Huey’s 5 Batman Reads that are not "The Dark Knight Returns"
Let’s get this out of the way. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is no doubt one of the most influential pieces of writing and art that has come out in the history of Batman, or even comic books in general. Millers 1986 run still sends out influential gravitational waves today and can be felt on modern story arcs as well as all the cinematic interpretations of the Caped Crusader. Its the top dog on every single Batman reading list.
But DKR is not the only literary masterpiece based around Batman and certainly not the only one that has had influence on how Batman is interpreted on the page and in the cinema. If you are looking to get a basic education in Batman lore, especially in the sense how Batman is being adapted in modern cinema then start here. These 5 reads will give you a nice, clean picture of Batman that isn’t filled with confusing retcons or reboot stories that you have to be expert in comic books to pick up on. (Looking at you Grant Morrison).
And here we go.
The Haunted Knight (1993-95)/The Long Halloween (1996-97)/Dark Victory (1999-00).
Let’s start this out with my all-time favorite set of stories to read together; a ménage trois of trade paperbacks that were all written by Jeph Loeb, penciled by Tim Sale, and all share continuity.
Start with Haunted Knight. The trade paperback is a collection of three different Loeb/Sale one-shot Halloween specials that were published from 1993 to 1995 that deal with three different themes titled: Fear, Madness, and Ghosts. Ghosts is especially cool because it’s a Batman version of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol with the three spirits being represented by some of Batman’s villains. Fears was a big influence on Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (Can you guess the line said in the movie that’s in the book?). Brilliantly structured and drawn, the popularity of these little one-shot issues led Loeb/Sale to develop...
The Long Halloween. A 13-issue arc by Loeb and Sale and my absolute favorite Batman story arc of all time. The Long Halloween takes place in the early days of Batman and has a heavy detective noir feel to it. Its Batman in pure form. (DKR is a great story but less detective and much more an ass kicking). The Long Halloween was actually written as a sequel follow up to Frank Millers Year One; one of the most celebrated Batman origin stories (more on that in a second). Christopher Nolan also pulled lots of material from this run into the much-celebrated film The Dark Knight such as the focus on the Falcone crime family, Harvey Dents transformation, and even has the Joker setting fire to a giant pile of money. This in my opinion captures the true original spirit of Bill Finger and Bob Kanes Batman, a detective story. Its written simple enough you don’t need to be a comic book expert to understand it (*cough cough* Alan Moore). With Wikipedia at our fingertips, you can actually get more fun out of this story by looking up the characters mentioned or referenced in the story, and learn so much more about the Batman universe and giving you so much more context. Once you are done with this, round it out with...
Dark Victory. This run does not get enough credit in the top Batman lists. A 14-issue arc by Loeb/Sale that is a sequel to The Long Halloween and also serves as a sort of re-telling of Robin’s origin and also ties up some stuff from Millers Year One. It also explores the somewhat tumulus relationship Batman has with Catwoman. I don’t want to spoil anything, but again Chris Nolan took some stuff from these stories, especially with the fear gas that Scarecrow likes to use. This was also Christian Bale’s favorite read when he was prepping for his role as Batman. While not as heavy hitting and layered as The Long Halloween, this book is a great companion to the former that focus more on Batman’s inner workings and his struggles to figure out what makes him tick. Another cool aspect is how this story makes Gotham City a character itself as a haunted personality that influences the Batman Family and Villains alike, an idea that movies and books have been chasing ever since.
Year One (1987). I mentioned it twice already. Frank Miller gave us DKR and its sequels for sure, but he also gave us Year One. Perhaps the penultimate Batman origin story that was originally published in Batman issues #404 to #407, this thing has echoed across every single movie or story that has involved Batman ever since. Its suspected that director Matt Reeves’s upcoming The Batman is heavily influenced by this short run. Written with a noir feel, Year One reinvigorated Batman comic book sales again after a long drought in quality story writing. Batman sales were struggling so Miller teamed up with artist David Mazzuchelli (check out Daredevil: Born Again) to reboot a very convoluted history of Batman (especially post crisis...ugh that is another blog post). The result was Miller brilliantly taking some key concepts from Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s original story and introduced some new twists to it that does make it into Batman canon (until D.C. retconned everything again with The New 52). The idea worked, and Year One reinvigorated Batman sales. If Millers DKR is the best Batman read of all time, then Year One is its close companion. Too bad Frank Millers directorial adaptations don’t follow the same track record. The Spirit. Oof.
Hush: Complete Edition (2005)
I often see Frank Miller attributed as the best Batman writer ever. But lookie here, another Jeph Loeb story! Did you know Loeb also wrote Commando and Teen Wolf? I am just now realizing that the title of this blog post should be Huey’s love letter to Jeph Loeb. I hope he notices. Anyway. Hush is a banger. The basic premise is that a mysterious figure called Hush is manipulating Gotham’s villains and creating all sorts of chaos that even gets Superman involved. Loeb’s story is brought to life by the unbelievable penciling of artist Jim Lee with his art on this run (Batman #608-#619) being amongst the most gorgeous visual storytelling ever in comic books. A great mystery/thriller that echoes Loeb’s earlier works that I already mentioned, Hush rounds out this list in a way that you can feel the similarities. These 5 books together create a wonderfully clean Batman universe in your head that’s not filled with retcons… or crisis’s…or new 52s, or earth 616’s… or reboots, or… the WB.
I did group these stories into themes. But I would suggest reading them in this order:
1. Year One
2. The Haunted Knight
3. The Long Halloween
4. Dark Victory
By the way. I do suggest reading DKR after these 5 because its story is so much better having all this fresh context in your head. So yes. Frank Miller is a genius, but my man Loeb really tied it all together for him.
Bonus read for a cold winter night:
Gotham By Gaslight (1989)
A really cool Elseworlds tale. Actually, it is considered the first Elseworlds tale before there was official D.C. Elseworlds tale. Its 19th Century Victorian era. Jack the Ripper is terrorizing Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is a new Batman. WHAAAA? Brian Agustyn (who introduced Mark Waid to D.C.) wrote this and it is drawn by Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame. Great concept, great execution.