ORBITAL READING LISTS: BATMAN – PART 2

Rl P2 Batreads

Welcome back to our reading list for Batman trade paperbacks. As before, we’re breaking this down by storyline, in chronological order. What’s interesting about this period is the sheer amount of titles with which Batman story-lines crossed over. If a title was even slightly bat-related, it got a chance to crossover into one of the many arcs here. Also, the length of the crossovers. Some ran for around two years, something unheard of in today’s market. As with most lists, it’s notable for what’s missing. During the interim period between A Death In The Family and Knightfall, we had great arcs like Many Deaths Of The Batman and Blind Justice. Most notable is the absence of A Lonely Place Of Dying which introduces Tim Drake, the young man destined to become the third Robin and who features very heavily in the story-lines to come over the next decade. Most of these are sadly out of print, but let’s get started with the books you can easily find at your local Eisner-award-winning comic book store!

 

 

 

THE KILLING JOKE
Alan Moore (w), Brian Bolland (a)

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It’s impossible not to start with this. Over the years, this relatively slim volume has held a great deal (too much, in my opinion) of sway over the bat-mythos. Is it good? Yes. Is it ‘the greatest batman story ever told’? Sorry, but for me, the answer has to be no. For the uninitiated, The Joker breaks out of Arkham and decides to prove to Batman that anyone can be pushed over the edge by simply having ‘one bad day’. To prove his point, Joker shoots Barbara Gordon (who had been retired from crime-fighting after the events of the Batgirl special in July 1988), crippling her and taking pictures of her naked and prone, as she bleeds out. He then kidnaps Jim Gordon, laying a trap for Batman, trying to drive Gordon insane by showing him the horrifying pictures of his adopted daughter. Needless to say, Batman isn’t happy about this. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say it’s pretty grim stuff, rendered beautifully by Brian Bolland.

Whilst this put the nail in the coffin of the fun-times Joker of yesteryear, it also gave us the opening for one of the best characters in the Bat-family: Oracle. Yep, Barbara Gordon lives, partially paralysed but in fighting form, reborn as Batman’s go-to source for information. Although, I must add it wasn’t Moore who created Oracle, rather it was the writers and artists who came after and used the character to her full potential. In this version of the DCU at least, Barbara has been one of the most positive role-models in comics.

The Killing Joke is available in two different versions. First is the deluxe edition featuring recoloured art by Brian Bolland (replacing John Higgins’s original colours) and the newly-released ‘Noir’ version, showcasing Bolland’s art in a Black & White inked version. Both releases contain supplemental material and stories.

 

BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT, DARK CITY
Peter Milligan (w), Kieron Dwyer (a)

Drak Knight Dark City

At first glance, this may not look like an important part of the Bat-mythos. It doesn’t have the superstar writer like The Killing Joke did (although Peter Milligan wasn’t an unknown by any stretch of the imagination and is an important writer). It didn’t have the one-shot prestige treatment either. But in the long-term, it’s proven just as important to the overall arc of Batman’s life. At first it seems like an open and shut case for Batman. The Riddler, after years of being a B-list villain at best, decides to up the ante by kidnapping four babies. Things take a grim turn and Batman begins to uncover the truth: that Riddler may just be an unwitting pawn in the game of something much darker, something that has waited under Gotham since the founding of the city and may have a connection to the origins of the Batman…

The groundwork laid in this tale was the house that Grant Morrison would build much of R.I.P. run on and that alone makes this a worthy addition to the Bat-canon. But add to that five bonus tales from Peter Milligan’s run on both Batman and Detective Comics and you get a must-have collection. As I may have mentioned before, I don’t really like supernatural tales in the Bat-universe, but this is an exception to the rule.

KNIGHTFALL: VOLUME 1 – 3
Various (w), Various (a)

RLP2 Azrael

Although many think the idea to break Batman’s back and have him replaced by a younger, more dangerous pretender was new, sadly this was not the case. You can find a much more condensed and darker version of this story in Blind Justice, a three-part series that ran in Detective Comics for Batman’s 50th Anniversary. I say you can find it, but this has been out of print for some time. Instead you can read this epic (and it is an epic!).

The main crux of the story is that the villain Bane arrives in Gotham with plans to take over the city. To do this, he reasons, you must take over Gotham’s criminal empire. And to do that, he must take down the Batman. Deducing (much the way Bruce would) the Batman’s secret identity, Bane launches an attack on Wayne Manor. When an already exhausted Batman comes face to face with Bane, he is simply outmatched. In what is still one of the more dramatic moments in the history of modern comics, Bane breaks Bruce’s back. What’s great about the first third of the Knightfall storyline is the care and attention DC’s editors put into building up Bruce’s exhaustion. They played it out for months before unleashing Bane, who gets the bright idea to break Arkham’s inmates loose, keeping Batman’s hands full before he even meets his new nemesis.

But Bruce has something up his sleeve (duh! He’s Batman). He’s been training a replacement: Jean Paul Valley. You can find more on him in Sword Of Azrael, Dennis O’Neil’s mini-series that arrived just before Knightfall. Sadly, Jean-Paul proves to be a less than stable replacement and soon Bruce finds himself without the cowl, without a home, a family and without the use of his legs.

It’s then that the story really takes a different turn, with Bruce having to psychically fight his way back to health and defeat the very man he brought in to replace him. It’s well worth picking up the three Knightfall volumes, not just because it was the first time a comic company had (as far as I know) attempted a crossover of this magnitude with one character but because they also contain the excellent epilogue arc, ‘Prodigal‘, which rebuilds the bat-family and lays the foundation for what is to come over the next decade.

BATMAN: ZERO HOUR

Various (w), Various (a)

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Post-Knightfall / Knightquest / Knightsend, we had Troika and Prodigal (some of which was collected in the third Knightfall compendium), but immediately following that, we had Zero Hour, which is something of a lost cross-over.  In short, the villain ‘Extant’ has created a series of black holes that are slowly swallowing time itself, causing loops in the time-lines of many of the DC big-hitters. Of course bats is effected, with the return of the un-crippled Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) the original golden-age Alfred and most hauntingly of all Thomas and Martha Wayne!  This kind of makes this a fascinating read for fans of the ‘Flashpoint‘ event and it’s ‘Knight Of Vengeance‘ spin-off as well as the recent Batman / Flash crossover, ‘The Button‘.*

BATMAN: CONTAGION
Various (w), Various (a)

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A modern plague, known as ‘The Clench’ is accidentally released in Gotham, Batman must use every tool at his disposal to find a cure. But will the virus claim the lives close to him? This is an important storyline as it shows Bruce’s attachment to (and faith in) Tim Drake. Although the story is marred by its handling at times, it once again gives Bruce a sizeable challenge. Something he can’t beat, or fight with his brawn. And he also has to rely on every member of the bat-family, including the ones he’s previously ostracised like Huntress, Catwoman and Azrael, in order to solve the mystery. As with most of the stories from the ’90s, this would probably benefit from an update. But it’s still good and worth owning.

BATMAN: LEGACY

Various (w), Various (a)

Batman Legacy

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It’s another multi-part cross-over! To be fair to the writers, artists and editors working on these books during this period, every effort was made to give them a consistent story-telling style. They feel part of the same universe and you get a sense that each ‘event’ has consequence and impact. This is a sequel to Contagion and features a deadlier version of the Apocalypse Virus. What works really well here is the globe-trotting Bondian elements because, in a way, Bruce is a self-financed James Bond in a costume.

BATMAN / WILDCAT

Chuck Dixon, Beau Smith (w), Sergio Cariello

Batman Wildcat

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This volume is a delight for Chuck Dixon fans. Here he brings back Ted Grant A.K.A. ‘Wildcat’ for a story of underground cage fighting! It’s wonderfully grime-covered Dixon work (and I mean that as a compliment), showcasing the ageing Golden-ager Grant and putting him up against Batman. The second story in this volume has Catwoman and Wildcat in Vegas, going up against each other. Also included here are some classic Brave & The Bold 70’s Bat / Wildcat team-ups!

BATMAN: CATACLYSM
Various (w), Various (a)

RL P2 Cataclysm

This is the start of what remains one the longest-running crossovers ever published. It’s a simple story, but its aftershocks (yeah, I went there) were felt in the Bat-universe for years to come. When a massive earthquake strikes Gotham, every hero in the city must scramble to save lives including their own. It was a devastating move at the time: destroying the most famous fictional city in comics. But the writers and artists take to it with aplomb and render Gotham a wasteland. Although it isn’t the best story to come out this period of Batman, it’s critical for the things it sets up. Most importantly…

BATMAN: ROAD TO NO MAN’S LAND VOLS. 1 & 2
Various (w), Various (a)

Road to no mans land

This is just the first act in a massive symphony of drama, action and emotion for the bat-universe, but it’s amazing. The sheer ambition of it alone makes it worth reading for any superhero fan. Gotham is destroyed and needs federal aid asap. Bruce Wayne spearheads the campaign to rebuild Gotham and pledges his entire fortune to do just that. But other agendas intrude and the US government decide that because of its long history of being a breeding ground for freaks and criminals, it would be better if Gotham was simply declared a ‘No Man’s Land’ and left to rot. The most telling thing about this is Bruce Wayne has to help Gotham as Bruce Wayne and can only help Gotham as Bruce Wayne… And he fails, dooming Gotham to a period of misery unseen in mainstream comics.

BATMAN: NO MAN’S LAND – VOLS. 1-4
Various (w), Various (a)

No Man's land

So much happens in these four massive volumes, it’s almost impossible to summarise here. Gotham is cut off, Escape From New York style, from the outside world. No one goes in. No one comes out. The city quickly divides into factions, run by the cops, the criminals and… Well, Batman has vanished so justice has to be dished out by a new Batgirl. But who’s wearing the cowl? This introduces a new bat-family member, first in one guise (I won’t reveal who) and then in the guise of Cassandra Cain, a young mute girl who speaks only in violence. In my opinion, Cassie is by far the best Batgirl, better even than Barbara Gordon. She declares herself protector of Gotham until the Batman can return. But where is he? Trapped outside Gotham of course, trying to save the city as Bruce Wayne. This is the bat-universe writ large. Full of great characters and characterisation it’s an absolute must, especially now that DC has collected it in these four volumes, the most complete version of the story yet!

 

BATMAN: NEW GOTHAM (VOL.1)

Greg Rucka (w), Shawn Martinbrough (a)

Batman new gotham

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This collection is the first Detective Comics run post-No Man’s Land and some of Rucka’s best Bat-scripting. Gordon attempts to recruit new cops and Bats fights to stop tensions boiling over as the New Gotham attracts new criminals, including The Lucky Hand Triad. But the Lucky Hand have the mysterious duo of Whisper A’daire and Mr. Abbot to deal with… a pair of criminals who are connected to Bat’s most ambitious villain…

What’s great about this, apart from Rucka’s superior punchy crime writing, is Shawn Martinbrough’s stark, noir-influenced pencils and Wildstorm FX’s rotating, limited colour-palette that accomplishes the same things Sin City does using black and white: pushing your eye exactly where they want it to go. A great collection to own!

BATMAN BY ED BRUBAKER (VOL.1)
Ed Brubaker (w) Scott McDaniel (a)

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This particular volume was released after we published part 2 of our reading list. Brubaker had the difficult task of spearheading Batman’s title book right after NML and to his credit, he manages to bring back something that was missing from the Bat-books during that period: fun. Yeah, I know fun and The Batman don’t really go together that often. But sometimes, they need an injection of humour. I mean, seriously… the Bat-villains are completely nuts and Bruce probably isn’t all that sane either. And that’s not to say the book is without it’s broody-moody moments or danger. Brubaker introduces new villain ‘Zeiss’ to the rogues gallery, as well as delving into Bruce’s past a little more and showcasing more of the Bat-family. If you’ve read any of Brubaker’s work for Image or DC over the years, you’ll know you’re in for a treat with this!

BRUCE WAYNE: MURDERER?
Various (w), Various (a)

Bruce Wayne murderer

Speaking of Bruce’s sanity…  This was a gripping crossover from the early ’00s. In the events leading up to this, Bruce is forced by the Wayne Industries board to take on a bodyguard. The extremely capable Sasha Bordeux is given the task and immediately butts heads with Bruce over his elusiveness.

Eventually Sasha discovers who Bruce really is and agrees to cover for him… if she can join him as a crime-fighter! But Bruce also begins a relationship with woman called Vesper Fairchild, who practically stalks him into an affair. When she is found murdered in Wayne Manor, with Bruce being accused of her murder and Sasha being marked as his accomplice, all evidence suggests that Bruce is guilty of the crime. Bruce’s only alibi is the one he can never use: that he and Sasha were fighting crime when the murder happened! This was a genuine detective story all the better for sidelining the Bat in favour of Bruce for much of its run.

BRUCE WAYNE: FUGITIVE
Various (w), Various (a)

bruce wayne fuguitive

A continuation of the Murderer? arc, this sees Bruce do what we’ve been waiting for him to do since the Gotham P.D. put the cuffs on him: Escape custody, don the cowl and attempt to prove his innocence. This has so many great things happening, not least of all being Batman making the decision to destroy the Bruce Wayne persona once and for all and live just as Batman. It’s fantastic to see Batman in action again after last arc and to see Bruce try to repair the relationship with the Bat-family. I won’t spoil the end of this saga for you here, but it’s well worth picking up, to find out both ‘whodunnit’ and indeed how and why!

BATMAN BY BRIAN K. VAUGHN

Brian K. Vaughn (w), Various (a)

Batman BKV

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One of the great things about the longevity of a character like Batman is, if you go back far enough, you find all your favourite writers have worked on him, even if for brief periods. Such is the case of BKV and this volume collecting his bat-works. First up is a three-parter called ‘Close before striking’ a tale that deals with Matches Malone (Bruce’s criminal alter-ego) and his origins. Next is a Mad Hatter story, Mimsy were the Borogoves, a Lewis Carroll influenced story that showcases BKV’s love of character and quirk. Then we switch to a Wonder Woman tale, featuring Clayface, Nightwing and Robin. Finally we have a short tale from an old Secret Files And Origins called ‘Skullduggery’ which presents a villain called ‘The Skeleton’ who impersonates other Bat-Villains and has a nefarious plan… except it goes no further than that. The villain has never been featured again and BKV won’t reveal who he is. There’s a detective story for the Batman to solve!

That concludes Part 2! Hope you found it useful and we hope to see you back soon for the third and final part of the Batman Reading List, where we’ll battle old foes from Bruce’s past, see the Bat-family increase in size and meet the deadly, inimitable Black Glove! Hope to see you there!

Paul.