Batman is the most prolific character in the history of comics, and even though he has no “super powers”, he is widely considered the apex of what a superhero can be. He uses his peak physicality and investigative mind to tackle any issue and has built a support system to make as large of an impact as possible and while there is plenty to love about the man with unlimited gadgets and a family network of sidekicks and partners, there’s something special about stories set in the early days. There, the character has his back against the wall, makes more mistakes, and learns how to be Gotham’s savior while the city begins to match his theatricality.
These stories are also a great way to start reading Batman. Reading an origin, or maybe more than one, and comic runs set early on in his career allow the reader to follow along with his journey and build a foundation that the thousands of other stories can be placed upon. So if you are one of those new readers to the Caped Crusader, or maybe just want to explore this character again from his beginning, here are some comics to check out.
Batman: Year One
By: Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis, and Todd Klein
There have been tellings of Batman’s origin before and since, but the best and most iconic remains the story originally printed as four issues of Batman in 1987. Frank Miller had already reinvented Batman once the previous year by focusing on the end of the vigilante’s career in The Dark Knight Returns, before then setting his sights on the character’s beginning. The result is a hard-boiled crime novel that shows us how Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon became the men they were meant to be and found common ground with one another, while also shining a spotlight on a certain cat finding her claws.
Miller’s cops are as dirty as Mazzucchelli’s Gotham City, both under the thumb of organized crime. While Bruce has to invent an image to terrify the criminals on the street, Gordon has to resort to a violence of his own to get anything done, even when it puts an unbearable strain on his home life. The grounded, real world this story is set in became so influential, it was no surprise to see Christopher Nolan directly lift a set piece from this to use in his film Batman Begins. The atmosphere is completely distinct from any other Batman tale told so far. There are so many great Batman stories out there, but there is no better starting point than this.
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
By: Ed Brubaker, Doug Mahnke, David Baron, Rob Leigh
Batman trained himself to fight thugs, mobsters, and the criminals that had been around Gotham for decades. He wasn’t prepared for something like The Joker. Anyone who is wanting to read the early days of Batman’s career will undoubtedly want to see the first meeting between him and his greatest enemy. The Man Who Laughs is a great choice since it is both a direct thematic sequel to Batman: Year One and a reimagining of the very first Joker story from the Golden Age of comics.
Brubaker mixes the theatrical prankster with the brutal murderer in his portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime for a haunting effect. His victims have their skin stretched back farther than seems possible, and Batman and Gordon are appropriately disturbed. This story contains a lot of good detective work by Batman and introduces a hallmark beacon in his mythology. As the world of Gotham City becomes strange and horrifying, it’s riveting to see Batman rise to the challenge. Their feud is one that will last forever, and this is a great version of how it all began.
The Long Halloween
By: Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Gregory Wright, and Richard Starkings
If Year One focused on organized crime families and The Man Who Laughs introduced an insane theatrical side to Gotham’s villains, then The Long Halloween is the struggle between the two and the transition point that ends the mob’s reign on crime in Gotham and supplants it with the much weirder rogues gallery that the casual fan is much more familiar with. Taking place over the course of a year, The Long Halloween is a murder mystery where members of the mob are being killed by someone known as The Holiday Killer due to the times he or she chooses to strike. Solving that mystery is the main focus, but it draws in many of Batman’s greatest foes
What the story is most renowned for though is chronicling the fall of Harvey Dent and the origin of Two-Face. The reader knows it’s inevitable, but it hurts just the same to see this man turned into what he tried to destroy and how that breaks the hearts of the allies that had such faith in him: Batman and Gordon. Sale’s art and Wright’s colors are so breathtaking throughout, however, that this is one tragedy you will go back to again and again.
Legends of the Dark Knight 1-20 (1989)
By: Multiple Artists
Less than six months after the 1989 film Batman made huge waves at the box office, a comic series started called Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. It began with a series of self-contained five issue arcs set early in Batman’s career. Different writers and artists would come in and be able to tell their own story and give their own versions of how certain aspects of Batman’s world (the Batmobile, the Bat Signal, etc.) came to be.
The first arc written by Dennis O’Neil, “Shaman”, introduces a mystical mystery into Batman’s early days and is more sensitive with its treatment of Native American lore than you would think for a late 80’s story. The next two arcs are must reads in my opinion. “Gothic” is a Grant Morrison story and is strange and gripping in a way only Grant can provide. Then “Prey” is a take on Hugo Strange’s origin and depicts the man with a creepy psycho-sexual obsession with Batman that makes the story quite eerie. That is followed up by “Venom” which truthfully is a bit of a letdown after the last two but does provide an interesting prologue to future stories between Batman and Bane.
By: Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, Gregory Wright, and Richard Starkings
Dark Victory is the direct follow-up to The Long Halloween, and features a new killer called Hangman that is also murdering on holidays. The previous story foretold the downfall of crime families and the rise of the “freaks”, and this sees that battle come to a head. While the mystery of the killer can feel a little repetitive, the inner turmoil Gordon and Batman have after the events of The Long Halloween is compelling, and the art remains as stunning as ever.
Similar to how Loeb and Sale had the ending of their previous book introduce Two-Face, Dark Victory does the same for Robin, The Boy Wonder. The story smartly puts Bruce in a place where he is becoming too miopic and needs a fresh perspective on not only the case at hand, but his methods at large. Dick Grayson is that new voice, and he fits into this dark crime story surprisingly well.
By: Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, FCO Plascencia
When the New 52 rebrand started at DC, there was confusion on whose backstories changed and how. Batman was kept relatively consistent in that pretty much everything that had happened to him still happened, but in a much shorter amount of time. This fluidity allowed Scott Snyder to revisit the origin story in Zero Year over two arcs. The first, “Secret City”, played with themes from Year One and previous stories between Bruce and The Red Hood Gang, but gave it a modern flair. The interactions between Bruce and Alfred have a wry humor alongside a real vulnerability where the two can hurt one another only as close friends can. Capullo’s art is a major part of what made his and Snyder’s run so iconic, and his mix of homage and modern looks are a standout here. Throw in a slippery origin to proto-Joker and it’s amazing how much these four issues laid the foundation for the modern era of Batman.
The next two arcs explore villains Doctor Death and The Riddler, and Snyder expands to a massive post-apocalyptic with some of the horror that resembles his American Vampire days. Having Batman deal with such a major event so early on makes for an incredible trial by fire that pushes the hero to his limits. It also makes the early relationships he forges with people like Lucius Fox and Jim Gordon even more crucial and fraught with drama. The New 52 was a mixed bag of reimagined storytelling, but it proved that there will always be great Batman stories to be told for every generation.
The Special Sauce:
The Golden Age
By: Bob Kane and Bill Finger
When discussing stories set in the early days of Batman, you have to mention his literal earliest stories. Batman first showed up in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 in one of multiple stories that the comic contained. It did not take long for him to become the flagship character, and today the title is synonymous with Batman. This is in the Special Sauce section because though it can be fun to check out these stories from The Golden Age of Comics, the medium has changed substantially in the last 80+ years, and so has the character.
Batman spends a lot of his time in this era protecting fellow millionaires and fighting foreign adversaries that are riddled with harmful stereotypes. Add in the awkward pacing of comics in those days and it can be a disjointing read. The character has changed so much that these stories are now placed in Earth-Two of DC’s multiverse instead of the Prime Earth. Still, there is merit to be found in Bob Kane’s depiction of The Dark Knight which was instantly iconic. And even after all these years, initial stories with The Joker manage to still be quite creepy.
By: Geoff Johns and Gary Frank
You thought Year One was dark and grounded? Wait until you check this out. Batman: Earth One is set in an alternate universe, and therefore shows us a different origin to Batman. Bruce’s rich boy attitude basically gets his parents killed. He stumbles, falls, and fails through his first attempts in the costume. Gordon has resigned himself to the corruption of the city. Alfred shows nothing but disdain for the idea of Batman. This is clearly not the origin we are used to, but Johns uses that to tell a great story about how these characters can find their way by believing in something bigger than themselves.
This story is told through three graphic novels, and while the third goes off the rails some as it veers into the fantastical, the whole journey is still work taking. As Year One gave Christopher Nolan inspiration, there are elements here that might seem familiar if you have seen Matt Reeve’s The Batman, including Martha’s tortured family history before becoming a Wayne. Alternate universes are great for delivering standalone stories that do not have to reckon with decades of continuity, so this is a great read for someone whether they are interested in the main DC universe or not.
Gotham by Gaslight
By: Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola
Finally, we’ll conclude our trip through the multiverse with this very different version of Batman set in Victorian times that comes face to face with none other than Jack the Ripper. This is a fun “what if” story that commits fully to the time and place it is being set in. The narration of this Bruce Wayne is told via a diary that he is making entries in, while Jack’s manic thoughts are clearly from a broken mind looking for its next victim.
The art incredibly constructs a Gotham in the midst of industrious growth, full of interesting characters, costuming, and sets. There are plenty of other worldly tales and crossovers with Batman that are worth reading, but this is a good short story to check out that portrays him in his early days and the different types of problems that he could run into.
Batman logo by Tim Daniels of Second Rocket Comics