As we wrap up on Batman-month (which I hope is good enough to do again), I feel that it’s time we talk about the stories that are essential. Now, before I start rambling, I’m not talking about my favorites (although these are a chunk of my favorites), nor just when significant events happened (we’d be here all week going over all the significant events in Batman’s long history). These are essential not just for the plot, but for how they tapped into what makes Batman what he is, and why he persists after decades in print.
Batman: Year One
I already did a review on the animated film based on this storyline. Considered basically the story of how Batman and Gordon met, as well as how Batman started dealing with street crime, mobsters and the corrupt cops and politicians before all the supervillains showed up. The influence is great, as several of those plot elements have been used both in Batman Begins and in Mask of the Phantasm.
Batman: The Long Halloween
This mini-series blew people’s minds when it came out. Written by Jeff Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale, it not only continued the story from Year One, but in my humble opinion surpassed it. Taking place over the course of a year, it chronicles Batman’s early alliance with both Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent to bring down the Falcone mob in Gotham, and things get more complicated when a mysterious murder called the Holiday killer starts knocking off members of the Falcone family. Now the search is on for who is behind it, and everyone is a suspect. A great recent tale that has influenced the mythos, especially in the Nolan films (I actually find more of this story in those films than Year One). Not only great for continuing the story of Batman’s early days and being a great mystery, it also shows the decline of the mafia in Gotham and the rise of supervillains.
The Killing Joke
I already talked about this story in much greater length during my Joker Week, so I won’t spend that much time on it. Joker decides to break Gordon by crippling his daughter, and Batman tries to stop him while flashbacks show a possible backstory for the Clown Prince of Crime. Not just a great Joker story, as well as the tale that crippled the original Batgirl, it provides an insight into the one villain the Bat mythos that is a big question mark.
The Denny O’Neil run
This is not so much a single story as it is a run by a writer. Denny O’Neil was one of many writers who wanted to dispel the image of Batman as a campy goofball, and he knocked it out of the park. Frank Miller may claim he “gave Batman his balls back,” but Denny did it earlier. Not only did we see a return of a serious Batman who didn’t take crap from anyone, we got the return of the Joker as a murderous madman in The Joker’s Five Way Revenge, and O’Neil was the man who created Ra’s al-Ghul and his daughter Talia, characters who have skyrocketed in both popularity and importance in Batman’s cast. There’s a reason why Denny O’Neil was not just the editor on all the Batman comics, and is constantly interviewed on the various DVDs: it’s because he is one of the foremost innovators and experts on the Dark Knight.
This short run was praised as one of the definitive Batman stories, as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers told a thrilling series of stories as Batman not only faces new foes like Doctor Phosphorus and corrupt city councilman Boss Rupert Thorne, he ends clashing with Hugo Strange (in his most iconic portrayal in comics), Penguin, Deadshot (making his debut in the armored costume we’ve come to associate with him) and the Joker in the iconic Laughing Fish tale. This also introduced Silver St. Cloud, one of the few women to truly steal Bruce Wayne’s heart. It’s yet another case of comic creators somehow distilling what makes Batman work while being fresh and new. Its title is actually just the name that the run is collected under, being more of an arc than a single story. And to punctuate why this is essential, when the 1989 Batman film was in pre-production, the earliest scripts were based on this run, including choice of characters to include.
The Dark Knight Returns
I’ve already mentioned how I don’t like Frank Miller, but when it comes to his writing Batman, what I really hate is that he hasn’t stopped writing Batman like in this story. Often credited with Watchmen as showing that comics can be smart and adult, this book told the tale of an aged, retired Batman coming out of retirement to take back the city when it’s basically being taken over by a group of psychotic teens. Both a story of Batman coming back and a scathing critique of politics and pop psychology in the 80’s, this is one of the darkest tales of the Caped Crusader. The funny thing is, Miller writes Batman as a better and far nobler person even in the darkest times than he has since. While not high on my personal list of Batman stories, it’s still a nice look at a dystopian future where Batman may have fallen, but he’s still fighting.
Knightfall, Knightquest and Knight’s End
The KnightSaga (as it’s been called) is possibly the biggest Batman saga of the 90’s, as well as changing the status quo and pushing the level of how big a Batman storyline can get. Knightfall follows Bane’s first major story as he frees all of the inmates from Arkham so he can wear Batman down, resulting in Bruce Wayne being crippled and programmed assassin Jean Paul Valley (better known as Azrael) taking over as the Dark Knight. Valley remodels the Batsuit into something far more lethal, and takes down Bane. In Knightquest, we see a branching story: in The Quest, Bruce Wayne and Alfred try to rescue both Robin’s (Tim Drake) dad and Bruce’s doctor, the metahuman Shondra Kinsolving from her evil brother Benedict Asp. In The Crusade, Valley continues to become a more brutal hero as his programming pushes him more to his Azrael persona than what Bruce intended. The end of both plots see Bruce’s mobility restored, and Valley committing murder and allowing an innocent man to die because of it. Knight’s End ends the saga with Bruce training to become Batman again, while Valley becomes more and more insane, culminating in a showdown between two caped heroes with different ideals. This was one of the first (and best) super sagas in 90’s Batman comics, not only filled with moments that people have tried to emulate since (here’s hoping Bane is as cool in The Dark Knight Rises), it also served as a commentary on the trend in the 90’s for more brutal and violent superheroes, and why it doesn’t work for true heroes like Batman.
No Man’s Land
A massive earthquake devastates Gotham City, and when the government decides to remove it from the United States (effectively making it a lawless wasteland), Batman and his now expanded allies (now referred to as the Batman Family) fight to take back the city and restore order. Not just a great story (and a prime example on how Batman has learned from the events of Knightfall), it shows the beginnings of Batman turning his allies from just a loose-knit group into a true team, and was essentially a final chapter for the 90’s comics and its Burton-influenced gothic setting. When next we saw Gotham, it would mix both gothic and modern to look like a real city.
Jeph Loeb returns, this time with Jim Lee, to tell another definitive Batman saga. When someone slowly but surely is attacking Batman, using all his enemies and secrets against him, Batman must struggle to find out who the mysterious Hush is, all while pulling off some of the most awesome things you’ll ever see in one storyline. Hush was awesome because Loeb understands that Batman may be grim, gritty, and more human than other superheroes, but he is still a superhero. This is a man who stands side-by-side with Superman. There’s a reason, and that’s because Batman is 100% badass.
Grant Morrison’s run
It may sound like a cop-out, but Morrison (who like Loeb, understands Batman is not just a grim character but a badass superhero) did more shocking and status-quo-shaking things in his run than most writers get with such a well-known character. We get Bruce Wayne’s son Damian, the return of silver-age characters like the Club of Heroes, shocking new villains like the Black Glove and Professor Pyg, one of the most terrifying and awesome depictions of the Joker in years, Batman’s possible death at the hands of Darkseid, Dick Grayson becoming Batman and Damian his new Robin, and the formation of Batman Incorporated (which I admit I made fun of, but now look at as one of the coolest books out there). Seriously, the fact that Morrison didn’t ruin anything in the mythos while shaking it up shows both an understanding of the character and a phenomenal talent. The only sad thing is the lingering question about what is still canon after DC’s massive reboot.
Batman has been with us since 1939, and will probably continue to be with us for years to come. I think the main appeal of him is that in the end, with will and drive, we can become more than just a person. To paraphrase the recent films, doing that can make a person become a legend.