With Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice just around the corner now, it’s time to kick off the celebration by boning up on some essential Batman reading material. While these classic comic stories are by no means necessary to enjoy the new story that director Zack Snyder and his crew have cooked up for movie-going audiences, it’ll certainly help expand upon Ben Affleck’s handling of the character, how his titular bout against Superman (Henry Cavill) will play out, and, even, provide some sneak peeks on how the character might behave and interact with the rest of the Justice League members. (Oh, it’ll also give you some of the best Batman stories the comics have produced since his grand debut in 1939 – not a shabby time-killer, if you ask us.)
Don’t worry, Superman fans – the other half of the cinematic dynamic duo will be handled in his own list next week. But in the meantime, here are 10 Batman Comics To Read Before Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
10. Justice League: Origin
Year published: 2011-2012
Number of issues: six
Format: story arc within the Justice League series
When DC Comics relaunched its entire lineup under the banner of The New 52, it kicked things off with a retooled origin story of the Justice League’s formation, set five years before the current (new) continuity.
In this telling, an extraterrestrial invasion (which is ultimately revealed to be Darkseid, an interstellar despot bent on – what else? – conquest) nabs the attention of Batman, Green Lantern, Superman, and the Flash, most of whom meet for the first time and all of whom end up engaged in superheroic fisticuffs with one another – until Batman is able to talk everyone down from the metaphorical cliff, making them realize that they’re all actually on the same side.
The aliens’ presence draws Aquaman and Wonder Woman into the fray, as well, and it even inadvertently results in the creation of Cyborg when high school star athlete Vic Stone is caught in a terrible explosion and his father, in a desperate effort to save him, replaces his damaged body parts with cybernetic implants. Together, the seven superheroes quickly learn how to work as a team in order to overcome the nearly-invincible Darkseid, repeal the invasion, and save the day.
It is Bruce Wayne that sees the need for the nascent team’s continued operation, not the least of which is because Darkseid promises to return at some point to finish the job. When the president of the United States publicly thanks the group, it is the Flash that coins their name: the “Super Seven” – which, of course, ultimately gets replaced by the “Justice League.”
Given that Batman V Superman has been made into the vehicle primarily responsible for bringing DC’s main heroes together, don’t be surprised to see many a similarity with this most recent of origin tales (could Darkseid, for instance, be replaced by Lex Luthor’s pet Kryptonian creation, Doomsday?).
Year published: 2002-2003
Number of issues: 12
Format: story arc within the Batman series
After penning the convoluted-but-popular miniseries Batman: The Long Halloween and its follow-up, Dark Victory, writer Jeph Loeb (now the head of Marvel TV) decided to have one last go-round with the Dark Knight, throwing practically every member of the so-called Batman family into the mix. The result is, in many ways, a narrative mess, but it also has proven to be one of the most influential Bat-stories in recent history – and, just possibly, one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Batman V Superman, specifically, and the entire DC Extended Universe, generally.
The story goes a little something like this: a brand-new villain by the name of Hush makes his move against Batman, revealing an incredibly strong and intimate knowledge of the Caped Crusader. He’s also managed to mobilize most of the Bat rogues gallery in his effort, relying, for instance, upon Poison Ivy to employ her mind-control neurotoxin spores on a number of individuals, ranging from Catwoman to Superman – which results in a brief-but-vicious, take-down fight between the two superheroes. (“Hush” also utilizes the shapeshifting Clayface to impersonate the late Jason Todd, the second Robin who died at Joker’s hands years earlier, making both Batman and readers believe he had somehow come back to life. It was such a popular deceit, DC editorial made it a reality shortly afterwards – which may now be the basis for the next standalone Batman film.)
8. Justice League of America: Tower of Babel
Year published: 2000
Number of issues: four
Format: story arc within the JLA series
Ra’s al Ghul, one of Batman’s most devious and well-entrenched enemies, launches a worldwide strike, broadcasting a signal that disrupts the language processing center of the human brain, first making written communication impossible and then, later, verbal. This prevents the global community from interfering with his latest plan: the culling of humanity to a more manageable population.
Even worse, the Justice League is rendered unable to stop Ra’s and his League of Assassins due to a simultaneous, highly coordinated assault on all eight members, which is able to specifically target each individual’s vulnerabilities. Once they are able to recover from the onslaught and successfully take down al Ghul, Batman is forced to reveal how his nemesis was able to so effectively attack them: the Dark Knight has, for years, been keeping highly detailed files that list each member’s strengths and weaknesses in the off chance that one or all of them go rogue, which would enable him to take them all out. The League of Assassins was able to infiltrate the Batcave, remove those records, and utilize them to deadly effect.
Aghast at Bruce Wayne’s perceived treachery, the Justice League feels the only way to deal with such a betrayal is to vote on whether he should be allowed to remain on the team. With Superman casting the breaking ballot, Batman is kicked off of the League.
While it’s unknown if, say, the two-part Justice League film will center on a similar plot (it would make for the ultimate of cliffhangers, wouldn’t it?), the Caped Crusader’s paranoid-fueled methodology has already been adapted to form the basis of his motivations in Batman V Superman.
7. Identity Crisis
Year published: 2004
Number of issues: seven
The “event series” Identity Crisis has, as its main conceit, a rather intriguing (and morally grey) premise: during the course of a murder investigation, it is revealed that several members of the Justice League have secretly and consistently been using the magical powers of the sorceress Zatanna to mind-wipe its enemies in the utmost of sensitive cases – such as, for instance, when various supervillains have discovered the League members’ secret identities, or when the wife of one of the heroes gets raped by a long-running and third-rate nemesis (this mind-wipe and personality realignment help to explain why, over the course of the previous few decades, the character went from being a serious threat to a ham-fisted buffoon).
In an interesting twist on “Tower of Babel’s” Batman-centric twist, it is also revealed that Batman at one point walks in on his teammates performing such a mind wipe and is outraged at their condoning such an action, almost coming to blows with them – which, in turn, leads the Justice League to mind wipe him, as well, in order to keep their cover intact (Superman starts to grow suspicious of their actions) and to maintain the peace, both internally and externally. Once Bruce learns the truth of how he had been manipulated, it would have dire consequences for the whole rest of the DC Universe – and, possibly, great inspiration for the DC Extended Universe.
6. Zero Year
Year published: 2013-2014
Number of issues: 12
Format: story arc within the Batman series
After a 26-year reign as the definitive version of Batman’s origin story, DC decided that it was finally time to phase Frank Miller’s seminal “Year One” storyline out and replace it with a brand-new telling, one more in keeping with the rebooted New 52 mythology. “Zero Year,” a year-long event, was the result, offering a more hi-tech, futuristic take on Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman and borrowing heavily from various Bat media: from “Year One,” from all the comic narratives told in between, and, even, from the spate of big-screen adventures, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (not surprising, given the huge overlap with Batman Begins).
In this origin tale, Bruce returns to a Gotham already swarming with costumed baddies, led by the Red Hood Gang (whose leader, it is strongly implied, becomes the once and future Joker). In order to take them down for good, Bruce is forced to don armor and employ a technologically advanced arsenal of gadgets – but once their anarchy-loving ways are ended, it is revealed that the real threat all along was Edward Nygma, who is then free to don the persona of the Riddler and then sever – and control – Gotham City in a fashion not unlike Bane’s (Tom Hardy) convoluted plan in The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham is a post-apocalyptic wasteland now, leaving a still-fledgling Batman to attempt to take him down.
The cinematic scope of the imagery and narrative both, the intriguing re-envisioning of the rogues gallery (most especially the Riddler), and the constant twists and turns make this ripe for Ben Affleck’s solo Bat flick, for better or worse. (If you ask us, the DCEU would be far better served sticking with Miller’s “Year One.”)
5. Batman: Earth One
Year published: 2012
Number of issues: one
Format: graphic novel
In a move not unlike Marvel’s Ultimate Universe, DC opted to create an alternate-reality, modern-day retelling of Batman’s origin specifically designed to mix up the well-trodden elements of the classic mythos to see what would shake out.
Dr. Thomas Wayne, as such, is running for the mayor of Gotham City against the incumbent, the corrupt Oswald Cobblepot. Martha Wayne is a member of the Arkham family, which has a legendary history of co-founding the city and of harboring madness. And Alfred Pennyworth is a former military officer that is hired to be the head of the Waynes’ security detail.
The rest of the origin story plays out largely along the same lines – Bruce creates his Batman costume and begins his training – though there are several more deviations along the way (such as Alfred being Bruce’s crime-fighting instructor instead of the various international masters or, even, Ra’s al Ghul, as seen in Batman Begins). And there are even more clues left for future installments to explore, such as an equally alternate rendition of the Riddler and of Batgirl, though the follow-up volumes have proven to be slow in coming.
What impact could this have on the DC Extended Universe? A lot, actually. Should director Zack Snyder and his collaborators prove themselves comfortable with coloring outside of the traditional DC lines, these alternate conceptualizations of the hallowed Bat-lore could prove to be a creative boon, particularly given that this is the third incarnation of the Batman franchise on the big screen – and, indeed, we have already seen that Batman V Superman’s rendition of Alfred is taken almost entirely from Earth One’s take.
4. A Death in the Family
Year published: 1988-1989
Number of issues: four
Format: story arc within the Batman series
Jason Todd, the second Robin, is almost entirely a disaster as the Boy Wonder – he is impatient, impulsive, reckless, and, perhaps worst of all, fearless. Batman responds by suspending the former street urchin from his sidekick duties.
The brief respite allows Jason time to take a trip down memory lane, reflecting on his troubled youth, when he makes a discovery: the woman he knew as his mother was actually his step-mom. Using the Batcomputer, Todd is able to locate his biological mother, who is located either in the Middle East or Africa. He slips away to investigate further.
Batman just so happens to bump into Robin overseas when attempting to thwart the Joker’s sale of a thermonuclear device to terrorists (who are hell-bent on using it to level Tel Aviv, thereby injecting some real-world geopolitics into the tale). There, Robin finds himself being taken hostage by the supervillain in a very interesting, gut-wrenching twist – and then beaten nearly senseless with a crowbar and left to die in a warehouse next to a time bomb. Although Bruce Wayne tries his best to rescue his protégé, he is too late – the bomb goes off, killing young Jason Todd.
If this seems a particularly dark story, even just in highlight form, it is, and it must be read in order to fully appreciate its various emotional nuances and sub-plots. It’s easy to see where the DCEU can take its cues from this tale, from its tone to the specific plot point that Joker has murdered a former Robin – which, it just so happens, has already been established in one of Batman V Superman’s many trailers.
Year published: 1993-1994
Number of issues: 23
Format: story arc within the Batman, Detective Comics, Batman: Shadow of the Bat, and Showcase ‘93 series
“Knightfall” is the storyline that changed Batman forever. After having relegated the several different Bat titles into their own independent corners of the mythos, the idea struck the editorial office to unite them all together in one of the biggest, most shocking narratives the character had ever seen before – or since.
The new villain Bane – created specifically for “Knightfall” – breaks all the inmates out of Arkham Asylum, putting Batman through the gauntlet; the Caped Crusader has to round up all the various members of his rogues gallery 24 hours a day, day after day, leaving him both physically and mentally exhausted. Then and only then does Bane himself strike, bursting into the Batcave and doing the unthinkable: breaking Bruce Wayne’s back over his knee.
Crippled from the waist down, Bruce is forced to pass the cape and cowl on to another individual (Jean Paul Valley, who goes by the costumed moniker of Azrael) while he attempts to heal – or, barring that, moving on to the new normal of his life. Azrael proves to be a darker, more sinister masked vigilante, redesigning the suit to fit his more vicious ways and generally adopting a no-holds-barred approach to the lowlifes of Gotham City. The storyline would actually continue for the next two or three years(!), showing Bruce slowly reclaiming both his health and the mantle of the Bat from Jean Paul – forcibly.
Despite some elements that are woefully dated – such as Azrael’s new Bat costume – “Knightfall” provides many narrative elements, from specific scenes to the four-year throughline, that are practically begging to be adapted to the big screen, especially considering how Chris Nolan has already updated the character of Bane.
2. The Dark Knight Returns
Year published: 1986
Number of issues: four
It’s hard to think of something about writer and artist Frank Miller’s seminal Batman story that hasn’t already been said over and over again. The miniseries that solidified the dark, more serious take on the character and his rogues gallery, Dark Knight Returns posits a hypothetical future in which Batman and the rest of the DC superhero pantheon have been forced to retire – but neither government proclamation nor old age can stop Bruce Wayne from once again donning his cape and cowl and restoring order to Gotham’s crumbling streets when things get too far out of hand. This not only results in a re-awakening of all the Bat baddies (which, in the Joker’s case, is literally true, as he rouses from a decade-long coma when the newscasts mention the Caped Crusader’s return), but also in punitive action from the president, who dispatches his own personal weapon of mass destruction – Superman – to resolve the Bat problem once and for all.
This grimmer, more disturbed take on the Dark Knight has gone on to inform many a subsequent narrative in the 30 years since, including Batman V Superman itself, as Zack Snyder has been only too happy to repeat in the news coverage; although Ben Affleck’s older vigilante isn’t returning from retirement, he is older, more hardened, and certainly more extreme. And he even manages to wear the Bat-battle armor that Miller designed for the ultimate confrontation between individualism and cronyism, between man and god; in fact, the titular cinematic bout between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel looks to borrow more than just the glowing-eyed suit from the comic.
Year published: 1989-1990
Number of issues: five
Format: story arc within the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series
While traveling the world in an attempt to master the various disciplines that will enable him to be the perfect crime fighter, young Bruce Wayne is left stranded in the Alaskan wilderness when an effort to apprehend a serial killer goes awry. He only survives after a local tribe of Native Americans takes him in, and, in an effort to heal him, a shaman wearing a bat mask tells him the story of how the mouse became the bat. It works, and Bruce is sworn to secrecy regarding the tribe’s sacred – and secret – narrative.
Once settled back in Gotham, Bruce realizes that he will need something more theatrical in order to be an effective force against crime – shades of Frank Miller’s “Year One” storyline from just two years previously here – and after returning to Wayne Manor badly beaten, a bat flies through the window and into his study. The half-forgotten Native American story comes to mind, and it solidifies in Bruce the decision to become Batman.
“Shaman” is more than just a novel take on Batman’s origin – it’s also an interesting insight into the Dark Knight’s earliest days fighting crime, written by the legendary Dennis O’Neil, the man who literally transformed the character into his modern-day dark-and-brooding template (from which Frank Miller would inject his heady dose of steroids with The Dark Knight Returns). It’s also, at the end of the day, a good, old-fashioned Batman story, with a murderer prowling the streets of Gotham wearing that shaman’s old bat mask, pitting two Bat-dressed individuals against one another.
For its sheer originality and engaging dramatics, it’s hard to find a better, oft-overlooked comic to prime oneself for the Bat-onslaught that is to come in the DC Extended Universe.
Did we miss your favorite comic storyline? Do you think there’s a far more worthwhile number one on the list? Be sure to share your Bat-thoughts below.