"Capture Batman." It’s the order that hundreds of Gotham’s villains have given to their henchmen at one point of another. Dead, alive, transformed into a shadow of his former self… it doesn’t matter. All that they care about is that someone captures Batman and brings him to them. Despite the fact that the order has been given many times over, most of the crooks of Gotham have failed to carry out this seemingly simple request and even end up in the Gotham City emergency room for their efforts.
Capture Batman is also the order given to every Batman comic artist. Although their success rates aren't as dismal as Gotham’s most notorious villains, many over the years have still struggled to produce a rendition of Batman that really captures everything that makes the Dark Knight the icon that he is. That’s especially true of Batman comic covers, of which there is no shortage of uninspiring efforts. Every now and then, though, a Batman comic cover comes along that manages to not only sell the story within, but complete the nearly impossible task of capturing Batman.
These are the 15 Greatest Batman Comic Covers of All Time
15 Detective Comics 880
As you might be able to guess from that striking cover, Batman 880 is a Joker story. More specifically, it’s Scott Snyder’s story of how The Joker escaped from Arkham and has decided to hold Gotham hostage. It's a familiar set-up that’s made great by Snyder’s portrayal of the Joker as a true loose cannon (this is one of the craziest incarnations of the character you’ll find) and by artist Jock’s striking and vibrant art style, which removes many of the shadows from Gotham so that we can see just how ugly things get.
This cover is the artist’s masterpiece so far as his contribution to Batman goes. There are a million ways to paint the Joker as a psychopath, but it’s hard to think of a better one that shows him, as he is in this issue, as a man who has finally become a walking psychological nuclear time bomb. He’s got bats on his brain and bats in his eyes. He cares about nothing but finally getting to Batman by watching everything he cares about burn to the ground. Even if you love the Joker as a character, this disturbing image will make you feel as if he is a true terror.
14 Batman 251
Batman 251’s story is about what you’d expect a Batman comic from the ‘70s to be about. In it, The Joker has escaped yet again and has devised an elaborate plan to capture and kill Batman as well as some former gang members that he believes have betrayed him. It does include a surprisingly poignant moment where the Joker refuses to kill Batman because he ultimately captured him by chance, not because of the brilliance of his elaborate scheme, but for the most part, this is your standard Batman vs. Joker fare.
That cover by artist Neal Adams, though, is something special. The vibrant colors of the Joker’s classic character design clash ominously with the dull urban landscape of Gotham below him. The imagery of him utilizing the ace of spades (his ace in the hole) to render Batman helpless also perfectly hints at the story within. What ultimately makes this cover so great, however, is its un-ironic campiness. This is the kind of pure, retro Batman imagery that some modern artists may try to recapture in the occasional throwback issue, but there’s really no way you could ever recreate the unassuming ridiculousness of this classic.
13 Batman 400
In this historic 400th issue of the Batman comic line, the Dark Knight faces (surprise, surprise) his greatest challenge yet, as Ra’s al Ghul has set nearly every criminal in Arkham Asylum and Gotham State Penitentiary free. To make matters worse, these villains have kidnapped nearly everyone that Batman has ever relied upon and have even captured the Gotham City Police Headquarters. They are running the city, and only Batman can hope to save the day.
It must have been tempting for the artists to load up this cover with nearly every villain and hero as a kind of family portrait to commemorate this anniversary issue. While the heavy amounts of text do diminish the impact of Bill Sienkiewicz's cover somewhat (the textless version is far superior) it’s hard to fault the team of illustrators for wanting to take full credit for such great work. The style is perhaps best described as "Batman by way of Salvador Dali." It’s bleeding with insanity and horror, yet there is an unmistakably classic feel to the look of it as well. It really showcases the crazy beautiful world of the comics.
12 Batman 244
There’s always been a classic vibe to the battles between Ra’s al Ghul and Batman, despite the fact that one is a grown man who dresses as a bat and the other is a repeatedly resurrected master of assassins. With few exceptions, their clashes often come down to sword duels or straight-up fistfights. It’s a proud tradition of timeless conflicts that continues in this issue, where Batman travels to the desert to claim vengeance against Ra’s via a sword duel.
For a comic released in 1972, Neal Adam's cover for Batman 244 is surprisingly dark. Comic books of that era usually relied on teasing the death and destruction of the main hero on the cover in order to tempt you into purchasing the issue, but there’s nothing really comical about the image of Ra’s al Ghul standing tall above an emotionally and physically defeated Batman while an army of soldiers ride into the distant sun. The real highlight here, though, is that look of contempt and regret Ra’s is giving the sword used to stab Batman. It almost suggests that he’s disappointed that he had to, and was able to, defeat him.
11 Batman 497
Batman 497 is not only the defining issue for the character Bane but is generally considered to be one of the most important single issues of Batman ever released. In this comic, Bane pulls a Ra’s al Ghul and releases the many criminals of Gotham. Unlike Ra’s, however, Bane isn’t trying to become the leader of a villain army, but rather prove that Batman can be emotionally and physically beaten like any other man. The tale ends with him facing off against an exhausted Batman and breaking his back over his knee.
That’s the image you see on this cover done by Kelley Jones and Bob Le Rose, and it is a very interesting choice for the cover when the weigh it against other major comics of the time period. As previously noted, it was a popular tactic to show a hero beaten on the cover to sell more issues, but this is one of those rare times that the comic actually delivered what the cover promised. You also have to love the sheer, hulking mass of Bane, who is somehow even bigger here than usual, as well as the cameos of the Batcave’s giant penny and dinosaur, which add a little absurdity to this dramatic moment.
10 Batman 291
Issue 291, also known as “Where Were You On The Night Batman Was Killed,” begins with the announcement that Batman is finally dead. While the criminal underworld should be thrilled about this news, the problem is that nobody is quite sure who actually killed him, as nearly every crook and villain is claiming to be the one who finally brought Batman down. Eventually, a Gotham mobster has to hold a trial at his mansion to discern the identity of Batman’s killer once and for all.
Any cover featuring Batman’s supposed grave is going to get your attention, but no cover with that image comes close to matching the brilliance of the one Jim Aparo designed here. While the marble grave and fading sun help set the stage here, the real greatness of this cover lies in the little details. Joker’s fresh can of paint used to write the words “Burn in Hell” on the epitaph, Scarecrow's lack of a speech bubble, and that thin fog creeping into the painting all serve to enhance the already striking image of some of Batman’s greatest villains standing around his grave in poses that suggest respect and contempt.
9 Gotham By Gaslight
If you’ve never read Gotham by Gaslight, you‘re going to want to fix that oversight just as soon as you can find a copy of this legendary issue. As an Elseworld tale, Gotham by Gaslight doesn’t follow the adventures of Batman as we know him, but rather transports the Dark Knight back to 1889, where Bruce Wayne has discovered that Jack the Ripper may have chosen Gotham as his latest hunting ground. It may sound crazy, but it is widely considered to be one of the greatest Batman stories ever told.
This cover by Mike Mignola, P. Craig Russell, and David Hornung is right up there with the narrative. It’s funny that this story isn’t really part of the Batman canon, as its cover could be considered one of the definitive shots of the Batman character. By playing up the Victorian era themes just slightly in the text and the look of the nearby buildings, Gotham By Gaslight’s cover artists were able to capture that haunting otherworldly element about the character in a way that only the best Batman images can. It grants him the kind of “creature of the night” status that the criminals of Gotham perceive about him.
8 Detective Comics 31
Released way back in 1939, Detective Comics #31 features a very different Batman than the one we know today. His costume is different, his villains are different, and he actually patrols the streets of New York City rather than Gotham. It was a time when Bob Kane and crew were trying to really establish the Batman conventions and, in the process, told many stories like this one, where Batman ends up in fantastical journeys involving globetrotting adventures and a gorilla that almost kills one of the world’s greatest superheroes.
For as much as the character has changed over the years, this cover remains an iconic classic. What’s so interesting about this cover is the context. Batman looks like a vampire looming over his castle, just waiting for his servant in red to bring a fresh victim to his home. We know that’s not the case, but the classic horror movie poster looks of this cover do a brilliant job of playing up the Batman character’s more evil aspects better than many modern writers can. This cover has been updated and replicated ad nausea, but the original stands as the best.
7 A Death in the Family
At the time of A Death in the Family’s original run, a contest was run that allowed fans to call into a special hotline and vote whether they wanted Jason Todd to die or not. As the story goes, the results of the call-in poll were alarmingly close - but nonetheless in favor of killing Todd. So, writer Jim Starlin and his team had no choice but to conclude the following issue with the reveal that The Joker had not only beaten Robin bloody with a crowbar, but succeeding in blowing him to bits.
Although many fans had voted for Todd to go, that knowledge did little to prepare them for the brutality of the moment itself and the hollow feeling of remorse that came afterward. It’s a feeling perfectly captured on this cover by Jim Aparo. Though far simpler than some of Batman’s other greatest covers, the content speaks for itself: this isn’t your average comic book death, and Jason Todd is well and truly dead. It remains one of the most straightforward and iconic covers in the series, relying on shadow and darkness to drive home the point - almost as if Robin was the last shining part of Batman's life.
6 Batman 404
The story of the deaths of Martha and Thomas Wayne has been told so often that even casual Batman fans have probably begun to roll their eyes whenever it starts to play out again in front of them. Although Batman 404 (the beginning of the Year One arc) wasn’t the first time that their deaths had been recounted, its particular version of those events has become, like so many other things in Year One, the definitive take on this seminal moment in the life of Bruce Wayne.
How appropriate is it, then, that this cover by Dave Mazzucchelli is also the definitive visual of this moment? Like A Death in the Family, much of the praise for this cover should go to the Mazzucchelli’s decision to keep it simple. Here we see young Bruce already covered in shadow kneeling in defeat at the bodies of his fallen parents. Their attire is full of life, while his could almost double as the funeral suit. Above him rests the ominous shadow of the bat that may have been a common sight on issue covers at this time, but here, feels like the burdensome harbinger of what is to come.
5 The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns didn’t just help popularize the idea of darker Batman storylines, it propelled comics into what is commonly referred to as the Dark Age with incredible force. The popular saying about The Dark Knight Returns is that there is every Batman comic that came before this story, and there is every Batman comic that came after. This story of an aging Bruce Wayne entering into the field of battle one last time is one of the pillars of the entire comic book world.
The cover by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley isn’t too bad either. This is another fantastic example of a cover that is striking enough on its own but becomes something far greater when viewed in the context of the story. The single lightning bolt that reveals Batman’s silhouette doesn’t show the few extra pounds that this version of Bruce Wayne has packed on in his old age, nor the gray hairs that have sprouted on his head. Instead, it only serves to highlight a creature of the night that is ready to strike yet again against some woefully ill-prepared thug. There is both terror and hope in this single glorious image.
4 Birth of The Demon
There’s actually another iconic Batman cover associated with this storyline (the ultra-realistic image that graces Son of the Demon), but in terms of wow factor, you really can’t argue against the jaw-dropping illustration that graces this volume. This conclusion to what is considered commonly the definitive Ra’s al Ghul storyline gives fans their best look yet at the villain himself. Indeed, most of the issue is devoted to telling the considerably detailed origin story of Ra’s al Ghul, as well as Batman’s ambitious plan to defeat him by preventing Ra's from resurrecting himself yet again.
As for the cover…well, you hate to use a term like “just look at it” when trying to justify its place as one of the all-time great covers, but seriously, just look at this thing. Artist Norm Breyfogle's style here isn’t necessarily realistic, but the image of Batman looming above Ra’s al Ghul as he rises from the Lazarus Pits yet again does sport a more grounded and mature style than we are used to seeing from Batman covers. It presents a very supernatural situation in a disorienting real style.
3 Batman 423
Batman 423 is actually the story of three cops who have all come together to share stories about their encounters with Batman throughout their careers. There’s an officer who remembers how Batman saved a drug addict from killing himself, another who recalls a particularly intense hostage situation that Batman helped to resolve, and one more who remembers the somewhat unbelievable story of how he and Batman helped two orphans reunite with their parents. That last one, the most “un-Batman” story of them all, is what is depicted on this cover.
Despite it being a relatively odd story for Batman, it does provide the perfect cover image. We’ve seen a million covers and panels that show Batman as a protector, but we rarely see him as caring as he’s shown here. Todd McFarlane’s visual of a young woman crying into the chest of a protector who looks just so demonic would be frightening, were it not for that lone hand shown softly comforting her. It’s the perfect rendition of the hero that Gotham needed.
2 Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a very different kind of Batman story. Actually, this is more of a story about the famed institution that Batman sends his enemies to and the family that founded it than it is necessarily a strict Batman tale. The implication of this story is somewhat familiar, as the Joker tries to prove that Batman deserves to be locked up in Arkham just as much as any of the men and women that he’s put in there.
What makes this a far more striking version of that tale, however, is the comic’s art style. There’s no other Batman comic that looks like this, and you have artist’s Dave McKean’s surrealism design to thank for that. The benefits of this approach are on full display on the issue’s cover, which radiates the terror and insanity that lives inside Arkham so well that you’d swear the building’s walls have crumbled. Into the mouth of this madness wanders the unmistakable image of Batman, whose demeanor suggests that he may be a prisoner walking into the place he'll serve time. Everything depicted here has such great purpose.
1 Batman 608
Batman 608 kicks off the epic 12-part storyline known as Hush. In this issue, Batman’s plans to rescue a boy that has been kidnapped by Killer Croc are complicated by the sudden appearance of Catwoman who has stolen the ransom money. It’s a relatively simple start to what would become one of the most elaborate and respected Batman storylines of all-time. On its own, though, issue 608 of Batman is not necessarily the definitive Batman tale.
This cover by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair, however, is the perfect image of Batman. There’s nothing necessarily complicated about this cover. In fact, you’ve probably seen a million variants of it in other Batman comics and movies. That’s kind of the point, though.
This single shot of Batman, standing in his gray and blue suit atop one of Gotham’s many gargoyles while the ever-present bat signal shines above and Gotham’s tallest skyscraper just pokes through the breadth of Batman’s cape, tells you absolutely everything you need to know about this man and what makes him so great. The best touch, however, is his expression. At times, you look at it and swear he is grimacing. Other times, you might swear it’s the formation of a grin. Maybe it’s both.