After doing a Top Ten list for Superman, I thought I’d do the same for Batman. This turned out to be a more difficult task. For Superman, I came up with ten stories right away. For Batman, I could think of over twenty. The character hit his prime in the seventies through the eighties, at exactly the same time creators were pushing boundaries in super hero comics. I don’t think there’s any other popular hero character with as long of a list of top-shelf people who have worked on them, whether it’s movies (Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan), TV (Bruce Timm), or comics (Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Neal Adams, etc).
That’s a long way of saying, I couldn’t get it down to ten so here’s my favorite fifteen Batman stories:
15. There’s No Hope in Crime Alley
Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano are behind this tale of the woman who comforted Bruce Wayne the night his parents were killed and has done the same for many since in Gotham’s worst neighborhood: Crime Alley.
14. Arkham Asylum
Grant Morrison’s script for this graphic novel is solid but it’s the art of Dave McKean that makes it special. It’s like watching Batman’s fever dream as he works his way out of the bowels of the old asylum. The parallel story of Amadeus Arkham really haunted me when I first read this as a kid.
13. The Killing Joke
I’ve heard people say this isn’t the great book everyone once thought it was but even if it’s not perfect, it’s still great. Alan Moore gave us the modern age Joker in this story and god do I love Brian Bolland’s art. A must read for fans of the Heath Ledger Joker.
12. Batman and the Monster Men
Matt Wagner’s update of a tale from Batman’s first year of publication is everything I love in a Batman story. My favorite moment is when Batman puts the first Batmobile together and Alfred makes a joke about putting bat fins on the back of it. Batman says nothing, leading Alfred to say “Oh good lord! You’re actually considering it.”
11. Batman Versus the Vampire
Like all Golden Age comics, this one lacks in sophistication but as the first epic Batman story, I think it holds up very well. Bill Finger and Bob Kane were still writing him as the “weird figure of the night” and set the stage for many Batman adventures going forward.
10. Heart of Ice
This is my favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series. In it, they do something no one had been able to do before: turn Mr. Freeze into a compelling character. It’s a high-water mark for a top shelf series.
9. Batman and Robin
I’ve not been a fan of every part of Grant Morrison’s current run on Batman books. I still contend RIP is a mess. That said, it was all worth it for his run on Batman and Robin. While Bruce Wayne is missing, the former Robin and Nightwing, Dick Grayson, takes over as Batman with Bruce’s son Damian as Robin. Damian, who was raised to be a killer by Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Assassins, is rebellious and bull-headed but works in a way Jason Todd never did. Art by Frank Quitely, Phillip Tan, Andy Clarke, Cameron Stewart, and Frazer Irving.
8. Ten Nights of the Beast
Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s run on Batman in the mid-eighties is golden to me. Yes, Frank Miller’s blew me away but this was the Batman comic I waited for every month. I’ve read this four-part story, about him going up against a renegade KGB agent, over and over again since it was first published in ’87.
7. Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan’s “exaggerated reality” movie finally brought the Batman I love to the movie screen. I think the last exchange between him and Gordon (“I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.”), sums up everything I love about the character.
6. The Joker’s Five Way Revenge
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were THE creative team of the seventies and this story, where they return the Joker to his homicidal roots, is my favorite they did. You can also thank these guys for taking Batman back to his dark persona.
5. Gotham by Gaslight
Gotham by Gaslight is both the first “Elseworlds” story and the best one ever done. It transplants Batman into the Victorian era and puts him on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Brian Augustyn wrote a great mystery and the art is some of the best in Mike Mignola’s career, years before he went on to create Hellboy.
4. The Long Halloween
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s story of Batman hunting down the Holiday Killer early in his career was one of those rare stories you knew was an all-time classic as you were reading it. It’s the best series by a team with a lot of great stories to their credit. Nolan’s Batman films are heavily influenced by this and another story below.
3. The Dark Knight
I love the middle chapter of a story. It’s when the easy wins are taken away and the forces of evil get the upper hand. Nolan’s second Batman film is one of the great middle chapters of all time. Everyone gives credit to Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, and they should, but this is one of those rare films where everyone is working in top form.
2. The Dark Knight Returns
It’s been almost thirty years since this graphic novel/series changed superhero stories for all time. It’s still a powerful book and Frank Miller’s art hasn’t aged a day. While many people read it as taking place in the future, it’s set in what was the present day as the Silver Age Batman returns for his final battles with Two Face, The Joker, and even Superman. That description gives short shrift to a dense, vivid piece of work. So why isn’t it number one?
1. Batman: Year One
This is number one because I think it’s the book that defines the modern Batman. It’s the basis for how we understand the character now and every Batman story since has been based off its ideas (Batman Begins, The Long Halloween, etc) or a reaction to it (Batman: The Brave and the Bold). Frank Miller created a corrupt Gotham that validated the need for Batman and David Mazzucchelli’s art gave it the right mood and grit. I love how Jim Gordon is a lead character along with Batman. This is a story as much about their relationship as it is about Batman’s origins.
Some runners up: Death Strikes at Midnight and Three, Dark Victory, The Batman Nobody Knows, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman (Tim Burton film), Gothic, and To Kill a Legend