the first chapter of their two-part animated adaptation (following up their stellar adaptation of Year One), but hopefully that won’t be the only time this panel-bound tale is put into motion. A direct cinematic adaptation wouldn’t be possible as Miller’s most extreme digressions just don’t work in live action, but there are plenty of ideas here for an amazing film that will hopefully make it to screens one day. However, for now it remains the definitive comic to buy for anyone intrigued by the brain-tingling twisted potential of Batman as a character. A book too good to only be read by kids and nerds, it’s something ever Batman lover must experience at least once.
*Honorable Mentions: In the interest of saving space, the list was kept to five titles. However, if you’re familiar with these takes and want some deeper Batman cuts, or just want more books to read when those five are done, these three Batman tales also deserve attention.
Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? (2009)
Neil Gaiman was invited to write a conclusion to Detective Comics for DC in 2009 and came up with a loving 2-issue homage to Batman’s legacy that tips its cap to Alan Moore’s infamous Superman capper, “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow.” A carefully worded meditation on what Batman means in our culture, Gaiman spins a series of alternative Batman deaths at an imagined funeral before settling on a philosophical farewell/new beginning. It’s a book perhaps more for Gaiman fans than Batman fanboys, but still a rather fascinating piece of writing deserving of more attention nonetheless.
Mad Love (1994)
This Eisner-award-winning comic gave Batman: The Animated Series behind-the-scenes stars Paul Dini and Bruce Timm a chance to create an origin story for their franchise addition Harley Quinn without having to deal with the strict restrictions of children’s television programming. A perverted love story between a former criminal psychologist and The Joker, this is a hidden gem in the Batman back catalogue that deserves to be ranked amongst the greats.
A Death In The Family (1988-1989)
Finally, if you’re looking for a slice of Batman continuity as dark as any of the Moore/Miller one-offs at the time, look no further. DC set up a possible “Death of Robin” storyline and gave fans a chance to vote for the outcome like a geeky (instead of Greeky) night at the Coliseum. The fanboys surprisingly chose to kill the little bastard and the result is easily one of the darkest moments in Batman’s not exactly cheery history. Sure, it’s not as psychologically complex a tale as anything else name-checked here, but for shock value alone, this is a gooden.