On the afternoon of June 24, 1989, my parents took me and my brother to a movie theater in Willimantic, CT to see Batman. I was 4 years old. It was the first movie I saw in a theater. And it changed my life.
That may sound like run of the mill nerd-hyperbole, but it's really the truth. See, up until that point, I thought superheroes were rather lame. They wore what appeared to be their underwear on the outside of their pants, and that somehow made them vastly inferior to grown men who wore beige jumpsuits and had unlicensed nuclear accelerators strapped to their backs. The only way I can describe it is that this was my Star Wars. Tim Burton's first Batman movie blew the doors open not only to the character, but the entire world of comic books, and even board gaming. University Games' The Batman Game was the first board game I ever fell in love with. I'm sure it's unplayable as an adult now, but its cool art and plastic Batmen turned me into an Ameritrasher by the time I was 5.
There's plenty of people out there that think Batman is the greatest superhero of all time, myself included. Many of them will tell you that it's his lack of real super powers that makes him so great, but I don't think it's that simple. There's something about the character that inspires some truly great work from all across the media spectrum. The Dark Knight is some of the best work to be done by both Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger, both of them already formidable talents in their respective crafts. Batman: The Animated Series is largely considered to be one of the finest animated series to have ever been produced. Arkham Asylum showed the electronic gaming world that, not only can licensed video games can be done right, but that they can also mop the floor with just about every other game out there. And in comics, the character's original medium, Batman has more great stories in his catalog than pretty much another other superhero, and unarguably some the best comics ever made.
1. Year One
Plenty of comic fans will cite Watchmen to be the crowning achievement of the medium, and I'd agree, but I'd put Year One right up there with it. After he showed us the future of the Dark Knight, Frank Miller retold his past. As the title would suggest, this is the story of Bruce Wayne's first year back in Gotham after training abroad, and the hardships he faces with the corrupt GCPD after becoming Batman.
What really makes Year One so fantastic is the story of Jim Gordon's first year on the force. While Batman is trying to scare the living hell out of Gotham's bad cops, Jim is waging his own battle from within. Ultimately, we're shown that for all their strong ideals, neither Bruce nor Jim are perfect, they're human beings, and in the case of Gordon, they make life altering mistakes.
Without question, Frank Miller's best work, the best Batman story, and one of the most important comics of all time.
2. The Killing Joke
The Joker thinks of himself as something of an artist, and like all artists, he feels the need to reinvent himself from time to time. Writers have used this theory of reinvention to explain why the Joker has been through different phases and attitudes over the years. Despite the variety of takes on the Joker over the years, The Killing Joke remains definitive.
I'm sure we all know about the major change to the Batman lineup that this book made, but even more interesting is what it did in terms of handling the Joker's past and exploring what little common ground Batman and the Joker share, something that has echoed throughout Batman comics ever since. It had an obvious effect on both film incarnations of the Joker, as Burton's film closely resembles the possible origin told in The Killing Joke, and Nolan's stays true to the Joker's "multiple choice" mantra. Yet the greatest testament to how greatness of The Killing Joke is that none of this has been retconned since it came out. To do so would be to undo a masterpiece.
Note-The Killing Joke is available in a wide variety of formats. The softcover editions may be getting scarce these days, but the last time I checked, it only runs around $4.99. There's a hardcover edition that includes bonus materials, and while it's roughly three times the amount of the softcover, it's still worth every cent. However, I recommend picking up DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore. The Killing Joke was added in the 2nd run, so if it has Joker front and center on the cover, it has The Killing Joke in it. This book features Moore's other works in the DC Universe outside of his Swamp Thing run. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, For the Man Who Has Everything, and Mogo Doesn't Socialize are classics.
3. The Dark Knight Returns
Along with Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns is one of those books that anyone with even a passing interest in comics must read. Bruce Wayne retires roughly a decade after the death of Jason Todd. Crime runs rampant through Gotham. A gang called The Mutants terrorize the streets. Harvey Dent returns to a life of crime. Time for Batman to come out of retirement, but when he does, so do all the other psychopaths.
The Dark Knight Returns was daring when it first came out and it still feels that way today. Batman is an old man. Robin is a girl. Superman is a government tool. Not exactly the way we imagine these characters. Yet it remarkably all feels just right. For taking it so far out of place, not only is is it still Batman, it's some of the best. And Superman gets his ass beat.
4. The Long Halloween
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are one of comics' best teams, and this is their finest work. The Long Halloween is an epic 13 issue murder mystery set shortly after Year One. For a full year, a murder takes place on each holiday, the only clues are a .22 caliber pistol, the nipple of a baby bottle used to silence the gun, and an item related to the holiday.
I originally read The Long Halloween as it was released. My father, brother and I would share each issue, and when all of us were done with each one, we'd spend some time discussing who we thought the killer was. We were usually proven wrong in the next issue, as more often than not, who we suspected was the next one to be murdered. It's a genius concept, beautifully executed, and makes good use of Batman rogues gallery. If you've never read The Long Halloween, make it one of the first off this list that you do. See if you can figure it out before Bats does, and even if you do, you're still in for a big surprise.
Another story by Jeph Loeb, this time accompanied by legendary X-Men artist Jim Lee. Like The Long Halloween, this one features plenty of classic Batman bad guys and avoids becoming the standard "villain fest" drivel. In fact, it even manages to introduce a cool new villain, Hush. Hush seems to know an awful lot about Batman, so it's obvious that there's some connection to his past there. Due to some flashbacks, we as the reader are able to figure out who it is pretty easily. Yet the real mystery here isn't over who Hush is, rather it's over who is pulling the strings. It's a beautifully layered, built up, and thought out story that gets better with repeat reads. If you want a Batman book that has all the great characters of the rogues gallery and a good mystery to boot, The Long Halloween and Hush simply cannot be beat.
6. Strange Apparitions
The Dark Knight Returns often gets the credit for bringing Batman back to his darker roots, but I'd argue that it starts in Steve Englehart's 1970's run on Detective Comics, which is what this book collects. Artist Marshall Rogers fills every panel with atmosphere and we're still seeing its influence today, be it in comic, cartoon, or movie.
Englehart was firing on all cylinders here when it comes to taking the old and making it new again. Hugo Strange, Deadshot, and even Robin (who had been somewhat MIA in Batman comics at the time) fit perfectly in with the darker direction Englehart was taking the book in. The big treat here is "The Laughing Fish!," which would go on to appear in The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, and deservingly so. How Strange Apparitions handles Batman, his villains, his exchanges with Jim Gordon, and Gotham City itself makes it a strong contender for being the definitive Batman.
By the time I had first finished reading Joker, I felt exhausted. Which is understandable, as I had just taken a good look at the disturbing inner workings of a drug fueled, murderous psychopath.
We follow Jonny Frost, a lowly thug who is sent to pick up the Joker after he's released from Arkham Asylum (it's an alternate reality, bear with me here). After spending some time with Jonny, turns out the Joker likes him. Despite warnings from Two-Face, Jonny sticks with Joker, seeing as an opportunity to rise through the ranks. Of course, as we all know, getting along with the Joker isn't easy.
This is one gruesome, disturbing book. I can't recommend it to everyone, but if you think you're up to it, you'll find that while this is a very different portrayal of the Joker and a few other Bat-villains, it's still a very revealing look at the character, arguably more so than The Killing Joke. You can't help but feel that this is how it would be to spend time with this guy. The final showdown with Batman is utterly fantastic, when Joker asks Batman why he allows his mouth to be seen through his mask, shattering the illusion of being a monster. Batman replies, "To mock you." A genius glimpse at the symbiotic relationship between the two if there ever was one.
8. Blind Justice
This one is more of a Bruce Wayne story than it is Batman one. If I were to explain the plot, it would sound totally insane, involving mind control, Bruce Wayne going on trial for being a traitor, and rising suspicions that Wayne and Batman are one in the same. Despite the wacky concept, Blind Justice is very good. There's no ties to continuity, nor any appearances by any major villains. Just one of the most original takes on Batman you're likely to see.
I don't like to spoil anything about this one. Just read it. It's one of the most underrated Batman books around, and the message in the last few pages is a powerful one.
9. Son of the Demon
Ra's al Ghul is a favorite amongst Bat-fans, and Son of the Demon is the best story to feature "The Demon." Ra's and Bats are both searching for Qayin, who murdered both a scientist in Gotham and Ra's al Ghul's wife. Here's where the story gets crazy: Batman and Talia, Ra's al Ghul's daughter, get married. Oh, and Talia's pregnant. For these reasons, Son of the Demon was changed to being an Elseworlds book shortly after its release. It never saw a second print until nearly 20 years later, when Grant Morrison picked up the events in the book to use in his Batman and Son story.
This really is a terrific read. The pacing and art is outstanding. Unfortunately, it's not the easiest book to track down these days, and the price on the second printing has gone up significantly.
10. Batman: Red Rain
To be honest, I struggled to put this one on the list. I love the first two entries in the book, but could I in good conscience put a book in which Batman becomes a vampire amongst the likes of Year One and The Dark Knight Returns?
Red Rain, is essentially "Batman vs. Dracula." Dracula comes to Gotham, prepared to turn the city into an army of the undead. The basic premise is a bit silly, but there's two big reasons why this made it to the list. The first is that it constantly goes for the unexpected. Superhero comics pretty much run like clockwork, Big Huge Problem, Major Characters Significantly Altered, Wait Awhile, Everything's Back To Normal. Red Rain operates outside of the continuity, so it can ultimately go in some strange, interesting directions, but even the basic elements of its plot never go for the cliché. And the second reason is that for as out of the norm it is as a Batman book, it ends in a place that undeniably fits the Batman mythos. I don't believe there's a better example of the sacrifice that Bruce Wayne would make to keep Batman alive.
And there you have it. Of course, for a character that's been around as long as Batman, and will likely outlive all of us, it's impossible to narrow it down to a definitive 10. These are the ones that I've enjoyed most, and through the years have defined how I think about Batman in the comics medium. Whether you're looking to read your first Batman books, or if you're looking for something you missed, I hope this list serves you well.
And for the record, I didn't forget Arkahm Asylum. I just don't like it.