As an outspoken Geek and lifelong Batman fan, people constantly ask me what I believe to be the best Batman comics. Inevitably, when I tell them “well, it depends on the era and what evolution of Batman you’re talking about”, yet they always cut me off with a, “Of course, all the Frank Miller and Grant Morrison stuff. That’s a given”. I finally had my fill of this statement when someone tried to tell me that Frank Miller writes the only honest and true Batman. Well, with all due respect to the Goddamn Frank Miller, but no! NO! Look, I love what Miller and Morrison brought to the Dark Knight (although that love is slowly diminishing), but people, Batman is over 70 years old. Do you really think in seven decades there’s only been two writers to pen iconic Batman tales? Two writers I want to add that weren’t even around for the first 40 plus years. With that in mind, I your humble neighborhood Geek, will bring you some much needed knowledge in all things Caped Crusader. Or, at least the Top-5 Batman Tales Not written by Frank or Grant…
Honorable Mention – JLA: The Tower of Babel
Batman is a bastard. An un-trusting prepared bastard. Writer Mark Waid proved it in the pages of the JLA (during one of the many times Grant took a drug break vacation during his 1990s JLA run). This book is the honorable mention because while Batman is clearly the main character, it’s technically a Justice League of America title. Tower of Babel deals with Batvillain Ra’s al Ghul seeking ultimate vengeance against his long time foe, the Detective. How does he do it? He finally hits Batman where it truly hurts. His dead parents and his friends, literally. While Batman is seeking the exhumed bodies of his long dead parents, Talia al Ghul and her father break into the Batcave and steal all of Batman’s contingency plans… Against all the heroes of the DC Universe. Thus, within one single story arc, Mark Waid shows the reader just how freaking awesome and paranoid prepared Batman is against, well, everything. Watching how easily the Dark Knight can take down everyone with a friggen pulse is just gold to a die hard Agent of the Bat. Like me! Although for good or bad, Tower of Babel also set the ground work for the rather dark and “adult” nature of DC comics until Brightest Day.
Number 5 – Detective Comics #33
Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible… a . a… a bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat! Sound familiar? You bet your Bat-Ass it does. Everyone knows Bob Kane, you can’t help it, his name is on all the books and movie credits. However, as all good Batman fans know, without Bill Finger there wouldn’t be a Batman. Period. In fact, were it not for Bill Finger, Batman would have looked like Flash Gordon with a Zorro mask and Bruce Wayne would have fallen into the comic book ether. Why Detective Comics #33? A serviceable issue about a Blimp of Death (no really), Detective Comics #33 opened with a short two-page flashback written by Finger explaining why dilettante Bruce Wayne took to a life of crime fighting. In two pages, Bill Finger set the pace for every groundbreaking Batman story you’ve ever read. Seeing his parents gunned down by a random mugging, young Bruce Wayne knelt before the graves of his dead parents and swore he would dedicate his life to fighting crime and protecting the innocent against evil. Learn about Bill Finger and then worship at his feet like all good Batman fans.
Number 4 – Batman: No Man’s Land
Okay, I know this one rubs many a Batman (and comic) fan the wrong way. The Batman books were going through one massive crossover after another. Contagion, Legacy, Cataclysm. Seriously, for over 4 years Gotham City had a death count in the millions. Then it all came to a head in the freaking gigantic event No Man’s Land. Having endured yet one more city trashing event, the United States tells Gotham City to go pound it and cuts Gotham off from the rest of the country. I don’t mean quarantine and declare martial law. I mean flat out proclaim that Gotham City is no longer a part of the United States of America. Anyone caught trying to enter or leave will be killed on sight. Period. See what I mean? Biggest reality stretch in all comics. But, you know what? The sucker works. All five trade paperbacks worth. Batman, and in time his partners, are put through hell. Every villain makes an appearance as Gotham is sliced up like a Roast Beef buffet platter. With few resources, no access to Wayne money, no outside help, and everyone wanting to kill the Bat; No Man’s Land becomes a stunning character study of Batman and a lesson on how a great editor can keep dozens of creators focused on one story.
Number 3 – Batman: Year Three / A Lonely Place of Dying
This might be cheating, but too bad. Year Three and A Lonely Place of Dying really is one large story arc. Written by Teen Titan creator Marv Wolfman, Y3 and LPoD is possibly one of the most important Batman stories of the modern era. Taking place months after the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. Y3 and LPoD delves into the extremely complicated relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Finally a solo hero in his own right, Dick Grayson doesn’t know how, or even sure if he can, help the man that raised him as a hero and son. Like so many of the best Batman stories, Year 3 and Lonely Place of Dying pushes Batman to the absolute breaking point. Indeed, there is even a scene when Batman pulls a .45 from a crook and proceeds to shove the gun into the criminal’s mouth. That was the first time I can remember thinking, “Holy crap, Batman is gonna’ do it. Batman is gonna’ friggen kill a person. What the hell is happening”?! Finally, A Lonely Place of Dying is important because it introduces the greatest Robin in all of Batman’s long history… Indeed, one of DC’s best character ever. Tim Drake. Read it.
Number 2 – Batman: Venom
You know that editor I mentioned in No Man’s Land? His name is Denny O’Neil and if you think Frank Miller is the reason we have a darker and more realistic Batman, you need to smack in the face. Or, to coin Frank, a kick in the Goddamn balls. Denny O’Neil took over the writing duties for Batman in the 1970s and along with the legendary artist Neal Adams, created the Batman we all know now. The brooding, yet human Dark Knight? Denny O’Neil. The character driven stories? Denny O’Neil. The dangerous and chaotic Joker? Denny O’Neil. Ra’s al Ghul? You guessed it, Denny O’Neil. Notice a trend? You better, because Denny O’Neil will go down as the true steward of Batman’s legacy. Although by the time Venom came out, Denny O’Neil was primarily an editor, he still penned the occasional story. Venom was one of the early Legends of the Dark Knight story arcs that revealed just how far Bruce Wayne would go to protect the innocent. Even going so far as to take body enhancing drugs. Yup. Batman became an addict. Watching Denny completely break down the Batman makes for a great read. Like so many Denny O’Neil stories, Venom planted the seed for one of Batman’s best villains and gleefully wicked member of Gail Simone’s Secret Six; Bane. Like most of the greatest Batman stories, Venom delves into the dark and driven past of the hero we all know and love.
Number 1 – Batman: The Cult
Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson wrote and drew the first Batman story I read that felt “adult”. True, The Dark Knight Returns came out two years before, but it was The Cult that felt like the first real gritty Batman tale. Opening with a drugged Batman, The Cult tells a tale of the charismatic Deacon Blackfire taking control of Gotham’s homeless and declaring war on all the unbelievers of the city. With Batman as his general, Blackfire was the first character to truly break the Batman. Breaking free of Blackfire’s hold, we read just how much Batman can take and an even greater understanding of the character and his obession. Did he become Batman to fight crime or overcome his own endless nightmare of being left alone. From a commentary on the social and economic status of America in the 1980s, to the nature of religious fervor; The Cult works on multiple levels. Under Bernie Wrightson’s gorgeous pencils, The Cult has a brutally honest visual style that is hard to forget. Even to this day, without opening the book I can see the images of people getting cut to shreds or Batman’s pain as he realizes some innocents must be sacrificed to protect the whole. Batman: The Cult is one of the greatest Batman tales ever written.
Are there others that should have made this list? You bet. The Long Halloween. Killing Joke. Knightfall. Anything by Greg Rucka. Indeed, you ask me in a few weeks and this list must change. Just remember, next time you walk into your local comic book shop, there is far more to the Dark Knight than Frank Miller and Grant Morrison. Much more.