Bounding from rooftop to rooftop, the Dark Knight never misses his mark. He operates like a well-oiled machine tracking bad guys, beating them to a bloody pulp, and throwing them in the slammer – or Arkham Asylum should they be anyone of Gotham’s notable supervillains. As the brainchild of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, an artist and writer duo, Batman has been pounding the pavement of Gotham ever since his debut in Detective Comics in 1939. He’s undergone a number of changes since his original conception ultimately becoming the brooding powerhouse we know today.
Most understand the basic tenants of Batman these days. His parents were murdered before his young eyes leading him down this path of personal vindication and pursuit of justice. Batman, in most iterations, never resorts to killing — the one crime that separates his outlaw vigilante operations from the real criminals. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In Batman’s earliest days, he had no qualms about ending the lives of baddies on the streets. Even now, some stories and films like Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character depict him looking on with cold and uncaring glares as criminals meet their end. Regardless, Batman is mostly a well-established hero simply seeking justice and there are countless stories of the Caped Crusader. Let’s take a look at the best among them.
Written by Jeph Loeb with artwork by the famous Jim Lee, Batman: Hush has long been regarded as an iconic storyline ever since its debut in 2002. It was eventually adapted into an animated film albeit with a few notable differences. However, the comic book narrative ultimately focuses on the villain Hush – a menacing character with a face wrapped in bandages. The storyline features many of Batman’s most iconic villains including his best super pal, Superman.
But the Dark Knight senses something strange afoot as many of the baddies he faces regularly are acting out of character. He discovers a plot that ultimately positions Bruce Wayne as the target, and Hush is the mastermind. Though, the identity of Hush is the real kicker, and elevates the story to a modern-day Greek tragedy.
9. The Court of Owls
In 2011, comic book writer Scott Snyder (American Vampire) joined forces with legendary artist Greg Capullo (Spawn) to begin a lengthy run on one of DC’s flagship series, Batman. Kicking off the New 52 soft reboot of DC’s biggest series, this partnership began work on one of the best modern (and original) Batman stories ever told. The Court of Owls, an Illuminati-esque organization of elites run the city from the shadows. Through assassination and blackmail, they manipulate the city’s political, social, and criminal enterprises.
They hide their faces beneath owl masks and the most terrifying aspect of their organization are the Talons – immortal assassins that rival even Batman in combat prowess. Bruce never believed the Court was real. A nursery rhyme about the Court has long been regarded by most in Gotham as a myth. That is, of course, until Bruce makes a discovery. The Court of Owls storyline is a must-read and has become so popular among fans that it was used as the basis for the recent video game Gotham Knights.
You know his name: Bane. The villain wreaked havoc on Gotham in director Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight Rises. If anything, Nolan brought Bane into the mainstream spotlight. But comic book fans know that Nolan’s take on the character is very different from his comic book origins. The villain is hyper-intelligent despite his brutish appearance, and he uses a serum called venom to enhance his muscle mass. Basically, imagine, the Hulk if he were a villain and a little less green.
Nolan did take inspiration from the Knightfall storyline in one particular aspect. Bane quite literally broke The Batman by landing the Dark Knight in a solid backbreaker over his knee. However, Knightfall tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s replacement as Batman, Jean-Paul Valley (otherwise known as Azrael). While Bruce is recovering, Valley takes over. The catch, however, is that Valley is a brainwashed assassin. As a child, he was taken in by the Order of St. Dumas which is a splinter faction of the Knights Templar. Valley eventually gives in to his brainwashing and becomes ruthless as Batman. It’s a harrowing story and one that most comic book fans hold in high regard.
7. Batman R.I.P.
Accomplished author Grant Morrison solidifies Batman’s badass brand in this storyline that sees the Dark Knight physically and mentally assaulted by a sinister organization known as the Black Glove. Little does Bruce know that a particular person close to him is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. After the Black Glove assaults the Bat cave, they attempt to break Bruce’s mind.
R.I.P. establishes that Bruce trained his mind to develop a backup personality that he’d defer to in the case that his mind became utterly broken by a hostile element. He becomes a seemingly unhinged and violent incarnation of Batman carrying a baseball bat – but it’s the personality he needs to aggressively pursue his enemies and recover his mind. In a fun twist, Morrison included the goofy Bat-Mite from a bygone era as a hallucination that Batman sees guiding him along his journey.
6. Batman: The Man Who Laughs
When you think of Batman and his greatest nemesis, who do you think of? If it’s not the Joker, then you’ve likely been experiencing a very different Batman than the rest of us. The Joker is as maniacal as they come, and it’s his madness that makes him one of the most formidable opponents the Dark Knight has ever faced. He’s not typically a skilled combatant, but he always has a trick or a ploy up his sleeve that manifests in the most violent and traumatic of scenarios.
Author Ed Brubaker penned this one-shot which recounts the first face-to-face between Batman and the Joker. It begins with murder and mayhem. Batman vows to find this serial killer who is seemingly trailing corpses with disfigured faces in his wake. Then, the killer targets the big fish – the elite within Gotham. It’s a story that depicts the Joker’s depravity and insatiable desire for death and chaos. The Man Who Laughs shares a connection with the Red Hood origin story of the Joker as seen in The Killing Joke. While this story might seem basic and short, that doesn’t detract from its impact on the Batman mythos, and is a must-read for any Batman fan.
5. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Gaming fans are likely aware of developer Rocksteady’s hit Arkham series. If Batman: Arkham Asylum is your jam, then let us introduce you to the video game’s inspiration. Just like the events of the game, this dark and twisted tale crafted by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean chronicles a villainous takeover of the asylum led by the Joker. Batman must plunge into the house of horrors to set things right. The book also recounts the history of Amadeus Arkham, the founder of the facility, and his sordid past.
Joker, Scarecrow, Clayface, Mad Hatter, Killer Croc, and many others put the Dark Knight through his paces in this haunting tale. This book helped establish Arkham Asylum for the iconic locale that it is in the world of Batman.
4. The Long Halloween
The Long Halloween re-established a few aspects of the Batman mythos for modern readers upon its release in 1996. For starters, Harvey’s transformation into Two-Face is front-and-center in the most dramatic accounts of the story. In fact, director Christopher Nolan used a few elements of this storyline when crafting The Dark Knight including James Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Batman’s collusion to bring down the mob as well as the mob’s retaliation against Dent.
As the title implies, the story begins on Halloween and ends on Halloween the following year. Carmine Falcone, one of Gotham’s biggest gangsters becomes the target of Dent’s pursuit of justice. However, his crime family is being murdered one by one. A murder is committed on every holiday beginning with Halloween. Fans of noir detective stories are in for a real treat as Batman attempts to deduce the identity of the murderer. The Joker, Calendar Man, and even Harvey himself are suspected at times, but the truth might surprise you.
3. Batman: Year One
Perhaps, one of the biggest influences on the character of Batman is famed writer and artist Frank Miller (Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns). Miller is so influential in the medium that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the co-creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, credit Miller’s run on Daredevil as the inspiration for the creation of the TMNT. So, when Frank Miller re-imagines the origin of Batman, you should pay attention.
Year One depicts Batman coming into his own as a superhero. He’s flawed and still in the learning stages as he begins tackling the criminal element. Perhaps, the best element of this storyline is the relationship he develops with James Gordon who is a new police detective in the city and wrestling with the idea that the entire GCPD is run by crooked policemen, including his own partner. Once again, director Christopher Nolan pulled from the best of Batman’s extensive library and used elements of Year One in the making of Batman Begins including Bruce’s initial ski mask used to conceal his identity, the trial-and-error approach to crime-fighting, and his budding relationship with Gordon.
2. The Killing Joke
This Joker story is, perhaps, the most famous Joker story in the entire Batman mythos as it depicts exactly how far the character has fallen as an amoral and repugnant villain who is fueled only by the pain and suffering of others. Written by Alan Moore (Watchmen), the narrative follows Joker’s brutal and seemingly random attack on Barbara Gordon and her father. He famously paralyzes after invading her home and then torments her father over the event.
Batman must track down the Joker and confront him. Meanwhile, through flashbacks, the book recounts the villain’s pre-Joker history and how he eventually became the madman that he is. Of course, the villain suggests this is only one possibility that may or may not be true. However, it’s the origin that has become the most synonymous with the Joker. This harrowing narrative is rife with drama, chaos, trauma, and dark themes. You won’t find a more impactful Joker story.
1. The Dark Knight Returns
Batman fans are likely scrolling through this list just to find what they have already presupposed. Yes, The Dark Knight Returns is the best Batman story ever told. Frank Miller’s look at an aged and deeply bitter Batman who dusts off the cape and cowl and comes out of retirement to once again defend his city from evil is legendary. We see a Bruce Wayne who has grown tired and weary, not of age, but from his inaction as a civilian. Once he puts the suit back on and tastes the blood in his mouth fighting the mutant gang that is besieging the city, he realizes he has reclaimed his calling.
Set during the ’80s when the book was published, it offers a commentary of the geopolitical landscape of the time that really isn’t all that dissimilar from the world we live in today. The Soviet Union and the United States are on the brink of all-out war, the leadership is out of touch with the people on the ground, and Batman sets out to bring order to Gotham once again. The Dark Knight Returns stands at the pinnacle of the Batman legacy, and not even Frank Miller himself has been able to outdo his own story despite trying with two sequels.