Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Top 10 Tuesdays - 10 Must Read Batman Stories

With the Dark Knight movie coming out soon, I figured now was as good a time as any to venture off into top 10 story recommendations. With that in mind, this week's Top 10 Tuesdays post is a Batman oriented affair that lists off what I consider to be 10 Must Read Batman Stories.

However, fret not, for this is not just a standard top 10 list rehashing Dark Knight Returns, Long Halloween, Year One and every other cliched and well known Batman story from the past 70 years or so.

No, what I intend to do is spotlight some of the lesser known, but equally as awesome stories, that fall short of most people's top 10 lists. Hopefully this will introduce people to some off the beaten path Batman stories that typically get passed over in favour of the DKR's most people are accustomed to being recommended.

As always, feel free to throw out your must read Batman stories or comment on my list.

Written by Doug Moench
Art by Kelley Jones
Related Stories include Batman: Bloodstorm, Batman: Crimson Mist

Pff, Batman and Dracula? What kind of cheap gimmick is this, you ask? Well, let me set you straight. Red Rain is one of the best Batman stories ever written. Period.

This Elseworlds tale is to Batman what many consider Red Son is to Superman. It's simply fantastic and boils down the character to what makes him so beloved to this day and shows the lengths to which the Batman will go to protect his city, even it costs his immortal soul.

Jones' art is dark and moody and the story probably would not be nearly as effective with any other artist's work and is a true testament to how underappreciated Jones' art has been over the years.

Don't let DC's constant diluding of the Batman franchise with the numerous, pointless tie-ins over the years turn you off from picking up a book that features Batman and Dracula, of all things, as its premise. Otherwise, you'll be missing out on one of the best Batman stories ever written.

Written by Jim Starlin
Art by Jim Aparo
Collects Batman #417-420

Hard to believe as it may be, the KGBeast was one of Batman's most dangerous and threatening villains when he first debuted in the 10 Nights of the Beast storyline that ran through Batman #417-420.

During the storyline, the KGBeast was sent to America to kill 10 key members of the US Star Wars program, including the then-president, Ronald Reagan.

Of course, this takes him to Gotham where he brutally and efficiently takes out target after target, despite Batman's best efforts to stop him, and even goes so far as to kill an entire banquet hall's worth of people, over 100 in total, to ensure he killed his target.

Further showing his prowess, the Beast even holds his own against Batman one on one. In their final battle, Batman manages to ensnare the Beast's arm, ensuring his eventual capture. However, the KGBeast shocks everyone, even by today's stands and especially when you consider the era when this comic came out and the affect the Comic's Code Authority had on the industry, by cutting his own hand off and escaping.

Sadly, the Beast has never really been portrayed as he was in this opening arc and has even suffered defeats at the hands of Robin over the years. But don't let that stop you from picking up one of the most thrilling and deadly encounters the Dark Knight has ever had with this storyline.

Written by Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon & Alan Grant
Art by Mike Gustovich, Lee Weeks, John Cleary, Phil Jimenez & Bret Blevins
Collects Batman #512-514, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #32-34, Detective Comics #679-681 & Robin #11-13

Quite often overlooked and forgotten when compared to the story that preceeded it, the Knightfall trilogy, Prodigal features the prodigal son, Dick Grayson, stepping in and taking over as Batman immediately after Bruce had returned and taken back the mantle of the bat from Azrael at the end of Knightsend.

This is a rare opportunity to see someone deserving, other than Bruce, under the cowl and it was a real treat to see Dick finally step up and fill his mentor's shoes. Seeing the doubt, the enormous amount of pressure and expectations placed upon him and the way he deals with the huge responsibility, which he doesn't even know if he wants, and, most importantly, the differences between how Bruce and Dick handle these things makes this a oft-remembered classic in my eyes and almost makes me wonder if Bruce would have ever returned if Dick had taken over for him instead of Jean Paul during Knightfall.

Not surprisingly, this low print run trade is one of the hardest to find and more expensive Batman trades to purchase in recent memory and for good reason.

Written by Greg Rucka
Art by Klaus Janson
Collects Batman: Death and the Maidens #1-9

I don't know what possessed DC to retcon one of the greatest Ra's al Ghul stories of all time and the new status quo established by Rucka in this storyline, but the Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul was definitely not worth it and what DC did is a travesty when you take into account how amazing this series was.

Death and the Maidens introduced Ra's al Ghul's estranged daughter, Nyssa. Rucka combines a look at Bruce Wayne's past and how he carries his guilt over his parent's death and the way he perceives how his parents view him with the flashbacks detailing Nyssa and Ra's' storied past in a deep, thought provoking and powerful story that shows how the past shapes people differently and the affects one's parents and the way we try to live up to them affects us.

In the end, it is as much a tribute to Ra's al Ghul as it is his swan song as Nyssa kills her father and, thus, becomes her father's daughter, casting away the idealic principles she once had and inheriting his vision along with his empire.

While what this story set up has been all but wiped away with the Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul storyline, that does not rob Death and the Maidens of the emotional impact the story entails nor does it alter our perception of the portrayal of Batman and his internal struggle with avenging his parents and trying to live up to their memory.

Purchase Batman: Death and the Maidens and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by Jim Starlin
Art by Bernie Wrightson

Batman: The Cult is the drugged out / brainwashing of Batman: RIP done right. Starlin tells a tale of an abducted Batman who has been captured and broken, both mentally and physically, at the hands of the mysterious cult leader, Deacon Blackfire.

Considering the year in which this comic was published, 1988, The Cult holds up miraculously well by today's standards and it probably has a lot to do with the fact DC released this as a prestige format comic, which helped them by pass the Comic's Code Authority and the suffocating affect it had on comics of that time period.

The lack of the CCA approval did not go unnoticed and The Cult is one of the most controversial Batman comics ever released. It depicted the lengths to which Deacon Blackfire went to break the Bat and the subsequently brainwashed Batman picking up a gun and killing someone he mistook for the Joker. If that wasn't enough, there were graphic depictions of decapitations and other acts of violence that were only made possible by the lack of the Comics Code.

This book wasn't just about shock value violence. Far from it. Once free of the cult's influence, Batman comes to the realization of what he has done and we embark on a dark and forboding journey as the Batman struggles to come to terms with what he has done.

Truely one of the greatest Batman stories ever told and a comic many rarely mention when it comes time to roll out their lists. This deserves to be up there with the Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and the myriad of other greats.

Written by Paul Pope
Art by Paul Pope
Collects Batman: Year 100 #1-4

The only recent Batman story to make my list, Batman: Year 100 flew under many people's radar, despite the critical acclaim and positive reaction by just about everyone that read it.

Featuring a dystopic future where the government controls everything and personal information is a thing of the past, Batman is seen merely as a rumour, a myth, a legend that does not exist. Drawing on the title of the book, it's 2039, exactly 100 years since Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27, and we see flashbacks to events in the past involving Batman corresponding to the actual dates the books were published.

Bucking the system, Batman is still a mystery to everyone and once he is found at the murder scene of a federal agent, he becomes a liability as he is outside of the government's sphere of influence and a sign that the system doesn't work and a symbol to others that they do not have to remain under the watchful and all seeing eye of the government.

It all comes together as one of the greatest Batman stories of the last decade, if not longer, as Batman is forced to solve the murder mystery while avoiding the federal agents hot on his tail all while giving us an engaging social and political commentary that is neither preachy nor overbearing and serves to elevate a mere story to a work of art.

Purchase Batman: Year 100 and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by Brian Augustyn
Art by Mike Mignola

As the unofficial first Elseworlds story from DC, Gotham by Gaslight has a special place in my Batman loving heart. Add pencils by the incredibly talented Mike Mignola and words by the equally impressive Brian Augustyn and it's kind of hard not to like this book.

Gotham by Gaslight redefined how we thought about our heroes and sparked numerous Elseworlds tales featuring dozens of other variations on Batman and the rest of the DCU's myriad of characters.

So perfectly did Gaslight entrench Batman, and the reader, in the Victorian era with this Jack the Ripper murder mystery that it is hard to believe that there has never been a proper follow up to one of the most impressive Batman stories of all time.

Purchase Batman: Gotham by Gaslight and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by Dennis O'Neil
Art by Trevor von Eeden
Collects Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20

While probably not the greatest Batman story ever told, Batman: Venom is still well worth reading and rarely gets the recognition it deserves, especially since a title that relies heavily on Batman: Venom's premise, Knightfall, is far more well known and praised in comparison.

Venom features a Batman confronted with his own mortality. For all his adventures and experience with the other super powered individuals over the years, Batman has never forgotten that he is still human underneath the costume.

When confronted with a little girl trapped under some rocks with water pouring in on top of her, Batman is forced to simply stand by and watch, helpless to do anything to save her, as the young girl's life is snuffed out in front of him.

Racked with guilt over his own failings, Batman turns to a new drug called Venom, which Bane eventually ended up using during Knightfall. Much like Bane, it increased Batman's strength, endurance and other physical attributes, but lead to Batman's addiction to the drug.

We follow Bruce's fall from grace as he becomes much like the monsters he has sworn to fight and see the changes in his character and the reactions from his closest friends, including Alfred and Jim Gordan, before he finally fights his way back from the edge.

The only complaints I have with Venom is the ending, which sees Batman following the trail of the drug back to some government experiments to make super soldiers, much like how Bane ended up being experimented on. The art is also fairly dated, by today's standards, and doesn't hold up quite as well as something like DKR or The Killing Joke's artwork. It's still good, but has a distinctive 70's or 80's feel to it.

However, for how cheap it is to pick up, it's hard to argue with such small gripes with the Batman: Venom storyline. And if you enjoyed Knightfall or anything with Bane in it, Venom is probably something that would reveal some much needed background on the drug and how it first became a part of the Bat mythos.

Written by Neil Gaiman, Walt Simonson, Chuck Dixon, Klaus Janson, Matt Wagner, Archie Goodwin, Bruce Timm and various others
Art by Bruce Timm, Joe Kubert, Brian Bolland, Katsuhiro Otomo, Simon Bisley, Robert Corben and various others
Collects Batman: Black & White #1-4

Hmm, let's see. Let's take a heaping helping of awesome writers, add a few scoops of kick ass artists and let them go wild with any story they want in a black and white anthology book that would make any comic fan kneel down and give thanks to whatever gods they worship.

It's hard to go into any details with a book like this, as there are upwards of twenty or more stories by an all-star cast of creators, including some of my all time favourites, such as Neil Gaiman, Joe Kubert and Bruce Timm, to name a few.

If you call consider yourself a Batman fan, you do yourself and your fellow fans a disservice by not owning this book.

Purchase Batman: Black & White Vol. 1 and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Howard Porter
Collects JLA #1-4

The only non-Batman centric title on this list, many seem to overlook the opening arc by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter on their impressive JLA relaunch from the 90's. In fact, I see more people choose the Waid penned, Tower of Babel, storyline that features the "asshole / paranoid Batman" than the "preptime godmode Batman" that Morrison typically wrote.

For those curious as to why this JLA storyline makes a Batman Must Read list, all you need to know is that this story features the Hyperclan, a super powered team, arriving on Earth and curing disease, ending world hunger, stopping wars and, in general, upstaging the JLA at every turn.

It is quickly revealed that these Hyperclan "heroes" are actually evil White Martians in disguise, each possessing Superman / Martian Manhunter-like abilities, and they systematically take down each and every member of the JLA save one - Batman.

What follows is Batman being the goddamned Batman and exposing the White Martians weakness to fire, taking out several Hyperclan members and freeing his teammates before they all save the world. Who needs super powers when you've got preptime?

Purchase JLA: New World Order and help support the Weekly Crisis!

Related Posts


yohn said...

A good list. I would also nominate two others from the 70's Batman title - "Night of the Reaper" (Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams) and "Haven," (art by Don Newton, writer - ? - late 70's). Both have popped up in various best of collections years back and are very, very good stand alone one-issue stories.

Eric said...

I have wanted to read Red Rain for a while but DC refuses to reprint it.

I can't really comment on the list as have read only the JLA story but I was surprised by the lack of Year One and DKR. I have only read DKR but was underwhelmed. I guess you felt the same way if you read it?

Ethereal said...

I'm surprised you left out so many great stories.

No mention of The Last Halloween, Arkham Asylum, DKR, The Killing Joke, Hush, Dark Victory, Son of the Demon?

I must say though, The Cult was an amazing read and I was blown away by it. More people need to read it.

Kevin T. said...

Mr. Warren, have you read Darwyn Cooke's Batman: Ego and Other Tails?

I've only read snippets of it, but well, it's Darwyn Cooke, so it's awesome.

Bill said...

Read the intro, folks, he specifically said he'd skip the obvious ones.

It's a solid list, I've read most of them... but for some reason I hated The Cult. Like just real passionate dislike for the whole thing, start to finish. Partly it felt like a DKR ripoff, partly I hated the monster truck batmobile, and I think mostly I just didn't like seeing Batman make crying eyes through his mask for half the thing.

Pat said...

Excellent list..I liked how you refrained from making the repeated list that everyone makes (although the obvious ones you left out are probably the best of course) but some of these I didn't know about...hopefully Morrison can top the Cult story with his own drugged up batman

Anonymous said...

While I liked that you really diversified this list, not making the obvious choices (the DKR trilogy) and all that. I was kind of disappointed not to see at least DKR on there. But then again, everyone loves it so there isn't much need to repeat what we've all been saying for 20 years.

I also want to point out the irony on the day that this list came out, is the day I bought the All Star Batman and Robin HC.

Overall, great list Kirk. I've only read a handfull of these stories, but what I have read, I totally agree with.

jettblackberryx said...

coming soon after Gotham by Gaslight was Batman: HOLY TERROR.

Holy Terror is my favorite Elseworlds tale and one of my top five favorite Batman stories.

Brian said...

Definitely a great list, and I'm glad to see "Prodigal" made it in there. Dick definitely did a great job as Batman during that run. I wouldn't want him to drop the Nightwing role, but he'd definitely make a good replacement if Bruce doesn't make it through the "Batman R.I.P." storyline.

Dave said...

Gotham by Gaslight is one of my favorite reads. It's a first, but, I think The Blue, The Grey and The Bat, Holy Terror, Speeding Bullets and Darkest Kinght are all each a pretty good read.

Prodigal is another favorite, but it makes me wonder: if Dick Grayson could step into the role, why didn't he instead of Azrael? I know it may have been Bruce's choice. All around, I would think it was a bad one.

Ethereal said...

I read Red Rain last night, and wasn't really impressed. The art wasn't great, the writing wasn't great (Felt like Adam West was writing it almost), and the story was kind of obvious from the get go. I'll read some others this week I guess.

Also about my last post, I missed the 'reasoning' for the post, but I still think you missed out on some of the titles I said, especially Hush.

Also, is there any chance of doing this for Superman? I'd love to read some of his better stories.

Kirk Warren said...

@Yohn - Not familiar with Night of the Reaper. Is it related to the Year Two Reaper character?

@eric - I thought I saw a new printing of it in the previews at one point. Not sure the actual date, but I thought it was around the time they had the Countdown tie-in.

@kevin t. - Ugh, Mr Warren makes me feel like I'm 50 years old or something, ahah. I've read Cooke's Ego and loved it, but considered it up there with DKR, Long Halloween, Year One, etc and didn't include it here. Definitely one of the many great Batman stories though.

@bill - Ya, like all lists, I suspect some will love and some will hate certain books on the list. The Cult tries to be Dark Knight Returns a little too often at points with the talking heads, but I still think it's a book that doesn't get a lot of attention and I liked the way they dealt with Batman's inner struggle and turmoil over the murder.

@anonymous - I actually consider Batman: Year One to be better than DKR and would have included that before DKR if I was going to include any of the "cliched" list choices, but it's pretty hard to pick one over the other in terms of greatness.

@jetblack - I actually haven't read Holy Terror mainly because I could never find it. I'm a big fan of the Elseworlds stuff and have most of them, though. Probably have to search through eBay, but usually end up buying other trades when I have the extra cash.

@dave - The reason Azrael was chosen was actually due to the Bruce / Dick relationship at that point, which was far more strained than it is currently. It wasn't that long ago, in comic time, that Dick had basically struck out on his own and cut most of his ties with Bruce to do the Teen Titans thing.

While the trust and faith he put in Jean Paul was a little misguided and premature, he had been living and training with Bruce ever since Sword of Azrael and, by the time his back was broken, Bruce was pretty much at his lowest point and not exactly thinking rationally post-back breaking.

So, while it was mostly a 90's marketing thing to get the "edgy and cool" Azbats in the suit, there was some build up to it that doesn't really show up to people that just read it in trade and ignore the year or so worth of stories in multiple books that featured Jean Paul.

@ethreal - Sorry to hear you didn't care for Red Rain, but I think we'll have to disagree on the art. I think Jones' art fit the tone of the book perfectly. It is a little dated by todays standards, but the setting isn't modern either and the art really fits it.

As for Hush, I consider just about anything with an Absolute version to be about as well known and popular as it gets and I was specifically trying to avoid those types of books that are featured on every single top 10 Batman list google spits out at people.

Whiel I don't want to get too into it here, I really dislike Hush and can't see how it gets the attention it does. It's pretty much just the third time in a row that Loeb rehashed the murder mystery, double twist, year long rogues gallery tour that he's done in Long Halloween, Dark Victory and now Hush. Give me Jim Lee and carte blanche to write whatever I want and use whoever I want and I could probably put out an equally popular book with the same regurgitated plot.

And this isn't Loeb hate, as it was actually fairly well written compared to his current work, but it was the same story and it just didn't do anything for me outside of pretty pictures. I did like the Catwoman parts though, but it got tossed by teh wayside at the end of it.

oh, and as for a Superman version, I'm not really as well versed in his history as I am with Batman, who I've followed for many years, and I think my list would end up being just stuff like Man of Steel, Birthright, Red Son, Death and Return, Action 775, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow and the other standard stories that make every list.

I'll definitely end up doing more of these story lists, but I'd like to offer something original over a list that everyone already knows about or has seen before.

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Kirk Warren said...

@sabatino - I don't mind people mentioning their blogs if it is on topic, but, in the future, please refrain from simply promoting your blog with one line comments.

Max said...

I'd put Blind Justice on that list. One of the bleaker Batman stories, which shows how little room there is in Bruce Wayne's life for ordinary things like friends and love. Nice twists, an unusual villain and a great ending.

Mike Loughlin said...

Great list! I love Red Rain, and even enjoyed the sequels (Bloodstorm & Crimson Mist). I'd add:

"Blades" by James Robinson & Tim Sale. Reprinted in a Legends of the Dark Knight trade in the late '90s. There's a new hero in Gotham, and a young Batman has to come to terms with him. Distrust leads to understanding leads to... I don't want to spoil it if you haven't read it, it's a compelling read.

"The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" by Alan Brennert & Joe Staton. Reprinted in Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Middle-aged Earth-2 Batman has to figure out what he wants out of life. When the Scarecrow attacks, however, he is forced to work with Catwoman to stop him. How will Batman spend his twilight years, fighting or pursuing his own happiness? Almost the anti-DKR.

Inara said...

I've got a copy of #512, Prodigal part 1 in mint condition...what I'm slightly curious about is, you said "Not surprisingly, this low print run trade is one of the hardest to find and more expensive Batman trades to purchase in recent memory and for good reason", yet I've seen it listed online for anywhere from 99 cents to $4. What's your source?

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