In the Essentials feature on this very blog, I take an in-depth look at my very favorite comics, the runs that shaped my enjoyment of this genre and the stuff I would present to an outsider as my "this is why I love comics" evidence. However, given the sheer amount of comics I've had the good fortune to read over my nearly 28 years on this planet, there is plenty of material that while it would not make my personal "Best Of" list still had a profound effect on me as a fan.
For instance, there are certain characters who may not be among my absolute favorites, but I've come to appreciate them because of certain stories where I get the fundamentals of what makes them appealing. While I may not start a Spider-Man sketchbook or Green Arrow fan club anytime soon, I get why they are worthwhile characters and in most cases can point you to the reason why.
That's why I'm embarking on this new feature talking about the stories that personally define some of comics' biggest characters for me and help me to appreciate them; I thought about calling this "The Definers," because I'm pretty sure that's not a word and I dug that, but went with "The Definitives," because it's tried and true and you can dance to it. My hope is that you all check out some of these goodies and come to appreciate some characters you may not otherwise give a second look, because good, bad and ugly, it's all comics, and I looove comics.
So where better to start than Batman? He's not a character I'd get tattooed anywhere on my person, but I think even that guy in South Dakota who still uses rabbit ears on his TV (shout out to my South Dakota readership) knows who Batman is and knows he's pretty bad ass. Great origin, cool look and while he's been featured in plenty of bad stories across all mediums, he's been in a helluva lot of good ones too.
Here are the stories that I consider my definitive Batman reading list.
The second biggest strike against my nerd credibility behind not really liking Star Wars is that I'm not much of a fan of The Dark Knight Returns. While I'm sure that is a whole blog post in and of itself, let me counter by saying I love Batman: Year One, Frank Miller's other Bat opus with artist David Mazzucchelli. Like I said above, Batman may have the best origin in all of comics (Spider-Man runs close behind if not dead even), and here Miller picks it and the days that follow to perfection, really taking you on a ride. If you go into Year One thinking Batman is just too big an unapproachable a character, I think you come out feeling like you took his hero's journey with him; I think Frank Miller did the near impossible and made Batman relatable (well, as relatable as he can be), something the character has always lacked. The parallel journey of Jim Gordon is the perfect companion piece and really helps to build the world of Gotham City outside Wayne Manor. Just about all the best stuff from "Batman Begins" came from Year One.
"The Garden of Earthly Delights"
This little gem from Swamp Thing #53 hit right as Alan Moore was hitting the beginning of the home stretch of his legendary run on that title and while I only came across it a few months ago, I still consider it one of the best Batman stories I've ever read. Truthfully, Batman might not be at the heart of the story (Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane's love affair is), but his role is great fun and really hits on the core of the character. Swamp Thing has declared war on Gotham City until Abby is released from police custody and Batman is way over his head, but he gives it his best shot against Swampy anyhow. Watching Bats throw the best he's got in his utility belt against a foe far more formidable at the Joker is a bit humorous, but also really shows you both his ingenuity and his deep commitment to protecting his city, both big keys to what makes the Dark Knight tick.
This would be the prerequisite "I read it when I was a kid, so it's awesome" entry on this list, but I don't have much trouble defending the Knightfall trilogy (which also included the so-so Knightquest and pretty cool Knightsend). The basic premise of the story is "Bruce Wayne is the only man who can be Batman," a strong one, and one explored the long way around as Bruce is taken out of the picture, replaced, and forced to reclaim his mantle, and along the way we learn why that absolute is the case. Considering this story took place in and around 1994, not exactly a benchmark period for writing, I found it pretty well-executed, but moreover impactful and fun. The video-game-like "beat one bad guy and the next is waiting" approach taken by Knightfall isn't exactly high art, but it's cool and a structure with pretty wide appeal. I think the final leg, Knightsend, is one of the better psychological breakdowns of Bruce Wayne you'll get, and the conclusion is one you'll see coming, but it's satisfying nonetheless. Also: I thought Azrael was fairly cool.
New World Order
While I dig Arkham Asylum, I really consider it more of a villains story than a Batman story (just like I consider Killing Joke more of a Joker story), so the first arc of JLA is what I look to as Grant Morrison's first true crack at Batman, and he does not disappoint. I know the "Batman can beat anybody given sufficient prep time" can be polarizing, but I think it's the only way the character really works in the context of the Justice League, and Grant perhaps did the best job of making it a help rather than a hindrance. Batman alone against a team of super-powered Martians really is an unbeatable badass scenario to showcase how much he truly rocks, but Superman's whole "You've pissed off the most dangerous man on the planet" routine is really what sells it. Just killer stuff.
Most times Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale come together you get magic, and Dark Victory is no exception. Like Arkham Asylum, a lot of its appeal comes from a focus on Batman's awesome rogues gallery, but they're really shown in degrees of how they reflect on the hero rather than on their own, so it's definitely a character-defining piece. Given that the story also re-tells how Robin came into the picture, it really is an exercise in world building, and since Batman has a fantastic world of characters and locales surrounding him, you could do a lot worse as far as a primer. Sale's art is gorgeous as expected, and again, a lot of stuff from the current Batman film franchise originates here, including much of the Bruce/Batman-Harvey Dent/Two-Face relationship from The Dark Knight. I would definitely recommend reading this story's prequel, The Long Halloween, first, but with a gun to my head I prefer this one by a slight margin mostly because of the Robin stuff.
No Man's Land
In many ways this sprawling years-long epic seems the opposite of what a Batman story should be (simple, grounded, focused), but it's so much fun read as a whole and gives such an interesting window on every character in the Bat-Family, not the least of which is the big guy himself. No Man's Land is about a zillion parts long (and probably a couple billion parts too long) and has everybody in Gotham freaking the fuck out after a massive earthquake hits and basically sets the city back to caveman days in terms of both tech as well as mob mentality and martial law. Initially, Batman seems to give up, but he claws his way back into the fight and slowly but surely takes back his city, rebuilding himself and his allies along the way and proving that not even mother nature is a match for him. The status quo is irrevocably changed many times over and if you commit to the whole thing, you will undoubtedly be frustrated many a time, but ultimately fulfilled.
"Batman: The Animated Series"
Quite simply, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's vision of the Dark Knight in "Batman: The Animated Series" and its successors is the end all for me; it is the definitive definitive. When I visualize Batman, it is as drawn by Bruce Timm. When I hear Batman, it is as voiced by Kevin Conroy. When I "listen" to a Batman comic, the score from this cartoon is playing. This show took the essence of everything that makes Batman awesome--the origin, the look, the bad guys, the gadgets, the mission--and bottled it up for a cartoon that was both more mature than anything I had ever seen and yet so universally appealing that you could show it to anybody from ages 8 to 80 and they would immediately get it. There were soooo many great episodes, but if I had to pin down one as the absolute demonstration to me of what the show was capable of, it's "Perchance to Dream", where Bruce Wayne is given the paradise of a world where his parents never died, but learns why it can never be real in the most crushing of ways. Powerful stuff from a show that could do action, humor, horror and so much more so perfectly.