10 Essential Bat-Books to Celebrate 80 Years of Batman

Given an eight-decade run—not to mention his status as one of the most popular figures in pop culture—a best-of list chronicling Batman’s greatest adventures list could easily run into the hundreds of entries.

Some of comics’ all-time great long-form stories and graphic novels have starred Batman, but he also works just as well in one-and-done individual issues—of which there have been thousands. Any top ten list is inevitably going to leave off some incredible stuff. So rather than a definitive roundup, consider this a start: a double handful of  the best stories, a;; of them in print and readily available.

If you’re new to comics, any one of them will make an excellent Bat-appetizer. If you’re already familiar with the nighttime antics of the World’s Greatest Detective, and there are books on list below you haven’t read yet, well, you’re in for a treat.

10. Dark Night: A True Batman Story, by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso
Plenty of Batman stories deal with the Caped Crusader as a cultural force and an inspiration to the public, none so straightforwardly as this memoir from Paul Dini, one of the masterminds behind the beloved Batman: The Animated Series. In 1993, the already depressed writer was viciously beaten walking home from a bad date. The injuries required surgery and lead to an even deeper slide into self-loathing, events related by Dini’s words and deeply visceral but compassionate art from Eduardo Risso. Only the Bat could save the imaginative Dini, whose demons became villains standing against his own inner hero. It’s not a Batman adventure in the traditional sense, but one of the character’s most important creators making an excellent case that the power of superheroes extends well beyond the printed page—in this case, to saving a real life.

9. Batman: Year 100, by Paul Pope
The other iconic future Batman story is as bold a reimagining of the Bat-mythos as Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (which, of course, we’ll come to soon), and it is uniquely Pope’s vision. In the year 2039, Gotham still has a Batman but the world itself is one of government conspiracies and surveillance, in which anxiety is the norm and privacy is a thing of the past. Sound familiar? One of the book’s cool conceits is that everything counts—Batman began in 1939 in Pope’s timeline, all of those stories are part of the history and legend of the Bat. Just how that’s so is part of the book’s central mystery, but it’s also a bit beside the point: this is a look at Batman as living mythology. Pope’s art is jittery and jarring, and all the more eye-catching for it with weird future technology and a terrifyingly mysterious Batman inspired by Nosferatu.

(For a more elegiac but still effective take on Batman’s myth, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert gave us Batman’s funeral in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?)

8. Batman: Hush, by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams
Batman meets a new adversary when his grapple is cut in mid-flight, leaving him with a head injury requiring the expertise of a childhood friend. The villain, Hush, continues to stalk Bruce and his allies from afar, manipulating Batman’s enemies into acting against their own best interests to strike at the Bat-family. Hush rightfully gets some flack for a slightly disappointing conclusion to its central mystery, but it’s still an impressive, fast-paced adventure. Jeph Loeb has written some all-time great stories of Batman’s early days (we’ll come back to him in this list), inker Scott Williams is an award-winner, and Jim Lee is one of the most popular comic-book artists of the last quarter century. It’s thrilling to ride along with these all-stars through modern Gotham in a story that includes a big chunk of the classic rogues gallery, several of the most important members of the Bat-family, Superman, and a major role for Catwoman.

7. Tower of Babel, by Mark Waid and Howard Porter
In this 2000 story from the JLA series of the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, Batman proves that he’s ready for any eventuality. Even if that means wiping out every other superhero. Earlier in the series, Grant Morrison and Howard Porter had already made a convincing case for Batman’s usefulness among a team of gods and powerful aliens: using his detective skills to figure out that a mysterious clan of Earth conquerors are, in fact, Martians, he’s able to dispatch them with a single match, having lured them into a circle of gasoline on the ground (to Martians, fire = Kryptonite). In Tower of Babel, written by Mark Waid, we see that preparedness taken to an extreme and then turned against him: Ra’s al Ghul gets his hands on the Bat-files that include contingency plans for putting down each of his teammates in generally unpleasant ways: Martian Manhunter, for instance, gets his outer layer of skin turned into magnesium that bursts into flame upon contact with air; Aquaman is exposed to a fear toxin that makes him terrified of the water he needs to live; etc. The team eventually comes out on top, but unsurprisingly is less keen to hang out with Bruce.

6. The Court of Owls, by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and Jonathan Glapion
How do you bring down a legend? That’s a question faced by many a Bat-villain, but Snyder, Capullo, and Glapion turn it around: what does Batman do when faced with the real face of a myth that’s even bigger and older than he is? The Court of Owls were just the subjects of a nursery rhyme, a centuries-old reminder to the kids of Gotham that they’d best behave. Until Bruce’s ambitious plans for a new Gotham brings the secretive but very real organization a bit closer to the surface. Before long, Batman is forced to reckon with the fact that he didn’t know his city nearly as well as he thought he did, and that there’s been a very powerful force pulling strings, including those of the Wayne family, all along. Adding new layers to Gotham is an old trick, but this team genuinely pulls the rug out from under the Bat by creating a menace of real consequence. The art here, highlighted by the creepy designs for the Owls themselves, is spectacular.

5. The Black Mirror, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francisco Francavilla
Before beginning a long run on Batman’s self-titled book with Court of Owls, Scott Snyder teamed up with artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla for a dual narrative featuring a new Batman. At this point in Bat-history, Dick Grayson had taken up the cowl from a Bruce Wayne who’d retired in order to run the international crime-fighting team of Batman Incorporated. Commissioner Gordon isn’t overly enamored of being asked to work with a new Batman, and their developing relationship is the heart and highlight of the book—just as Bruce Wayne and Gordon had to learn to trust each other, so do the new Bat and the Commissioner. They’ll need to figure things out quickly, though: James Gordon, Jr., once a remorseless killer, returns to Gotham claiming that he hopes to turn his life around. As you can imagine, that doesn’t go so well. There’s horror, mystery, and a dark twist ending.

4. Batman R.I.P., by Grant Morrison, Tony S. Daniel, and Lee Garbett
Grant Morrison’s run on Batman incorporated surprising stories from the past while also making a few changes to the status quo that have miraculously stuck (particularly the arrival of Damien Wayne, son of Bruce). R.I.P. is sort of a mid-run climax for Morrison, bringing events to a head before taking his story in an entirely new direction. Even so, it works pretty well on its own (if you’re willing to dive right in to Morrison’s whacked-out world). The Bat (spoiler!) doesn’t actually die here, and instead undergoes a complete mental breakdown engineered by a group of villains called the Black Glove, the final stroke coming about as the result of a betryal. As it turns out, Bruce’s got a plan for even that: the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, a backup personality designed to kick in when his mind is compromised. This is wildly high-concept stuff, but also makes an exceptionally good case that Batman is so much more than muscles and martial arts. We knew he was smart, but here we learn that his mind and heart have been trained and disciplined to the same extent as the rest of his body. By embracing all of Bat-history, including the most bizarre elements (Bat-Mite!), it also works as a reminder that Batman’s past is a lot more than gritty noir.

3. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller
There’s no question that Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen’s The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most influential superhero comics of all time, having planted a big old flag for the idea that even mainstream superheroes can go deep—and dark. It’s also part of a one-two punch from Miller in the mid-’80s that saw Batman almost completely revised and rethought. A year after this book, he’d go back to the very beginning of the Bat’s crimefighting career but, here, he takes a look at the end in a dystopian future that finds Bruce getting back on the horse (literally) for one last ride against Gotham’s criminals and, to greater affect, an oppressive government with Superman as its face. It’s dense, satirical, and shockingly political given that it stars one of mainstream comics’ true A-listers. (Opinions on Miller’s follow-ups are wildly polarized, but The Dark Knight Strikes Again is underrated, IMHO.)

2. The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
In the earliest days of Batman’s crime-fighting career, a mysterious serial killer strikes Gotham, murdering one person each month on a holiday. Teamed with Captain Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent, the young crimefighter struggles to stop the deaths even as a crime war breaks out between the Maroni and Falcone crime families. It’s a genuinely gripping noir mystery with shades of The Godfather, but one that could only happen in Gotham City. It’s also leisurely—which is a compliment: the high page count and year-long timespan allow for a deep dive into the seamy world of Gotham crime, and the time we take to get to know and understand Harvey Dent pays off in a real emotional attachment that makes his downfall especially painful. The follow-up book from the same team, Dark Victoryis well worth the time as well.

1. Year One, by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, and Richmond Lewis
Frank Miller made his mark on Batman with two seminal books in the mid-1980s: Year One, set at the beginning of Bruce’s crimefighting career and largely told from the point of view of young police lieutenant Jim Gordon; and The Dark Knight Returns, which follows an aging Bruce Wayne in a dark future. Year One goes back to the beginning, with Bruce embarking on a career as a vigilante in Gotham City, learning on the job as squeaky clean Lieutenant James Gordon transfers to the GCPD hoping to help in cleaning up corruption. Eschewing more outlandish elements in favor of a gritty, crime-noir feel, the book still stands as the single definitive creation myth for a character whose origins have been told time and time again.

What books define the Batman for you?

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