The Best Batman Comics (that aren’t the famous ones)
Throw a stick at the Internet at the moment and you’ll find a list of ‘the best Batman comics’. I guarantee these lists will include the likes of: The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, Hush and The Killing Joke. (Although why Hush has a positive reception is beyond me.) If you haven’t heard of these titles and are realising this article is not a great place for a beginner’s Batman collection guide, I’d recommend you go check out IGN’s various assorted ‘best Batman comics’ lists from over the years.
Batman is an iconic character who had been around for generations before Frank Miller brought him back to the dark. Much of his strength as a character is his versatility that allows him to slide into almost any genre or tone. Bruce Wayne is just that awesome. Batman is usually portrayed in serialised comics, thus it is hard to find truly great individual stories involving him. Comics are akin to arc heavy TV shows wherein individual stories aren’t often as notable as the larger whole. Many of the greatest Batman comics are those outside of a serialised release format such as: Batman: Earth One (volumes 1 and 2 which I praise in-depth here) and Batman: Nine Lives. I feel that I shouldn’t include these titles on my list either as it is easy to create good stories when free of continuity. Often these lists of great stories are commonly filled with too many alternate reality tales. (‘Best Superman comics’ lists are riddled with this issue.)
Thus I am looking for the overlooked Batman tales that were part of the ‘main universe’ at their time of publishing (post-crisis and post-Flashpoint and so on). Ranked in no particular order let’s begin.
(I apologise in advance for not having appropriate room to include other roles in comic creation outside of writers and pencillers.)
Batman: Venom – Dennis O’Neil, José Luis García-López
Many Batman writers have chosen to define Batman by his insatiable drive to fight crime. Nothing makes him want to stop, not injury, exhaustion nor hopelessness. He is obsessed and driven always. As is well known the only thing to stop him really is a broken spine and even that doesn’t stick. In Venom Batman fails to save a young girl from drowning when a heavy rock is in his way. Batman is the superhero who isn’t a superhero. He has no powers and whilst his training and gadgets usually make up for this, in Venom he simply isn’t strong enough to save the day.
As a result of this Batman starts taking the eponymous venom: a strength enhancing and psychopathy causing drug. Bruce is rapidly reduced to a overpowered thug. Without going into total spoilers I’ll just say that Bruce will go through all the stages of addiction and withdrawal in this adventure. The events are also largely tied to a mad General (the DC universe is full of these) who wants a super-powered army. Batman also fights a shark without breaking the tone.
Overall Venom is a great emotional Batman story that is also good for bolstering the early years in any Batman collection.
Batman: The Cult – Jim Starlin, Bernie Wrightson
This is very different story of Batman being drugged. In this tale Batman has mind-altering drugs forced on him by kidnappers whilst being starved. The man responsible for Batman’s capture is Deacon Blackfire: an evangelical TV host with an army of equally drugged homeless people at his disposal. Thankfully Jim Starlin characterises Blackfire well enough to separate him from the very similar X-Men character William Stryker. Rather than having connections to the military-industrial complex, Blackfire has founded his eponymous cult through his own surreptitious efforts.
Many less experienced Bat-fans may be surprised just how far into brutality Blackfire pushes Batman. Rather than Batman’s spirit being broken as with Bane, Blackfire uses Batman’s fatigue to turn his desire for vengeance against criminals against him.
Eventually Blackfire’s cult grows into an army and holds Gotham hostage. In a shocking image Batman takes up a gun (albeit a stun gun) and drives a giant tank into Gotham to take back his city and his own agency.
The art is pretty damn good for the time too. It balances that late-‘80s Batman art style with the then recent Frank Miller gritty Batman stories. This is a rare Batman story wherein our protagonist has to truly overcome something.
Batman: Son of the Demon – Mike W. Barr, Jerry Bingham
This was originally written as a Elseworlds tale that was retroactively canonised by Grant Morrison’s iconic Batman run in the late 2000s. It’s about Batman and his inlaws. In this case his inlaws are the League of Assassins. Ra’s Al Ghul to me has always been the best Batman villain. The Joker has gotten too big in the mythos and there is always a push to make him shocking to the detriment of story (and Babs’ spine). Ra’s Al Ghul is a physical threat, who has resources beyond Bruce Wayne’s wealth and has the same goals via horrible methods. Ra’s Al Ghul wants to save the world through utterly utilitarian means. Son of the Demon is the closest Batman comes to joining Ra’s on his crusade.
Batman was created by Bruce as a reaction to his parents being gunned down. This is just one kind of reaction one could have to this trauma. Another could be the desire to have a family at any cost. Son of the Demon sees Batman knocking Talia Al Ghul up and thus he finally joins the League of Assassin’s as a result of this. Surprisingly Ra’s allows Batman to train his men to be non-lethal. Whilst this may seem to be a turn-around for the villain, it is actually part of Ra’s attempt to seduce Batman from within the belly of the beast.
Ra’s is never the villain of this story. He’s there to be judged rather than fought against. Son of the Demon is more about family and their respective traumas. This unfolds in the form of Batman helping Ra’s and Talia with their vengeance against a criminal that took a loved one from them in their past. Eventually the trio’s mistakes lead to further emotional turmoil in the present, the kind they’ll never get over.
This is another great story that mixes late-‘80s Batman art with a grittier palette.
Batman: RIP – Grant Morrison, Tony S. Daniel
Bruce Wayne is prepared for everything and anything. He can imagine any circumstance that may befall him or the Justice League and he creates redundancies accordingly. So what happens if an enemy is closing in on him and he doesn’t even know it? What if that enemy plans to capture him and wipe his memory and use him for evil? Well the answer is that Batman has a plan of course.
Grant Morrison has an open hearted attitude to the Batman mythos. He is a writer that isn’t embarrassed by the campy ‘60s and ‘70s years. He doesn’t feel the need to pave over those memories with ‘Millerisms’ and misplaced grit. He embraces the whole canon and reinvents it constantly. So what to do with the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh and Bat-Mite? The Batmen of an alien planet as depicted first in a 1958 Batman story. How can one possibly reframe these characters in a contemporary Batman story even with a heightened tone?
The answer is that Batman is prepared for everything and anything. Years prior to Batman: RIP Bruce underwent a ritual in which he prepared a back-up personality. He treated his brain like a harddrive wherein if Bruce/Batman were gone, there was a survival system left over. This survival system is a hyper-violent reinvention of Batman of Zur-En-Arrh with Bat-Mite acting as a sociopathic Devil on his shoulder. Suffice to say Batman’s enemies did not see this coming.
Batman and Robin: Reborn – Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Philip Tan
If Batman is prepared for anything, how can someone more sane possibly be prepared to be Batman?
Dick Grayson is a great character. He was fun as Robin and even better as Nightwing. Recently in the New 52 we’ve also been treated to Grayson as a super-spy. But how does he suffice as Batman? Bruce Wayne was always better than his contemporaries: Green Arrow, the Birds of Prey and other members of the Bat-family have nothing on Bruce. Hell, even powered Marvel vigilantes like Daredevil would go down quick against Bruce. His training is beyond top-of-the-line, but his paranoia is what truly puts him beyond the rest (and money I suppose).
After Batman: RIP Bruce is gone, not dead, but gone. Now the happy-go-lucky Dick Grayson must step up to the plate. Gotham is already in chaos and Dick is in the thick of a situation that could explode into something akin to No Man’s Land. He isn’t a paranoid man with a thousand plans for every contingency. He is a great fighter and acrobat, but he isn’t Bruce Wayne. He instinctively smiles at his enemies rather than growls at them during harsh torture. Soon he’ll be up against the Red Hood, Professor Pyg, the Black Glove and the Joker. However his biggest enemy is right next to him: Damian Wayne.
The new Robin only receives the title officially at this point. It isn’t so much that Dick pursues this partnership as much as it happens in the chaos leading up to his own appointment as Batman (portrayed in Batman: Battle for the Cowl). Damian doesn’t respect Dick and misses his father and has a long tradition of expressing his feelings through murder.
If you ever wanted to see a Batman out of his depth in the proper continuity, this is the best time for that. Dick Grayson is immediately overwhelmed by every facet of Bruce’s former job and barely rises to most of the challenges. The only insult I can give to this story is that the art of Frank Quitely in the first three issues completely steals the show from Morrison.
Batman: The Black Mirror – Scott Snyder, Jock, Francesco Francavilla
Gotham isn’t a nice place to do anything, let alone raise kids. In Batman: Year One Miller wrote Jim Gordon to have a son: James Jr. However James Jr. disappeared almost entirely from Batman continuity in the following two decades of publishing. So what’s going to happen when noted horror writer Scott Snyder gets hold of that unused thread? He’s going to create a monster is what.
James Jr. is terrifying for being a more average psychopath. For the most part he just seems insensitive and uncaring. Once the layers of his persona are pulled back and his very gory crimes are revealed, there is a much scarier creature than the Joker present. James Jr is a recognisable figure. We’ve all met people at least a little like him. It’s extra terrifying that he is not just so real, but he is the son of paragon of virtue that is Jim Gordon. Gotham has taken our Commissioner’s youngest and molded him into a dreadful reflection.
Whilst the James Jr story is the main arc, there are also great mini-arcs present. There is a tale concerning an underground criminal auction that trades super-weapons and villain memorabilia. Also a story about the daughter of a criminal trying to go straight, but unfortunately she finds a dead whale in the lobby of her work. Several mysteries unfold from these threads and they all intersect with the larger James Jr. arc.
Black Mirror is also another Dick Grayson as Batman story. However this occurs during the Batman: Incorporated era wherein Bruce has returned. Dick Grayson is simply a caretaker for Gotham during Bruce’s absence. This takes focus away from Dick’s larger struggles and allows each aspect of Black Mirror to take place on a smaller and more personal scale. In the end it is about the personal lives of Dick Grayson, Jim Gordon, Barbara Gordon and their dread of James Jr.’s return and whatever Gotham will throw up on them next.
Batman: The Black Mirror is the first comic to give me the feeling similar to reading Batman: Year One again for the first time, which is the comic that powerfully opened my eyes to the medium.
Batman: The Court of Owls – Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo
In 2011 DC Comics performed a soft reboot of their continuity. Every title was starting over from issue #1 again. Meanwhile the overall continuity of the universe was being stripped down to basics and only keeping the ‘big’ and ‘iconic’ stories intact. Thus someone has the honour of writing the ‘first’ Batman story without it truly being a ‘first’ Batman story. How do you reintroduce every aspect of modern Batman five years into his crusade? By introducing a new set of villains that redefine what’s come before without changing it.
Scott Snyder loves writing about the tidbits of Gotham’s history of architecture. Batman: Gates of Gotham is practically a documentary about an entirely fictional city. Court of Owls is a result of Scott Snyder deciding to populate that architecture with a hidden conspiracy. Within the walls of Gotham is an army of undead, armoured assassins. They fight like Batman with gadgets like Batman, but unlike Batman they can’t be killed. And worst of all, they know Gotham better than he does.
The genius in Court of Owls is in how it takes the readers through a narratively justified tour of every facet of Batman’s story tropes. First of all there is a science fiction and horror villain. Batman gets to investigate a conspiracy with his world-renowned detective skills. He employs his gadgets and his martial arts in engaging his unknown assailants. The entire Bat-family is required to help kept this undead threat at bay. When the shit hits the fan and Bruce is overwhelmed he is drugged, starved and forced into a torturous maze for days on end. This is when we see his unbreakable will on show. Tonally this story shifts the reader through stages of paranoia then dread, followed by abject terror, followed by resignation and then overcome by elation in the face of unlikely victory.
Court of Owls takes what everyone knows about modern Batman stories and turns it all over in a brutal fashion. Snyder keeps chills and action in the forefront throughout. Meanwhile Greg Capullo’s art on the title achieved instant classic status and the Snyder-Capullo collaboration is already considered in the highest tiers of one writer/one artist storytelling in comics.
Ed Brubaker’s Batman run wasn’t the longest on the title, but it created a sense of humanity within Batman that is rarely seen without compromising his character. Brubaker even creates a new chilling villain in the form of Zeiss, a man whose computerised eyes can record and learn any movement. This run also opened the backdoor into Brubaker’s iconic Catwoman run, but more relevantly his great title shared with Greg Rucka: Gotham Central.
Gotham Central is about the GCPD. It’s down-to-Earth and realistic, but without hiding from the mythology. Imagine the cops of The Wire going up against Mr Freeze and the Joker with similarly limited resources. Even Batman comes across as an annoyance. He’s more like a separate law department, like the FBI, that keeps stealing work from their jurisdiction. This is a Gotham you recognise from reality, one where crime ruins and takes lives frequently. And this time the victims are always fully realised characters. (It also doesn’t hurt that it is mostly drawn by my favourite comics artist: Michael Lark.)
Whilst earlier I mentioned individual Batman comics written by Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, it is much more worthwhile collecting their entire runs. Snyder and Capullo’s horror/action shtick has continued to 50 issues and includes many tales like Court of Owls such as Death of the Family and Batman: Zero Year. The latter of which throws Miller’s Batman: Year One out the window and somehow makes it a total victory for readers, rather than a travesty.
Morrison’s full run (which contains many artists) is a hell of a ride. From the Black Glove plotlines to Incorporated (all bolstered by his non-Batman DC title: Final Crisis) Bruce Wayne is put through hell, often of a parental slant. Half-love letter and half-divorce metaphor, Morrison’s run is unparalleled. He takes every established about the character and throws it at you in new ways over and over again. However I’d recommend you have a very strong knowledge of Batman canon before venturing into this particular epic.
Speaking of Batman epics and strong Batman canon knowledge, if you haven’t read the whole of Batman: Eternal yet, you’re wasting your life.
As I end this piece I feel there is something I am forgetting to mention, please remind me, or at least yourself.