The Dark Knight returns to stock your bookshelf with good reads.
2019 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the oldest and most enduring superheroes ever. What better time to update our list of the 25 best Batman comics and graphic novels ever published?
A few criteria before we get started. This list of essentials is meant to focus on Batman comics that provide a compete, standalone reading experience rather than spotlighting individual issues or long comic runs. They don’t have to have originally been published in graphic novel form, but they do need to be available to read in a single collected edition now. We’re also limiting our focus to stories where Batman himself is the star of the show. Classics like Mad Love and Batgirl: Year One are must-read stories set in the world of Batman, but you won’t find them on this list.
With that out of the way, here are the 25 best and most influential Batman graphic novels of all time. These are the comics that belong on any Bat-fan’s shelf.
Batman: Earth One
Creators: Geoff Johns & Gary Frank
If Batman: Year One were written today, it would be Batman: Earth One. It’s a modern retelling of Batman’s early years where he’s not an infallible master detective who moves like a shadow — a point driven home when, while chasing a crook over the city rooftops, his grappling gun malfunctions and he lands in a pile of trash below. Also, instead of being best buds with Jim Gordon, he winds up socking him in the face.
The crucial element that makes this story work is the overhaul of Alfred Pennyworth’s character. No longer a kindly butler, Alfred is an ex-MI-6 agent who, instead of serving him tea and tending to his wounds, beats the crap out of Bruce to teach him a lesson. It’s a refreshing spin on the classic dynamic that lets us appreciate how Batman would adapt to a world with more realistic limitations.
To date, Earth One has spawned one sequel, and we’re looking forward to release of Book 3 once Geoff Johns and Gary Frank wrap up their work on Doomsday Clock.
Flashpoint: Batman – Knight of Vengeance
Creators: Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso
Flashpoint marked a critical chapter in DC’s history, paving the way for the rebooted New 52 universe and everything else that followed. But as it turns out, the best part of this massive crossover didn’t involve The Flash himself, but rather Batman.
In this alternate timeline, Thomas Wayne became Batman after his son was murdered in front of him. The result is a vigilante who manages to top even Bruce Wayne in the brooding and scowling department. Knight of Vengeance showcases a darker, meaner Gotham City that plays perfectly to Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s storytelling strengths.
Though this book technically serves as a piece of a much larger crossover, it also reads perfectly well on its own. It also features one of the most haunting endings you’ll find in any Batman comic.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
Creators: Ed Brubaker & Doug Mahnke
A mad man is targeting Gotham’s elite and next on his hit list is millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. This is Batman’s introduction to his most nefarious villain, the Joker. Where Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke tells the origin of the Clown Prince of Crime, The Man Who Laughs details the first tussle between Joker and Batman.
Brubaker is one of the best crime writers in comics. He manages to bring some of that noir flair to The Man Who Laughs while maintaining the proper tone and pace for a good Batman yarn. To my knowledge this is the only story to ever suggest that, like Bruce Wayne, the Joker had to practice to perfect his art. And that’s ultimately what makes the Joker so frightening. His psychosis is not chaotic, not as random as you might think. There’s a methodology and a purposefulness to many of his actions.
Creators: Denny O’Neil & Trevor Von Eden
Venom opens with one of the biggest failures in Batman’s career. A little girl is trapped. Drowning. And Batman isn’t strong enough to save her. Distraught, the Dark Knight finds a new alternative to strength training — a little pill that triples his strength. Of course, it’s highly addictive and the always-in-control hero loses his grip, nearly assassinating Jim Gordon just to get his fix. It’s a look at a side of Batman we rarely see.
Venom is one of those stories that is a struggle to rank. The premise is stronger than the actual writing. Batman fights a shark. So, there’s that. But there are moments, strong moments, where O’Neil tests the limits of Batman’s commitment to his crusade. And it’s enough to make Venom one of the more memorable Batman stories ever told.
Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying
Creators: Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Jim Aparo & Tom Grummett
Dick Grayson and Jason Todd became Robin out of circumstance. They didn’t really choose the role, it was chosen for them. Tim Drake is different. He takes an active role in becoming the third Robin. A Lonely Place of Dying isn’t just an origin tale of Robin #3, it’s the best response to the question: “Why does Batman need Robin?”
The answer, it turns out, isn’t to keep Batman from the dark side or as some subconscious way of restoring Bruce Wayne’s lost youth. When Batman has to consider the safety of a young sidekick, he’s more likely to think things through. He’ll take more precautions. He’ll be safer. Robin, just by virtue of being at his side, keeps Batman alive a little longer. Now, if that doesn’t make you want to read the only worthwhile Robin origin, you just don’t like Batman stories.