As the Dark Knight movie trilogy concludes, here’s where to start with Batman comics
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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Batman comics
Why it’s daunting: Since debuting in 1939, Batman has had children, broken his back, flat-out died (he got better), and survived multiple continuity adjustments conceived to make his character more accessible to new readers. Superhero comics are puzzling enough, but DC Comics’ tendency to reboot its universe ends up making its characters’ timelines even more confusing. With so many incarnations of Batman—the original crusader of the night, the campy do-gooder of the ’60s, the gruff force of nature of the ’80s—there’s a version of the Dark Knight that will appeal to just about any reader. But where’s a good place to wade into the flood of Batman titles? Batman is one of DC’s flagship characters, currently headlining five ongoing comics (Batman, Detective Comics, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman & Robin, and Batman Incorporated) while also anchoring an entire line of books devoted to the extended Bat-family. That’s a lot of material for a single month, let alone 70-plus years, and doesn’t include alternate universes, films, or television series.
Potential gateway: Batman: Year One (1987)
After introducing the world to a hulking, brutal future Batman in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller teamed with his Daredevil collaborator David Mazzucchelli to tell the definitive Batman origin story, cultivating the gritty aesthetic that would stick with the character to the present day. Miller is at his best here, delving into the minds of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon to tell an emotionally dense, intensely dramatic story that reads like it could take place in the real world. Batman doesn’t take down any masked supervillains in Year One, but rather the mobsters that destroy Gotham City in less flamboyant ways. Mazzucchelli shows why he’s one of comics’ greatest talents with intensely detailed yet remarkably fluid artwork, and his masterful use of shadows makes him ideally suited to drawing the Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is heavily influenced by Year One, and fans of the most recent films will want to seek out this title as an entry point to the Batman comic-book universe.
Next steps: An introduction to Batman’s classic rogues gallery, Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum is a disturbing, gorgeous look into the twisted minds of Batman’s greatest villains. When the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others take over the Asylum, Batman has to venture into the building and explore the darkness within himself if he’s going to save the day; the plot isn’t too different from the Arkham Asylum videogame, which isn’t a bad thing. Morrison’s talent for putting new twists on old characters makes him a great fit for the well-known mythology of Batman, and Arkham is Morrison without restrictions, which means it goes to some truly unsettling places. Featuring evocative fully painted art by McKean, it’s a stunning book, and Morrison has since gone on to write Batman in a long-running epic that is currently winding down in Batman Incorporated.
In the middle of Morrison’s Batman run, the writer killed Bruce Wayne (he was actually sent back in time…don’t ask) and had ex-Robin/Nightwing Dick Grayson take on the mantle of Gotham’s Dark Knight. Despite the lack of Bruce behind the mask, Scott Snyder’s Batman: The Black Mirror (2011) is one of Batman’s best stories, a mystery thriller that brings James Gordon’s psychotic son back to Gotham City as Grayson fights supervillain auctioneers and teams up with the daughter of the man who killed his parents. Jock and Francesco Francavilla turn in some of the best Batman art of the past decade illustrating Snyder’s story, which takes various elements from the character’s history but doesn’t get bogged down in the continuity. Snyder is currently writing Bruce Wayne in Batman, one of the New 52’s best titles and a perfect follow-up to his work on The Black Mirror.
With the debut of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, fans looking for more Selina Kyle should seek out 2002’s Selina’s Big Score, a fantastic graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke that follows Selina and a group of thieves (including a stand-in for Richard Stark’s Parker) as they try to pull off a doomed train heist. Sexy, action-packed, and sophisticated, Big Score was part of a concentrated effort to reinvigorate Selina’s character, who had become defined by her proportions rather than her personality. Having previously worked on the TV series The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond, Cooke’s animation-influenced artwork is brimming with character, and his story is equally enchanting. He would go on to draw the first arc of Ed Brubaker’s Catwoman, another run that is definitely worth a look (at least up to the 24th issue).
Bane may be known as the character who broke Batman’s back, but his best use in the comics isn’t as a strongman, but as a tactician in Gail Simone’s Secret Six (2006), a supervillain-team book that defies genre classification. After two miniseries, the first storyline of the Secret Six ongoing comic introduces Bane, who has taken on a much more stoic worldview since quitting the drug that causes him to hulk out. Simone’s skill at incorporating elements from all the different corners of the DC universe makes this a great introduction to lesser-known characters like Catman and Ragdoll, and the moral ambiguity of her cast means that she’s able to take the book to surprisingly vicious places. Secret Six was a casualty of the New 52, but the final arc is one of Bane’s brightest moments, in which he decides to pool all the team’s resources and break the Bat once and for all.
Where not to start: Of DC’s New 52 Batman titles, Batman: The Dark Knight and Detective Comics are the ones to avoid, with generic stories and artwork that don’t bring anything new to the character. Jim Lee has become one of the most prominent Batman artists despite working on two less-than-spectacular books: Batman: Hush and All-Star Batman And Robin. Hush, by writer Jeph Loeb, is a parade of Batman villains tied together by an overly convoluted story, relying on cheap tricks rather than character development to keep the story moving. And don’t be fooled by Frank Miller’s name on All-Star; it’s really bad.