Batman is a universally recognized and iconic character with an amazing and storied 79-year history. Even so, there are always newcomers who may have seen Batman in films or animation, but now want to get a deeper look into this character and dive into the comic book world. With so much material out there, it’s sometimes hard to figure out where to start. As a life-long Batman fan and comic book reader, I felt like this would be a perfect opportunity for me to share what I believe are the 5 essential Batman comics books, for anyone who wants to build a solid foundation in truly understanding this character. This list is great for any newcomer or longtime comic book reader wanting to get a deeper look at the character of Batman.
*This list is spoiler-free, only light plot details are touched upon.
1- Batman: Year One
A staple in any comic book collection. Whether you’re a fan of Frank Miller’s work or not, this story is a beautiful reimagining of Batman’s origin and Bruce’s first time donning the cowl. What makes this story such a vital read for any new or seasoned comic book reader is that it is equally as much of a Gordon origin story as it is Batman’s. We get to see the beginning of their respective journeys, as they take their first steps in becoming the heroes they are destined to be. It is such a well told story of their struggle, as both Bruce and Jim attempt to figure out their place and purpose in this corrupt cesspool that Gotham has become. We also see the emergence of Catwoman and some brief looks at Harvey Dent as district attorney. Throughout the story we see the starts of the relationships that Bruce will build with both Jim and Selina, two of the most important characters in his world. This would definitely be my number one reading choice for anyone starting to get into the comic book realm and wants a solid origin story for this character. It builds a good foundation for the reader, to learn about Bruce’s motivations along with introductions to some of his important supporting characters. It’s a great jumping off point before getting into more in depth Batman stories.
2- Batman: The Long Halloween
Under Jeph Loeb’s brilliant writing and Tim Sale’s unique art style, this year long, 13 issue story is a mystery masterpiece, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time. It is popular belief that this story is a continuation from Batman: Year One and features a vast range of characters from the Batman mythos. We follow Batman as he works with Gordon, now appointed Captain at the end of Year One, and DA Harvey Dent, to finally end the reign of the Falcone crime family. Unfortunately, they are soon met with a string of murders in which they must work together to uncover the mystery. This story serves as an amazing look at Batman in his pure detective form. With appearances from many of Batman’s greatest villains and a surprising twist at the end, this is the quintessential Batman story. We get to see the interactions between Batman and much of his rogues’ gallery. For any reader, this would be one of the best stories to really dive into the world of Batman and get a deeper look at many of his characters and their dynamics. This story should definitely be an essential in any Batman reading list.
3- Batman: Hush
Also written by the great Jeph Loeb and drawn by the legend Jim Lee, Batman: Hush has many similarities to The Long Halloween on the surface level, but brings its own unique quality that makes it one of the greatest Batman stories of this generation. It also features a wide range of characters, from Batman’s biggest villains to guest heroes. What allows this story to stand apart is its deeper look at character of Batman and his relationships. This story features a seasoned Batman, taking place in his later years, and having gone through the death of Jason Todd. Wrapped around a mystery that Batman works to solve, we get to see the building of new relationships between Bruce and other characters. Full of twists and turns along with appearances by major characters such as Superman and Ra’s al Ghul, this story has something for everyone. It does such a great job in showing Batman’s place in the world in a broad sense but at the same time giving a more personal look at this character. Jim Lee’s defined and strong artwork gives this a different type of visual language that can sometimes make it an easier read for the newcomer to grasp, rather than the highly stylized art direction of Year One or The Long Halloween. There are a couple of major twists and surprises that would leave a new reader in shock and definitely leave a lasting impact, generating curiosity to keep reading and seek out more Batman stories.
4- Detective Comics #27
This to me is a very important read, regardless of being an experienced reader or someone who is just beginning their comic book journey. When trying to learn and understand the character of Batman, it is imperative to see how he started and what he was in his first appearance. Though he has gone through significant changes over his 79-year history, such as the fact that he didn’t shy away from killing, it is important to know what this character was in the beginning. On a side note, it also shows that many of these critics who claimed Batman has never killed, have little to no comic book experience. Since his conception, Batman was a killer and didn’t have his famous “no killing rule” until much later in his history. Though Batman’s killing habits have changed for the better, we can’t deny his past and what this character used to be during the golden age. I would put this as the 4th essential Batman comic to read, because although this was his first appearance, it isn’t a good choice as the first book to read when getting into this character. Rather, this is a good book to read for reference and to build context of his history. This comic is best read after having already built a solid foundation around Batman, his world, and what he stands for today.
5- Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
This book is one of my personal favorite Batman stories of all time, and one of the most powerful stories for this character that I have ever read. Considered to be the “Final” Batman story, it was told in two parts, Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853. Written by the legendary Neil Gaiman, this is the story of Batman’s wake. It features many of Bruce’s greatest villains and his greatest allies, at his wake, all giving their accounts on how the Batman died. We get to see much of the character’s storied history through each account, along with many surprising takes. Each character from Alfred, Robin, and Catwoman, all the way to Superman giving their rendition as to what they believe caused the death of Batman. Without spoiling too much, what is learned by the end is that Bruce’s entire life is tied to his mission as Batman. That his mission is his one true purpose in life, and his iron will to continue the fight is everlasting and to the death. This story is not only a celebration of Batman’s history but also a deep psychological examination of what being Batman truly means to Bruce. With one of the most haunting and captivating endings, this story is a must read for any newcomer or experienced reader.
– Honorable Mentions –
Below are some of my honorable mentions. They are amazing Batman stories in their own right, but not the ones I would recommend when first trying to understand this character and his motivations. These are great and rewarding books to read after a solid foundation of this character has been built.
1- The Dark Knight Returns
2- Batman: Gothic
3- Batman: Strange Apparitions