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Recommended Batman Comics 101: Christopher Nolan’s Batman Films…

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I know that movies traditionally have a minimal impact on comic book sales, but to celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I thought I’d make a list of accessible jumping-on points for fans of Batman in mass media. There are several wonderful things about Batman. There are two especially relevant to this article. First, Batman is an infinitely adaptable character. He can literally be anything to anybody. It is entirely possible for somebody to love one interpretation of Batman while loathing others. So I’ll be breaking down my recommendations by source, so you can look at your favourite interpretation of Batman and find the most thematically and tonally relevant jumping-on points:

The second factor is that Batman is one of the few characters blessed with a back catalogue of accessible runs and stories, so there’s quite a few recommendations for each. It’s as simple as finding one that works for you.

We’ll start with the most recent of the bunch, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Nolan’s Batman films have pretty much defined the character for a modern generation. While many critics suggest the approach is “realistic”, I’m not convinced. After all, Batman Begins features weaponised fear gas and an army of ninja assassins. And The Dark Knight Rises features the occupation of a major American city by an organised terror group. I think that Nolan’s movies are best described as possessing a “verisimilitude”, similar to Richard Donner’s Superman films.

Nolan’s films are also notable as an efficient and economical exploration of the mythos. There’s not too much fat on these films, and a minimal amount of clutter. I think they perfectly capture the character’s history, but I also think that they represent a rather core exploration of the hero’s mythology. As a result, a lot of the recommendations here will be “essential” Batman stories.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the list of recommendations:

Batman: Year One

Most closely related to: Batman Begins

Batman: Year One is perhaps my favourite Batman story. It’s Batman’s origin told over a four-issue miniseries by writer Frank Miller, exploring the Caped Crusader’s return to Gotham and his war on organised crime within a city in the grips of decay. However, it’s also one of relatively few Batman stories that focuses on Jim Gordon as its central character – at least as much as Batman. In many ways, Year One is probably the most firmly grounded Batman story ever told, and it’s literally the perfect opportunity to start from the beginning.

Accessibility: Very High

What you need to know: Nothing. Literally, nothing.

The Long Halloween

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight

The Long Halloween heavily influenced Nolan and Goyer’s work on The Dark Knight, to the point that the pair wrote the introduction to the oversized “Absolute” edition. It works on two levels. Primarily, it’s a spiritual successor to Year One in the same way that The Dark Knight is to Batman Begins. It explores the consequences of Batman’s war on organised crime, and the void this creates in Gotham’s culture of crime. It also serves as an origin for Harvey Dent, with Dent’s transformation into Two-Face anchoring the collection. It also features a handy overview of Batman’s iconic rogues’ gallery. It isn’t perfect though. In particular, it doesn’t really work as a mystery, which it (only nominally) is. However, it does feature amazing art from Tim Sale. Sale and Loeb would collaborate on a sequel to The Long Halloween with Dark Victory, which also introduces the character of Robin.

Accessibility: High

What you need to know: Gotham used to belong to the mob; a passing familiarity with Batman’s villains wouldn’t hurt.

The Dark Knight Returns

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight Rises

Frank Miller literally wrote the alpha and the omega of Batman stories. While Year One was an origin, The Dark Knight Returns is an epilogue. Joining Bruce Wayne a decade after he retired from being Batman, the story explores whether or not Bruce could ever really stop being Batman. It injected a whole host of psychological and moral complexity into the character, and it pretty much seeded the entire Christopher Nolan portrayal. (It also influenced Tim Burton and whole host of others, but Nolan is truest to the psychological and moral questions raised by Miller.) Every legend has an end, and this is really the definitive one.

Accessibility: High

What you need to know: There have been multiple characters named “Robin.” At the time this was published, Dick Grayson was no longer Robin and Jason Todd was.

The “Demon” Trilogy

Son of the Demon

Bride of the Demon

Birth of the Demon

Most closely related to: Batman Begins/The Dark Knight Rises

In many respects, according to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Joker isn’t the arch-nemesis of the Batman. It’s Ra’s Al Ghul who provides the most enduring counterpoint to Bruce. Al Ghul trained Bruce, and then tried to kill him. Coming a full circle, The Dark Knight Rises sees the League of Shadows returning to Gotham to finish their master’s work. Al Ghul is a mythical figure, much like Batman aspires to be. The Demon Trilogy represents perhaps the finest exploration of the weird dynamic between Bruce and this foe, including the villain’s origin, his attempts to recruit Batman and even their confrontations. Written by Mike W. Barr and Denny O’Neil, the collections each feature some impressive artwork.

Accessibility: Medium to high

What you need to know: Bruce has a foe named Ra’s Al Ghul; Ra’s Al Ghul is literally, rather than merely metaphorically, immortal; Ra’s Al Ghul is constantly trying to make Bruce his heir, and has ambitions to marry Bruce off to his daughter, Talia.

The Killing Joke

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight

The Killing Joke is perhaps the definitive psychological exploration of the Joker, Batman’s most enduring foe. Written by Alan Moore (writer of Watchmen and V for Vendetta), it probably ranks as one of the lesser volumes of the writer’s work and it certainly has its faults. However, it also heavily influenced the portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and was the first to suggest that the Joker might have a grander philosophical agenda – that he is devoted to philosophical idea that all it takes is “one bad day” to transform a man into a monster.

Accessibility: High

What you need to know: Nothing, really. Maybe that Barbara Gordon used to be a sidekick of Batman’s, but she retired before the novel begins.

Joker

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight

Beautifully illustrated by Lee Burmejo, Joker fits perfectly aesthetically with the world of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, to the point where DC had to clarify that the overlap was purely coincidental. While the character himself is somewhat cruder and a lot more base than his big screen counterpart (there’s no underlying philosophy here, save for violence), the world itself has that rich noir atmosphere that Nolan brought to The Dark Knight. Brian Azzarello certainly writes beautiful noir. The pair worked together on a similarly impressive comic book based around Superman’s foe, Luthor.

Accessibility: Very high.

What you need to know: Nothing; everything’s in there.

Gotham Central

In the Line of Duty

Jokers & Madmen

On the Freak Beat

Corrigan

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises

Written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, Gotham Central has a simply ingenious premise. What would Gotham look like to the cops – the regular people – policing it? What would the city be to those who could go from busting drug dealers to stumbling across Mr. Freeze? What’s it like to caught in the crossover between the Joker and Batman? How do you cope with copycats and wannabe supervillains? I think Gotham Central is probably my favourite Batman series of the past decade, and that’s due to the great concept, but also the fantastic execution. I think Soft Targets, which was a clear influence on The Dark Knight, might be my favourite Joker story ever. And that is high praise indeed. The entire collection is available in four collected editions, and is well worth a look.

Accessibility: Medium.

What you need to know: Commissioner Gordon is no longer police commissioner, and has been replace by Michael Atkins, who has a less amicable relationship with the Bat; Gotham was hit by a natural disaster recently (No Man’s Land, an inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises), and the city is still dealing with the fallout.

And here there be spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

The Black Mirror

Most closely related to: The Dark Knight Rises

Batman is a symbol. He’s more than just a man. So what happens when Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman any longer? Written by Scott Snyder, The Black Mirror explores how Gotham reacts to a new Batman in the cowl. Gotham is a rapidly evolving, ever-changing landscape, one that seems to present new challenges to face those who think they’ve come to understand it. Dick Grayson is Batman now, and Gotham has developed its own particular problems for the next generation of Batman. It helps that this also explore Jim Gordon’s relationship with Gotham, and all that the city has taken from the police chief.

Accessibility: Medium

What you need to know: Jim Gordon has a son, James Jr., who was saved by Batman at one point; Bruce Wayne is no longer the Batman of Gotham, he has left Dick Grayson in charge of the cowl in the city; Dick Grayson’s family were murdered by a mobster named Tony Zucco.

10 Responses

  1. The Long Halloween is one I want to catch at some point, but I always balk for some reason in favor of a different book. It’s so good, they say. The more I read OF it, the more I realize I need to read it.

    • I really liked it, myself. Just don’t expect the mystery to make sense. It looks lovely, has a rich atmosphere, covers an interesting period in the fictional history of Gotham and features the definitive Two-Face origin.

      • I liked the Long Halloween, but I felt like the story ran through each villain so quickly that none of them were given a proper nuanced portrayal. Still, pretty good and essential reading if you liked the Dark Knight.

      • Fair point. Especially when Loeb’s handling of some rogues (the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter) is quite esoterical.

  2. If you’re going to go with any after Bruce series go with Batman and Robin. The Black Mirror is leagues below that.

    • I think it’s comparing apples and oranges. I would say that I’d recommend The Black Mirror to somebody who enjoyed Nolan’s Batman a lot quicker than Batman & Robin. Batman & Robin is fantastic, but it’s also very firmly anchored in continuity. It might pop up later in the week – it’s not something I’d recommend to people who loved Nolan’s take above all others, but it’s very close to a modernised take on Adam West’s Batman.

  3. Incredibly comprehensive list, though it does make me wish there was a definitive Scarecrow story, as every other villain is more or less accounted for save Bane (I guess Knightfall vol 1 could go on here as well).

    • I thought about including Knightfall, given The Dark Knight Rises, and also about No Man’s Land, especially since their available cheap. I just don’t think that Knightfall’s second and third acts are as strong as its opening salvo, and No Man’s Land is just incredibly vast with some amazing stuff in there, but some less than amazing stuff as well.

      (I have to confess, while I think releasing that thick paperbacks is awesome, I’m also a bit disappointed that we didn’t get some nice hardcover collections to celebrate the film.)

  4. ‘Year One’, ‘The Long Halloween’, ‘The Killing Joke’ and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ are definants for this list, the other tittle’s you have mentioned basically have no source material for the films.

    “Batman Begins” major influences were…
    ‘The Man Who Falls’ (last published in Batman Begins comic adaption, when the film was released), ‘Year One’ and ‘Fears’ (A halloween special that is featured in ‘The Haunted Knight’ collection).

    “The Dark Knight” influences were…
    ‘The Long Halloween’, ‘The Killing Joke’ and ‘Batman: Dark Detective’ 6 issue series in 2005.

    “The Dark Knight Rises” influences included…
    ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, ‘Knightfall #1: Broken Bat’, ‘No Mans Land’ (Mainly Volumes 1 & 4 of this 5 volume story arc) and ‘Batman Vs Bane’ ( Which features the 2 stories ‘Vengeance of Bane’ & ‘Bane of the Demon’, which is the basis for the flashback scenes in the movie, with a Nolan mix on it). And maybe a dash of the one- shot ‘Bane’, which was the final chapter of the storyline ‘Legacy’.

    • Thanks Clint. Although I would note that the list above is recommendations, not influences. I explicitly stated, for example, that Azzarello’s Joker just happened to coincidentally reflect The Dark Knight. And I would argue that the similarities between The Dark Detective and The Dark Knight are mainly alledged by Steve Englehart, but aren’t that substantial. (Although it is interesting that – apparently – Goyer disputes the influence of Year One on Batman Begins, despite the obvious homages – Flass and “backup” chief amongst them.)

      There are reasons I omitted some of those choices. The Man Who Falls is very tough to find, especially if you’re a new reader wanting to jump into Batman. Knightfall has – in my opinion – a superb opening act, but its last two-thirds are a bit awkwardly plotted. (Yet, I think, thoughtful and insightful commentaries on what Batman isn’t.) No Man’s Land is absolutely massive, and it varies hugely in quality, but does have some stand-outs. It’s worth noting, for anybody reading this, that DC is publishing huge affordable digests of both stories.

      They are great stories, but not ones I’d recommend to newcomers interested in jumping on to the character.

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