Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever! (That aren't Year One or Dark Knight Returns)



Everyone knows that Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns are the best Batman stories ever. You don’t need me to tell you that when the whole internet is screaming it at you. But if you’re new to the wonderful world of superhero comics you may be wondering where to go next? Fear not! Here is a list of the Top Ten Best Batman stories that aren’t Year One or DKR.
Firstly, let’s cover a few stories that narrowly missed getting into the Top Ten.
Honourable Mentions
The Untold Legend of The Batman and Batman: Hush seem very different on the surface. The former was a 3 issue re-telling of the origins of Batman and his supporting cast first published in 1980, the latter was a 12 part storyline from 2002 that introduced a new villain, Hush, to Batman’s world. Despite this they both have essentially the same strengths and weaknesses. They’re both beautifully drawn ‘greatest hits’ packages. By this I mean that most of the different aspects of Batman’s world, from supporting characters to villains get some face time. However as stories in their own right they’re a bit flimsy and so they’ve failed to get into my Top Ten.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) is by beardy comics legend Alan Moore and is the ultimate Joker story. Moore explores the idea that Batman and the Joker are not so different from each other while also telling a possible origin for the Clown Prince of Crime. As brilliant as this story is, it’s really more of a Joker story than a Batman story, and so it hasn’t made the final cut.
Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run (2006-Ongoing in the pages of Batman INC) is absolutely breathtaking in its scope. Morrison set out to return Batman to his 1970s status as “hairy chested love god” or as Batman describes himself during the run, “alpha male plus”. While taking Batman down this path Morrison has had him father a son, face the Ultimate Evil, die, journey through time, return to life and start a worldwide Batman franchise. Morrison has also had former Robin, Dick Grayson take over as Batman and face disturbing new baddies such as Professor Pyg and the Flamingo. Morrison’s run is loads of fun, but it’s also complex and interwoven, with seemingly throw away incidents paying off in a big way several issues later. For a new reader it’s potentially a big job to take on board all at once and the stories are enhanced by at least a familiarity with some older Batman tales. For this reason I’ve kept it out of the Top Ten, but if you want to get started on Morrison’s ongoing (as of this writing) epic then check out Batman Vs. The Black Glove (Deluxe Edition).
So much for the runners-up, let’s start the countdown!

10) Batman: The Cult (1988)


Batman gets kidnapped, tortured and brainwashed by an evil cult led by the charismatic Deacon Blackfire, a man who may or may not be centuries old! If you liked Dark Knight Returns then you’ll probably like this, as writer Jim Starlin does his very best to homage/rip-off Frank Miller’s style on every page. From the hard boiled, first person narration to the TV talking heads to the tank-like Bat-Mobile, this story wears its debt to Miller on its sleeve. But it's more than just Starlin copying Miller. The timeless story of a hero getting broken and then coming back and kicking ass is hugely entertaining and Berni Wrightson’s art is wonderfully grubby and really conveys a nightmare world of torture in the sewers and hallucinations brought on by hunger and drugs.

9) Batman: The Black Mirror (2011)



This is the most recent tale on the list and also one of the most unusual, in that Bruce Wayne doesn’t feature at all. In this 7 part story by Scott Snyder, Dick Grayson has taken over as Batman and just as Gotham City threw twisted reflections of Wayne at the previous Batman, so too does Dick face ghastly, inverted, mirror images of himself. See, Black Mirror, get it? Through these grim opposite numbers (one character in particular actually) we really get a solid idea of who Dick is and why he’s such a different Batman from Bruce. As well as an excellent portrayal of Dick Grayson we get some great insights into Jim Gordon and Barbara Gordon, a chilling look into how the Joker views his relationship with Batman, and some truly spine-chilling moments with the story’s baddie that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading.

8 ) Batman: A Death in the Family (1988-89)



Another Jim Starlin tale makes the Top Ten! Once again we have the Miller-esque, hard boiled, first person narration from Batman, and once again it’s brilliant. At one point Batman is confronted by an assassin who’s determined to fight him, even though Batman seeks only to ask her some probing questions about her sex-life. Batman thinks to himself “It’s a lot like being in the Old West. When you’re the best, every jerk and his sister wants a crack at your title.” Absurdly macho but hugely entertaining stuff! But of course, this story is best remembered for the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, murdered by the Joker. Actually the real murderers were the 5,343 fans who phoned in and voted for Jason to die! That’s right, DC had set up a 1-900 number to decide Jason’s fate. Who says DC don’t listen to the fans? Despite the tacky way Jason’s fate was sealed the story handles it really well. Jason is utterly believable and relatable as a kid bubbling over with anger who can’t meet Batman’s rigid expectation of discipline and control. Obviously Batman’s angry when Jason is killed, but in a stroke of genius Batman’s rage is rendered impotent when the Joker is given diplomatic immunity by his new status as a member of the Iranian government! Batman has more reason than ever to want to beat the living crap out of the Joker, but he can’t touch him without causing an international incident! Brilliant.

7) The Laughing Fish (1978)



Earlier I described The Killing Joke as the ultimate Joker story. If that tale has a valid competitor for that title it’s The Laughing Fish. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers give us the Joker we would later see Jack Nicholson portray in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie; “the world’s first homicidal artist.” Each murder has an imaginative flair that makes it unique to the Joker, and each murder is pretty much motiveless, which makes the Joker all the more difficult for Batman to predict and catch, and the story all the more creepy and disturbing. Add to this Batman’s doomed romance with the iconic Silver St Cloud and a sub-plot about a corrupt politician haunted by the ghost of his last victim, Prof. Hugo Strange, and you get a Batman classic.

6) The Demon Lives Again (1972)



When Morrison spoke of Batman as a “hairy chested love god” he was probably thinking of this story. This 3 part tale by Denny O’ Neil, Irv Norick and Neal Adams shows Batman on an epic, globe-trotting quest to rid the world of his immortal arch-foe, Ra’s Al Ghul! Along the way he press gangs some unlikely allies to aid him, but eventually Batman is left facing Al Ghul alone in the desert in a sweaty, bare-chested, sword fight. So many parts of this story became so iconic that almost every single subsequent Ra’s Al Ghul story seems like a rip-off of this tale in some way. But it’s the story’s depiction of “alpha-male-plus” Batman that I find the most entertaining. Batman outclasses Al Ghul in the sword fight but is felled by a scorpion sting. He receives the antidote from Al Ghul’s daughter Talia, who is motivated in her betrayal by her love for Batman. After rising from near-death Batman storms into Al Ghul’s tent, knocks him out and then steals his daughter, and he does all this without a shirt on! What a guy!

5) Batman: Blind Justice (1989)



This story was written by the writer of the 1989 Batman movie, Sam Hamm. It has a pretty packed plot involving a conspiracy within Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne being framed as a spy, some of the men who trained Batman, two new supporting characters and a body swapping villain. But it’s also rather a grim tale about the price Bruce pays for being Batman. Despite the dense plot and grim central theme it’s an easy, engrossing read and it’s repercussions are still being felt today. The story introduced the character of Henri Ducard, an assassin with an awesome ‘tache who appeared in Batman Begins (sort of) and whose son recently appeared in the pages of Batman and Robin.

4) Batman: Prey (1990-1991)



Batman: Year One has had many sequels. The overrated Long Halloween and Dark Victory follow the continuing exploits of characters featured in Year One. Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder purports to show the “same” Batman we see in Year One and DKR (that’s right, Miller has arrogantly claimed a Bat-Universe of his very own). And of course there’s Batman: Year Two and Year Three. But for me there’s only one true sequel to Year One, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s Prey. While Year One depicts the origin of Batman’s close relationship with Jim Gordon, Prey shows how he won over the rest of the police force. The main antagonist is Prof. Hugo Strange, brilliantly revamped from a mad scientist to an even madder, fame-hungry psychoanalyst. Strange asks the questions of Miller’s Batman that we as fans are too scared to ask; isn’t Batman just a deranged fascistic bully acting out some childish revenge fantasy. Moench then shows us that this isn’t the case by having Batman posses the inner strength to overcome Strange’s mental manipulations, and also by giving us a vigilante character who really is a fascist bully (the Night Scourge) to contrast with Batman. Year One is brilliant but the Batman that Miller depicts in that story needs Prey. Without Prey, Batman ends up as an unpleasant and deranged character, hmmm, kinda like in All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

3) Batman: Venom (1991)



Another entry for legendary Batman writer Denny O’ Neil, Venom actually has a lot in common with Starlin’s The Cult, in that it depicts Batman hitting rock bottom before picking himself up again and triumphing over evil! This is a story about a young Batman at the start of his career and it’s one of the few stories of that sort (other than Year One) that depicts him as a character with a lot to learn who still makes mistakes. And boy, what a mistake! After failing to save a little girl because of his inability to move a heavy rock, Batman gets addicted to an experimental strength enhancing drug. Of course Batman eventually realises the error of his ways and wreaks vengeance on the makers of the drug. The great thing about this story is that even though Batman inevitably kicks the habit the story doesn’t cop out by depicting Batman’s withdrawal as anything other than a horrific ordeal. Also, Batman fights a shark!!! That sentence alone should convince you to read this story!

2) Batman: Gothic (1990)



Once again this is a story from the early days of Batman’s career. This story chronicles Batman’s first encounter with the supernatural. He battles Mr Whisper, a three hundred year old monk who made a pact with the devil. The twist? The monk also happens to have been Bruce Wayne’s old headmaster! This story is genuinely spine tingling. The flashbacks to Whisper’s crimes at Bruce Wayne’s school are chilling and Batman seems temporarily out of his depth as his familiar world of gangsters and criminals is overrun with the inexplicable. The dark, scratchy art of Klaus Janson adds to the general spookiness. Writer Grant Morrison gives lots of nods to Batman’s “real” first encounter with a supernatural foe, 1939′s Batman vs. The Vampire, such as Batman’s use of his Bat-Gyro. This isn’t a tale with any lasting repercussions for the Bat-Universe, but it will stay with you. It’s a testament to how versatile a character Batman is that he can fit so perfectly into a supernatural, horror story as good as this one.

1) John Wagner, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s run on Detective Comics (1988-1990)
(Detective Comics #583-594; 601-621)



Okay, this is a bit of a cop-out as I’ve failed to pick one storyline out of this run, but you know what? I don’t care. Seriously, this is the most perfect version of Batman ever. Wagner and Grant’s Batman is the gritty, damaged Miller version, merged with Morrison’s “love god”, merged with the father figure who raises and nurtures Robins, merged with the super-hero from the pages of Justice League. He’s every Batman, it’s all in him!
Breyfogle is the perfect artist for this most versatile of Batmen. He can draw a Batman flushed with pride at his new Robin, a Batman reflecting in quiet sadness at the plight of homeless children or a Batman pumped full of Scarecrow fear toxins and crapping his pants, all within pages of each other. One of the things that I feel sums up Breyfogle’s versatility as an artist is the way he draws Batman’s utility belt. Now this may seem like a minor detail but when I first encountered Breyfogle’s work as a child it was the first time I had ever seen Batman’s belt drawn as if it could conceivably hold Batman’s entire arsenal. It’s bright yellow and chunky with capsules and pouches hanging off it, a proper superhero gadget belt. And yet in the very next panel the belt is only barely glimpsed as Batman fades into the shadows and the gadget loving superhero becomes a dark creature of the night. I would go as far as to say that Breyfogle is the best Batman artist ever.
But this isn’t just about the art. Wagner and Grant are British writers famous for their work on 2000AD (in fact Wagner co-created Judge Dredd) and 2000AD’s dark creativity is apparent on every page of their Batman stories. They created a vast array of villains that straddled the line between the ridiculous and the terrifying and enriched the Bat-Universe. These villains included The Corrosive Man, The Ventriloquist and Scarface, The Ratcatcher, Anarky, The Obeah Man and Cornelius Stirk. They were also equally adept at handling established villains. One memorable story involved a team comprising of every version of Clayface while another involved Batman teaming up with and then battling Jack Kirby’s Demon.
Creativity and versatility are two words that are inextricably linked with all the best Batman stories and I would argue that Wagner, Grant and Breyfogle’s ‘Tec run embodied these qualities more than any other story or run in Batman’s long history. It really is that good! These stories are slightly harder to get hold of than the others on this list because they’ve inexplicably never been collected together in a trade paperback or hardcover. They’re usually cheap on ebay or in second hand shops and if you’re a Bat-fan or a fan of good comics, they’re well worth tracking down!
So there’s the list. The Top Ten Best Batman Stories Ever (that aren’t Year One or Dark Knight Returns). What do you think? Did I leave anything out? Does anything not belong there? Leave a comment and let us know!

9 comments:

  1. Not bad Paul, I don't completely agree but that's nothing new is it? Crucially I don't hate your list and it seems we both rediscovered the Bat at around the same time. Not sure I agree with your reasons for discounting Killing Joke though. And describing Alan Moore as a "baerdy legend"? Who's your target audience, erudite culture buffs or are you hoping to be picked-up by Heat magazine?

    What you missed:
    Ego by Darwyn Cooke. A self-contained story that (like Killing Joke) is better than most multi-parters.

    Seeing as you said best Batman "stories" rather than "comics", I'd go with Mask of the Phantasm. Still the best Batman film, even post Nolan.

    And I've always liked the Mud Pack, but I confess it's been a while since I've read it.

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  2. As a beard-wearer myself I meant no disrespect to Moore.

    Yeah, Mud-Pack's ace, it's part of my list 'cos it's part of the Wagner,Grant,Breyfogle 'Tec run.

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    1. Indeed it is. Bit of a cheat counting a run as a story, but I forgive you. Just picked up 'Dark Knight Strikes Out', I mean 'Again', on sale on digital. Forgotten how truly dreadful it is, even at 69p an issue. Top 5 Worst Batman Stories? Actually no, even Miller can't out-sh*t Chuck Dixon!

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  3. I'd have Shaman in there instead of Prey, Gothic at number 1, and I'd be tempted to put Matt Wagner's Dark Moon Rising, James Robinson's Face the Face and maybe Gates of Gotham in there too somewhere. Until recently I wouldn't have put Killing Joke in there either, but Grant Morrison has made me completely re-evaluate it and I would put it in now. What it really makes me think is that Batman has had some of the greatest stories of any superhero written over the past few decades.

    I know this is an old post, but I imagine if it were redone today, Zero Year would have to be in it.

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    1. Is Dark Moon Rising the Monster Men story? That is a good one.

      I've yet to read it all in one go but I think I probably would stick Zero Year in there somewhere today. Court of Owls would be a contender too. It's so great that we're getting Batman stories right now that are worthy of inclusion among the greats.

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    2. Yeah, Dark Moon Rising was the overall title for Wagner's Monster Men and Mad Monk series. Unless I imagined it, I think there was meant to be a third series to follow these two but as far as I know it never materialised.

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  4. Cool list, I was hoping to see something I had not read, but I've just read all of those stories last year, some for the first time like Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle and others repeats of stuff I had not read for a decade.

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  5. I'm not actually that big a fan of Harley. *ducks*

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