75 Years of the BAT: My Top Batman Books

written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)

Batman is my hero; I grew up on several iterations of the Bat, from the campy lighthearted adventures when Adam West donned the cape and cowl to taking an active role in controlling the legendary hero in the Arkham series of video games. I can’t seem to get enough of all things Batman, from comics to movies to video games, I’ve experienced the tales of Gotham City’s protector across many varied forms of media. But this is Halftone, here we talk comics and in lieu of Batman’s 75th anniversary, I want to share what I call my definitive Batman stories.

Hush:

Let’s start at my favorite Batman story; Hush has everything you could want from a Batman book. From a wide swathe of his rogues gallery to several of his allies by his side, this book featured a very robust cast of characters. Two of my favorite ladies of Gotham make an appearance; the Helena Bertinelli Huntress in all manner of undress and of course “goggles” Catwoman. Throw in his greatest adversary the Joker and the mega popular Harley Quinn along with a few other rogues mainstays like Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow; Hush becomes a veritable “who’s who” of Batman characters.

Penned by the fantastic Jeph Loeb (Batman: The Long Halloween, Dardevil: Yellow) with art from the incomparable Jim Lee (All Star Batman & Robin, Superman: For Tomorrow), Hush tells the story of how Bruce met one of his oldest friends, Tommy Elliot, and also introduces a man who would become one of Batman’s greatest foes, the aptly named Hush. What the Loeb/Lee combo accomplish with Hush is telling a truly grounded Batman tale, forcing the caped crusader to tackle issues in regards to trusting others and tackling his guilt (primarily from Jason Todd’s death).

Hush is a monumental Batman tale; filled to the brim with mystery, Loeb’s story keeps you guessing and the immensely talented Jim Lee makes Gotham look just as beautiful as it is wretched. This is an absolute must read for any Batman fan.

The Killing Joke:

Widely considered to be THE definitive Joker book, in all the maddening ways Joker could be portrayed, The Joker in The Killing Joke takes that madness and cranks it up to 11. After purchasing a dilapidated amusement park, The Joker sets in motion a sick and twisted plan to pull good ol’ Commissioner Gordon down to his level of madness. This first starts with shooting Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon through the spine rendering her a paraplegic, then subjecting the Commissioner to endure a twisted “love boat” ride, forcing him to see photo after photo of his daughter in all manner of undress, writhing on the floor with a bullet hole in her spine. Of course this sends Batman into a fit of anger as he takes it upon himself to save his friend and avenge his protégé.

Written by the incomparable Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta), the strength of this book is in the writing. The Joker is arguably one of the most psychopathic homicidal maniacs in the pantheon of comic book villains, unlike villains like The Riddler who commit crimes to flex his ego and intelligence or Lex Luthor who turns to crime to exert his defiance to super-powered aliens, The Joker just “does” things. It’s what makes him such a great villain. Moore also humanizes Joker, showing flashbacks of a possible origin for the character. Now The Joker’s origin has always been shrouded in mystery and even through flashbacks this is still the case. When commenting on his origin, The Joker exclaims; “sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… if I’m going to have a past I prefer it to be multiple choice!” Some of the best monologues the character has ever spoken were written in this book, when The Joker sends Gordon down his twisted tunnel of love ride, we the reader are treated to what I believe is one of the best Joker monologues in his comic history: “…when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness… madness is the emergency exit.”

A Death in the Family:

The book that gave Batman his greatest failure, thanks to DC Comics fans (due to an open voting) DC decided to kill Jason Todd. Jason was Batman’s second sidekick and the second boy to operate under the “Robin” name. After Dick Grayson takes on the moniker of Nightwing, Bruce recruits a young delinquent in an attempt to steer him towards a path of good rather than evil. This proves to be more difficult than he expected, more rebellious than Grayson ever was, Jason Todd was the anti-thesis to what Grayson’s Robin was like. His foolhardy nature eventually leads to his death at the hands of The Joker. After being beaten with a crowbar, The Joker adds insult to injury when he ends the boy’s life at the hands of a bomb.

Death isn’t always the end all in the DC pantheon of characters, Jason Todd would eventually come back, but at the time it was a monumental moment in Batman history and one that would eventually shape his outlook on the “Robin” mantle. While this book shows up on practically every “definitive Batman” list, it’s one that the Batman fan should definitely experience.

Cacophony:

This is Batman like you haven’t seen him before, penned by Kevin “Silent Bob” Smith with art from Comic Book Men cast member Walt Flanagan, Cacophony has Batman attempting to stop a bloody turf war between the Joker and Maxie Zeus, and also introduces one of the stranger villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, Onomatopoeia.

Deadshot breaks into Arkham, his mark this time is The Joker. Before Deadshot can make good on his contract, he is shot by Onomatopoeia (aptly named because she speaks sound effects like “k-chik” when reloading) who then frees The Joker; leaving him with a briefcase of money to enact some bloody mayhem on Gotham’s streets.

From the writing to the art style, the Smith and Flanagan’s Dark Knight features a fantastic mix of what makes Batman great along with some of Kevin Smith’s unique writing style, no Batman doesn’t hang out at malls or seeks to find love with a lesbian, but Smith offers a very fresh take on Batman and even throws in bits and pieces of his trademark humor when writing a villain. In one panel, The Joker jokes about catching a glimpse of Batman’s family jewels: “Since we’re being truthful, I should also tell you I saw a little bit of your junk when you were getting changed before.” Kevin Smith may not be your cup of tea, but the way he writes Batman is so refreshingly neoteric, it’s worth a look.

The Court of Owls:

The only book from the New 52 on my list, sure we’ve seen Batman tangle with everything from a deranged clown to a creepy professor with bad vision, but to throw a myserious secret society that controls the inner workings of Gotham at the city’s protector, what a way to set off the New 52.

Created by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, the Court of Owls is a shadowy organization with roots centuries deep, a violent collective of some of Gotham’s oldest and wealthiest families. When Bruce Wayne announces his plans to help shape Gotham for the future, the Court takes notice and unleashes the Talons (the not dead not alive super agents) to take down the Billionaire philanthropist once and for all.

What drew me to the book and the entire arc for that matter was how interesting this type of villain was. Batman has tangled with collectives of super powered villains before, but an organization as old and deadly as the Court was a very new adversary for Batman, and while facing down the madness of The Joker or Two-Face may be more at home for the Bat… The Court proved to be quite the worthy contender. Setting up the cross-over event Night of the Owls, the events in The Court of Owls act as a gripping opening act to the Bat-Family taking on a truly unyielding foe.

This year marks 75 years of (somewhat) safer Gotham streets. Happy Birthday Bats, you don’t look a day over 25