This writer’s epiphanic Batman moment didn’t come in a book at all. It came in a movie. The movie was the first of the last-gen Batman movies; Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan are well within their rights to think of their 2005 movie Batman Begins as the first of its generation.
The second, featuring the late great Heath Ledger as The Joker, is out on 18 July.
Directed by Tim Burton, the first of the last-gen Batman movies starred Michael Keaton. The year was 1989. Just the previous year, the two had collaborated in the zany Beetleuice. This writer can’t put a finger on it (and maybe it was just a Beetlejuice hangover), but Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne came with a dash of madness.
Keaton’s Batman was fine, but his Wayne was, clearly, not all there.
In that movie, the costume didn’t just define Wayne’s character—it almost made him normal.
That sums up Batman.
It is easy to see why sub-teen men of all ages like Batman: He fights crime, he has really cool toys, including the Batarang and the Batmobile, and he actually lives in the Batcave. And his alter ego is a rich playboy. The comics, much like others dedicated to costumed heroes, also feature plenty of women in tight costumes—Catwoman, Huntress, Tarantula, Onyx, Batwoman, and Talia.
It isn’t as easy to understand why others—older and wiser (ahem!)—like him.
The answer to that riddle (and we may well need Mr Nigma to help with that before we are through) may well explain Batman’s resilience. Not too many superheroes would have been able to survive being part of a campy television series popular with baby boomers in the US (the tune is still a hit ringtone) or several bad movies, including at least one in which the Batsuit ended up looking like a nipplesuit and another which actually thought George Clooney would look better in a mask.
One possible explanation may be that Batman isn’t an earnest do-gooder like Superman, but a hard-working detective (in fact, one of the Batman villains, Ra’s al Ghul, always calls him this), who isn’t above getting his back broken by someone who is just so much stronger than he is (Bane, another of Batman’s villains).
Another reason may be that his character has as many shades of grey as his costume.
There’s no denying the fact that Batman is good, but he is this in a psychologically complex way—one that may have encouraged writers through the years to come up with a unique and extraordinary group of villains (Ra’s al Ghul, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, The Joker, The Penguin, Two-Face, Scarface, Poison Ivy, Riddler and Mr Freeze, to name just a handful). Batman’s “goodness” and his “ordinariness” are relative.
You won’t, for instance, find him rescuing cats caught in trees.
The real reason for Batman’s longevity and continuing popularity, though, may have more to do with the people in charge of the character than the character itself. Over the years, some of the finest comics writers and artists have authored and illustrated Batman books.
The only other comics character who comes even close, in terms of having had as many worthies write or illustrate books about him, is John Constantine.
Constantine, though, is of more recent vintage than Batman and, apart from the fact that neither is particularly moralistic, there isn’t much in common between the two.
Presented here, in no particular order, are the best Batman comics this writer has encountered. Alan Moore’s classic The Killing Joke doesn’t find a mention here simply because it isn’t a Batman book, but a Joker one (for a chance to win The Killing Joke take our quiz).
Enjoy, and don’t forget Heath Ledger
(Write to Sukumar at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Year One (1987)
Most people know the story of Batman’s origin—the killing of his parents, the years of training, the bat that breaks through the window giving Bruce Wayne the idea that he should call himself Batman—but this book, at once both a truthful retelling of the legend and a marginally alternative look at Batman’s first year as a costumed vigilante, is a good starting point for Batman newbies. It helps that it is written by Miller, the man who reinvented the Batman genre (and some say comic books) with his 1986 book, ‘The Dark Knight Returns’.
The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001-2003)
‘The Dark Knight Returns’ is the 1986 comic book to which most people give credit for reinventing the genre by reaching out to older readers. That may be partially true but the book, which tells the story of Batman’s efforts to retake Gotham after a 10year absence, is probably the first that showcased Miller’s terse prose and noir like plot treatment—both of which were later to be displayed in the 1990s in the author’s own Sin City series.
‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’ is set three years after the first book. Remember those pulp Westerns where an ageing but still superfast lawman comes out of retirement to kick some outlawbutt? This is pretty much Miller’s interpretation of, and homage to, those books.
Batman: Tales of the Demon (1971-1980)
Before there were ecoterrorists and green warriors there was Ra’s al Ghul, whose daughter Talia is Batman’s wife. O’Neill’s pulpish short comics about Ghul are
among the earliest featuring him and, believe it or not, Liam Neeson’s take on him in the 2005 movie doesn’t do him justice.
Arkham Asylum (1989)
Grant Morrison/Dave McKean
Sure, everyone who knows Batman knows what lies inside Arkham Asylum, but it takes Morrison’s considerable writing skills and the artwork of a man who is, arguably,the finest comicbook design expert of our times, McKean (he designed all the Sandman covers), to translate all that madness into print.
The Long Halloween (1996-1997)
Dark Victory (1999-2000)
Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale
Everyone’s guide to Gotham’s crime families, these two books best reflect Batman’s late1990s noir phase, and there are few slicker comic books around (as evident in the fact that when publishers started putting out Absolute editions — hardbound books with tonnes of bonus material—one of the first Batman books they looked to was ‘The Long Halloween’).
Both Jeph Loeb book reviews on this list also need to include a mention of the artists—Tim Sale (who later won much acclaim for the television series ‘Heroes’) and Jim Lee, because their work is part of what makes these books work.
No Man’s Land (1999-2000)
Bob Gale and Devin K Grayson
Gotham is wrecked by an earthquake and the federal government decides to abandon the city. Reminiscent of the Kurt Russell movie ‘Escape from New York’, and events that unfolded in the wake of Katrina in New Orleans (the book came out almost two decades after the first and, almost presciently, a few years before the second), Batman and friends are the only ones standing between Gotham and outright anarchy.
Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee
Despite 2001’s ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’, Batman was a fading comic-book hero by the early 2000s and some people say it is Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s ‘Hush’ that revived the franchise. ‘Hush’ is unique because it is one of the few Batman books whose plot begins before Batman does. It also marks the first appearance of a villain named Hush, who, it turns out, is one of Bruce Wayne’s oldest friends.
Dough Moench and Chuck Dixon
Can anyone take Batman’s place? Writers Moench and Dixon wrestle with this proposition in the ‘Knightfall’ trilogy. Bane breaks Batman’s back; Batman goes off to get cured putting a replacement in place (“There will always be a Batman”) but has to fight for his place when he returns.
War Drums (2004)
Andersen Gabrych and Bill Willingham
War Games (2005)
Ed Brubaker, Andersen Gabrych, Devin K Grayson, Dylan Horrocks, AJ Lieberman and Bill Willingham
Just another, and more recent, series featuring almost all of Batman’s acolytes and most of the usual bad men, but written by some of the best contemporary names in the comics business. Brubaker—this writer thinks his best work was the 2002 miniseries ‘Sleeper’—is the man who killed off Captain America when he was in charge of that franchise. And Bill Willingham is best known as the author of the Fables series.
Batman & Robin (2005-2008)
Frank Miller/Jim Lee
Among the newest Batman books, it is written by the man who wrote what are, arguably, the best Batman books, and illustrated by the legendary Lee. Enough tales have been told about the first Robin (Dick Grayson) who later becomes Nightwing (for the record, the second dies, the third retires and then comes back as the fifth and the fourth is fired and later dies; which pretty much sums up the fate of Batman’s acolytes because Batgirl doesn’t fare much better), but this is Miller’s own retelling of the story and it is unique as only Miller can make it.