A couple of weeks ago, I brought you a lengthy 25th Anniversary retrospective on Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, arguably the most-read, most-discussed and most recognizable Batman tale of the last 25 years. But because I’m such a Batman geek, I can’t stop the discussion there. The Dark Knight Returns helped to set off a kind of Batman Renaissance that brought us new films, more comics and lots more to talk about when it came to the Caped Crusader. It’s still going on, and its fruits are many. In that spirit, we will put The Dark Knight Returns aside today, and instead contemplate the other worthy additions to the Batman canon of the last 25 years. There are many, of course, but for our purposes we will discuss just 10, all of which I submit as required reading for anyone wishing to understand the Batmania we’ve enjoyed for more than two decades now. Here they are, in no particular order.
The Man Who Falls (1989)
WRITER: Dennis O’Neil
ARTIST: Dick Giordano
If you’re looking for a comic book story that influenced Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins more than any other, look no further than this late ’80s Secret Origins tale of Bruce Wayne’s lost years. O’Neil – one of the most important people to ever preside over the Batman books – crafts this story through the adaptation of several classic Batman tales from the early years, bringing it all together to illustrate how a tragic young man became a superhero. Add to that art by the legendary Giordano and you’ve got an almost instant classic.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)
WRITER: Grant Morrison
ARTIST: Dave McKean
Grant Morrison would eventually become one of Batman’s most important writers in the mid to late 2000s, but before that he was just a kid from Scotland writing Doom Patrol who pitched and got the greenlight on a groundbreaking new tale of The Dark Knight. Centering his story on Gotham’s legendary prison of the insane, Morrison made Batman’s villains – comics’ best rogue’s gallery – much more than bigger than life criminals. Here they became a pantheon of dark powers, always heightened by the surreal and jagged art of McKean. The result is a comic that’s as much about the landscape of madness in Batman comics as it is about Batman’s battle.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (2009)
WRITER: Neil Gaiman
ARTIST: Andy Kubert
Most comic book writers get around to telling a story about the superhero’s inherent immortality sooner or later, but few have done it with such grace as Neil Gaiman. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is his version of the final Batman story, the way the run would end if it were placed in his hands, and it is done with due reverence. The final impression – pushed along by Kubert’s art – is that Batman will always be, whether that means something metaphorical, or something really and truly magical.
The Man Who Laughs (2005)
WRITER: Ed Brubaker
ARTIST: Doug Mahnke
Ed Brubaker writes some of the best crime-based comics out there, so it comes as no surprise that he can do supercriminals just as well as regular ones. The Man Who Laughs is his version of Batman’s first encounter with The Joker, told with true brutal energy and plenty of flash.
Year One (1987)
WRITER: Frank Miller
ARTIST: David Mazzucchelli
Just one year after The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller returned to the Batman landscape with Year One, his version of how Batman became Batman. A true noir comic of the highest order, it’s Miller’s chance to reveal just how someone could be driven so far into a life of constant struggle. I didn’t think I was going to pick favorites, but Year One really might be the best Batman story written in 25 years, The Dark Knight Returns included.
The Long Halloween (1996-97)
WRITER: Jeph Loeb
ARTIST: Tim Sale
The Long Halloween is one of the most ambitious Batman stories ever, and it delivers with each one of its 13 issues. It’s also one of the greatest successes in returning Batman to his noir roots, with a lot of Godfather-style gangster cred thrown in for good measure. Loeb and Sale have contributed a number of outstanding superhero stories to the comic book canon, but this is by far the best.
Batman & Son (2006)
WRITER: Grant Morrison
ARTIST: Andy Kubert
When Grant Morrison took over the writing of the Batman title in 2006, he kicked it off with a bang, namely the revelation that Batman had a son, and the mother was Talia al Ghul. Batman & Son set off an entirely new era of storytelling for The Dark Knight family, and did it with Morrison’s unique, striking and often confounding energy.
With a lot of ’90s stories (from any superhero) you have to apply caveats when talking about how good they are. You have to set the cheeseball portions of the story aside to make way for the actual “good” parts. But you know what? Knighftall gets to keep its cheesiness. DC Comics killed Superman to bring in readers, and they wanted to put Batman through yet another wringer to keep the publicity rolling. The result was Knightfall, which finds Batman getting his back broken by the new villain Bane and thus suffering what is perhaps his greatest nightmare: physical incapacity. Not all of Knightfall is brilliant, but the daring displayed by the array of artists and writers who worked on it is proof enough of its importance.
The Killing Joke (1988)
WRITER: Alan Moore
ARTIST: Brian Bolland
The Killing Joke is one of those rare comics that’s compulsively readable. It’s so simple, but it stands up to repeat readings like few other books ever can. It’s Alan Moore’s final word on the Batman story, a Batman vs. Joker tale that reveals the inherent insanity of both characters with a subtlety and style that few other writers have ever been able to muster. Bolland’s art is brilliant, and the story overall is one of those gateway comics that even first timers can be floored by.
WRITER: Jeph Loeb
ARTIST: Jim Lee
Far too many writers and artists have attempted to introduce new foes to Batman with middling or even disastrous results. Hush is that rare tale that provides both a truly compelling new villain and a chance for the entire Batman cast of characters to get in on the action. Jim Lee is at the top of his game, and Loeb seems to relish his return to Gotham with a story that showcases the whole city, flaws and all.