One of the easiest questions I get asked about Batman is, "Where do I start?"
Since most of us have a finite amount of time to devote to comics, and a possibly more finite budget, the ability to track down a copy of Detective Comics #27 and start reading from there is a crack pipe dream. Sure, DC has collected the beginning of the Detective and Batman comics in their DC Archive hardcovers, and DC Chronicles, and, yes, if you don't care about the art being colored, you can save yourself a chunk of change and start buying the Showcase collections DC has been putting out. But, for those of us who didn't grow up with, or grow to love Golden Age and Silver Age comics, these options represent an unrealistic level of dedication.
So when a customer walks into the store, and says "I love Batman. Can you recommend a good place to start reading from?" I always recommend Frank Miller's "Year One" I'll get to why I start there in the next entry. The problem is when a customer buys Year One, loves it, and returns, asking "What's next?"
There is almost too much next to contemplate. Unlike your favorite indie comic, or your favorite television show, Batman doesn't have a straightforward chronology. Hundreds of writers have written official DC Batman stories in the pages of Detective Comics, Batman, Gotham Knights, Shadow Of The Bat, Batman & Robin, World's Finest, Streets Of Gotham, and Batman/Superman to name a few. Plus, he is often a member of the Justice League Of America, and shows up in just about all of the big DC Crossovers.
It is nigh improbable to come up with a chronology for Batman, even if you start at Year One (which came out in 1986). But that's what I'm going to attempt to do here. I'm not going to go issue by issue through the Bat-verse. I'm going to go by the trade paperback collections that DC comics has released, including all the titles I mentioned above, plus the spin-off series such as Robin, Nightwing, Birds Of Prey, Batgirl, and others.
Apart from skipping the Elseworlds tales (stories that take place completely outside of DC's main universe), I'm going to be as thorough as I can. I've been buying most of the trades at local comic book stores, and even finding some out of print books in used bookstores, and online.
The order that I recommend reading Batman in is not necessarily by issue number. It is by what I think is currently in continuity, and how it would be presented if the book was by one author (other than Grant Morrison, who has a more complex understanding of how time works than I). I am absolutely open to people presenting alternate chronologies. So if you read an entry, and think "Hey, that event took place before" for example: "No Man's Land. There's no way it can happen after Bruce adopts Tim Drake as his son." You don't need to send me hate mail, or call me a clueless moron, just tell me why you think I'm wrong, and I'll either explain my reasoning, or else defer to yours and make a correction.
The only real limit I have is that because DC makes interesting decisions when compiling and releasing trades, there will be hiccups in the reading order. For complaints about DC's trade paperback policy, please e-mail Dan Didio, not me.
I'm forward dating this entry, so it will always be up top. It may be edited as the series progresses. Hope you enjoy reading this, and that it's helpful. Feel free to comment. I tend to only bite when provoked.
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
While the character of Bruce Wayne the Batman is one of the most revered, and interesting in all of comics, my favorite Batman stories are the ones where we see how others react to The Dark Knight.
Batman And The Monster Men, originally a mini-series written and drawn by Matt Wagner, introduces us to modern age versions of Batman characters, and shows how they are changed by their first encounters with him.
In a roundabout way the center of this story is Sal Maroni, one of the top men in the Falcone Crime family. He joins together the two subplots of the story by 1.) bankrolling and extorting a scientist named Hugo Strange, and 2.) bankrolling and extorting prominent businessman, Norman Madison, whose daughter happens to be dating Bruce Wayne.
Hugo Strange is your typical mad scientist bent on changing the world. He uses Falcone money to create a series of mutants (the eponymous Monster Men). When Maroni sends musclemen to pressure Strange into paying his debt, Strange unleashes his Monster Men on one of Maroni's underground card games, thus stealing Maroni's money, and using it to pay Maroni back. When Batman gets involved, Strange fixates on what a perfect specimen he is, and vows to either capture or kill him. When things don't go according to plan, he decides, rather than hiding from Batman underground, to become a public expert on Batman, going on television and tlaking about how disturbed he is.
Norman Madison's tale is a little different. As a prominent businessman from the Gotham elite, he believes himself superior to Maroni and his thugs, and refuses to see them as a threat until they threaten his daughter, Julie. To protect her, he asks her to find a place to hide, and not tell him where it is. He demands the Falcone thugs take him to Maroni directly. While there, the Falcone compound is attacked by Strange's Monster Men. He is ultimately rescued by Batman who addresses him by name, and tells him to leave. The issue ends with Norman sitting in front of the TV, watching Hugo Strange tell a reporter that Batman is a relentless, insane vigilante. He is visibly sweating, thinking to himself "He knows my name." There's also a neat panel about halfway through the trade, where we Norman Madison's face shrouded by the Gotham skyline, suggesting that Wagner is using Norman as a metaphor for Gotham City's troubled relationship with both crime and Batman.
When her father asks her to go into hiding, Julie Madison rushes to Wayne Manor to tell Bruce, who responds by drugging her (Wayne is easily one of the worst superhero boyfriends in comics. I once saw Hank Pym shaking his head at Wayne, muttering "At least when I hit Janet, she knew that I loved her."). When she wakes up, a day and a half later with a Roofie hangover, Bruce tells her that her father's debts are taken care of, and she continues to be all starry-eyed over her mysterious playboy lover. She doesn't know that (dun dun dun) her life is soon to be completely altered by her involvement with Batman.
We also get to see Lieutenant James Gordon come into conflict with the new police commissioner, Grogan, over Gordon's alleged connection with Batman.
Even Alfred gets some face time in this book, when he lays his eyes on Bruce's new crimefighting car and quips "I'm actually surprised that you didn't add winged fins to the rear fenders and make it a true 'Batmobile!' Oh good lord! You're actually considering it!"
DC has placed a #1 on the spine of this book, and a #2 on Wagner's follow-up story "Batman And The Mad Monk". While the two stories are related, there are definitely a number of Batman stories that take place between the two collections. It's actually odd that DC has numbered them at all, as they rarely put any sort of label on any trade paperback that isn't part of some giant crossover.
I've seen other reading lists that place The Joker: The Man Who Laughs as the book that immediately follows Year One, as it features The Joker who LT. Gordon mentions on the final page of Year One. While I do think that Miller intended the next story to feature the joker, and Brubaker certainly intends for The Man Who Laughs as the first Joker story, I think the chronology works better if we get to know Batman better before introducing his greatest villain. There's also the issue that Gordon has grown comfortable enough in Gotham to call it "my city" early on in The Man Who Laughs, and he has not arrived at that point in his life at the end of Year One.
Story: 5/5, Art 5/5