Where to start on Batman comics

In honor of the first full week of “The Dark Knight Rises” being in theaters, it’s something of a Batman week here at Matinee Culture. You can read the site’s review of the movie here, and you can stick around on this page for a starter list of Batman comics to read. This article owes some of its inspiration to the AV Club, so thank you, Oliver Sava.

After any superhero movie hits it big, comic book fans wonder why more people don’t read the source material. After all, “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” blew up even further when they had films optioned, and even classics like “The Lord of the Rings” saw a big purchasing boost when they were turned into movies. And yet, the top-selling monthly comic book in June sold only about 191,000 copies – a level of sales that would deem any would-be blockbuster an unprecedented, unmitigated failure.

I’m not here to pontificate on why this is, other than to say that I once read that getting into comic books is almost a lifestyle choice, rather than an entertainment choice. There’s so much out there, so much of it is confusing, and quite a bit of it is terrible. Where do you turn?

While there are already some good lists out there, I’ve crafted this one with fans of the movies in mind. If you like the cinematic Batman but have no real entry point into his comics universe, where should you start and what should you read?

Beginner: Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller

Rightly considered one of the best (if not the best) Batman comics of all time, “Batman: Year One” is the definitive origin story of Bruce Wayne and his cowled compatriot. Moody, atmospheric, and a little pulpy, this comic was a heavy influence on “Batman Begins,” making it a perfect entry point for followers of both Batman’s comic book and 21st century movie adventures.

I’m now going to branch off into two sections. First, I’ll look at some comics that strongly influenced Christopher Nolan’s other two Bat-films. Some of these are also just good Batman stories to read, and they would appear on the other list if they weren’t on this one.

Sources for The Dark Knight: The Long Halloween, by Jeph Loeb, and The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore

Sources of inspiration for “The Dark Knight’s” Two-Face story and Joker characterization, respectively, both of these books are remembered as iconic, if flawed, pieces of the Batman mythology. “The Long Halloween” in particular has its fair share of detractors, but the story is so well-known in comics (and so directly an inspiration of “The Dark Knight”) that every Bat-fan should read it at least once. As for “The Killing Joke,” Brian Bolland’s classic, detailed art makes this brutal Joker story hit even harder.

Sources for The Dark Knight Rises: Knightfall, by various authors, No Man’s Land, by various authors, and The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

By far the best of the three stories, “The Dark Knight Returns” is the least analogous (from a plot perspective, anyway) to “The Dark Knight Rises.” Aside from placing an injured, older Bruce almost a decade out of his last crimefighting turn, “Rises” prefers to take more thematic and emotional beats from “Returns” than it does plot points. The plot points are pulled most directly from “Knightfall,” Bane’s most famous story, with the isolated city element coming from “No Man’s Land” (in the comic, a horrible earthquake, not a terrorist, cuts Gotham off from the rest of the world).

Fair warning – both Knightfall and No Man’s Land suffer from common problems of mainstream comics of the 1990s: the art is cartoony, multiple writers meant varying levels of quality, and everything is “extreme” and over-the-top. Still, the Knightfall arc in particular (which in full spans three collections) offers a valuable look at a piece of comics history and a relatively decent story. The gritty and gruff “Returns,” however, I can recommend without reservation.

Movie odds and ends: Selina’s Big Score, by Ed Brubaker, Batman: Death and the Maidens, by Greg Rucka, and Secret Six, by Gail Simone

For those hoping to get some more insight into the film’s villains, here are three good titles. “Selina’s Big Score” is perhaps the definitive take on Catwoman, while Death and the Maidens is a flawed but intense look at both Ra’s and Talia Al Ghul. “Secret Six” is not a Batman title (although he does show up once in a while), but a formerly-ongoing book about a group of B to F-list comics villains – including the best ever depiction of Bane – operating as a mercenary team. It’s uneven at times, but if you can stomach some relatively brutal situations, there’s much fun to be had with this amoral and often hilarious band of scoundrels (pick up “Six Degrees of Devastation” or “Unhinged” first).

OK, now onto non-movie related stuff. You’ve read “Year One,” so what else you should check out?

Intermediate: Batman: Blind Justice, by Sam Hamm, Batman Black and White, by various authors, and The Court of Owls, by Scott Snyder

“Blind Justice” is a seemingly simple story that ultimately analyzes the mental damage Bruce must have suffered to become Batman (it also features the first appearance of Henri Ducard, who movie fans know as Ra’s Al Ghul’s alter ego in “Batman Begins”). “Batman Black and White” is a sampler of shorter stories, featuring uncolored takes by different writers and artists on Batman and his surroundings. Though not his best Batman story (that one is coming up), Synder’s “The Court of Owls” and follow-up “Night of the Owls” (not yet collected in trade form) are creepy, very good-looking, highly entertaining tales of a secret society that’s owned Gotham far longer than Batman has.

Advanced: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, by Grant Morrison, The Black Mirror, by Scott Snyder, and Gotham Central, by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka

“Arkham” may be off-putting for many, but there’s no denying that Morrison and mixed media collaborator Dave McKean (and letterer Gaspar Saladino) create an evocative vision of the inside of Gotham’s notorious mental hospital for supervillains. “The Black Mirror” is a supremely creepy tale about original Robin Dick Grayson wearing the Batman mantle while Bruce gallivants elsewhere, and it also manages to be just as much about Gotham police commissioner Jim GordonFinally, “Gotham Central” may be the most underrated Batman comic ever: a tale of the city’s beleaguered police force as it deals with villains too powerful to handle and a hero who makes them feel small and weak.

Experts: Grant Morrison’s Batman saga, Strange Apparitions, by Steve Engelhart

Morrison’s current Batman saga spans the collected titles (in order) of “Batman and Son,” “The Black Glove,” Batman: RIP” – insert “Final Crisis” here, but only if you’re a masochist – “Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn,” “Batman and Robin: Batman vs. Robin,” “Batman and Robin: Batman and Robin Must Die,” “The Return of Bruce Wayne,” “Batman Incorporated Vol. 1” and the currently running “Batman Incorporated Vol. 2.” In short, it is not for the casual comics fan. This is some dense stuff, and though it’s often very entertaining, it’s just as often confusing or mystifying. If you read this, make sure you have at least a relatively sure footing in Batman’s comic world, and make sure you read it very carefully.

For “Strange Apparitions,” be prepared for a very, very good take on Batman prior to the game-changing work of Year One. Prior to Miller’s masterpieces of “Year One” and “Returns,” Batman comics and comics in general were often goofier, zanier affairs. That can be good, but a grounding in more current stories may help with the transition. If you like “Strange Apparitions,” take the plunge and read through some of Batman’s original stories next. I recommend “The Batman Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

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