Batman is among the most famous superhero in the world, and with over 80 years of history behind him, he’s been whatever we needed him to be when we needed it: an unstoppable dark avenger, an indefatigable-but-noble protector, a smiling crimefighter with onomatopoetic fists.
Over eight decades, writers have refined his story to a pure iron pinpoint, his emblems whittled to iconic simplicity, and his backlog perpetually growing with every passing issue. Catching up is an impossible task. But here’s good news: I love Batman, and I love teaching people about Batman. Which is how I came to put together Polygon’s list of the best Batman comics ever.
You might not find what you expect here, and that’s deliberate. You can Google almost any list of the best Batman stories and find The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. I’d like to offer something more.
Beyond recommending the most famous, well-read, or praised Batman stories, I want to help you understand what a good Batman story is. So I based my picks on two criteria: They’re either stories that have had a huge influence on our modern idea of Batman, or they’re stories that have done the best job of distilling those many influences into something that inspires.
Longtime comic readers will notice I’ve still included a handful of classics, but hopefully by the end of this list, I’ll have taught all of you a few things about Batman. Especially how to love him.
Batman: Year One (1987)
By Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
I recommend Frank Miller with reservations. But leaving aside the then-more-subtextual race, gender, and sexuality-based stereotypes in his work, Miller’s early work is undeniably the product of a young talent mastering and revolutionizing the form of comics. Batman: Year One, which Miller wrote, and David Mazzucchelli drew, is a magnum opus.
DC Comics invited Miller to retell Batman’s origin story around the implementation of the first line-wide reboot on what had been the world’s oldest, uninterrupted comic book continuity. The offer was based on the strength of the expectation-shattering dark vision that was The Dark Knight Returns, but instead of summoning that same tone, Miller turned in a script stronger, deeper, more moving, and more timeless.
He declined to draw Year One as he had TDKR, asking instead to be paired with David Mazzucchelli, then also a rising talent (though he’s now better known for more abstract and novelistic work like Asterios Polyp). Mazzucchelli populates Year One with character designs as varied as the work of a courtroom sketch artist, and just as human. His Batman is solid, but not overtly muscular. The costume is minimalist black and grey. Colorist Richmond Lewis’ sickly palette smears a dirty Gotham City across the eyes. Add in lettering work from the incomparable Todd Klein, and the twinned narration of Bruce Wayne and police lieutenant James Gordon almost feels like it’s being spoken into your ears.
Beyond the execution of craft, Batman: Year One built a foundation — both in characterization and visual interpretation — for Bruce Wayne, James Gordon and Selina Kyle that’s lasted for over 30 years. You might feel like you’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die about 50 times in the last five Batman movies alone, but when comics artists and filmmakers tackle that quintessential moment in Batman’s origin story, they’re often reflecting Mazzucchelli’s beautifully staged Batman: Year One visuals, echoing — or even quoting — Miller’s dialogue.
There’s no understanding how the Batman of 2019 was built without Batman: Year One.
If you like it, read literally anything else on this list. Or read The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. Congratulations, you have now read every Batman comic you need to understand Zack Snyder’s take.
The Long Halloween (1996)
By Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
The Long Halloween is the all-around best Batman graphic novel ever written. (And the biggest influence on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.) The intricately woven 13-part story is really three in one: The story of how a new generation of flamboyant costumed criminals unseated Gotham’s ruling mafia families; the story of how crusading Gotham district attorney Harvey Dent became the murderous Two-Face; and the mystery of the true identity of “Holiday” — a serial killer who preys once a month on another member of Gotham’s criminal class.
It’s rare that Batman writers can resist the nostalgia of Batman’s legendary Rogues Gallery who almost always telegraph their themed crimes so you know who’s behind it all before they ever get caught. It’s rare that Batman stories are actual who-done-its, let alone a captivating, engrossing one focused on a brand new villain like Holiday. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale bring out the best in each other’s creative habits, as Loeb’s fine-tuned sense of when to call for a double page splash combines with Sale’s kinetic forms and impeccable panel composition. Loeb has a way with repeated refrains that makes the rhythm of each issue into almost poetic beats, and Sale’s character designs stand on par with those of Batman: The Animated Series for me — I’m eternally frustrated that we haven’t seen an animated Long Halloween adaptation.
If you’re really interested in capital-C continuity, The Long Halloween picks up directly from Batman: Year One, and features many of the same characters, though you don’t need to have read one before the other.
Robin: Year One (2001)
By Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty, Javier Pulido, and Marcos Martin
If you’ve never really liked Robin because he always seemed like a hokey counter to Batman’s brooding, loner image, you must read Robin: Year One.
The moment we decided that superheroes should have some realism mixed in with their fantasy (somewhere around the 1960s), some narrative dissonance entered into the idea of Robin. If Batman is a real guy fighting real criminals, why would he have a child partner? Loneliness? Weakness? Madness? Even if he chose it, why would anyone around him allow him to do it?
Many writers have tackled this question, but none have done it as well as Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon (who might just be the best Robin writer ever). Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin hit that sweet spot of cartooning in this book; the silhouettes and costumes have more in common with Golden Age comics than Modern, but are still expressive in a way that puts a lump in your throat. Their Robin: Year One is a story about Dick Grayson both learning that he has limits, and that he’s capable of more than anyone ever expected. At the same time, it’s a story of Bruce Wayne first learning to be a partner, and then a parent.
(And if you’re going to read Robin: Year One, you might as well read Dark Victory, which includes Dick Grayson’s origin story, but make sure to read The Long Halloween first, or you’ll get spoiled, and at that point you might as well read Batman: Year One — and now I’ve tricked you into reading four amazing Batman books, MOO HOO HA HA.)
If you like it, read Batgirl: Year One, from the same creative team, which will be easy because they’re collected in the same book these days.
Batman: The Last Arkham (1992)
By Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle
Batman’s origin story, Two-Face’s rise, Robin’s reckoning — the list has been heavy so far on the bullet points of Batman continuity. The Last Arkham, the first and best Mr. Zsasz story, is different.
This book is exactly the kind of story that you are unlikely to get in a superhero movie, because it works on the strength of the a serialized format: Batman isn’t saving the city, he’s solving one case. None of his friends die or change costumes, and things do return to the status quo at the end. And yet, this case.
The gist: Someone in Gotham is committing murders that look exactly like those of slasher-killer Mr. Zsasz, but ... Mr. Zsasz is safely locked up in a newly renovated, state-of-the-art cell in Arkham Asylum. What’s Batman to do? Why, pretend to murder a cop with several witnesses watching and have Commissioner Gordon commit him, so he can plumb Arkham’s secrets from the inside, of course. Also, he doesn’t tell any of the rest of the Batfamily what he’s doing, so there’s a subplot of Nightwing staging an entirely reasonable and yet unnecessary rescue.
Writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle are criminally underrated. Grant has a real talent for the dramatic narration-box monologue, while Breyfogle’s Batman walks a perfect knife edge of terror to his foes and and tenderness to innocents. And that’s all without saying that you should never pass up Brian Stelfreeze’s cover art.
Last Arkham takes an already fun idea — Batman going undercover as an Arkham inmate — and executes it to perfection. On top of that, Grant and Breyfogle pin the whole thing on an entirely new and terrifyingly mundane villain, a significant feat.
If you like it, read Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, another Arkham story with a lot less Batman in it, and a major influence on Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive (2002)
By Greg Rucka, Kelley Puckett, Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson, Ed Brubaker, Rick Burchett, Scott McDaniel, Damion Scott, Trevor McCarthy, Roger Robinson, Rick Leonardi, Pete Woods, and Steve Lieber
We’ve come to the first, and nearly the only, crossover arc I’ve included in this list: Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and its immediate continuation, Bruce Wayne: Fugitive.
The early ’00s were a golden time for the Bat-family, with more than 10 years of continuity to provide character depth, and an entire ongoing series simply for stories about them. Murderer? and Fugitive were designed to suck readers right into the heart of Gotham’s messed-up family dynamic and hook them forever, kicking off with a single issue that cost a mere ten cents.
Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure left the reader with a bombshell of a cliffhanger: Bruce Wayne has been framed for murder, and his only alibi is that he was being Batman at the time. Further issues only dig deeper: The frame is so airtight that even Batman’s allies start to think it’s possible that he did it. Then, from his cell in Blackgate prison, surrounded by the criminals he put away, Batman makes an unthinkable decision. If it has become a liability to be Bruce Wayne — he simply won’t be Bruce Wayne any more.
In a time when the Batman office was populated by some of the best writers and artists to ever work on the character, Murderer? and Fugitive is a Voltron of talent, the rare crossover story that is grounded entirely in character rather than event, and far more accessible to the new reader than it might seem from the outside.
If you like it, read Gotham Knights.
The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (1988) and The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told (1988)
By lots and lots of people
The marketplace for highlights of Batman’s history is regrettably thin. When I cast around looking for a collection of influential Batman stories from days gone by, nothing eclipses The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told and The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told, which collate highlights of Batman comics from the ’30s to the ’80s, rather unleash a firehose of continuous issues.
Neither of these collections have been released digitally, and that’s unfortunate, because they’re a two-stop shop that will introduce you to Golden and Silver Age Batman classics like Robin Dies at Dawn, The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, The Laughing Fish, and There is No Hope in Crime Alley!. Three of those alone were adapted into some of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
You’ll find used copies still floating around on Amazon, at least, and in a worst case scenario, you can look up the table of contents and purchase the issues piecemeal on Comixology. It’ll be worth it.
If you like it, read the 1983 Batman and the Outsiders. The tail end of the Pre-Crisis DC Universe is a fascinating moment, in which the modern Batman, and the one who wore a literal rainbow, were still technically the same person. In Outsiders, Batman quits the Justice League in a huff because they won’t let him do what he wants, and makes his own super team of people you’ve probably never heard of (and Katana and Black Lightning).
He literally pulls a Lego Batman and tells them that he’s not Bruce Wayne, he just lives in his basement and uses his money. Then when the Outsiders do accidentally find out that he’s Bruce Wayne, they decide to respect his boundaries and pretend they don’t know — they even act surprised when he eventually tells them. It’s a joy.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (2009)
By Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
Superman has Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Alan Moore’s farewell to the Silver Age Superman before the Crisis on Infinite Earths closed the book on him forever. Batman has Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, a meditation on how superheroes never actually end.
On paper, Whatever Happened was a tie-in to the fallout from Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, in which the world thought Darkseid killed Batman, when actually he just put a universe-ending memetic virus inside him and sent him on a time hopping adventure from the beginning of mankind to the end of time in order to destroy the multiverse. In practice, it’s a gentle antithesis to that cosmic bombast, with a dream-like story in which Batman watches what appears to be his own funeral. Except every eulogy, each from a different member of his cast, is a completely different story of his death.
Which one is true? Is any of it happening? Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert are not particularly concerned with answering those questions, and instead focus on Batman as an immortal myth.
If you like it, read Batman: Haunted Knight, from the folks who made The Long Halloween, before they made The Long Halloween. It’s a collection of three Halloween Batman specials that explore the character with a similar “Maybe it’s canon, maybe it’s not” quality.
Batman: Death of the Family
By Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and many more
Forget The Killing Joke, forget A Death in the Family, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullos’ Death of the Family crossover is the best Joker story of modern Batman comics. If Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Fugitive hooked you on Bat-family dynamics, Death of the Family is a horror story that turns the ties that bind into razor wire.
In 80 years of Batman history, Snyder and Capullo’s 2011 to 2016 run on Batman is young, but already iconic. Capullo’s Gotham is an instantly recognizable, tecnobrick wasteland in which Snyder’s horror sensibilities run wild, and nowhere wilder than in Death of the Family, their very first Joker story.
Many Batman tales talk a good talk about how the Dark Knight strikes fear into the hearts of criminals. Far fewer are actually good and frightening. Reading Death of the Family, my heart was in my throat with every issue. But, as with all of Snyder’s work on Batman, he never lets us forget that the character is ultimately about hope, not darkness.
If you like it, read Batman: Hush. Hush isn’t a horror comic, by any means, but it’s another big event that pulls in all the Bat-family and villains into a whirlwind tour of Batman history, full of twists you’ll never see coming — like a Batman and Superman fight that isn’t even the climax.