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Batman's a sociopathic asshole, a man who chooses to fight crime with his fists rather than his millions of dollars. If you're only familiar with Rocksteady Studios' Arkham series of video games, that sounds like the perfect plot for the medium, where beating down 4,000 goons is a plus point—but it's weak stuff for a book. And Batman is first and foremost a comic book character, with a rich and varied history stretching back to 1939.
With a back catalogue that size it can seem daunting to jump into the comics, but Batman's been rebooted and rewritten so many times that no solid continuity exists. Rather than trying to make sense of it, let's keep it simple: "Bruce Wayne's parents are dead, he fights crime." Every story after this just adds more flavor. Maybe he's sad about his parents dying, maybe he paints an entire room yellow just to fuck with the Green Lantern—the latter can't use his powers on anything yellow. Comic books.
A lot of the better books aren't really about Batman at all. He's defined by his adversaries, the real driving force behind his character.
Let's start at the beginning: 1987's Batman: Year One takes us through Bruce Wayne's formative first year and is often rated as the definitive origin story. Written by Frank Miller (well known for Sin City) it's tight and well written, and also chronicles long-time ally Jim Gordon's first year in Gotham as a young detective. David Mazzucchelli's art is minimalist, but you're here for the start of the story and Batman's fumbling first steps while Gordon wages war on corruption rife in Gotham's police force.
Miller has a lot of fun reintroducing us to characters that are already established. We know Batman and Gordon as titans of justice, but here they're flawed and human: Gordon falls for a female detective despite his wife at home, while Batman nearly gets killed by a robber armed with a TV set. There's a real sense here that things are just starting out, with some incredible set pieces.
Jeph Loeb's work is next on our reading list. The Long Halloween picks up where Year One left off: Batman has hit his stride as a vigilante and has teamed up with Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent to try and stamp down on organized crime, while a mysterious assassin named the Holiday Killer is picking off members of the mob on public holidays.
Set over the course of a year, and originally published in 1996-7, this one is my personal favorite because it shows the impact that Batman has had on his environment. Feeling squeezed out by Batman and Holiday, the crime syndicates turn to costumed supervillains. Batman is never explicitly blamed, but the implication is obvious. Wearing the cowl is actively making Gotham a worse place. The collateral damage and outlandish crimes committed by these new foes seems infinitely worse than the protection rackets and corruption of the families.
Dark Victory from 1999-2000 follows directly after, outlining Batman's victory against organized crime in Gotham and the colorful cast of supervillains that takes its place. This is the birth of the Gotham Batman now inhabits. The tragedy here is the fall from grace of District Attorney Harvey Dent, who goes from one of the city's staunchest defenders to the psychotic villain Two-Face.
Batman takes the backseat in Alan Moore's ( Watchmen, V for Vendetta) The Killing Joke, a story dedicated to Batman's ultimate nemesis, the Joker. Fans of the Arkham games will have seen plenty of the clown prince of crime before his untimely death at the climax of Rocksteady's 2011 game Arkham City (oh come on, it's been long enough to not need a spoiler alert, surely?), but this gives you a little more insight into the grinning maniac.
The Joker has a theory. He believes any man can be driven insane with just "one bad day." The target he chooses is Batman's long-time ally Jim Gordon, subjecting him to a series of torments before Batman swoops in to save the day.
Barbara Gordon was well known in the DC universe as Batgirl when the comic was published, and the events of the book see her tragically hanging up her bat-ears and becoming the Oracle, a hyper-intelligent voice in your ear throughout the newly released Batman: Arkham Knight game. It might just be that there's a massive the Killing Joke reference in Arkham Knight, too. Just maybe. (We'll be featuring said game in detail very soon—we need to finish it first.)
Twenty-five years has done a lot to lessen that sting from The Killing Joke's twist, but the core message hasn't changed: the Joker's calm assertion that he and Batman were born out of "one bad day" and how they're polar opposites of the same trauma. This is absolutely chilling.
Hush of 2002-'03 sees Mr. Tall, Cowled, and Scowly on an international adventure to discover the identity of titular villain Hush, who seems to be perpetually several steps ahead and playing Batman off against all of his foes, one after another. Batman is wounded and alone, trying to make sense of things.
The story is middling, but where Loeb's plots fall short in this instance, they're more than made up for by Jim Lee's art. It's a hell of a ride, every panel bursting with action as Batman squares off against Clayface, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Riddler, and even Superman while trying to get to the bottom of things. You'll see the end coming long before you get to the climax, but like a Hollywood blockbuster, by that point you'll be having too much fun to care.
2000's Justice League of America: Tower of Babel gave Batman the reputation of an unstoppable badass. While not possessing any of the superpowers of his JLA cohorts, Batman devised a set of plans to take each of them down in the event they might go rogue.
On Motherboard: If You Are Pro-Batman, You Are Anti-Gun
Because this is Comicbookland and Batman can't seem to set up two-factor authentication, they get stolen and used to incapacitate the Justice League entirely. The actual methods for beating each member are kind of dull, but Batman's a man with a plan, and it's a star turn for villain Ra's Al Ghul too, making the most of Batman's obsessive planning to take down DC's premier supergroup. This one can be hard to find now, but it's well worth tracking down.
There are a few other great choices here on the fringe, too. 2002's Batman: Nine Lives has the story shift into noir territory. While they might be partners in another timeline, "original Robin" Dick Grayson and the Batman don't care for each other much here, but when "sometimes-Catwoman" Selina Kyle is murdered the pair team up to work it out. The spotlight is turned on Grayson here and the character shines under it, but also look out for some excellent changes to the bad guys: Joker becomes a card shark, Two-Face a corrupt lawyer, and Mr Freeze a cold-hearted hitman.
Neil Gaiman isn't the first person you would expect to write about the Dark Knight, and his Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader of 2009 is completely leftfield, focussing on a funeral for the Batman attended by all of his allies and villains. Except they all seem to have their own ideas about how he died, and the story is narrated by the Bat himself. Gaiman plays with the concept of multiple universes to create a plot that plays with the Batman mythos while also keeping you guessing long after the last page.
Every fan knows how I have to end. 1986's The Dark Knight Returns is the top recommendation on every list, first to be recommended in every conversation of cape and cowl. There's a reason though: It's fucking brilliant. It's fitting that Frank Miller is writing again and is credited with the best beginning and end to the character's mythos—no other writer understands Batman quite so well.
Bruce Wayne's pushing 55 and has been retired from crime fighting for ten years. After a change of heart he decides to put on the bat-gear again and get back into action, accidentally recruiting a new Robin on the way. This is a depraved Gotham that's descending into anarchy, and Batman is all that stands between it and oblivion.
Unfortunately, this stirs up many of his old enemies again, with the Joker himself waking up from a yearlong catatonia with a renewed purpose, leading to a series of brutal confrontations. One Russian nuke later and the US finds itself plunged into nuclear winter and Batman is leading the "Sons of Batman" to try and maintain order as the country struggles to rebuild.
There's plenty of nice touches here, from the shop-bought costume Carrie Kelley buys before declaring herself the new Robin, to the haggard, elderly Bruce Wayne, and yet another pasting for Superman.
There are plenty of other great books, but this selection should start you off right. Buy some of these and learn about the rich backstory supporting the Arkham series—because it's not how many times you punch Scarecrow in his stupid face, but why.
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