It’s Batman Day, which means that it’s time to celebrate one of the greatest comic book characters of all-time. Spanning decades of storytelling, the Dark Knight has been a mainstay of superhero books, giving us some of the greatest adventures in comic book history. Many of those stories are in the guide below. You’ll undoubtedly want to branch out from this list once you’re done with Batman’s essential tales, though.
These are also some of the best comics for people who were just introduced to the DC Extended Universe and were inspired to pick up a book. Some of them you may recognize because they’re incredibly influential, and have been quoted or adapted or referenced a thousand times over in other media.
Some are good opportunities to explore other corners of Batman’s universe. And some are collections of the best stories told by the best creators to ever pick up the cape and cowl.
The Dark Knight Returns
Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s 1986 tale of old man Bruce coming back to the cape and cowl is probably the most translated Batman story in his entire 75+ year canon (except for one shot of the next one on this list). It has everything you could want from a Batman comic: in costume, Bats is a giant hulking mass of muscle and fury; he obviously fights Superman; he has his final showdown with the Joker; and he fights off a gang of shirtless teenagers and their beastly leader. This isn’t really the first Batman story to have any of these things, or have any of them together, but paired with Miller and Janson and Varley’s art, it all mixed together to become something essential and electric.
It’s come under some critical reexamination of late, due in part to outrageous statements from Miller, and in part because it is the comic book equivalent of Purple Haze’s “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy” – it’s a Batman story that hundreds of writers have tried to sing along with in the 30 years since it was published, and that nearly all of them have gotten wrong.
DKR isn’t even Miller’s foundational take on Batman. Rather it’s a searing tirade on the ‘80s and all its components, from every direction. It is, however, a tremendous Batman story on the strength of Miller, Janson & Varley’s art alone: Batman is an enormous brute, a block of muscle who still manages flashes of grace. The world he inhabits is dark and grungy and grimy and shitty.
But there’s a subtlety in his body language that later period Miller tends to lose. It’s probably not a coincidence that they are usually paired with the flashes of kindness and compassion from his Batman that are so essential to the character: hugging Two Face after he tries to save him, or the contented old man Bruce is when he’s building his new cave. DKR may have come into some more criticism of late, but it is certainly and justifiably one of the best Batman stories of all time.
There is a 30th anniversary collection just released by DC that is really excellent at reproducing the originals, along with providing some background material on the source and on how Miller created it (including uninked, uncolored line art that’s INCREDIBLE) that is absolutely worth a buy.
Batman: Year One
Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli must have written it into their contracts with DC that every adaptation of Batman moving forward was required to have Bruce kneeling between his parents, bleeding and arranged like yin and yang, bleeding out next to him. That has appeared so many times – in movies, in cartoons, in video games – that I can’t even count them.
I was going to say “overuse aside,” but that’s not really something you can set aside with Year One, because it’s so good that it deserves to be cited in every Batman adaptation. The story is as much about the origin of Gotham and Batman’s associates as it is about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. Gordon, Sarah Essen, Alfred and Catwoman get some really good screen time, and David Mazzuchelli looks like classic Bill Finger art with modern polish.
A word of warning! There are many editions of Year One. The rules they follow are similar to what to do with a toilet if your power goes out: if the cover’s red, go ahead. If the cover’s yellow, leave it mellow. Seriously, there was a recoloring error in reprints that had a yellow cover, and they came out terrible. The editions with the red cover (or the red slipcase around a gray hardcover) are the best option. Or you can get a digital version. I DON’T CARE.
JLA: Tower of Babel
Be thankful I’m not telling you to buy all of Morrison’s JLA. That’s next week.
Mark Waid and Howard Porter had the unenviable task of following up Grant Morrison’s enormous, universe-encompassing epic four-year story that ended with Superman punching a suicide planet and Earth becoming the fifth world, and rather than try and top that, they immediately set to work with making Batman the greatest villain in Justice League history.
Seriously, it worked pretty well. This is paranoid schemer Batman at his finest: Bats has detailed plans on how to incapacitate the entire Justice League in the event that any of them go rogue (including himself, in what’s a pretty incredible piece of self-destructiveness). Waid and Porter get into Batman’s head while maintaining the bright, shiny superheroic tone both are really good at, and the result was a lot of fun.
This has been loosely adapted as Justice League: Doom in case you wanted some tonal Cliff’s Notes, but it’s worth reading. And don’t sweat it if you can’t find the version of the book that’s just “Tower of Babel.” If you have to get JLA: Volume 4 (which contains Morrison’s final story, “World War 3”), don’t sweat it. You really should buy all of that run, too. *runs*
Batman: The Killing Joke
Probably the definitive story about Batman’s relationship with the Joker, it also has probably the defining single image of Batman’s nemesis. Brian Bolland’s almost photoreal art has been used to incredible effect on books like Judge Dredd or as the cover artist on a thousand other comics.
But it’s that one picture of high-cheekbones Joker smiling with the camera that is the Joker in my brain, was likely a huge influence on Jack Nicholson’s design in 1989 Batman, and were it not for Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger both being staggeringly good, would likely still hold that title.
Oh yeah, and The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore.
There isn’t really a way to talk about the story without a giant flashing neon warning sign: Barbara Gordon, Batgirl at the time (and again post-Flashpoint), gets shot through the spine and then sexually assaulted by the Joker. We can debate the definition of exactly what was done to her for days, but that’s what it boils down to.
There is still value in the book as a historical artifact: it defined the Joker-Batman dynamic for decades after, and was at least partially responsible for Batman-as-broken-monomaniac-sociopath, and it has some likely canon backstory to the Joker in it, but…look, this one’s rough to come back to. Worthwhile, but tough to read.
Batman: A Death in the Family
You know that scene in the Batman v Superman trailer where you see Robin’s costume with the Joker’s writing spraypainted all over it? This is likely what that’s referencing (even though that’s CLEARLY Tim Drake’s costume and Tim was way too good a Robin to let something like this ::gets dragged screaming away from the keyboard::).
Okay! Back and cool again. Once upon a time, Jason Todd was Robin, a replacement created by DC to let Dick Grayson go be his own (awesome) character but still have that audience ID character going on adventures with Bruce. Problem is, Jason was a little bit of a shit, and the fans kind of hated him.
So in A Death In The Family, which ran as a story in the pages of then-monthly Batman, DC ran a call-in contest: fans could call one 900 number to vote to keep Jason alive and a different one to kill him. Three guesses as to what they picked.
Jim Starlin (the guy who created Thanos) and Jim Aparo (we’ll get to him) did the actual killing, but the linked collection also throws in some later issues of Batman along with some Marv Wolfman/George Perez Teen Titans because it’s been proven in a lab you can never have enough of that.
It’s kind of hilarious to me how well this has aged: people citing the excesses of ‘90s comics usually touch on “the story where Batman had his back broken” to cite how over the top things were in general, but nobody piles on the story the way they do an X-Men book or :shudders: “The Clone Saga,” because you know what?
Knightfall is pretty damn good.
It’s likely more relevant to the last Batman movie (Dark Knight Rises) than to this one, but I still feel confident that you’ll see passing references to it in the background of the Batcave somewhere. It introduces Bane, who breaks everyone out of Arkham. Bruce recaptures everyone, but he’s exhausted by the attempt, and when he returns to the cave, Bane is waiting for him (having figured out his secret identity) and beats the hell out of him, snapping his back.
Bruce passes the mantle to Jean Paul Valley, formerly Azrael (who was trained by an ancient religious order to be Batman, but Punisherier) who, to be fair, ‘90s the hell out of the costume. But Bruce…uhh…gets better and decides to take the costume back.
It works because it’s got a ton of good creators (Chuck Dixon, Jo Duffy, Aparo again, Graham Nolan, Norm Breyfogle, Doug Moench) doing good work telling a sprawling but uncomplicated Batman story. Very worth reading.
If you somehow found a way to beam 8-year-old Jim to the present, gave him like, a half-gallon of espresso, and said “you’re gonna write a Batman story and Jim Lee will draw it,” Hush is the story you’d get. It has very nearly everyone who’s ever been in a Batman story (Catwoman, Nightwing, Clayface, Poison Ivy, Superman, Joker, Huntress, Killer Croc, Riddler, Talia, Ra’s, Jason Todd, even HAROLD THE MECHANIC). And it has some really neat experimental watercolors from Lee that he’s never really duplicated again (though his stint on Batman: Europa came close and was awesome).
Unfortunately, it reads like it was written by an 8-year-old with attention problems, but I fully recognize that I am in the minority on this. GO READ AND ENJOY, FOLKS!
Batman: Gates of Gotham
Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins tell a story that becomes a hallmark of Snyder’s later run on Batman (we’ll get there too): Gotham City and its sinister history.
Gates of Gotham is as much about how Gotham became the abandoned amusement parks and dilapidated chemical factories we see today. It’s got the family histories of the Cobblepots and the Waynes intertwined with some deep architectural nerdery around the bridges in the city, but does a tremendous job of fleshing out Gotham as a character in its own right, and a good Gotham is key to a good Batman story.
If after trying Gates of Gotham and find yourself enjoying the story about the city, you should absolutely try No Man’s Land, five volumes of Batman fighting to maintain order in a Gotham City cut off from the rest of America by an earthquake and terrible politics. Or Dark Knight, Dark City, probably the best Riddler story ever told and one that plays heavily on the secret history of the city.
Batman & Son
Grant Morrison’s first arc on Batman is also his most accessible: a good way to try it out and see if you might want to hang around. It introduces Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son from a torrid night of desert passion with Talia al Ghul and a less torrid 36 months of comic book superscience.
It has some of the best art of Andy Kubert’s career – the fight against the Man-Bats in a fake Roy Lichtenstein art gallery is just incredible – and it kicks off one of the most twisting, intricate, incisive story arcs about Batman ever.
If you like this, keep going with it: especially for The Return of Bruce Wayne. That’s the lynchpin of Morrison’s story, and it reorganizes and retells Batman’s history in a way that makes explicit what his real power is: friendship. I’m kidding, but I’m also not kidding: it’s incredible.
Batman: The Black Mirror
There is some legitimate debate as to whether or not this is the best Dick Grayson-as-Batman story of all time, and considering this ran simultaneously to Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin, that should tell you something. It is inarguably the best detective story in Batman in the last 20 years. The story twists and turns through Grayson’s past at the circus, a drug ring in Gotham, and the return of James Gordon, Jr, the Commissioner’s psychopath son. Any more details would take some fo the enjoyment away from reading.
The art is nothing short of magnificent. Jock (who would later go on to work with Snyder on the outstanding horror book Wytches) handles the Batman-centric chapters, while Francesco Francavilla (who is hugely responsible for the greatness that is Afterlife with Archie) took the chapters that focused on the Gordons. This book is an absolute masterpiece.
Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have done something special on New 52 Batman. Not only have the stories they’ve told together been almost universally excellent, but they are probably the most consistent creative team in comics in the last 15 years: every year you get 11 issues of dynamic art from Capullo, a Batman who’s an incredible combination of the lithe, ninja gymnast of Jim Aparo and the brute force of nature from Frank Miller; 12 issues of big, high concept detective Batman mixed in with dense worldbuilding from Snyder; and an annual or a zero issue or a villain POV gimmick that Snyder uses to lay groundwork for future stories while also bringing someone else into the Bat-universe.
Actually, now that I think about it, maybe this should be the first introduction to Batman comics for new readers: it is a distillation of everything I love about Batman, executed incredibly well.
The Court of Owls was their first story together, about a mysterious, mythical secret society that runs Gotham and is not pleased with Batman for upsetting the social order. It’s got an assload of guest stars, a great secret conspiracy, and fun art. It’s kind of like Hush, only well-written.
If you like this, you should keep going with Snyder and Capullo’s New 52 Batman, and you should definitely check out Dark Nights: Metal. As of publication, it’s still being published, but it is BANANAS. It ties together threads from all of Snyder’s run and mixes them with a healthy dose of Morrison’s mythology. He then runs it past Capullo, who tells Snyder “I love it, but bro, make it CRAZIER.” So Snyder adds in a new Hawkman origin, baby Darkseid, and literally the flipped over map of the multiverse from Multiversityto make one of the most batshit comics I’ve ever read.
Batman & Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn
Don’t be fooled by the name: Robin is nowhere to be found. Misnomer aside, though, this is probably the strongest arc of what was quietly one of the best runs on Batman ever.
Pete Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, and Mick Gray were given the unenviable task of following Grant Morrison on a series full of typical Morrisonian pitfalls. This is a task, following Morrison, that nearly everyone fails at, and actually led to some of the most atrocious X-Men comics of all time. But Tomasi, Gleason, and Gray nailed it, finding a voice for Damian Wayne that worked, understanding that he was basically imperious little Bruce, and then playing him off of a suddenly-uncertain Batman, thrust into the role of having to actually be a parent instead of the ward/general role he’d been for decades.
Then, when Damian was killed in another book, they had to find something to do while the rest of the Batman line dealt with the fallout. So they paired him with Two-Face, one of Batman’s best villains and one who had been relatively quiet since the New 52 relaunch, and gave the two of them a case that dipped into their shared history. The story that came out of it ended up being my favorite Two-Face story of all time, one that was full of emotion and had the moment that most shocked me in comics in a long, long time. PS. The Long Halloween is steaming garbage and you’ll never convince me otherwise.
If you like this, keep going with Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman & Robin. It’s a really entertaining Batman comic.
Tom King, in his own methodical and deliberate way, is in the midst of a great run on Batman that he started with the Rebirth relaunches. With art partners Mikel Janin, David Finch and Mitch Gerads, he’s scraping at what it truly means to be Batman and digging waaaaaaaaaaaay deep into the mythology to tell a moving, personal story that also involves the Psycho Pirate, Batman creating his own Suicide Squad, and a gang war between the Joker and the Riddler that kills thousands.
The big arcs – “I am Batman,” “I am Suicide,” “I am Bane,” and “The War of Jokes and Riddles” – are huge and fantastic. They’re also interspersed with little moments and side issues that are wonderful (and, in the case of the Ace the Bathound story from an annual, Eisner-winning). The two issues where he investigates a murder with Swamp Thing are particularly good. And if you read through this whole series and don’t go from “Kite Man! Hell yeah!” to “Holy crap, Kite Man,” I will give you one crisp dollar.*
*Monopoly money that I scanned and emailed to you.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Not the video game, surprisingly enough, though they’re mostly excellent (Arkham Origins is broken dumpster scum, but otherwise :gives ok hand gesture:). Arkham Asylum is a cerebral, tense history of the institution itself, told through a Dante’s Inferno-esque (also not the game) descent through Batman’s rogues gallery.
Morrison wrote this and teamed with Dave McKean, who later found greater fame doing covers for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. McKean used many of the same tricks (collage, paint, having a nervous breakdown localized in his drawing hand) he did on those covers to make this one of the most interesting and interpretive Batman comics of all time.
The Black Casebook
Originally released as a companion to Morrison’s Batman R.I.P., The Black Casebook reprints a bunch of the zany, weird ‘50s Batman comics that Morrison leaned heavily on to craft his tale. So you get “Robin Dies At Dawn,” where Batman willingly enters into an isolation experiment and hallucinates that Robin died; or “Batman – The Superman of Planet X,” introducing the Batman of the planet Zurr-en-Arrh.
It’s wild, but it’s got some great stuff from Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff, one a co-creator of Batman who got screwed royally by Bob Kane, and the other the guy who co-created Batgirl.
Gotham Central actually makes me a little mad. Not because it’s not good (it is), but because this is the perfect PERFECT comic to translate into a TV show, and instead we get Gotham, a poorly lit Batman ’66.
Gotham Central is Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark doing a police procedural in a world where Batman exists on the edges of police work. If it was translated fairly faithfully, it would probably be the best procedural that’s ever been put on TV.
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga
You’re not going to see anything in this that reminds you of Batman v Superman. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read this. Or maybe it does?
Jiro Kuwata was handed the reins of a licensed Batman manga in 1967 at the height of the show’s popularity. He made nearly 1000 pages of the comic, and then they faded into obscurity for 20 years until the mid ‘90s, when Chip Kidd, a graphic designer and huge Batman fan, discovered its existence on a tip from his friend David Mazzuchelli (of Batman: Year One fame). So he found them, wrote them up, and convinced DC to reprint them digitally in 2014, and now we get to read Kuwata’s pure ‘60s sci-fi Batman adventures.
If Gotham Central proves the versatility of the Batman mythos, Batmanga does the same for Batman’s iconography.
Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams: Volume 3
Normally, I’d just tell you to buy all three (or the giant omnibus that just came out), but this is meant to be an introduction, so presumably you don’t have $100 to spend and you want one of the best Batman stories ever. You get that with “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.”
Adams and Denny O’Neil were in reality the ones who brought Batman back from the campiness of the ‘60s TV show, and they brought the Joker back from the same campiness with this story, where he kills people with exploding cigars, garrotes, and tries to get one guy with a shark.
Also in this volume: the introduction of Ra’s and Talia al Ghul.
Tales of the Batman by Len Wein
Wein is probably more known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he also created Lucius Fox, who we see featured prominently here. Wein’s Batman isn’t earth-moving; it’s just good, straightforward Batman stories, using just about everyone in Batman’s rogues gallery (Crazy Quilt!) paired with some incredible artists – Adams, Walt Simonson, Aparo, Irv Novick.
Legends of the Dark Knight: Jim Aparo
Neal Adams is probably the artist most responsible for Batman’s look from about ’75 to ’85, but for me, my own personal forever Batman will be Jim Aparo’s. If you ever had any of those old Kenner action figures, the ones with the cloth cape, you’ve seen Aparo’s Batman.
If Miller’s Batman looks like he’s going to leave a crater if he dropped to the ground, Aparo’s looks like he’s going to float down, then kick the hell out of your face before you even realize he’s there. Not slight, but like, 6’8”, lean and incredibly graceful. Reading it just makes me feel happy.
Legends of the Dark Knight: Marshall Rogers
If you’ve watched The Animated Series, you are probably passingly familiar with this: the episode where Joker tried to copyright fish infected with Joker toxin to make himself a millionaire has its roots in a story by Steve Engleheart and Rogers in what is universally regarded as one of the all-time great Joker stories ever told.
This collection gathers together much of Engleheart and Rogers’ run, and it’s a classic, featuring probably the best Bat-ladyfriend ever: Silver St. Cloud, who subsequent creative teams mostly left alone out of respect for the great work this team did.
Batman: Black & White
A mid-‘90s anthology, Batman: Black & White has a bunch of 8-page stories written and drawn by legends, each giving their own quick take on the character. The first volume has a great story from Neil Gaiman, as well as work from Walt Simonson (officially recognized as the site’s favorite artist of all time—don’t you dare edit this, Mike), Howard Chaykin, Matt Wagner, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Katsuhiro Otomo. If that name is only ringing a faint bell, he’s the guy who created and drew Akira. So yeah, this is amazing.