I belong to a comic book and pop culture club that I regularly attend on Monday nights, but I wasn’t able to do so this week. It’s a shame, because the discussion topic was all about Batman.
This iconic comic character has had a rich history and not all of it has been good. But one of the reasons he is such an enduring figurehead in the industry is that he has had some of the greatest stories in comics.
There are a lot of good Batman stories from movies, TV, novels, video games, etc. But I want to concentrate on how the Batman of comics is portrayed. So here is my list of the greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (in no particular order):
1. The Dark Knight Returns
This is an obvious choice, but a necessary one. Some people glorify this book as the end-all-be-all of Batman, but it isn’t. There is much in Miller’s story that doesn’t hold up or acts as a distraction from the main story. But the parts that work are unbelievably good. Unlike Superman, Batman has to face the daily disintegration of his body through age and wear. So how does Batman meet his end? That is the question that Miller answers with epic gusto.
2. The Ten Nights of the KGBEast
This story appeared in comics and it was a taught, tense thriller. Batman faced a threat that was brutal and vicious and every bit as smart as him. Batman was pushed to the limit and had to face his ultimate questions. The final moments show us how Batman’s cold heart can sometimes be his greatest asset.
Bane is famous for breaking the Bat. But the entire story is excellent. Before their eventual confrontation, Bruce Wayne is at the end of his rope, barely able to hold on. He exhausted to the point of death. And then Bane breaks all of Batman’s enemies from the Arkham Asylum. The moment after Batman realizes this and screams in frustration is one of the character’s lowest points. And because no one else is capable of doing it, Batman one by one brings them in. And when he can take it no more, Bane shows up to finish the job. Batman, in the minds of many, is unbreakable. Seeing Bane’s methodology made his fall believable.
4. The Killing Joke
Many would argue that this is mainly a Joker story, not a Batman story. But the two are intrinsically linked. It is Batman who gets the ball rolling by trying to reach out to the Joker and redeem him. And even after everything that happens in the book, Batman never gives up.
5. A Death in the Family
This was a real turning point for the comic. Jason Todd may have been unlikeable, but he was still a part of the family. And Batman’s war on crime suffered its most major casualty. This failure still haunts the Dark Knight to this day. I’ve read this story several times and I still feel the tension as Batman races back desperately to save the doomed Robin
6. A Lonely Place For Dying
If A Death in the Family started Batman on a downward spiral, A Lonely Place for Dying slowly starts bring him back into the light. Batman has been pushing himself full throttle, like he has a death wish. This story explains why Batman needs Robin. I know there are a lot of people who prefer a solo Caped Crusader, but the truth is that who Batman is can be defined in large part to his relationships. The Knight needs his squire to remind him what he is fighting for. This story also introduces us in a major way to Tim Drake, who has carved out his own niche in the Batman legacy.
7. Batman Earth One
This book is not only beautiful to look at, but it is a dark, suspenseful story. It stands alone very well and offers a fresh take on an amateur Batman
8. Batman Year One
Like Dark Knight Returns, this book is often over hyped, but the core of Miller’s story is solid and provides a very gritty, real world for Batman to inhabit.
9. Batman Year Two
This is the story that shows that Batman is not an avenger but a crusader. Bruce finally gets his chance to have revenge on the man who killed his family. But Batman is not about revenge, no matter how much it is desired. He is about helping those who are in danger. Batman is about saving, not killing.
10. Under the Hood
I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this story. Character resurrections are a dime-a-dozen in comics, but Judd Winick proved that the manner of the return is less important as the compelling character questions that arise from the return. Batman’s whole world gets turned upside down and insights into the heroes and villains of Gotham are revealed.
11. The Long Halloween/Dark Victory
You could almost see a through line between Year One to Dark Victory. The brilliance of this book is not only its noir-ish style, but that it is an actual mystery. Seeing as how Batman began in Detective Comics, it is a pleasure to see him exercise those skills in a long story format.
12. Gotham by Gaslight
This is a wonderful “What If?” type story, setting Batman in late 1800’s Gotham tracking down an immigrated Jack the Ripper. Mike Mignola’s art is moody and darkly perfect.
This prelude to Knightfall is its own powerful epic. When Batman doesn’t have the strength to save a young girl from death, he decides to take a drug to increase his strength. But he soon becomes an addict and loses control of himself. We understand why Batman chose to give into the pills, but it is fascinating to watch him slowly overcome his addiction.
14. War on Crime
This extra large book by Paul Dini and Alex Ross once again reminds us that Batman is set on a never-ending battle. He has quixotic impossible dream of fighting all crime. He will never win, but the book reminds us that winning is not found in the eradication of crime, but in the lives and souls saved in the daily battles.