You know what a Batman is. It’s this dark detective who is sad for reasons and fights clowns with money and children.
And by now random people, likely including me, have recommended the following, apparently “definitive” Batman books:
- The Dark Knight Returns
- The Killing Joke
- Arkham Asylum
- Batman: Year One
- Batman: The Long Halloween
- Anything with Scott Snyder’s name on it
- Anything with Grant Morrisons name on it
- Knightfall, Death in the family and other books deemed important because of their pedestal in the Bruce Wayne Torture Museum. Ick.
Most of them are great and influential and whatever. But I’ve seen too many pictures of people posting those stories as an Amazon Prime order spread out on some random, stained, bed. These books are a template file in Waterstones. It’s boring.
Batman, similar to figures like Doctor Who or James Bond is often less of a character than he is a cultural avatar. There are a few artificial character check boxes to tick if you want to say a story involves one of them. With Bond, a martini reference, the Doctor his magic box and Batman –a cowl. The history of all three goes back at least 50 years and they’ve all swayed and warped against the cultural leanings of the time – there are constants like the martini line, but those definitive pillars don’t really say anything about the character, Peroni stained business cards stuffed in your hand by a drunk stranger whose already forgotten you exist. It’s everything you know about them and the font is Calibri. The things that say “this is a Batman story” are ridiculously nebulous – there’s crime and a man in a Bat costume.
The earliest stories were violent pulp thrillers, with the peak of the Baby Boomers, Batman turned into Gotham’s favourite super cop. The stories were no longer boiled down Dashiel Hammett exercises but rainbow capers that always offered some goofy new gimmick to entice readers, these were the Adam West years. With the 70s, there was a return to the early routes – but matured by the legendary work of Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams which helped permanently settle the tone of the character – as dark, gothic and violent. Following the 80s, with Miller and Moores revolutionary depictions of the character, this tone was taken to an exhausting extreme. The characters in Batman’s world were treated like the cast of The Walking Dead in the literary equivalent of two children standing atop each other in their father’s overcoat, trying to get into an adult film. After the 90s, things started balancing out for the better – delivering the successors to O’Neill and Englehart. Scott McDaniels Batman was paired with some pre limelight comic work by the likes of Ed Brubaker and Brian K Vaughan. Then Grant Morrison brought his crazy mad odyssey at the same time Dini brought the mystery back to Detective Comics. It was great. Now we’ve got the “epic superhero” era of Snyder whilst King uses a new bi-weekly issue structure to deliver stories that may be part of epic, epic, epic era, but find time for some interesting character focused tales.
So if Batman is this cultural avatar, malleable and adaptable to an incredibly broad range of tones and contexts – it’s really bloody boring that such a broad character is defined by so little.
(Better than Superman which is basically – racially distorted Americana and All Star Superman).
To fix this, here are some of the coolest Batman stories no one talks about. Ones with weird little character insights, with a sense of humour, that do strange and beautiful things. These are stories that play and experiment with the unnecessary but bloody fun question “What is a Batman?”. This is the Alternative Batman Reader.
Batman Year 100 – Paul Pope
The first five pages, despite barely remembering the alphabet, form the coolest introduction to a Batman story I’ve ever read.
Funnily enough, all it involves are a pack of dogs chasing Batman off a roof.
Then there’s a dystopian future, a corrupt military police force of terror-psychics and vampire dentures. Fritz Lang meets Cowboy Bebop.
The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told – 1990 edition – Various
So cohesively, this specific edition is kind of an excuse for me to recommend searching through the old stuff – before the 70s. To look at Julius Schwartz, Dick Sprang, Carmine Infantino and others – because it’s mad, fun, clever in a Loony Tunes kinda way and just so fucking different. It was pure – fun.
The collection is a sequential line of Batman v Joker stories. Starting with his first appearance, offering up classics from the surrealist sitcoms of the 50s and 60s (two personal favourites The Joker Clayface Affair and The Jokers Utility Belt) before moving through to Five Way Revenge and the modern day (of 1990).
I mean, Alan Moore is a bit of a knob when he rabbits on about how terrible his superhero stuff is, but he isn’t entirely without point. A lot of his work has effectively been used to justify childhood nostalgia as if it was as important as Maus. Batman’s fucking brilliant, but Bill Finger didn’t invent him to make some great comment on American isolationism in WW2; he wanted to make adventure stories that sold to readers and his readers were kids. Obviously the character has become a great vessel for social comment and formal story experiments – but that doesn’t mean the existing state of Batman fandom’s dogmatic allergy to Batman as a fun cartoon character isn’t completely incoherent. Worse than that, stories like the incredible The Joker Clayface Affair are charming, clever adventure pieces – structured like a farce master class to deliver cartoon action in the most surprising way possible. Whilst many were colourfully boring, this era lent itself to an incredible burst of throw away fun invention. Crazy gimmicks and insane surprises. These stories may not be the dark detective we love because we’re “mature”, but they’re funny and weird and charming and deserve to be revisited.
Not included but recommended as well are: The House That Joker Built and The Crazy Crime Clown.
Batman: Black and White – Various
The first page is from a Batman story about counterfeiters by Harlan “I have no mouth so I must scream” Ellison. The latter is by Ronnie Carmen, who co directed Inside Out.
The Black and White series allows great names to carve their own short form Batman story, without a damn for canon or the need to have it as part of a “run”. There’s an insane cast list of creators who’ve contributed – Simon Bisley, Klaus Janson, Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Dini, Neil Gaiman, Julius Schwartz, Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Don McGregor, Darwyn Cooke, Alex Garland and everyone good. The stories are fun little risk pieces. Vignettes plucked at random from the Black Casebooks. Think a collection of Batman TPB forwards by really cool names, except they made their own mini comics instead.
A hundred different Batmen roam these books. They’re all brilliant.
Batman Adventures Volume 3 – Ty Templeton and Dan Slott
So an adaptation of an adaptation should be awful. But the surprisingly long running comic tie in to The Animated Series and related shows actually turned out incredibly well. Despite the tragic loss of Parobeck, the series found footing and confidence to tell a blend of deeply dramatic, funny and intimate character portraits about Gotham.
The 3rd volume of Batman Adventures is perhaps the most novel of all of them, set in the era of Batman’s animated adventures in Justice League and Unlimited, it shows what Batman was doing in Gotham during this time. The Penguin is mayor, The Joker is sane, Thr Riddler is Mark Zuckerberg and they bring the Phantasm back for a Red Hood mystery.
Writers like Kelly Puckett, Ty Templeton and Dan Slott offered a fun, risky, character driven story that would never have managed to survive the main series drive for CBR headline friendly epics.
I’ve put this one up because it’s relatively short – 13 issues. If you dig it, jump into the Batman: Gotham Adventures tie in which is close to 60, lacking a serialised arc but full of great little Batman adventures that no other series could do – precision built for a lazy Sunday.
Batman Broken City – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
Noir is a term bandied around too often in Batman circles. This vague sense of a cigarette smoke aesthetic, grumbly characters and violent mysteries. Which could have made sense but Batman’s cultural contributions are mad, over budgeted David Simon operas. The 80s revolution did great things, but they were hardly quiet, pausing pieces
Azzarello and Risso take their prior talent for adapting Ramond Chandler’s story forms to the modern comic day – first in 100 Bullets (especially The Counterfifth Detective) and now in Broken City, indisputably the best Batman Noir ever told.
It’s Batman as Phillip Marlowe, perched up somewhere, telling you about a plain day case that went awry. Azzarello writes as a religious disciple of Chandler, his Batman a man whose callous wit plays like the tears of a clown. Structurally too – it unfolds just like the old mysteries, using that dedication to offer sly commentary on both Batman and the noir genre itself. Risso brings Gotham to life with a way of telling stories that is acutely aware that pencillers have a lot more choice than a DoP.
There’s a scene in this, where Batman talks to the much missed Crispus Allen about cooking a steak to relax, it’s quite possibly the best conversation in Batman history.
Detective and Death and The City – Paul Dini and Don Kramer
Dini is known for his legendary work on Batman: The Animated Series. Kramer is an American Frank Quitely whose eye for composition is unforgivably underseen. Together they offer not just a version of The Animated Series unfettered by broadcast censorship, but a true successor to Englehart’s legendary run with Marshall Rogers.
In an afterword to Batman: Year One, David Mazzuchelli spoke of the tonal tight rope a Batman creator walks – a balance between the extreme levity of the silver age and realism extreme enough to show all the wrinkles and the core absurdity of the Batman. No one walks it better than Dini, sane enough to remember the core pulp absurdity of the Batman, he still writes with compassionate character insights gleamed through daring twists on the standard caped crusader story. He writes darkly funny mysteries, one that remembers to give the violence its necessary weight and the core goofiness it’s yuk yuk jokes. They’re massively exciting, one to two issue stories with a wide range of richly realised characters.
This is Batman: The Animated Series without limits. It’s stupidly good.
- Batman: Strange Apparitions
- Gotham Central
- Batman Legends of the Dark Knight, especially #50.
- Dark Night – A True Batman Story.
- Batman: False Faces
- Batman: Flashpoint
- Batman: Gotham Adventures
- Injustice: Gods Among Us
- Batman: Through The Looking Glass
- Batman: Gotham After Gaslight
- Denny O Neil and Neil Adams run
- Batman/The Spirit
- Batman: Ego
- Batman: Son of the Demon
- Eye of the Beholder
- Secret Origins