Library of the Bat1 of 12
Batman turns 80 this month, and DC celebrated the birthday/anniversary with last week's milestone Detective Comics #1000.
The sheer volume of Detective Comics stories alone would make the task of choosing his 10 best almost impossible, and that's not even considering the Batman monthly series and the hundreds of other specials and series he's starred in.
So to celebrate the Dark Knight's legacy and give us a fighting chance at a manageable Top 10, we're counting down the more recent landmark stories of his long career - his best post-Crisis stories.
There truly is a Batman for every kind of comics fan, so if you don’t see your favorite modern Batman story here, just pretend it’s #11. Our list of honorable mentions is almost twice as long as the Top 10.
10. Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (Gaiman/Kubert, Batman #686, Detective Comics #853)2 of 12
“Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” feels like a story tailor-made for a countdown like this - Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert gave us a two-parter that works as a celebration of Batman’s history and just how he’s changed over time.
Gaiman’s dreamlike approach to such a massive undertaking makes this undeniably a 'Neil Gaiman Comic Book' but the real star is Andy Kubert’s linework. Kubert’s style is undeniably his own but the script forces him to try-on elements from many great Batman artists over the years while still maintaining a cohesive visual narrative. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is one of comic books’ greatest love letters to one of its most lasting characters.
9. The Court of the Owls (Snyder/Capullo, Batman #1-11)3 of 12
While the "New 52 is a sore spot for many fans, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many complaints about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. Snyder’s horror roots come through in a big way with “Court of the Owls,” introducing readers to a secret cult that’s intrinsically tied to Gotham’s history. In exploring this new mystery, Snyder doubles down on one of the oldest but most effective tropes of noir storytelling - the city as a character - and invites readers to forget everything they thought they knew about the place that the Bruce Wayne is sworn to protect.
Artistically, Capullo was more than up for the challenge, syncing up with Snyder’s intentions from page one and imbuing Gotham with a life and dark energy that the story demanded. Add in a slightly more streamlined approach to Jim Lee’s Batsuit redesign against the stark horror visuals of the Court of Owls and we’ve got one of the most memorable stories of the last decade.
8. The Man Who Laughs (Brubaker/Mahnke)4 of 12
Batman’s rogues gallery is oft-cited as a big reason for the lasting legacy of the character and there is one villain who stands above them all: the Joker.
“The Man Who Laughs” is a modern update on Joker’s appearance way back in 1940’s Batman #1 but more than that it creates a dialogue that brings past, present and future versions of the character together. Ed Brubaker’s vision of the Joker is brutal and unrelenting in ways that kept him relevant for audiences who, in 2005, were primed for a more adult take on the world of Batman. Doug Mahke’s art echoes those same violent and sinister sentiments to help deliver a book that’s probably underrated in the pantheon of Joker-centric Batman stories.
7. Hush (Lee/Loeb, Batman #608-619)5 of 12
With “Hush,” Jim Lee established himself as far more than just that guy who drew that one X-Men cover. (Calm down, that’s a joke. I like WildStorm, too.)
But Lee’s style evolved in really meaningful ways to this point. He was always a good draftsman but his pages in “Hush” combined his solid character acting and expression work with some pulse pounding action sequences. Arguably, he hasn’t topped them since.
And Jeph Loeb is no slouch, either. His longform approach to Batman mysteries might have been a bit formulaic at this point but he managed to expand on Bruce’s history while introducing a menacing new villain. That’s tough stuff, especially from a comic book reading audience that can sometimes be resistant to new concepts.
6. Batman R.I.P. (Morrison/various artists)6 of 12
Grant Morrison’s run on Batman is a long, strange trip through ideas from every nook and cranny of the Dark Knight’s history and “Batman R.I.P.” is extremely representative of Morrison’s kitchen sink approach.
Morrison manages to pull together some of the weird parts of Batman’s publishing history like Bat-Mite and the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh while taking readers (and Bruce) on a path to rediscovering just what Batman is. Of course, Bruce prevails but not before he becomes intertwined with the events of Final Crisis, kicking off an era of great creativity in the Batline including the emergence Kate Kane and Damian Wayne, Dick Grayson’s time under the cowl and eventually, Bruce’s return and the formation of Batman Incorporated.
Morrison can be a divisive writer but this story led to one of the best times to ever be a Bat-fan.
5. A Death in the Family (Starlin/Aparo, Batman #426-429)7 of 12
Jason Todd’s eventual return would undercut this story a bit eventually, but it’s impossible to deny the impact of “A Death in the Family.” Bruce Wayne’s life is marked by tragedy but Jason represented his greatest failure and the grim circumstances surrounding his death reminded us that the Batman is, indeed, human.
Bruce Wayne might be one of the most competent and prepared characters in the DC Universe but he’s not without his faults. While other iterations have made his seemingly superhuman readiness the focus of the character, Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo zeroed in on what could make him break. Of course, readers themselves had a say in this story - calling in to one of two hotlines in order to vote on Jason Todd’s fate - but for once, they might have made the right choice. Bruce was haunted by Jason’s death for some time and even with his return, he’s still a representation of Batman’s limits.
4. The Long Halloween (Loeb/Sale)8 of 12
We’ve reached the portion of the list where you could make an argument that any of these stories could take the top slot. But one thing that can’t be argued is that The Long Halloween is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s masterpiece.
Sale’s art is the most immediately memorable thing about the book. The thin lines punctuated by big swathes of black inking give the whole book a very palpable tension. And Sale’s character models are extremely unique while still being entirely recognizable. Coupled with Gregory Wright’s bold color palette, The Long Halloween absolutely evokes the noir films it pays homage to.
The two creators would collaborate on another Batman story with Dark Victory and their famous Marvel color books but The Long Halloween stands above the rest - a harrowing mystery that is a perfect marriage of Batman’s noir detective roots and his colorful rogues gallery. For Loeb, it might represent his pinnacle as a writer.
It’s no wonder that Christopher Nolan cited this story as a big influence on his Batman trilogy. The parallels are unmistakable, especially as we see the relationship between Bruce and Jim grow while Harvey transforms into Two-Face.
3. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth(Morrison/McKean)9 of 12
So many writers are defined by their ability to write Batman’s rogues gallery almost more than their ability to write the Dark Knight himself. Before Grant Morrison’s lengthy run with the Caped Crusader, he explored not just Batman’s villains but their mythic prison as well: Arkham Asylum.
Playing to Batman’s gothic sensibilities, Morrison enables readers to uncover the history of the Arkhams along with Bruce Wayne as he seeks to wrest the hospital back from Joker’s control. And we get to see that Arkham Asylum is so much darker than we’ve ever realized, almost like it’s a place cursed to ruin anyone within its walls.
Of course, the big draw is also Dave McKean’s unsettling, painted artwork. There’s never been a Batman book that looked quite like this before or since and that speaks to the elasticity of the character as well as DC’s willingness to let creative minds stretch the artistic expectations of their audience.
2. The Dark Knight Returns (Miller)10 of 12
You knew we’d get here eventually. If there’s a creator who has cast the longest shadow on the Bat, it’s Frank Miller. For a time, there might have been no greater creator in comic books that was able to summarily redefine characters for decades. (See also: Daredevil.)
In terms of Batman stories, this is the one that most fans will point to as the one that won them over for life because it’s not just about the man, it’s about the impact of his legacy. In a city without a hero, where can people people find hope? Miller’s story is action-packed and fun but more than anything it’s about why superheroes inspire us. In his vision, even Superman has become a part of the machine. But hope still exists in a girl who is willing to put her life on the line to fight back. And in turn, she inspires Bruce Wayne’s return.
Miller was making a bold but simple statement: we can all be Carrie Kelly. Because if we’re inspired by Batman, then we should be inspired to help those in need and fight back. Plus, ol’ Bats lays the smackdown on Superman adding fuel to the fire of that debate for ever and for always.
1. Year One (Miller/Mazzucchelli, Batman #404-407)11 of 12
In a post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe, there was room for a retelling of Batman’s origin and Frank Miller with David Mazzucchelli on art told the quintessential one. Miller made changes that lined the Dark Knight up more with where he would eventually get to in The Dark Knight Returns and presented Batman in his simplest terms: a brave man trying to do what’s right.
He took away some of the more fantastic elements of Bruce’s origins and reminded readers that heroes were more than their fancy trappings of spandex and gadgets. Before they can be truly effective, they have to fail and learn from those failures. And as Bruce learned to be Batman, Jim Gordon learned what it meant to be cop in Gotham City. Miller took the two men on journeys that would test their resolves but that ultimately maintained something that is a throughline in all of Miller’s best work: hope.
Meanwhile, David Mazzucchelli grounded the story in a noir realism that helped underline the grittiness of those early days in Gotham. His work relied heavily on shadows providing deep contrast against the coloring and allowing the artist to create his own spin on classic iconography. Mazzuchelli is a huge part of why “Year One” remains not just the most enduring post-Crisis Batman stories but one of the most enduring of all time.
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