Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Top Ten Favorite Batman Stories.

Well, after one hundred posts, I think I am going to finally tackle the big one: my ten favorite Batman stories. As you might imagine if you've read, well, most of the things I've written on here, I have  read a lot of Batman stories, so narrowing it down to ten was hard. The main criteria for this list was that all of these stories had to feature Bruce Wayne as Batman, and that the story was a story about Batman, not one where he was incidental, or part of a team (unless you consider the Batman family of characters a team. In this case, I view them as supporting cast). As with my previous top ten, I again point out that these are my favorite stories, not necessarily the best, just the ones I like most. I am also going to list them in order of publication, since ranking them might just make my head explode.

The Joker's Five Way Revenge (Batman #251)
Story: Denny O'Neil
Art: Neal Adams

The Joker's Five Way Revenge is a perfect single issue. This is the story that redefined the Joker for the modern age, moving him away from the Cesar Romero era and into the truly scary killer that he was when first introduced and he has been ever since. The story is simple: last time he was out, one of Joker's henchmen sold him out to the cops, so now the Joker has decided the easiest way to get even was to kill them all, since that way he's bound to kill the traitor. Batman is in a race against time to save the Joker's proposed victims, and frankly many of them don't want his help. While there were other O'Neil/Adam stories before this one, earlier tale that helped return the dark to the Dark Knight, this is the story that really gels everything for me. Batman is a detective, a hero, and is at war with his opposite number in a game that mixes skill and cunning. This is the story that all future Batman/Joker battles are measured against, and stories like The Laughing Fish and The Killing Joke would never have worked without this one to pave the way.

Batman: Year One (Batman #404-407)
Story: Frank Miller
Art: David Mazzucchelli

This one sort of stretched the criteria of this being a BATMAN story, and not a Gotham City story, as most of this classic is narrated by Jim Gordon, redefined for a new era as a tough as nails, honest cop, and not just the guy who turns on the Bat Signal. But in the end, this story is about the friendship between the two men, about its roots, and about what made Bruce Wayne into Batman. It takes the bits and pieces of the origin as it is known and pulls them together into a cohesive whole. This is the beginning of the Batman that was the staple of the DCU until the New 52, and because of the strength of this story and many that came after, he is one of the characters changed the least. This story influenced Batman Begins in a lot of its visuals, and it features the most Batman scene ever, in which Batman makes his way onto the grounds of a mansion where Gotham's corrupt elite is dining, and he makes it clear to them that their reign over the city is over. It's a scene that sends chills down my spine to this day.

Gothic (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10)
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Klaus Janson

While not Grant Morrison's first Batman story (that honor is reserved for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth), and of course far from his last, as his five year run plus years of JLA stories attest, this one is quite possibly my favorite. A killer called Mr. Whisper is murdering mob bosses throughout Gotham, and Batman is dragged into the case, a case that winds going down all sorts of eerie and fascinating paths. By the end we have seen the intricate plot also pulls in an ancient Faustian pact between a mad monk and the devil, a mob murder decades earlier, and a hidden part of Bruce Wayne's past. When these issues first came out, when I was ten or eleven, I remember pouring over them, analyzing every page for clues, scribbling notes as I tried to figure out the mystery,having no idea that in not too many years, people would be doing this on the internet with pretty much everything Morrison writes.

A Clash of Symbols (Detective Comics #617)
Story: Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle

This is probably the most oddball choice on this list, the one that will leave most people scratching their heads about how it fits with so many classics. Frankly, this one is a sentimental favorite. This issue came out shortly after I started to really read comics, and was the first Batman/Joker story I ever read. It's a great story, no doubt, as Batman hunts the Joker for the first time since he seemingly died in A Death in the Family, and encounters a fortune teller whose tarot card reading brings to mind for Batman an earlier confrontation with the Joker. It's a quick, dynamic story that plays on all the symbolism inherent in the Batman/Joker relationship. It was also my introduction to the stunning work of Norm Breyfogle, one of my favorite Batman artists of all time, and one you haven't seen the last of on this list.

Blades (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #32-34)
Story: James Robinson
Art: Time Sale

As a young Batman is haunted by the serial killer Mr. Lime, who is targeting senior citizens, a new vigilante enters the Gotham scene. The Cavalier, a name used by an obscure silver age Batman foe, here is a vigilante who is swashbuckling and charming, the opposite of the brooding and haunted Batman. But as the story progresses, Batman solves the mystery of Mr. Lime and moves out of the shadow that has haunted him, and the Cavalier makes continually dangerous choices that lead him down a path that he cannot be redeemed from. A story from Starman writer James Robinson, who uses his deft hand at character to make you really care about the Cavalier and his head for a good mystery to make the Mr. Lime plot work, and the first Batman art from Tim Sale, an artist who was born to draw Batman, this is a lost gem. It has been collected a couple of times, most recently in the Tales of the Dark Knight: Tim Sale hardcover. It also taught a fledgling mystery lover an important lesson: when looking at a mystery, look for the thing that doesn't fit the pattern. That's a lesson that has served me well over my many years reading Batman stories and mysteries in general, and if you keep it in mind when reading the story, it might just help you solve the case before Batman.

The Last Arkham (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1-4)
Story: Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle

Grant and Breyfogle are one of the great unsung teams of Batman creators (up there with Chuck Dixon & Graham Nolan, who worked on Detective Comics is the same era as these early Shadow of the Bat issues came out), and even with all their great stories, The Last Arkham is my favorite. The story opens with Jeremiah Arkham, nephew of the Asylum founder, rebuilding Arkham into a state of the art facility, and getting a new inmate: Batman. The story is a tight psychological thriller, something Grant specialized in, as Arkham tries to break Batman while he does what he got himself committed to do: try to figure out how one of Arkham's inmates is escaping to kill and slipping back in. That inmate? Mr. Zsasz, making his debut in this story. Grant's Zsasz is a creepy, brilliant villain who has a twisted psychological edge, and has rarely been captured right by other writers since. The story is all about madness, and the walls we put up to keep it out, or the way we give in to it, with Batman, Zsasz, and Arkham each existing on a different part of that continuum, and one slipping closer to its edge.

Knightfall (Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase '93 #7-8, Batman:Shadow of the Bat #16-18)
Story: Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle, Jim Aparo, Graham Nolan, Klaus Janson, Bret Blevins

The 90s were a hard time for a lot of comics, with events bleeding into other events, rampant speculation, and comics that were shocking for shock's sake (that doesn't sound at all like the present...). But I have to admit, I think Knightfall stands the test of time pretty well. Bane is a great villain, one who stands up well against Batman, and the basic plot, that Batman has to recapture all his rogues, all the while fighting back a rising tide of exhaustion, is a classic hero's trial. And because he's Batman, he doesn't quit, he fights, even as it costs him more and more. The breaking of the Bat is a sequence that still resonates, seeing Batman lying broken in the Batcave was a scene that left me shocked. Even then I knew it wasn't permanent, but I was still shocked they did it. The story itself ends with the somewhat insane Azrael in the Batman costume, and the continuing epic affirms that Batman is a hero who doesn't kill, one who is a hero, as Bruce Wayne returns to once more take up the mantle of the Bat.

The Long Halloween (Batman: The Long Halloween #1-13)
Story: Jeph Loeb
Art: Tim Sale

Jeph Loeb gets a lot of flack nowadays, and a lot of it is deserved, but in the late 90s, he was moving from strength to strength, and he was never stronger than with The Long Halloween. Set shortly after the events of Year One, someone is killing mobsters (apparently, being a Gotham mobster is even more dangerous a profession than it is elsewhere) on holidays, and Batman is trying to stop the bloodshed. The story is really about the relationship between Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent, and while watching Batman fight many of his greatest foes, getting a great mystery, and developing the Gotham mob families are all excellent points of the story, the highlight is watching Harvey Dent's descent into madness (granted, a lot of that was originally presented in the Two-Face origin from the excellent Batman Annual #14, but it's integrated seamlessly here). Sale's Batman, Joker, and Two-Face are all stunning, and this whole series is a visual feast, with allusions to The Godfather throughout. While part of the mystery is deduced easily, I admit the story doesn't play fair, as the final twist isn't telegraphed well enough in my opinion, but one flaw doesn't invalidate all the other strengths in this story.

No Man's Land (All Batman titles published in 1999)
Story: Various, including Greg Rucka, Denny O'Neil, Bob Gale, Devin Grayson, Chuck Dixon
Art: Various, including Dale Eaglesham, Alex Maleev, Damion Scott, Mike Deodata

No Man's Land was an ambitious story in scope. After an earthquake devastates much of Gotham, the federal government decides to cut its losses and abandon Gotham. The citizens who choose not to leave are left in a city now ruled by feudal lords made up of criminals who carve the city into petty fiefdoms. And Batman is nowhere in sight. But after three months, Batman returns and begins systematically taking the city back. As the series progresses, we see Batman fight most of his great foes and have to make peace with the allies he has abandoned, ignored, or been cold towards. This story felt to me like it was supposed to be the culmination of the Batman who was impersonal and cold, and moving towards a Batman who knew he needed people, but this development seemed to end shortly thereafter. It also introduced Harley Quinn into the DCU and featured the debut of Cassandra Cain, the new Batgirl. The story was riveting, with twists and turns, and a great final villain reveal and the Joker at his most insane. The entire epic has recently been collected in four giant trades, so it's never been easier to read it all.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (Batman #686, Detective Comics #853)
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: Andy Kubert

I almost left this off since I had just written a recommended reading for it, but I figured that this way I'd get to show the beautiful Alex Ross variant for the first issue and get to talk a little more. Neil Gaiman and Batman are an irresistible combo for me, and this "Last Batman Story" is a perfect synergy of the two. You get a story that digs into the center of Batman, of who he is and what it means to be Batman. Gaiman explores all facets of the character, and Kubert draws them beautifully. If you want to read more about this, check out the recommended reading from a few days ago, March 22nd.

I know that the minute I post this, I'm going to have another story or ten pop into my head that I should have written about, so I wouldn't be surprised if I made a post with another ten stories in the not too distant future. But as a question to you, readers, would you want to see a continuation with more classic Batman stories? Or would you want to see top tens dedicated to Batman's supporting cast and villains, like the top ten Joker, Dick Grayson, James Gordon stories? Sound off in the comments.


brandon said...

I also liked the lead in issues to Knightfall. Killer Croc fights Bane and Batman take Jean-Paul under his wing so to speak.

The two recent Batman stories I enjoyed but are not top 10 material are Mandrake and the Club of Heroes arc.

The Matt Signal said...

The whole lead in, including Vengeance of Bane, Sword of Azrael, and those issues were very solid Bat stories, especially the Croc one and the Riddler on Venom issue.

Club of Heroes is definitely one of the better recent Batman stories. I feel like Snyder is working towards a story that will make it, but I have to see if they'll stand the test of time. The Black Mirror is probably still his best, but with Dick as Batman in it, It didn't qualify for this list.