ORBITAL READING LISTS: BATMAN – PART 1

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Based on the sheer number of customers we have on a weekly basis asking us “where’s the best place to start with (insert character’s name here)”… we’ve decided to start a series of reading lists giving you guys a broad idea of what’s available and what’s good in the world of trade paperbacks. We’re starting with Batman as this is one of the most popular characters around and there’s so much out there for you to read and enjoy. And just because we like you, we’re going to attempt to get it in some kind of reading order, too!

YEAR ONE
Frank Miller (w), Dave Mazzuchelli (a)

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Of course, this would be the best place to start. This mini-series gave Frank Miller the opportunity to book-end his contribution to the Dark Knight legacy after The Dark Knight Returns and in doing so, redefined the look, tone and feel of the Batman books for the next decade. Starting with Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham eighteen years after his parents’ murders, the story really belongs to Jim Gordon, here a Detective, early into his police career. Gordon’s been sent to Gotham seemingly as a punishment for some unknown infraction in Chicago. In Gotham, he uncovers a web of corruption and graft, making it impossible for him to be the kind of cop he aspires to be. When The Batman appears for the first time, Gordon sees an opportunity to tear down the system that the current regime has built in Gotham… This is such a great story and it’s no wonder that many Batman writers and artists return to the Year One era so often. Essential not just to any Batman collection but any comic collection too!

GOTHIC
Grant Morrison (w), Klaus Janson (a)

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This is one of the great Legends of the Dark Knight runs that made the series such great reading. We’re six months into Bruce’s bat-career at the start of this story, and he runs up against his first seemingly unstoppable enemy: an apparently immortal serial killer that seems to have ties to Bruce’s past. This is an almost forgotten Grant Morrison book that shows Bruce having to adapt his methods and expand his horizons a little. It’s also possible that chronologically, this is Bruce’s first encounter with any kind of ‘supernatural’ force. Available in Hardcover.

VENOM
Dennis O’Neil (w) Trevor Von Eeden (a)

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Another fantastic early-years story sees Bruce failing really for the first time. Attempting to rescue a kidnapped child, Bruce finds her – alive – but trapped in a cave. As the cave fills with water and the girl begins to drown, Bruce realises he won’t be able to move a rock separating him from the girl in time and she dies. The first time his strength and training has really let him down, and it shatters him. But when he’s offered the chance to try an experimental, military-developed drug that will increase his strength and stamina, he allows his failure to get the better of him. The cost is drug-addicted Batman whose paranoia and malicious nature begins to isolate those closest to him and make him a puppet of a corrupt Army General. A great story that sows the seeds for Bane, one of the better Batman villains of the modern era.

THE MAN WHO LAUGHS
Ed Brubaker (w), Doug Mahnke (a)

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This is Ed Brubaker at his finest. Batman’s first run-in with the man who will become his arch-nemesis: The Joker! Although technically speaking this should run straight on from Year One, it’s placed here because it offers a nice progression in the Batman’s war on crime to his war on madness. The first case where Bruce realises he may be inspiring a new type of foe: the Super-Villain.

BLINK / DON’T BLINK
Dwayne McDuffie (w), Val Semeiks (a)

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This is a bit of an oddity, but it’s included here because it gives Bruce a chance to work with someone who is, for all intents and purposes, super-powered and is in fact his first real taste of the strange beings that inhabit the wider DCU (and seem drawn to Gotham). Although the main character, Blink, was re-used in the sequel Don’t Blink (included here), he’s sadly yet to make a reappearance in any comic as far as I know. It also has a instance (one of the few) of Batman actively causing someone’s death. Check it out and see if you agree.

THE LONG HALLOWEEN
Jeph Loeb (w), Tim Sale (a)

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One of the best modern stories in the canon, this is a 13-part whodunnit, that takes in Bruce’s fight against the mob, the rise of the super-villains and the origin of Two-Face. The Two-Face story is more intrinsic and important to the Batman mythos than The Joker because more than any other villain, he represents the duality of Bruce Wayne / Batman. Harvey Dent represents the law and order Batman, who apart from the fact that he is a vigilante, sticks to a rigid code. Two-Face is Bruce Wayne, whose own trauma leads to a kind of madness that has to be hidden in the form of The Bat… The Long Halloween has a great style, fusing The Godfather with Tim Sale’s noir style and some beautiful atmospheric pacing.

DARK VICTORY
Jeph Loeb (w) Tim Sale (a)

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A sequel to The Long Halloween, this deals with the fall-out from Harvey Dent’s rebirth as Two-Face and picks up the pace with a new murder-mystery. It also takes the seeds sown in the previous book and takes them to a logical, stunning conclusion. With Bruce experiencing working with partners (Gordon and Dent) in the ‘War On Crime’, he takes the next step when he crosses paths with Dick Grayson, a mirror image of himself, who also loses his parents tragically. It’s a tight, dark thriller that ends beautifully on a note of hope.

ROBIN / BATGIRL: YEAR ONE
Scott Beatty / Chuck Dixon (w), Marcos Martin / Javier Pulido (a)

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Taking the slightly more upbeat approach that ran all through the Dick Grayson / Barbara Gordon years, this follows the early days of the two teen crime-busters and their relationship with their mentor (and more importantly, each other – setting the scene for the on-off romance that still sort of burns for Dick and Babs). One of the many really great things here is the art, which hits all the right nostalgic notes whilst prefiguring the more modern style and tone beloved at Marvel at the moment. It’s pitch-perfect, as Robin and Batgirl take on more than they can handle from the bat-rogues gallery.

BIRTH OF THE DEMON
Mike W. Barr, Dennis O’Neil (w),
Jerry Bingham, Tom Grindberg, Norm Breyfogle (a)

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With Ra’s Al Ghul, we have our first truly global menace for Batman (although I always felt he would have made a better Superman villain) and with his daughter, Talia, Bruce had his first serious romantic contender. This volume reprints the three large format original graphic novels that chart Ra’s attempts to purge humanity. The globe-trotting nature of the stories along with the Lazarus Pits that Ra’s uses to regenerate himself lend themselves to a kind of James Bond feel that doesn’t always fit Batman (just as much as the supernatural opponents Bruce faces can feel out of place too). However, these are good tales well told and serve as a prequel for many of the Grant Morrison stories which follow, years later.

EGO (& OTHER TAILS) AND TALES OF THE BATMAN
Darwyn Cooke (w/a), Tim Sale (w/a)

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These short story collections, Ego and Other Tails (by the late and much missed Darwyn Cooke) and Tales Of The Batman (by Tim Sale) are great collections because they deal with what it is to be Batman, rather than the plot-driven mechanics seen in the other trades here. Ego sees Bruce engaged in a fever-dream battle of wills against his own creation, whilst shorts like ‘Date Night’ and the full-length ‘Selina’s Big Score’ are Catwoman-centric delights. Also featured here is Tim Sale’s LOTDK entry, ‘Blades’ which shows Bruce working in a partnership (of sorts) again, proving that he’s not the moody loner everyone thinks he is! Best read here, before things start to get really dark…

ARKHAM ASYLUM: A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH
Grant Morrison (w), Dave McKean (a)

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Another Grant Morrison classic, that would probably make a great movie and almost certainly inspired to some degree the Arkham Asylum line of games. Jumping back and forth in time with the foundation of Arkham and a modern story where its fearsome inhabitants break free from their cells and hold their captors to ransom, this book is a dream-like trip into the psyche of both the Arkham prisoners and their enemy, The Batman. Dealing with both the legend and the fact of Gotham’s dark underbelly of insanity, this picks away at the fragile mindsets of both the sane and the insane.

SECOND CHANCES
Max Allan Collins / Jim Starlin / Jo Duffy (w)
Jim Aparo / Jim Starlin / Denys Cowan / Chris Warner / Dave Cockrum
Ross Andru / Kieron Dwyer / Norm Breyfogle (a)

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Collecting, for the first time, the early issues featuring Jason Todd, this volume has the origin of the second Robin: Batman catches him stealing the hubcaps from the Batmobile! With most of the Jason Todd Batman issues collected here it’s easy to realise just how short his tenure as Robin was. Two scant years by my count. It’s a pretty good volume, featuring some great Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin scripts, and one of my favourite bat-artists, Jim Aparo, on pencils.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
Jim Starlin (w), Jim Aparo (a)

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One of the most controversial storylines in Batman’s history, this sees Jason Todd growing increasingly rebellious and unpredictable, two things that just don’t fly in Batman’s world. In previous issues (sadly not collected here) it’s even suggested that Jason commits murder. With this hanging over his head, Todd begins searching for his birth mother, having previously been under the belief that he was an orphan. He finds her in the Middle East… along with The Joker, who beats him with a crow-bar and leaves him to die as a bomb ticks down to his fate. Here’s the controversial part: DC asked readers to call a premium-rate number and vote on the fate of Jason Todd. If you don’t know which way the vote went, I’m not going to spoil it for you here!

That’s the end of the first part of our Batman reading list and caps off the first four years of Bruce’s Bat-career. Next we, follow up with the middle years, when DC began the ‘giant cross-over period’, paving the way for some of the best bat tales ever told.

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This list is dedicated to Charlie, who’s reading the batman books faster than DC can put them out!

Paul.

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