What did I get myself into? The idea was simple: create of list of the most important Batman stories across all media – comic books, TV and movies. More than that, it should be a list of suggestions. If someone asked you about Batman having never engaged with the character before, where would you tell them to begin?
Easier said than done.
After a lot of hand wringing, soul-searching, and suggestion taking, the following list of 12 items spans Batman stories culled from the pages of several comic books to the celluloid dreams of his finest big and small screen adventures. They all tell us something about Batman, but they also tell us something about how to do Batman right, which is no mean feat in and of itself. Some of these choices may be obvious, some of them you may (vehemently) disagree with, but if you had never heard of Batman before, and were looking for a good place to start with your understanding of the man and his mission, can you really do better than these 12 items listed below? You be the judge.
1) The Dark Knight Returns
If we could trace back people’s perceptions of Batman from the Adam West-starring series of the 60s to seeing Batman as a more darkly serious character, the shift would be the release of The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller had already dabbled in Batman before, authoring the post-Crisis re-write of the Caped Crusader’s origin in Year One, but with The Dark Knight Returns, Miller had carte blanche and told a story from the other end of Batman’s career. It was a tale that crammed together a lot of elements, starting as a simple story about Batman’s return to crime-fighting at 55 years of age, and then later becoming something more political as the U.S. government, through a puppet Superman, tries to retire Batman permanently. The graphic novel can be read as a response to the then-increasingly cynical 80s, but Returns has never lost any of its impact as faith in institutions like the government continues to erode. Miller himself tried to catch lightning in a bottle with The Dark Knight Strikes Back in 2001, but the author’s hard edge has become more intractable over the years. Still, the seminal nature of Returns remains as it serves as a touchstone and inspiration to others as they tell their own Batman tales.
2) The Dark Knight
It would be disingenuous to say that The Dark Knight is merely a Batman movie. There’s a lot going on Christopher Nolan’s second venture to Gotham City, some people see it as a commentary on the fortitude of the Bush-era prosecution of the War on Terror, others say that it purposefully inverts the typical comic book trope of good triumphing over evil, but really it’s about escalation and how good men can stay true to themselves when forced to decide between the best of bad options. At the centre of it all is Heath Ledger’s Joker, a creature of pure chaos who Nolan and Co. go to great pains to neither explain or excuse, summed up best by the character when he describes himself thusly, “I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just… do things.” Ledger, of course, won an Oscar posthumously for the role, but the entire cast shines and benefits from a clear vision and direction by Nolan. What makes it work so well is the fact that they all take the material seriously, The Dark Knight isn’t a Batman movie, it’s a movie that features Batman as its main character.
3) “Heart of Ice” – Batman: The Animated Series
If “On Leather Wings” was a proof of concept, than “Heart of Ice” showed that Batman: The Animated Series was more than capable of packing an emotional punch. Mr. Freeze, when introduced in the 60s, was kind of a one-note villain, but as realized by Paul Dini et al, Freeze was given a sympathetic origin and a snazzy re-design by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola. This Mr. Freeze wasn’t out to destroy the city for kicks, he just wanted to save his wife. It was romantic! This rejiggered Freeze was taken to the comics and established as the official continuity for the character, and it wasn’t the last time TAS characters would enhance Batman’s comic world: Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya and Lock-Up each made the unusual jump from TV to the comics page. That wouldn’t have been possible though if the makers of TAS didn’t handle every detail of their show in a manner we typically acquainted with a premium cable drama and not a Saturday morning cartoon. Watch that final shot of the episode, where Freeze sits alone in his Arkham cell and looking at a snow globe while apologizing to his wife, and tell me you don’t get a little choked up.
4) Batman: The Killing Joke
Written in the midst of Alan Moore’s incredible string of hits, including Watchmen and V For Vendetta, what could have been read as a speculative story ended up having far-reaching implications, and I’m not just talking about the crippling of Batgirl. What’s fascinating is that even though Moore proposes that this is the origin of the Joker, the way he frames it dares you to dismiss it. Are these the Joker’s genuine flashbacks, or is it meant to compliment the villain’s thesis, that all it takes is one bad day to provoke cruel madness? If this is the Joker’s origin, it fits the oeuvre well to suggest that, like Batman, overwhelming tragedy made the Clown Prince of Crime the way he is, just chaotically evil instead of a force for good. Like the best stories, The Killing Joke can be read any number ways, but one thing is certain, from the Batman family of comics to The Dark Knight, The Killing Joke has had a very long reach in the nearly three decades since it was first published.
5) Batman Year One
A storyline so singularly influential that there was once a period of time that Warner Bros was developing it as a film in its own right directed by none other than Darren Aronofsky. That never happened, but a lot of Year One ended up being a part of Batman Begins, it was turned into an animated movie in its own right, and it will likely remain influential on the upcoming young Commissioner Gordon series Gotham on Fox. On its own, Year One is notable for being as much an origin story for Gordon as it is for Batman, and in the greater context of re-writing Batman’s history post-Crisis it grounded the legend of the Dark Knight with a higher degree of realism than previously lent to the character. In Year One, there was no rogues gallery, no Justice League membership, and no Bat-family. This was a mob tale, a police drama that just so happened to have a man dressed as a giant bat as one of its main characters. It was also amazingly self-contained, one can see quite easily how the story could be adapted on its own. Although Miller’s last attempt at writing Batman, All Star Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder, was atrocious, he proved with Year One that he got it right the first time.
6) “Almost Got ‘Im” – Batman: The Animated Series
If “Almost Got ‘Im” is noteworthy for anything else, it’s for cramming in more members of the rogues gallery per capita than any other Batman cartoon (or Joel Schumacher Batman movie for that matter). Chock full of fan service, not to mention being just plain fun on its own, “Almost Got ‘Im” features The Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and Catwoman in a kind of anthology where the villains detail encounters with the Caped Crusader where, well, they almost got ‘im. The plots range from the intricate (Two-Face’s giant penny) to the simplistic (Killer Croc’s “I hit him with a rock”), but altogether the episode plays on a fun reversal from the usual Batman episode by telling a story from the villains’ point of view. It also jams a lot of story into 23 minutes without once feeling bloated, and it has a fun twist in the end. In hindsight, “Almost Got ‘Im” flips the bird to the live-action film series by proving that the only cost in using too many characters comes when you don’t know how to use them right. For fans, the episode was a walking, talking Easter egg that once again showed how well The Animated Series was capable of breaking the mould.
7) Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Released at Christmas time in 1993, Mask of the Phantasm came out as the popularity of The Animated Series was at its zenith, and at the halfway point between the Burton and Schumacher eras in the film series. What the release of Mask of the Phantasm proved at the time, as it continues to in a much broader sense today, was that the people in charge of the animated worlds of DC Comics have a firmer grasp on what made these character special. Phantasm was moody and emotionally complex, showing a young Bruce Wayne struggling between his destiny to save Gotham and the love of a good woman named Andrea Beaumont. There was also a stray element frequently missing from just about all Batman movies: mystery. Who was the Phantasm? Why was he out to kill Gotham’s most wanted gangsters? How is the sudden re-appearance of Ms. Beaumont tied to it, and how does that affect the Caped Crusader’s efforts to solve the case and clear his name? The film was also a great showcase for Mark Hamill’s Joker, who mixes menace and pageantry to create what is arguably the best portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime. To everyone who feels they’ve yet to see the definitive Dark Knight on the big screen, it’s already been here and gone, but it’s still available on DVD.
8) Batman: The Long Halloween
At some point, criminals in Gotham went from crooked to bizarre, they transitioned from the typical hustlers and mobsters, and became folks called “The Riddler,” “The Penguin,” and “Two-Face.” Basically, The Long Halloween is “Batman: Year Two,” the approach by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale was to tell a story that’s both a satisfying detective’s tale, and one that unravels some of Batman’s mythology. The work is impressive because it balances so much, insights into Harvey Dent’s pre-Two-Face days, the flailing days of Gotham’s mobsters, Bruce Wayne’s own personal struggles against corruption, and a serial killer tale about a murderer who targets victims around the holidays. Loeb does a magnificent job juggling a lot of different pins in the air, and meshing together a lot of different styles in demand of the story. At 370 pages, the novel has an epic scope, but it’s probably one of the Dark Knight Detective’s most sleuth heavy story with shades of Mario Puzo, Raymond Chadler and Batman: The Animated Series. Many of Batman’s best stories hinge on big moments – the beginnings, the endings, the losses, the game changers – but The Long Halloween is just a really great example of how complex Batman can be.
9) Batman: Hush
It had been a long time since Jim Lee, one of the biggest artists of the 90s and one of the founders of Image Comics, had put pencil to page on a monthly basis, but what started as a bet that Lee didn’t have it in him to go month-to-month anymore became one of the great Batman stories of recent years. The marvel of Hush is how writer Jeph Loeb crams just about every major Batman character into one 12-issue storyline, from sidekicks Nightwing and Robin, to bad guys big and small like The Joker and Clayface, to allies like Superman. But what could have been a greatest hits sojourn through the Batman Wiki, becomes a fairly elaborate conspiracy thriller as an unseen foe unites Batman’s bad guys in a plot against him as the Caped Crusader struggles to play catch-up. It’s an interesting story that not only plumbs from Batman’s famous rogues gallery, but goes into a previously unknown tale from Bruce Wayne’s past, and toys a bit with his potential future with Catwoman. The storyline had some long term implications too, with The Riddler and previously believed to be dead Jason Todd, but Hush proved that Lee still had game, and that were still a lot of mysteries left for the Bat to solve.
10) “Epilogue” – Justice League Unlimited
It feels right to acknowledge Batman Beyond in some way, but it’s tricky to determine what, if any, episode stands out from the others. Beyond succeeded at creating its own unique rogues gallery while successfully integrating elements of the mythos, it also spun itself off into another series, and has been included now in the official comic book canon. But if Batman Beyond was successful at anything, it was making a very good Batman that was not Bruce Wayne under the cowl. The Justice League Unlimited episode “Epilogue” was the unofficial series finale for Beyond and it introduced the potentially mucky notion that Amanda Waller tinkered with Terry McGinnis’ DNA and life to ensure that he’d become Batman. Instead of being some kind of Batman Boys of Brazil, the series’ writers used it as a way for young Terry to reconcile his double life and learn to grow and change in a way his mentor was never able to. Fate may create Batman, but the man can decide the direction of the bat, and it turns out that Terry made himself a pretty worthy inheritor to the legend of the Dark Knight.
11) “A Death in the Family”/“A Lonely Place of Dying”
Robin takes a lot of abuse, and not just from the criminals that he helps Batman fight nightly. The ultimate slap in the face might be considered “A Death in the Family,” the now famous storyline that killed off the second Robin Jason Todd after fans voted to off him by a slim majority. But rather than being a refudiation of the need for Batman to have a Robin, the story merely refudiated Jason Todd, and opened up the opportunity to introduce a new kind of Robin: Tim Drake. Unlike his predecessors, Drake sought out the Dark Knight by deducing his secret identity, and made the case that Batman needs Robin as a balance, or otherwise plunge further into the darkness. Reaction from readers was that this was a Robin they could believe in, and the result was a Boy Wonder that was neither a joke nor a typical sidekick-in-peril. The popularity of Drake’s Robin led to a bigger share of the spotlight and his own spin-off, with Robin becoming an accomplished and successful hero in his own right, with or without the other half of the Dynamic Duo.
12) Batman (1989)
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas may have invented the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars, but Tim Burton perfected it with Batman. In the summer of ‘89, you couldn’t leave the house without wearing the Bat symbol somewhere on your person, and chances are you were heading out to see Batman for the third or fourth time. There have been a great many comic book movies, including several Batman films, released in the last 25 years, but Burton set a tone in terms of scope, design, and expectations that still governs in many ways how superhero movies are made. And think about what the film had to overcome, no one got the idea of a serious Batman, no one thought Michael Keaton could play the part, and the studio was unsure whether the then still untested Burton was up to the job and deliver on everyone’s expectations. What Batman did deliver was confirmation to comic book fans that their favorite characters could be brought to the big screen with care and dignity, and that they could attract brand name talent like two-time Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson to play the bad guy. It took another 10 years for Hollywood to catch on better, but then, as now, the Dark Knight leads the way.
Bonus: Batman: Black and White
Perhaps reinforcing that tremendous influence between Batman and pulpy detective stories or old, it’s worth noting that the Batman mythos lends itself well to the anthology, a collection of short, self-contained stories united by a common theme. In 1996, DC Comics published the four-part anthology called Batman: Black and White, which each having five stories written and drawn by different people. The stories take place in the past, present and future; sometimes they feature Batman as the main character, and sometimes he’s just crawling around the edges; and some of the tales are more meta and thematically rather than a more straight ahead tale of the Dark Knight. A couple of stories were nominated for Eisners (the comic book Oscars), and the rotating cast of creators is a who’s who of popular and critically-acclaimed people including Neil Gaiman, Matt Wagner, Dennis O’Neil, Bruce Timm, Brian Bolland, Walter Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz. If you’re not sure where to begin with Batman comics, or if you don’t want to wade into the sometimes complicated continuity, or if you like your comics more monochromatic, Black and White is a fun place to start with Batman.