Comic BooksOpinion

Holiday Gift Guide: Six Graphic Novels for the Batman Newcomer

Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

So, you have someone close in your life, and you’ve noticed, ever since you went to see The Dark Knight together in 2008, that they’re slowly becoming more and more of a Batman geek. Maybe it’s the creepy Batman plush toy scowling at you from their nightstand. Or maybe it’s the fact that you found all four seasons of Batman: The Animated Series DVR’d to your TV. Or perhaps it’s their ill-conceived plans for a lower back tattoo of the Bat Signal. Regardless, it’s becoming more obvious as the holidays approach, and you’ve already begun planning a Batman-themed gift for them. But you’ve also noticed that as much as their fandom has evolved over the past couple of years, they’ve never been introduced to the comics, the very core of the Batman Mythos, and as a comic book reader yourself, you find that unacceptable. You want to get them started right though, so you need to find newcomer-friendly Batman stories (i.e. nothing by Grant Morrison). And that’s where we come in. For your gifting pleasure, here are six of the best Batman stories ever told that are fantastic starting points for any greenhorn reader.

6. Haunted Knight

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The first of several entries on this list by Batman scribe Jeph Loeb, Haunted Knight is more or less a trilogy of one-shot stories by Loeb (with art from his infamous partner-in-crime Tim Sale) that focus on one of Batman’s more twisted foes and their clash with the Dark Knight on Halloween. “Fears” deals with Batman confronting his worst nightmares head-on while trying to survive a thorn maze laced with Scarecrow’s fear toxin, “Madness” depicts the Dark Knight and Commissioner Gordon working together to save Gordon’s young daughter Barbara (yes, that Barbara) from the Mad Hatter, and “Ghosts” is a demented parody of A Christmas Carol featuring Poison Ivy, Joker, and the “ghost” (actually hallucination) of Bruce Wayne’s father. Besides getting three intriguing stories for the price of one all brought to life by Tim Sale’s superb art, they are great introductions to some of the weirder members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery that also shine a light on they relate to and affect Batman in their confrontations. Stories like The Killing Joke, Mad, and Night of the Owls do a fantastic job of exploring the depths of one villain in particular, but require that you already know a great deal about the Batman Mythos to truly understand the story. In Haunted Knight, not only does it touch on the inner workings of the villains effectively, but it also explores Bruce Wayne’s psychology, and how his own demons have shaped him into the man he is. With three Halloween stories that are chilling to the bone, Haunted Knight is an excellent introduction to the weirder spectrum of Batman’s enemies as well his own damaged psyche.

5. Zero Year

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The most recent of all our suggestions comes from Volumes 4 and 5 (yeah, it’s a two-parter) of the most recent Batman series, currently written by American Vampire wonderchild Scott Snyder and illustrated by Greg Capullo. As the title suggests, Zero Year takes place in the early years of the Dark Knight’s career, as Snyder takes a break from his present-day storylines (which are amazing, by the way) to explore Batman’s first supervillain encounter, as well as his first city-wide cataclysm (no, not that cataclysm). While a young Bruce Wayne is preoccupied with the likes of the Red Hood Gang and his uncle Philip Kane’s corrupt business deals, mentally unstable Wayne Enterprises Strategist Edward Nygma becomes obsessed with finding a “worthy opponent” for his mind games. After Batman botches several of his schemes to kill Bruce Wayne for control of Wayne Enterprises, he believes he has finally found his rival, and hijacks Gotham’s power supply and floods the city as The Riddler we all know and love(?), challenging Batman to a deadly game of wits for the fate of Gotham using the whole city as his chessboard. Readers then delve into young Batman’s headspace as he wraps his mind around city-wide destruction and a villain above and beyond the street crime he’s accustomed to fighting for the very first time. Zero Year also gives us a window into how Gotham as a whole is adjusting to the idea of Batman, mainly through then Lieutenant James Gordon, Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Snyder’s newest creation Harper Row. With nods to other early Batman stories like Year One (which actually takes place before Zero Year) and The Killing Joke, Snyder and Capullo offer a fantastic story for Riddler fans (which are sadly in short supply) as well as those in search of a Batman story that’ epic in scale without having to comb through tons of backstory.

4. Hush

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Jeph Loeb’s triumphant return to the mantle of Batman writer in 2002 proved not only how awesome Batman’s friends and foes are, but how interesting a story that uses all of them in tandem could be. Taking place over the course of a year (a recurring theme in Loeb’s work), something’s amiss as many of the Dark Knight’s enemies start committing crimes outside their typical MO, some even cooperating with each other, leading Batman and Catwoman join forces in an attempt to solve the apparent conspiracy, rekindling their relationship as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in the process. Meanwhile, a childhood friend of Batman, brain surgeon Thomas Elliott, re-enters his life, but tragedy strikes before Bruce can figure out why, sending him on the warpath. Behind the scenes, a mysterious new figure with extensive knowledge of both Bruce Wayne and Batman’s intimate secrets (including that they are the same person) known as Hush appears, manipulating nearly every facet of Gotham’s Underworld in an attempt to destroy both Bruce Wayne and The Dark Knight by using his most vivid failures against him. Never losing momentum and keeping you in suspense until the very end on the true identity of Hush and his true motives, Hush finds Batman re-examining his relationships with those closest to him as he works to unravel the onslaught of crime and terror slowly engulfing his life. With a web of conspiracy and intrigue ensnaring both some of his deadliest adversaries and most trusted allies, Hush is a detective story that deftly introduces one of the best new Batman villains into the fold and gives new readers a crash course on nearly all of the major players in Batman’s life both good and bad, along with a twist ending that rocked Batman’s world the very core.

3. The Dark Knight Returns

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Why yes, precocious comic book reader, this is indeed the one where Batman beats the shit out of Superman, then promptly dies (JK not really). Taking place well outside the accepted canon, Frank Miller’s magnum opus begins with an aging Bruce Wayne coming out of a fifteen year retirement as Batman, having hung up the cowl after the second Robin Jason Todd’s murder at the hands of the Joker (to be fair, it was pretty brutal). In a Gotham ravaged by crime and terrorized by a new ultra-violent street gang known as The Mutants, you’d think Batman’s return would be welcome, but we soon learn much of the city has lost faith in the Dark Knight, with a psychiatrist famous for seemingly curing Two-Face of his insanity denounces Batman for inadvertently creating most of his own enemies, as well as a new police commissioner determined to bring the Batman in for good. Eventually, his return rattles Gotham’s new status quo enough that the US government decides to send in Superman to shut him down, resulting in some of the most iconic action and dialogue sequences in comic book history. TDKR is also unique in that it explores the idea that maybe Bruce’s intentions for becoming Batman weren’t entirely selfless, as he freely admits the rush he gets from stopping crime upon his return, as well as the idea that while he may inspire some of his villains, he brings out the best in just as many, if not more, of those he encounters. Giving us the gift of a brand-new Robin, fan favorite Carrie Kelley, a slew of epic final confrontations with Two-Face, The Mutant King, Joker, and Superman, and an entire dictionary’s worth of weird slang, TDKR is the epic saga of the twilight days of the Batman Legend that asks what Bruce Wayne is really fighting for and why, questions that any reader new or old needs to have answered.

2. Year One

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Weirdly enough, Frank Miller’s other masterpiece centers around the opposite end of the spectrum: the very beginning. Set over the course of Bruce Wayne’s first year as Batman as well as James Gordon’s first year as a cop in Gotham, this story focuses on the founding of their relationship as they simultaneously fight the corruption within Gotham’s Police Department along with the rampant street crime enabled in its wake. Their interactions are rocky at first, due to Gordon’s stance against vigilantism and Batman’s aversion to cops and belief he doesn’t need allies, but as the year progresses and circumstances prove dire, they finally form a covert alliance against Gotham’s Criminal Elite. More than any of Batman story before or after, Year One accentuates the full extent of Bruce Wayne’s mortality, as the fledgling Dark Knight grows to realize that even if he is a far superior fighter than the thugs of Gotham, one clumsy error can earn him a fatal bullet. Meanwhile, Gordon struggles with his own vulnerabilities, plagued with threats of violence and exposure of his extramarital affair throughout the year as he strives to clean up the Gotham PD. The tone and art are much closer to a noir thriller than a superhero story, and the focus on members of Gotham’s old guard of crime like the Falcone Family rather than any of Batman’s more iconic villains cements that this is a story of people, not heroes and villains. Illustrating the human aspects of Batman and Gordon like no other and also touching on the origins of major characters like Harvey Dent and Selina Kyle, Year One stands out in the Batman Mythos as the one true spotlight on the seemingly unwinnable crusade against crime in Gotham, a fine starting point for any newcomer.

1. The Long Halloween/Dark Victory

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No one story arc encapsulates nearly everything a newcomer needs to understand about the Batman Mythos quite like the infamous two-act saga of the Loeb/Sale combo. Though sold as two separate narratives and perfectly capable of being read and enjoyed independently without issue by any greenhorn reader, The Long Halloween and its sequel, Dark Victory, are best served as two parts of one epic whole. TLH finds Batman, Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent working together to find a serial killer who strikes on holidays while the old crime families of Gotham attempt to band together against the new breed of costumed villains that have begun encroaching on their territory. Both exploits take a turn for the worse as the investigation shifts to members of Falcone Family and their allies, ultimately resulting in Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face as well as the figurative and literal crippling of the Falcone Family. Dark Victory takes place the following year, with a new killer targeting cops on holidays as the Falcone Family struggles to save what remains of their criminal empire. Meanwhile, Two-Face begins uniting all of Gotham’s Rogues in a plot to destroy the old Gotham crime families for good, and the origins of the first Robin, Dick Grayson, are explored as the war between the old and new faces of crime results in the death of his family and his adoption into the Wayne household. Together, the two stories illuminate several key dynamics in Batman’s life, such as his relationships with Gordon, Dent, Selina Kyle, Joker, and Dick. They also depict the evolution of Batman’s war on crime over these pivotal two years in his career, as well as how his Rogues Gallery usurped the Gotham Underworld for themselves. Put together The Long Halloween and Dark Victory provide an in-depth look at how Batman’s entire world came to be, and are perhaps the most complete introduction a new reader could get in one story arc.

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