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The Long Halloween, DC Comics (1996).

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The Batman comics that inspired The Dark Knight’s hyper-realism

Holy world-building, Batman!

From Batman: The Long Halloween.
| Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale/DC Comics
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

On the occasion of The Dark Knight’s 10th anniversary, Polygon is spending the week investigating the comic-book blockbuster’s legacy. Why so serious? Because Christopher Nolan’s Bat-sequel gave us lots to talk about. This is the retrospective you deserve and the one you need right now.

For many superheroes, tone is a pendulum that swings to either extreme every decade or so, and that movement is only heightened in film adaptations. Exactly a decade after Joel Schumacher made Batman inextricable from his rubberized camp aesthetic, Christopher Nolan’s Batman brought the character swooping back down to the dirty (but still rubberized) streets. Before Schumacher, there was Burton’s dark and steam-vented Batman (1989), and while gothic architecture and dancing devils might seem over-the-top now, they were the inevitable reaction to the 1966 Batman’s excessive labeling and dancing bats.

Filmmakers often talk about the need to make superheroes more “realistic” in order to make them successful in the medium, as if comics themselves have not been grappling with the pendulum of “realistic” superheroes since their inception. The Dark Knight owes its tone to the comic books that inspired it, and Christopher Nolan, screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, and writer David Goyer, credited with the story for the film, have made no secret of that.

Here are the comics that most inspired The Dark Knight — according to the creators themselves.

From Batman #1, DC Comics (1940). Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson/DC Comics

Batman #1

By his own admission, David Goyer looked at lot of comics before penning the initial script for the film that would eventually become The Dark Knight (his original idea laid out two more films in a trilogy, with Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face taking place in the third). Legendary Batman artist Neal Adams and Jerry Robinson, the co-creator of Robin and the Joker, have both said they were consulted by the production.

But the first stories that lent their tone to The Dark Knight are literally the earliest. 1940’s Batman #1 — published about a year after the character’s debut in Detective Comics #27 — featured, in succession, the first explanation of Batman’s origin story, the first appearance of Robin and Catwoman, and the first two appearances of the Joker.

These first two Joker stories dramatically establish him as a cold-blooded killer with an affection for leaving smiling corpses in his wake. He murders the city’s rich citizens and government officials alike, issuing threats on their lives only after he has secretly set inevitable events in motion to poison them. He doesn’t just want to do away with his victims and steal their stuff— he wants their final hours to be filled with fear.

As in The Dark Knight, the criminal community itself pushes back against the Joker’s flamboyance, only to be cowed by his talent for murder. The climax of the villain’s first appearance takes place high in the girders of a half-built skyscraper. He falls — but Batman catches him and brings him to justice.

“We didn’t look at those first stories until after we’d come up with our story,” Christopher Nolan told IGN months before The Dark Knight was released, “and [Jonathan] started working on the job. It’s a weird thing. He called me up halfway through his job and said, ‘By the way, have you looked at his first and second appearance recently?’ And I think maybe years ago I’d seen them. I think David Goyer had told me about them. [I] went back and looked at them and we wound up at a place that’s drawn very directly from that stuff. But we arrived at it in our own way by researching a lot of the more recent Joker stuff, and thinking about what this icon is when viewed through the prism of Batman Begins.”

The Joker in Batman #251, DC Comics (1973). Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams/DC Comics

“The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”

When we think of how comics went from the sinister but ultimately harmless Joker of the 1950s and ‘60s to the Joker who would wear his own skinned-off face as a mask in 2011, it’s easy to point a finger at the late 1980s, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke.

But it’s “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” published in 1973’s Batman #251, that’s really our first landmark. The ‘70s were a time of transition in superhero comics, as DC and Marvel solidified their rivalry and the power of the Comics Code Authority precipitously dropped. The partnership of writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams provided a creative alchemy of dark city streets and engaging criminal mystery that eased Batman down from his batusi-ing days and prepped him for the urban jungles of the 1980s.

By Batman #251, O’Neill and Adams had already invented the immortal, genocidal assassin king Ra’s al Ghul, whose presence Goyer and the Nolans used to frame their Batman trilogy. With “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” they set out to pull the Joker away from his “boner guy” recent past, and back to his rawer origins.

In “Five Way” we see many of Batman #1’s Joker trends revitalized, as Batman dashes from one end of Gotham City to another in a single night, desperately trying to keep the Joker from murdering the members of his old henchmen crew, one by one. For O’Neill and Adams, Gotham is once again a dirty city. The criminals are cowardly, superstitious and dumb. Their Joker is a deadly force to be reckoned with, and one who sees the final clash between himself and Batman as their eternally linked destiny.

From Batman: The Killing Joke, DC Comics (1988). Alan Moore, Brian Bolland/DC Comics

Batman: The Killing Joke

The Killing Joke is, without exception, the most famous Batman story that is purely about the Joker. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s seething, neon-lit examination of the Joker’s fundamental motivations and his origin story (even if it never quite stuck) has never been eclipsed. So it’s natural that when they sat down to craft their own version of the Joker, Goyer and the Nolans would have gone back for a reread.

But things aren’t quite as clear cut as you might think.

“I definitely feel the influence of The Killing Joke,” Christopher Nolan said in a 2008 Q&A, “not so much in the specifics as in constructing some sense of purpose for an inherently purposeless character. That is to say, the Joker is an anarchist. He’s dedicated to chaos. He should really have no purpose, but I think the underlying belief that Alan Moore got across very clearly is that on some level the Joker wants to pull everybody down to his level and show that he’s not an unusual monster and that everyone else can be debased and corrupted like he is.”

Captain James Gordon in Batman: Year One, DC Comics (1987). Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli/DC Comics

Batman: Year One

So if not The Killing Joke as The Dark Knight’s primary source, where did Nolan and Co. turn? Frank Miller’s four-part 1987 redefinition of Batman deserves some mention, as the origin of several of the Nolanverse’s secondary characters who were most important to setting the trilogy’s tone.

Batman Begins’ Detective Flass, Commissioner Loeb, and gangster boss Carmine Falcone all first appeared in Batman: Year One, a comic intended to reset the status quo of Batman for a new generation after DC’s first line-wide continuity reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Even more importantly, the book canonized the idea of James Gordon as an overworked, underpaid, and steadfastly moral cop in Gotham’s cesspool of a police force, and updated Batman’s classic noir feel to the urban concerns of the 1980s, as penned by a couple of artists who were living it.

But the comic that truly defined The Dark Knight wouldn’t come about until a decade later; a spiritual sequel to Batman: Year One known as...

Gilda Dent in The Long Halloween, DC Comics (1996). Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale/DC Comics

Batman: The Long Halloween

The Long Halloween just might be the best all-around Batman graphic novel ever written, and handily for Nolan and company, as they picked up from the Batman: Year One-inspired Batman Begins, it picks up almost immediately where Year One leaves off. It even incorporates many of the same supporting characters, like Detective Flass and Carmine Falcone, who gets star antagonist billing.

The Long Halloween suggested a very strong utility for Batman in Gotham, which helped us because when you try to adapt the character into a movie in a realistic manner, you’re left with that question, ‘OK, what’s Batman’s purpose?’” Christopher Nolan says in the introduction to DC’s over-sized, hardcover edition of the 1996 graphic novel, “He can’t be everywhere at once. He’s not superhuman. He’s just a regular guy. So how will he be most effective? How can he leverage his skills to transform the whole city? The Long Halloween answered that question, positioning Batman and Bruce Wayne as part of a greater mechanism in Gotham. Along those lines, I was impressed with how seamless Loeb and Sale were able to integrate the more fantastical elements of Batman, most notably the villains, within the context of the real world, striking a balance that felt credible. It was a great inspiration to us in terms of tonality.”

The intricately woven 13-part story of The Long Halloween is really three in one: The story of how Gotham’s mafia were overthrown by a wave of flamboyant costumed killers, 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 organized criminal class.

Two out of those three should sound pretty familiar. The Dark Knight’s three-way alliance between James Gordon, Harvey Dent and Batman found its origin in The Long Halloween’s story of three allies in a sea of corruption. Even Harvey Dent’s campaign slogan, plastered on so many ARG-related buttons, is cribbed directly from The Long Halloween’s repeated refrain: “I believe in Harvey Dent.”

David Goyer summed it up in the same book introduction: “For me, there are three major comic book influences within the Batman lore. There’s Year One, the Neal Adams stuff, and there is The Long Halloween. But by the time The Dark Knight comes out, it will become apparent that Long Halloween is the preeminent influence on both movies.”

If you read one Batman comic to contextualize The Dark Knight — honestly, if you read one Batman comic to contextualize Batman — do yourself a favor and read The Long Halloween.