COMIC BOOKS 101: ‘The Essential Batman- Where To Begin Reading (Part 1)’
So, you want to start reading Batman but are completely lost due to the character being around for almost 80 years, and hundreds of issues and iterations on the character.
Where do you start? What If you only like some of the movie versions? Or maybe the video games?
What’s the New 52? What’s Rebirth?
It can be daunting if you are completely new to the world of comic books or maybe a returning fan that’s been away for a long time. While hardcore fans have probably stuck around for all the various Bat books, most maybe only keep up via Wiki or maybe random postings on sites like CBR or IGN.
Well, fear not, as I will be doing my best to give some insight on iconic Batman storylines essential to the character, along with a brief update on the current state of the character.
So without further ado, let’s begin!
WHERE TO BEGIN?
The character Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (Published May 1939) and was created by the duo of Bill Finger and Bob Kane (really Bill Finger). Over the years, Batman has undergone many iterations, personalities, and slight costume alterations, but a few fundamental concepts remain the same.
First, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman after the death of his parents (there have been variations on this history, but the in-canon storyline remains the same). There are some who will point towards the work for creators Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams as truly defining the character- They essentially brought the character from the old campy style made popular from the Batman live-action TV series to a darker tone.
But if you’re looking for the ideal version of his origin, I’m of the belief that you should start with Frank Miller’s “Year One” storyline (Batman #404-407 Feb-May 1987). Here we get what the Chris Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy used for influence in Batman Begins.
The story of Year One is essentially the early start of Bruce Wayne’s career as Batman. It introduces all the main players of Gotham along with a less than experienced Bruce as a vigilante. The series not only inspired Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, but had major influences on the video game Batman: Arkham Origins, the animated movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and was adapted to an animated film itself in 2011.
From Batman: Year One, a great many years and issues of comics transpired as the character began regaining popularity and sales. Keep in mind Year One and many subsequent issues all fall under what is currently known as the Pre-New 52 era of comics.
A quick catch up on what New 52 is:
In 2011 DC comics concluded an event known as “Flashpoint” (a company cross-over event that saw the history of the DC Universe re-written due to the actions of The Flash). At the conclusion of Flashpoint, the DC Universe reset its history, erasing the continuity that had been established over the last few years. While not the most popular decision by DC Comics, it certainly wasn’t the first time they had altered their characters in story continuity (there had been other big history changing companywide cross-over events) it was the first that seemed to change so much drastically.
One of the titles that had a more soft reboot (meaning continuity was altered, but nothing extremely severe) was Batman. The character had been having a lot of success in sales leading up to the Flashpoint story line dating back to the Year One era. Not wanting to rock the boat DC Editor and Chief Bob Harras made iconic Batman storylines still remain in continuity but with a few twists that would be revealed by the writers of the book as time went on. The core concept of Batman: Year One remained however, Bruce still lost his parents in an alley way, he still travelled the world to learn and become a force against evil, he was eventually inspired for the concept of being Batman. So that leaves a big question for new readers, where to begin? Do you stick with the pre-New 52 continuity and catch up on some of those amazing stories? Or do you want to jump into the current state of the character? Well, I will help guide you in both directions.
Starting to read Batman from the 1980s and the Pre-New 52 continuity is, without a doubt, going to be a long task, but a fun one! Unlike the New 52 era, this older Batman run lasted for a long time with multiple books, various stories, and tons of collections. While It’s completely possible to read any of the stories in any order (some will refer back to older books, but typically writers/editors on the series were good at keeping the big storylines self-contained without too much need for prior knowledge on events) it is always helpful to get a sense of chronological reading reference. So while publication of these stories might seem like jumps in time, the chronology of the events are in order:
Batman (Year One and subsequent storylines)
Batman: Year One The beginnings of Batman.
Catwoman: Her Sister’s Keeper The beginnings of Batman Love interest/Villain/Anti-Hero Catwoman.
Batman: Shaman (Legends of the Dark Knight 1-5)
Batman: Gothic (Legends of the Dark Knight 6-10)
Batman: Prey (Legends of the Dark Knight 11-15, 137-141)
Batman: The Man Who Laughs A modern take on Joker’s Origin
Batman: Venom (Legends of the Dark Knight 16-20) The chemical later used by famous Bat-Villain Bane
Batman: The Long Halloween The Long Halloween tells the story of a mysterious killer named Holiday, who murders people on holidays, one each month. It also the beginning of the transistion from Batman’s villains being mobster and thugs to full fledged costumed types.
Batman: Haunted Knight
Batman: Year Two (Detective Comics 575-578) *Some of this gets retconned later via DC Zero Year*
Batman and the Monster Men
Batman and the Mad Monk
Batman: Dark Victory
Batgirl/Robin: Year One Modern retelling of the introduction to both of these characters
Batman: Night Cries
Batman: The Cat and the Bat
Nightwing: Year One
Batman: The Killing Joke– One of the most controversial and popular Batman comics of all time by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The story is so iconic it’s been ingrained into almost every Batman adaptation created.
NEW 52 ERA
This is where I will stop with the early readings for pre-New 52 Batman. At this point you’ve got a great understanding of where this version of Batman starts, how his most famous villains fit into his world, as well as his sidekicks and friends. From here you can keep reading chronologically or skip around and check out some of the Must Read storylines I’ll list later on. For now, I will jump into the New 52 era, and where to start for reading this version of Batman.
Following the events of Flashpoint, DC Comics did a soft reboot of Batman under the direction of creators Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo. They went on to write the critically acclaimed Batman series which quickly surpassed the other re-launched Bat books at the time. Even DC flagship title Detective Comics just couldn’t compete with the powerhouse team working on Batman.
To help fill in some of the blanks, and set their Batman universe apart just enough from the previous continuity, Snyder and Capullo created a storyline called Zero Year. This storyline was essentially their attempt at creating a Year One storyline, similar to what Frank Miller did back in 1986. While the storyline was published sometime after the early issues of New 52 Batman, I will add them first for chronological purposes as it is to me is the best way to enjoy the Batman run. For posterity’s sake I will also include other Batman books that fit within the chronological storytelling of New 52 Batman. My suggested reading order is:
Batman Vol 4: Zero Year-Secret City (Batman 21-24)
DC Comics: Zero Year (collects a variety of DC New 52 books and their special Zero Year tie-in stories)
Batman Vol 5: Zero Year- Dark City (Batman 25-27, 29-33)
Batman Vol 1-The Court of Owls (Batman 1-7) – Quite possibly the most famous of the events from the run and the earliest publication wise. This storyline will have influences on the Gotham TV series, and is still relevant in the current run of the Batman series.
Batman: The Night of Owls (collects various tie-in stories from different Bat books to flesh out the Owls storyline)
Batman: Vol2- The City of Owls (Batman 8-12, Annual 1)
Detective Comics: Faces of Death (Detective Comics 1-7) – The biggest part is what the Joker does to himself and how that will come back later on in some big Batman storylines.
Batman and Robin: Born to Kill (Batman and Robin 1-6) – A good tie-in series to help establish the relationship between Bruce and his son Damien who is currently acting as Robin.
Detective Comics: Scare Tactics (Detective Comics 8-12, Annual 1)
Batman and Robin: Pearl (Batman and Robin 0, 9-14)
Batman Vol 3: Death of the Family (Batman 13-17)
From this point forward it’s best to just keep reading the various collected volumes in number order to keep the storylines going. Eventually it all comes to the major event for Batman called Batman: Eternal. This series took over for all the Batman books for one year and was written by Scott Snyder and different artist. Everything concluded in the Batman: Endgame storyline. So to conclude the Batman New 52 run:
Batman Vol 7: End Game (Batman 35-40)
The Joker: Endgame (Collects all important tie-in storylines for this epic conclusion).
This brings us to DC REBIRTH! Between Endgame and DC Rebirth Scott Snyder and Capullo wrote one last storyline involving a villain called Mr. Bloom. While the storyline itself to me wasn’t the greatest, its main purpose was to help reset the status quo of Batman and prepare him for the upcoming soft-reboot again under the DC Rebirth banner.
What does this mean?
Well, without spoiling it, it allowed incoming creators Tom King and David Finch to have a sort of rejuvenated and fresh Batman to work with. What was Rebirth itself? Well, similar to what happened after Flashpoint and New 52, DC Comics ended many of its various New 52 series (some ending on issue 52, funny enough) with the intent to re-launch all the books with new number one issues, or restart some classic numbers in the cases of series Action Comics and Detective Comics (really it was just so DC could say they hit issue one thousand since those series numbering wise taking into account issues published during New 52 run-would add up to the huge number).
The reason for the re-launch was that New 52 sales were dropping, and many believed it was due to the fact the characters had drifted too far away from the concepts and personalities that made them successful to begin with. So, much like how New 52 had some hard reboots (drastic changes to a characters continuity) and soft reboots (minor changes/alterations) Rebirth would try to get some of the characters back on track (and improve sales-which it did in a huge way!).
How did this affect Batman? What does it mean for a potential new reader? Well, the idea was anyone could simply pick up the Rebirth issue and be caught up enough to start reading from that point on without any real need for any iteration that came before it. So if you were a brand new comic book reader or a long standing fan, you’d both be on the same ground going forward from this point on.
So where to begin with DC Rebirth? And what makes the series so special? Here we go…
Batman: Rebirth #1 A sort of passing of the torch between previous writer Scott Snyder and upcoming writer Tom King, with beautiful art by Mikel Janin. The book sets up the current status of Batman, and loosely picks up where the New 52 continuity left off. If you never read ANY Batman books before this (Pre-52 or New 52) you’re fine. Pick this issue up and keep on going!
Detective Comics #934 The New 52 era number ends, and Detective Comics picks up its old numbering style. While the series didn’t have a Rebirth special #1 issue, this pretty much works the same way. New creative team of James Tynion IV and artists Eddy Barrows w/ Alvaro Martinez craft a series that focuses on the extended Batman characters as they form a sort of training team under the leadership of Batwoman. If you never read any Bat books before this, you might feel a little lost as some understanding of the characters is needed. Still, that being said the series does a good job dropping bits of exposition on the characters without getting too wordy to help catch up new readers.
All-Star Batman #1 Do not get this confused with the short-lived series by Frank Miller and Jim Lee. This is from writer Scott Snyder and various artist as it tells more current adventures of Batman that don’t seem to tie too closely into what takes place in Batman or Detective Comics.
This brings us to the conclusion of Part 1 on Batman 101. We’ve covered all the beginnings of the character and the various jumping on points I suggest new readers to check out. Remember, this is not to say don’t bother going even further back to check out the older Bat stories, simply my belief is most audiences will feel familiar with the everything Batman starting at the earliest with Year One.
In Part 2 I will address some of the major storylines to check out for Batman in no particular order from the Pre-52 era (dating back even before Year One), New 52 Era, and current Rebirth era, and all alternate reality/time/etc. types pf stories that have come out featuring the titular character.
I hope this helped with anyone who’s been on the fence about jumping into reading Batman comics and if you want to suggest or offer other awesome stories or beginning points for new readers please sound off on the comments below. I’m always happy to hear the favorites of fellow Bat-fans and discuss the stories that shaped the way you view DC’s Dark Knight.
If you enjoyed Scully’s breakdown of essential Batman reading, you may also want to check out his exhaustive look at DC’s entire comic book history:
Or his comic book guide to Aquaman: