The following is a list consisting of what I feel to be the 10 Best Graphic Novels or Trades, featuring the Batman of today. This is a collection of books that can be bought stand alone. For this reason I’ve avoided stories like Knightfall, where you would need to buy 3 volumes to get through the read. Or No Man’s Land, which I love, but it has 5 volumes, and even if you were to purchase all 5 of them, that still covers only 40 of the 80 original issues.
The books on this list though are must-reads for anyone who is a fan of the Bat…
10) Batman: Vampire (2007)
Part 1 – Batman & Dracula: Red Rain (1991)
In this first chapter, Batman is looking into the killings of several homeless Gothamites. Upon investigation he learns that it is in fact Dracula himself that has set up camp in Gotham City. The Caped Crusader battles the Vampire Lord and eventually is turned into a Blood Sucker himself. He kills Dracula and ensures Alfred that in his new immortal form he can protect the city for all time.
The now, quite literal ‘Batman’ who has sprouted wings, will forever be Gotham’s protector. This is only the beginning…
Part 2 – Batman: Bloodstorm (1994)
In the wake of Dracula’s final death, his remaining minions are rounded up and recruited by none other than The Joker. Joker’s new army runs rough-shot over Gotham’s crime hierarchy and the undead Batman must stop them.
Batman’s lust to feed takes over and he ends up draining the Joker’s blood, turning him into a vampire as well. Distraught by his lack of self-control, Batman kills the Vamp Joker and commands Gordon and Alfred to slay him.
Part 3 – Batman: Crimson Mist (1998)
Batman is brought back from the dead once more, only this time he’s been driven mad by his own decay. Spurred by his longing for blood, Batman drains most of his old enemies (Penguin, Riddler, Poison Ivy, Black Mask, Scarecrow, and various Arkham inmates) leaving only Killer Croc and Two-Face.
The 2 remaining Arkham staples team up with Gordon and Alfred to try and bring down the Bat, it really doesn’t go well for anyone involved.
“Cursed by Dracula’s kiss and the Joker’s blood, I am beyond redemption, and soon to pass beyond caring.”
– Vampire Batman
9) Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn (2010)
This is a book we’ve talked about before, so I won’t spend too much time breaking it down. It basically is a collection of the first 6 issues of the ongoing series of the same name and it’s excellent.
Dick Grayson has taken on the mantle of the Bat and Bruce’s son Damien is the new Robin. It’s for sure a ‘work in progress’ from the teamwork side of things.
This story is awesome and it introduces one of my favorite villains – Professor Pyg.
To read a full review, CLICK HERE.
“I’m looking for a partner to help me wipe the vomit of the face off Gotham once and for all. Well? You have anything else planned?”
– Jason Todd as the Red Hood
8) Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)
– Grant Morrison/Dave McKean/Gaspar Saladino
It’s basically a dare. The Joker and his fellow inmates take over Arkham and dare the Batman to come rescue the hospital staff. Batman obviously obliges and is quickly within the walls of the asylum.
Once inside the Rouge’s Gallery is in full force and Batman encounters several obstacles. a diseased Clayface, the Mad Hatter, and a coprophagic Maxie Zeus, to name a few. He then must battle Killer Croc.
All the while as the story is progressing, we are treated to flashbacks about the history of the Arkham family and learn they are just as screwed up as the prisoners they house.
For me however, easily the most interesting aspect of the story is not The Joker or the Arkham lineage, but Harvey Dent. Dent, or Two-Face, is undergoing a new form of therapy to ease his dependence on the coin. He is first given a 6 sided die, thereby tripling his options, and then eventually a deck of tarot cards. The therapy does not have the desired effect however, as he simply becomes incapable of making even the simplest decisions.
“Parting ways is such sweet sorrow Dearest. Still, you can’t say we didn’t show you a good time. Enjoy yourself out there…in the asylum. Just don’t forget…if it ever gets too tough – there’s always a place for you here.”
– The Joker, as Batman is exiting Arkham.
7) Kingdom Come (1996)
Here I choose a book that does not focus on Batman, but in which he plays a prominent role – Kingdom Come. Originally a 4 issue mini-series, it is the story of one possible future for the DC Universe. A future where the next generation of ‘meta-humans’ aren’t as responsible with their super powers, and use them with reckless abandon.
Today’s heroes are now old and for the most part retired. In this future, The Joker shows up at the Daily Planet and starts murdering people, including Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, and Lois Lane. At his trial, he himself is put to death by a new “Superhero” – Magog.
When the public acquits Magog of any wrong-doing, heroes like Superman are appalled and retire from service. This marks the beginning of a new era, one where the super-beings are out of control and humans live in fear. The story then jumps ahead 10 years and things have only gotten worse. Superman is forced out of retirement and Batman plays a pivotal role in the war to restore order as the story progresses. So, while the story revolves more around Superman, it is the Joker that is the catalyst, and it is the Bat that later tilts the scales. In the end we get to see just how highly regarded Batman is among the other heroes.
“You realize you just handed me influence over the most powerful child in the world?”
6) All-Star Batman & Robin (2008)
It took only an issue for me to absolutely fall in love with this series. Jim Lee’s art with Frank Miller’s writing, it just hit me right. Unfortunately, the series has released only 10 issues since 2005, but the first 9 issues combine here to make a great trade. The series is expected to be picked back up this year, retitled Dark Knight: Boy Wonder. When or if that ever actually happens is anyone’s guess, but if it does, we’ll be all over it.
This is another re-imagining of how Robin came to be a member of the Wayne Estate. Only this time Bruce is a bit more…unstable. This is a darker, angrier version of the Bat. He has waged open war not only on the criminals of Gotham, but on the police as well. He is present at the circus when the Graysons are murdered, but instead of adopting Dick right out – he kidnaps him. He then leaves him in the cave for weeks as the training begins. Bruce offers no real sympathy, but instead a means for revenge.
One aspect of the story I love is how the Batman is viewed by his contemporaries, as well as how they are portrayed. At one point the Justice League – consisting of Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Plastic Man – convene to discuss what should be done about the Batman. Wonder Woman is arrogant and blood thirsty. She believes the Batman should be put down like a dog. Superman however does not approve, and in the end they send Hal Jordan to Gotham, where is promptly gets his ass handed to him by Robin.
Delays by Frank Miller and Jim Lee led to sporadic releases of the issues and resulted in a lot of people giving up on the title. If you’re one of those people, here is an easy way to catch up.
“I’m the Goddamn Batman”
– The Goddamn Batman
5) Batman: Hush (2003)
– Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee/Scott Williams
Hush. This is the storyline that got me back into comic books. Originally told in the Batman comic series (Issues 608-619) it was the story of someone stalking and observing Batman. Not unlike what Bane did in Knightfall, but this time it was a bit more mysterious. We didn’t know who Hush was or why he was doing what he was doing.
Throughout the story Batman encounters almost all of his biggest villains, as well as some other heroes. This original run contained 2 of my favorite issues of all time. These chapters consist of a visit to Metropolis, where Superman is under the control of Poison Ivy and we see Batman’s step by step thought process as he battles the Man of Steel.
The other is when Batman exits the Gotham City Opera House to find the Joker standing over the body of his childhood friend Tommy Elliot. Bats loses it and beats the Joker within an inch of his life, only to see the Joker ironically saved by the man he’s taken the most from – Jim Gordon.
This book keeps you constantly guessing and it pulls in so many characters that even Bats is confused. At the end of the book we see some lasting effects. A new villain – Hush, has made his name in Gotham. Harold, long-time friend and mechanic to the Bat is dead. And one of the original members of the Rogue’s Gallery garners some much wanted respect. Overall, one of the most entertaining books I’ve read.
“He explained to me once that The Joker and I are forever linked in constant battle. That in some sick way, the Joker exists because of me. How I represent the order that is necessary to live in Gotham City and the Joker is the chaos that disrupts that order.”
4) The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
– Frank Miller/Klaus Janson/Lynn Varley
The book that turned it all around. Though comics had changed considerably since the 1960s Adam West show went off the air, the mass public perception hadn’t changed. Batman was still thought of as corny and zany – not the dark figure we envision today. Then, in 1986 Frank Miller wrote a book that started the real change in perception of the character: The Dark Knight Returns.
The story takes place 10 years after the last sighting of the Batman, and just as Gordon is about to retire – at age 70. The legend of the Dark Knight has faded into myth, with many teenagers doubting he ever existed. And those who knew him to be real are not sure if he voluntarily hung up the cape, if he left town, or if he is even still alive. Crime in Gotham has reached an unprecedented high, and never before did the city need a guardian like they do now.
The book takes place in a world still heavily locked in the battles of the 80s, where Reagan is still President and the Cold War is still raging. All the other superheroes have been forced into retirement except for Superman, who is now little more than a puppet of the Government. It is the reemergence of the previously thought reformed Harvey Dent that prompts Bruce Wayne to once again don the cape and cowl.
News of Batman’s return brings the Joker out of his decade long catatonic nap at Arkham to once again challenge his rival. Batman decides to take on the city’s gangs after apprehending Two-Face and ends up adopting a new female Robin. Bats defeats the leader of ‘The Mutants’ and, gaining the respect of the onlookers, he effectively takes over the gang. From here he starts to finally clean up Gotham with an army at his command.
The Joker’s escape from Arkham and final battle with the Bat ends with Mr. J’s last trick. Severely injured in the fight, Joker finishes himself off so that it will appear as Batman killed him. Gordon’s replacement at the GCPD declares war on the Batman and so does the US of A.
Seeing his ‘Marshall Law’ approach to cleaning up Gotham, the government views him as an embarrassment and sends in Superman to handle the Bat. In an epic battle, with the help of the now retired Green Arrow – Oliver Queen, Batman defeats Superman only to seemingly suffer a fatal heart attack at its conclusion.
“We could’ve changed the world. Now look at us…I’ve become a political liability…and you. You’re a joke. I want you to remember Clark, in the years to come, in your private moments, I want you to remember my hand…at your throat. I want you to remember…the one man who beat you.”
3) Batman: The Long Halloween (1997)
– Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale
Of all the books on the list, this one is easily the thickest. It’s also the one that I’ve read most amount of times. This story follows along the continuity of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which is widely considered the canon origin for both Batman and Jim Gordon. Well, with that logic, this is the canon origin for Harvey Dent.
Set to take place still fairly early in Batman’s career, about 6 months after Year One, the mob still owns Gotham City, headed by Carmine ‘The Roman’ Falcone and his associates. The emergence of ‘the Freaks’ (ie: Catwoman, Joker, Riddler, Scarecrow, ect.) in Gotham is still fairly new as well, and what we witness is their war for power.
The driving force behind the escalation of said war revolves around a series of murders – The Holiday killings. The killer, dubbed simply ‘Holiday’ chooses a new victim near every month, hitting each major Holiday. The first of the murders takes place on Halloween, where Falcone’s nephew Johnny Viti is murdered. The killer leaves behind the murder weapon and a Jack ‘O Lantern.
At this point Batman, Jim Gordon, and young District Attorney Harvey Dent have made a pact to bring down the Roman and they start by torching a warehouse of his cash, thus forcing the Roman into making desperate decisions. As the year draws on, Holiday continues pick off members of the Falcone Crime Syndicate.
Come Christmas the Joker pays D.A. Dent a visit at his home and beats him senseless. This is only the beginning of Harvey’s problems. All the evidence in the Holiday case seems to be pointing to him. A few months later, with Sal Maroni on the stand testifying against Carmine, Dent will receive a face full of acid. It is this event that will drive him mad and turn him into one of Batman’s deadliest foes, Two-Face.
Alberto Falcone, Carmine’s son, comes forward to kill Sal Maroni, and attempts to kill Gordon as well. He is stopped by Batman and confesses to all the Holiday murders.
Harvey Dent assembles a group of recently escaped Arkham inmates that include the Joker, Solomon Grundy, the Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Penguin, and Poison Ivy. Even Catwoman is present. This group waits in the office of the Roman, and despite Batman’s best efforts, Two-Face murders Carmine.
Two-Face, after handling some unfinished business turns himself in and informs Gordon and the Bat that there were in fact 2 Holiday Killers – Since he himself just killed Carmine on Halloween. Though at the end, we are left wondering as Gilda Dent destroys evidence, as she believes that it was Harvey that actually started the killing spree.
I believe in Gotham City.
– Bruce Wayne
2) Batman: Year One (1987)
– Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli/Richmond Lewis
The quintessential Batman back story. This was Frank Miller’s follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns and the inspiration for The Long Halloween. Originally a 4-Issue arc (Batman 404-407) it redefined continuity for Gotham City.
Not only do we follow Batman’s rise from fool to hero, but Gordon’s ascension as well. While we all know Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham in his early 20s on a mission to clean up the city, Gordon’s arrival is less heralded. Jim Gordon transferred in from Chicago and learned very quickly that the G.C.P.D. was as crooked as they come.
We learn that Batman almost never was, as we watch Bruce’s early follies and see him almost killed. And while this is 1 of only 2 books on the list where the Joker does not appear, it’s not devoid of recognizable characters. Catwoman is seen making her name about the same time as the Bat.
Gordon’s rise in the Police Department seems ever more treacherous than that of Batman on the streets. From the Mayor to Commissioner Loeb to Gordon’s Partner Detective Flass, Carmine Falcone seems to have everyone in his pocket. There seem to be only a few bright spots around. Sarah Essen, who was first introduced in this story arc and became quite a prominent character over the next 15 or so years, was one such example. She would later become Gordon’s wife, and eventually be murdered by the Joker. We also see a young Harvey Dent, Assistant District Attorney at the time.
This story is flashy, but it lays such a solid foundation that it was able to redefine characters that had been around for near 50 years already. The art is amazing and the story telling is solid, though you’d expect nothing less from a 1980s Frank Miller work.
“There’s a real panic on. Somebody’s threatened to poison the Gotham reservoir. Calls himself the Joker. I’ve got a friend coming who might be able to help. Should be here any minute.”
– Captain Jim Gordon
1) Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
To top the list is a book from the acclaimed writer of V for Vendetta and Watchmen: Alan Moore. In this book we are given (much like the last 2 books) an origin story that is widely accepted as canon. Now this isn’t as conclusive as the Harvey Dent origin, but in The Killing Joke we get to see one possible back story for Batman’s foil – The Joker.
The events in this book have had long-lasting effects, even now, almost 25 years later the actions of the Joker can still be felt.
Upon escaping Arkham yet again, Joker acquires an old amusement park for which he has grandiose plans. Those plans include the kidnapping and subsequent torture of James Gordon. The endgame to break old Jimbo’s psyche and drive him insane. To prove that one day, if bad enough, can crack anyone just the way it did to him.
Throughout the book we are treated to several flashback scenes depicting Joker’s ‘very bad day’. The first of these depicts the Joker as a struggling comedian with a pregnant wife he can’t support. He recently quit his job as an engineer at a Chemical Plant to attempt his hand at comedy.
After the flashback we see the most lasting event in the book. When Joker shows up to abduct Jim Gordon it’s his daughter who answers the door. She is greeted with a gun shot to the belly. While she survives, she is from here after relegated to a wheelchair. Joker permanently paralyzes Barbara Gordon, and unknowingly takes Batgirl out of the game. All her years fighting crime and she gets shot answering the door.
Jimbo is taken by Joker’s men and the torture begins. As the flashbacks continue we learn that, in a desperate attempt to support his pregnant wife, Joker agrees to guide two criminals through the chemical plant where he used to work, so that they can rob the card company next door. Before the job, he learns that his wife has died in a household accident. Grief-stricken, the soon-to-be Joker tries to withdraw from the plan, but is strong-armed into keeping his commitment. Once at the plant, the criminals make himdon a special mask to become the infamous Red Hood.
Unknown to the engineer, the criminals plan to use this disguise to implicate any accomplice as the mastermind, and to divert attention from themselves. Once inside, they almost immediately blunder into security personnel, and a shootout ensues. The criminals are gunned down and the engineer finds himself confronted by Batman. Terrified, he jumps into the chemical plant’s waste pond to escape Bats, and is swept through a pipe leading to the outside. Once outside, he discovers, that the chemicals have bleached his skin chalk white, stained his lips ruby red and dyed his hair bright green. This revelation, compounding the man’s misfortunes of that one day, drives him completely insane…
Eventually Gordon proves himself more mentally stable as he does not crack the way the Joker did, and Batman of course takes Joker into custody. The book ends with a rare instance of levity between Batman and his nemesis…
This is simply my favorite of all the Batman books because it’s the first real glimpse at the beginning of their battle. And while the Joker has a sympathetic background, the book makes no attempt to show him as a sympathetic character. If you only read one of these – make it this one.
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