Greatest Batman Stories in the Last 75 Years, Part 1
Holy 75th Anniversary, Batman!
Today marks the milestone anniversary in DC Comics’ history, when Bruce Wayne donned the cape and cowl and became the masked vigilante we all know and love. If you want to get technical, the anniversary of Batman’s very first appearance was back in March 30, 1939 (cover date: May 1939), but! it wasn’t until later in July in Detective Comics #29 that the Caped Crusader started to become the resourceful crime fighter we know today. Since then, we’ve been enamored with this guy and the stories that have accumulated over the years. Here we have a single traumatized man sworn to protect a broken city, Gotham, against any and all types of villainy. Plus, he manages to put himself in a battle-ready costume resembling a bat…which doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous. Oh, and the toys. THE TOYS!
But we digress. In the past 75 years we’ve seen Batman tackle the biggest and baddest villains the world has ever seen, and we’ve seen him battered down to the lowest points of his life. And we’re just talking about what happens in his comics. To celebrate 75 years of badassery, we take a look at only some of the greatest Batman stories ever told in comic book history.
1. Detective Comics #29 and Batman #1 (1949 and 1940)
Let us get one thing out in the open right now: most of us here at Agents of Geek aren’t even pushing 30 yet. Our exposure to anything before Frank Miller is is limited at best. That being said, we have to acknowledge Batman’s firsts. Detective Comics #27 introduced Bruce Wayne — playboy billionaire by day, and masked vigilante by night. It’s here that we establish him as Gotham City’s extraordinary crime fighter out to tackle the crime syndicate problem. In Batman #1, we are given not one, but two memorable villains still around today: The Joker and Catwoman.
2. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil’s run (1970-1974)
Adams and O’Neil sort of ushered in a new take on the Batman. He became darker, more brooding, and the stories themselves departed from the campy side of things to slightly more mature levels of storytelling. It’s in these four years that we got tons of new characters for Batman to deal with, as well as a more dangerous Joker. “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” features a less silly clown of crime to a psychopath whose antics are seriously deadly. You can argue that this is when Joker finally becomes a true foil for the Batman.
3. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
The Dark Knight Returns was where everything changed for a lot of readers. Frank Miller is not one for pulling punches, he likes to go straight for the jugular with his brand of storytelling. If Neil Adams and Dennis O’Neal were PG to PG-13, Frank Miller is definitely rated R. In TDKR, It’s been 10 years since the last recorded sighting of Batman. Gotham is overrun with street gangs, causing the city to be in a state of ruin. An aged Bruce Wayne looks on, finding it extremely difficult to stay retired from vigilante life. He dons the suit again to thwart Two-Face’s plan to hold Gotham City ransom. Afterwards, he saves young Carrie Kelley from a gang of mutants. Inspired, Carrie buys herself a Robin costume. They find each other again at the dump where Batman is getting beat down by the mutant gang’s leader. She distracts the leader to give the hero just enough time to escape with his life. Meanwhile, Batman’s resurgence awakens a catatonic Joker and even more mayhem ensues.
Miller’s approach to an even darker Batman living within a near claustrophobic and psychotic environment was ground-breaking at the time. It influenced how everyone approached the caped crusader from then on, from comic books to movies to animated TV. Miller’s approach to a darker, more sophisticated level of storytelling in comics rippled throughout the industry. If comic books weren’t “just for kids” before, it definitely wasn’t after Miller dipped his pen in it.
Also worthy of note: Carrie Kelley becomes the first female Robin in history, something that doesn’t happen again until 2004 with Stephanie Brown. Unfortunately, Kelley remains to be the only female Robin who proved useful.
4. Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (1987)
One cannot simply make a list of Batman’s greatest hits and not mention Year One after talking about TDKR. Year One seems to be a bit more restrained than Miller’s previous take on Batman, but it makes up for it in the raw grittiness that rooted itself in reality. Where TDKR has more more of a science fiction approach, Year One is more down to earth. Heck, Bruce doesn’t even wear the legendary costume until much later in the story. Year One not only provides us with an updated take on Bruce’s journey, but we also gain insight into Jim Gordon and Selina Kyle. Through their personal and professional lives, the reader gets to see just how deep in the proverbial muck Gotham really is.
“It had a big impact on how I treated the character moving forward, once I started doing the Batman the Animated Series,” said Bruce Timm to Entertainment Weekly, “The fact that Batman wasn’t running around cracking jokes, or even really talking to people a whole lot. He was really silent. He was very much the mysterious figure in the shadows. He basically spoke with his fists more than anything else.”
5. A Death in the Family (1988-89)
After a falling out with Dick Grayson, Batman gained a new Robin in Jason Todd. He was brash, arrogant, and had a hard time following orders. Fans of the Batman comics…did not like him. In “A Death in the Family” story arc, Todd and Batman are at odds again, leading the former to on his own to look for certain women, one of whom possibly being his long lost mother. Meanwhile, Joker escapes from Arkham and goes on a killing spree all the way to Africa and the Middle East where he somehow acquires a nuclear bomb and plans to sell it off to terrorists. Batman and Jason meet up in Tel Aviv go to thwart the Joker. Afterward, The duo travel to Ethiopia and track down Jason’s real mother, who is revealed to be a disgraced medical practitioner who performed illegal operations on teenage girls. To cover up an embezzling scheme from an aid agency, Jason’s mother hands him over to the Joker. What happens next is truly one of the most painful moments in Bat-history, even to those who haven’t read the book.
Jason’s death instantly becomes a defining moment in Batman’s vigilante career as a mentor and father-figure. It not only intensified Batman’s feud with Joker, but Batman is permanently scarred on an emotional level. Because of this epic failure, Batman becomes reluctant to take on new sidekicks. When he eventually does, he is a lot harder on them than he ever was on Dick and Jason; he takes on the “it’s either my way or no way” approach. He fires Stephanie Brown after three issues because she couldn’t follow orders.
What made this arc so much more significant was that fans got to choose whether or not Jason Todd got to live or die. DC Comics was very aware how unpopular Jason Todd had become with readers. So DC gave them a choice via a 1-900 number: kill Jason Todd, or keep him alive. Over 10,000 votes were cast with the final count being 5,271 votes for Jason, and 5,343 against.
6. The Killing Joke (1988)
The Killing Joke, written by Allan Moore, is most known for being the book that crippled Barbara Gordon. It also gives us an origin story to The Joker. The whole story revolves around The Joker trying to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, proving to Batman that even the best of men can be driven as mad as he is after “one bad day,” just like him. This eventually leads to Joker invading the Gordon household and shooting Barbara threw her lower abdomen, hitting her spine. Despite Joker’s best efforts, Commissioner Gordon manages to retain his sanity and moral code, even insisting to Batman they they take the clown in “by the book.” In a very Moore-esque move, Batman tries to reason the Joker out of his insanity, but it proves futile. The final panels show Batman joining in on the insane laughter.
If anyone were to take anything away from this one-shot, it’s the the futility of Batman’s never-ending war on crime in Gotham. That the hero is stuck in a perpetual cycle he won’t come out from; a joke Batman seems only just at the very end to understand. The most enduring result from this story; however, is Barbara’s crippling. Because she could no longer fight as Batgirl, she later takes up a new persona, Oracle, and become an invaluable member to the entire superhero community with her hacking and information gathering.
7. Long Halloween (1996-1997)
Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb’s year-long story takes place during Batman’s early crime-fighting days. It’s one of the most stand-out murder mystery. Someone calling himself Holiday is murdering people on holidays, one each month. The three knights of Gotham — Commissioner Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Batman — reluctantly work together to try and stop the murders before the Holiday killer strikes again, while also trying to prevent an war between two of the most powerful crime families in Gotham, Falcone and Maroni. The story also ties in Dent’s descent into madness, leading toward the creation of Two-Face. Christopher Nolan puts the series simply, “The Long Halloween is more than a comic book. It’s an epic tragedy.”
Long Halloween is one of those stories that highlights the detective in Batman, one that is usually played down in favor of the more action-forward version of the Bat. It embraces the more gothic, gangster, murder mystery plot with compelling character-based subplots. Sale’s art is, as always, pops out at you in a simple yet cinematic way.
8. Arkham Asylum (1989)
Grant Morrison can be kind of a mixed bag. You either like his stories or you don’t; they are either profound, or they implode on themselves in a sea of garbled messages. Arkham Asylum is one of his more profound works. Incidentally, this is what launched his comic book writing career.
The inmates at Arkham Asylum take over the facility on April Fool’s Day, and demand Batman in exchange for the hostages. Batman begrudgingly accepts their terms and is forced to endure what is essentially a psychological gauntlet provided by some of his greatest enemies. It pokes and prods and Batman’s own psyche, mirroring him with the Joker, always saying that he’s only one step away from becoming just like every other crazy psychopath living within the asylum.
Probably the most profound moment in the story when Batman interacted with Two-Face. The psychiatrist accompanying Batman explained that in order to expel Harvey Dent’s dual personality and his fixation on “either-or” type decision making, doctors have been giving him tools that force Dent to create more options for himself. In the story, he has a deck of cards. To Batman, Harvey seems more psychologically lost than when he left him. By the end, Batman takes away the deck of cards and gives him back his coin. With this, Harvey seems to be able to pull himself back together, or at the very least, is beginning to.
As for Arkham Asylum’s unconventional art form, the approach is more abstract and emotional than it is literal, illustrating a dream-like state. It goes hand in hand perfectly with the psychological theme of the book.
9. OMAC Project (2005)
OMAC Project is just one of four major preludes to Infinite Crisis. OMACs are modified humans developed by Checkmate who work as sleeper agents to combat superheroes should the need ever arise. Meanwhile, after realizing his most trusted colleagues wiped parts of his memory some years before the events of Identity Crisis, Batman builds Brother Eye — a spy satellite meant to keep tabs of all super-powered beings, including his friends. In this particular mini-series, Brother Eye comes into Maxwell Lord’s possession without anyone realizing. At the same time Lord stages a coup at Checkmate, a covert operations organization, and becomes their sole leader. It isn’t until later that Batman and Wonder Woman discover he’s a criminal mastermind who spent years collecting sensitive information on the superhero community, whom he considered a threat to the world. Believing it to be the only way to prevent a future mass murder of all meta humans on Earth, Wonder Woman kills Lord. Unfortunately this triggers a the “KingIsDead” protocol, allowing Brother Eye to become sentient and awaken every single OMAC and ordering them to attack meta humans.
Batman has always been known as the guy who is always prepared for everything. His creating Brother Eye is a testament to Batman’s preparedness (fueled by paranoia) finally going too far. His technological innovations are used against him and unwittingly provide a pivotal event that leads up to Infinite Crisis. OMAC Project is one of the most engrossing stories involving Batman’s impact on the rest of the DC Universe in recent years. If you decide picking up this story arc, we suggest getting the trade paperback. It runs you through key events leading up to this storyline. Then we suggest getting all of the other accompanying stories plus Infinite Crisis. It’s the last good “Crisis” we get from DC.
10. War Games (2004-2005)
War Games is a huge cross-over event across all Batman-related titles at the time. This is actually another one of Batman’s plans turning against him. After firing Stephanie Brown from her position as Robin, Stephanie seeks to redeem herself by carrying out one of Batman’s plans to unite all of Gotham’s gangs, thus systematically creating a version of peace in the city. What she didn’t realize is that the key figure needed to make this plan work was one of Bruce Wayne’s undercover personas. Since Bruce was let let in on the plan, the meeting falls apart and sets off an all-out, bloody war among every single gang in Gotham.
By the end of War Games, Stephanie Brown is captured by Black Mask, tortured, and then killed — thus resulting in yet another death of a young protégé under Batman’s watch.
We know we missed a few things; what we have listed is just the tip of the iceberg. Tell us your favorite Batman story in the comments below!