In the mid 1980's DC decided to clear up fifty years of continuity in their universe by putting out a series called A Crisis On Infinite Earths. As someone who didn't know too much about DC characters and storylines when I initially read it, I found it a confusion of huge events involving too many characters. My opinion of that title has changed over the years, but I still think it would be a terrible place to start reading comic books.
What followed Crisis was the rebooting of several of DC's most popular characters. The most successful of these was Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One.
The story opens with Lieutenant James Gordon moving to Gotham and joining their police force, while Bruce Wayne returns to Wayne Manor after twelve years abroad. And it follows the two as Gordon fights Gotham City Police Corruption, and Bruce Wayne dons the cowl for the first time. We also see a prostitute named Selina Kyle transform herself into Catwoman. And when the Gotham Police Department goes under investigation, District Attorney Harvey Dent is called on to the case.
If this storyline sounds a bit familiar, it's because Year One was one of the main sources for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. The story also involves The Falcone crime family's attempt to keep a tight grip on Gotham, mostly by controlling police commissioner Loeb (no relation to Jeph , as far as I can tell).
Mindy Newell and JJ Birch's Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper is a companion piece to "Year One", which focuses on the Selina Kyle storyline. I recommend reading it just after Year One while the story is still fresh in your mind. There are a couple of scenes that appear in both books. And it's always interesting to see a scene drawn by two very different artists. Mazzucchelli employing a very comic-noir style while Birch's work looks like it would be at home in early Sandman comics.
It's also interesting to see how the two handle dialog. Miller has a "gritty" cop drama style with characters speaking with no flash or style. There's no sense of him trying to be witty, it reads like real people in a real situation. Newell, on the other hand, employs a lot of 80s snappy patter that, much like old paper, has yellowed a bit over the years. It's not bad writing, it just includes the occasional pop culture reference that is no longer in the vernacular. "You're a better nun than I am Gunga Din" is a "Where's The Beef" for movie nerds. It's still a solid story, and an important character study of Selina Kyle.
So this was the easy entry. Where to begin. How to become familiar with the early characters. We've established Bruce as the Batman, Selina as Catwoman, James Gordon as a flawed but well intentioned police officer, The Falcones as the family you least want to fuck with, and we've met Harvey Dent. We also have Gordon mentioning that there are more Falcones back in Chicago that he has a history with. And, as the story comes to a close, he stands on the roof, waiting for Batman, so he can tell him about a new criminal in Gotham; The Joker.
Batman Year One: Story 5/5, Art 5/5 with some back matter by Mazzucchelli.
Catwoman Her Sister's Keeper: Story 4/5, Art 3/5
I've never been a fan of Superman stories. There's something about the silver age goofiness that no one notices it's just Clark Kent with his glasses off that never sits well with me. He's also too powerful. And, I'm still baffled by how the most powerful superhero in the DC universe was killed in a seven issue fistfight with a villain who, at the time, had no back story. One of the few times Superman interests me is when he's shown in the context of other heroes, particularly Batman.
If there is a modern era retelling of the first meeting of Batman and Superman collected in trades, I haven't read it yet. But Trinity by Matt Wagner (not to be confused with the Kurt Busiek weekly series from 2009) not only gives us a great Superman and Batman interaction, it also serves as an introduction to Wonder Woman, another character who I only enjoy amongst other heroes. Her inclusion in this story gives us an outsider's view to the odd relationship between Batman and Superman.
In the Golden and Silver Ages, DC continuity had established their two main heroes as best buddies who played sports together and never had more than the occasional mild dispute. In 1986, Frank Miller changed all that with The Dark Knight Returns (which, for this chronological project, is considered an Elseworld tale), and John Byrne made it canon with The Man Of Steel.
This story presents us with bumbling Clark Kent missing his train to work. When the conductor of the train he missed is shot by a sharpshooter, Clark goes all Superman and rescues the train, but doesn't have time to go after the men who caused this act of terror. Luckily for him, Bruce Wayne was in town, and Batman hogtied the criminals for the police.
The terrorist group is called Purge, and is run by Ra's Al Ghul. Ra's is an immortal eco-terrorist whose schemes usually involve purging the Earth of humanity. This time he frees Bizarro, a Superman clone with severe mental limitations, and uses him to obtain a cache of nuclear missiles from a Russian Submarine. He also hires an Amazonian assassin named Diana to train members of The Purge.
During Bizarro's mission, he accidentally releases one of the non-nuclear missiles near the island of Themyscira, home to a sect of Amazon warriors. The sect believes Superman to be responsible, and sends Wonder Woman to Metropolis to investigate.
Wagner fills this book with a bunch of plot misdirects. The young Amazon punk named Diana turns out to not be Wonder Woman, and then he sets up an obvious battle between Wonder Woman and Superman over identity confusion, only to have Wonder Woman act very sensibly and work everything out on her own.
It's Batman who causes friction by roughly interrogating a member of The Purge, despite Wonder Woman aiding him with her Lasso Of Truth. The relationships between the three characters for the rest of the book is fantastic. Wagner plays them off each other flawlessly, giving them a depth I haven't seen in any other book. We get to see all three of them exceed the call of duty in their own way. Each of them adheres to their morals, and apart from their first meeting, and after an unfortunate dip in a Lazarus Pit for Wonder Woman, the three do so without bickering.
As with Batman And The Monster Men, and Batman And The Mad Monk, Wagner pulls double duty as writer and artist. And with the exception of one oddly sketch-faced panel of Ra's Al Ghul, the book is gorgeous. Wagner is really up there with Tim Sale as one of my favorite Batman artists.
The story also features a few little cameos, including Dick Grayson as Robin, and this chronology's debut of Aquaman. We really get to see the DC Universe starting to take shape outside of Gotham, without having to go too in-depth to the other characters.
JLA Year One by Mark Waid comes right after this on my bookshelf. There's not a lot of Batman in it, so I won't be including it on this website, but this story is in some ways a precursor to it. And it's a decent read.
As for Wagner's Trinity, it should be no surprise that I give it
Story 5/5, Art 5/5
There's something nearly poetic about how many of the books that portray Batman as being a bad guy are, themselves, terrible. I lumped Batman Deadman and Teen Titans Year One together mostly to get them out of the way.
Batman Deadman is by James Robinson, who has done a lot of work for DC, and is best known for Starman. While I highly recommend the Starman series (currently being released in omnibus hardcovers), none of his mainstream character work really stands out to me as good. So, while I read this blind for the first few pages, I quickly flipped to the cover to see who was killing my post-Trinity Batman buzz and was not surprised to see Robinson's name on the cover.
Robinson's writing, like Grant Morrison's, tends to stray from typical stories. And while I applaud him for that initiative, I don't tend to connect with his characters. And if I don't feel something for the characters, no amount of interesting plot concepts is going to win me over.
What did win me over was John Estes's art, which looks like early 90s Vertigo, if it were made using colored pencils and watercolors. The details in the background and props make up for the, at best, mediocre dialog.
The basic premise of the story is that while pursuing The Joker, Batman seems to black out and when he wakes up, he is believed to have killed police officers, and is holding an innocent woman at knife point. The story descends into magic and possession and demons, which are not my favorite aspects of comics.
Most of the focus on this book is on characters involved with Deadman, although we do have some Alfred and Jim Gordon moments.
(a biased against possession) Story: 2/5, Art: 5/5
While the two stories aren't supposed to be intertwined, and have two different demons, possession of Batman, and other members of the JLA is also at the core of Amy Wolfram's Teen: Titans Year One. This time we see Batman's possession through the eyes of Robin. Batman is behaving as though he was in Frank Miller's All Star Batman And Robin, but with less rat eating and cursing.
Batman isn't the only one behaving strangely, though. The entire JLA is possessed by a demon called Antithesis. Robin rounds up a few of his sidekick friends in order to discover why the heroes are behaving strangely. So this collection features the chronological debut of Kid Flash, Aqua Lad, Speedy, and Wonder Girl.
This collection is intended for children, and so the voice of the characters is skewed from how they're written in other books. But The Teen Titans are an important part of the Batman mythos, so I felt their origin story needed to be included. It's cartoony style is a little out of place in the chronology, but as the debut of the sidekicks as heroes, it's brightness in both art and storytelling can be seen as metaphorical. And it makes what happens to the team down the line seem all the darker.
Story: 3/5, Art: 4/5
I'm going to add Full Circle to this entry, though it doesn't contain a possessed Batman, but it does continue the theme of characters written in an odd voice. Batman Full Circle features a very silver-agey Dick Grayson as Robin. Lots of cheesy one liners, and the classic Batman benches Robin storyline. Much like the book that this is a direct sequel to, Fear The Reaper, this book has a lot of tropes, and suffers because the tropes are not used as well as they are in other collections.
The concept behind this story is the next generation of the families from Fear The Reaper. Joe Chill's son and grandson, Rachel Caspian's relationship to The Reaper, and, of course, Batman and Robin. We also have another appearance by Leslie Thompkins, and your requisite hookers and nuns.
Todd Mcfarlane drew this book, and it's not his best work. He seems not to know quite how to draw The Reaper. His proportions linger somewhere on the border of inconsistent and awful. And Batman and Robin look too golden agey when presented against the designs of the other characters.
Story: 2/5, Art: 2/5
The Full Circle Story is also included in the Year Two: Fear The Reaper Trade. I would say "I wouldn't waste my money buying this collection on its own." but clearly I not only would, but did.