This article is part of The Reading List, a recurring column where we encourage you to take your enthusiasm for a particularly groovy movie or TV series and direct it into a wide array of extracurricular studies. This entry picks the best comics to read alongside The Batman.
Two Batman comics always come up when filmmakers are asked about their source material inspiration: Frank Miller and Klaus Janson‘s The Dark Knight Returns and Miller and David Mazzucchelli‘s Batman: Year One. Released in 1986 and 1987, respectively, they radically altered our perception of Bruce Wayne and nearly eradicated our memory of Adam West’s campy television series. The Dark Knight Returns and Year One are serious, grim business, and when partnered with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, they signaled the medium’s maturation. When Mom, Dad, or Teacher scoffed at your comic book obsession, you could throw these titles in their laps with a loud, “So, there!”
The new movie The Batman (2022) doesn’t quite escape their shadow, but when co-writer/director Matt Reeves initially sold his take on the character to the DC Fandome audience, he purposefully avoided their mention. Instead, he took the opportunity to celebrate an underrated Batman short story. In his movie, as Reeves explained it, “[Batman] is broken…[he’s] driven by the parts of himself he doesn’t yet know, that sort of psychological Jungian shadow side. That sort of version is very much connected to the vision from Darwyn Cooke‘s Ego.”
Shockingly, when you watch Reeves’ Batman movie, you will actually not see much, if any, influence from The Dark Knight Returns. But you will see Year One, and you will see Ego, and you will see glimpses from a few other tales as well. Starring Robert Pattinson as the titular superhero, The Batman is a coming-of-age procedural featuring a Caped Crusader stumbling through his vengeance vow. Bruce Wayne does not have it all figured out, and if you find this unassured version appealing, I’ve gone ahead and assembled an appropriate comic book reading list for your pleasure.
DC Comics has your first leg on this journey already covered. The first three titles below were recently assembled into a collector’s box edition, hoping to catch some sales off The Batman. The rest you’ll have to hunt for, but it should be easy, as all are currently on sale for reasonable prices both physically and digitally. Beyond the first three comics, I’ve arranged them according to my preference and how well they connect with Matt Reeves’ movie.
Batman: Year One
It’s in the title. This comic book explores Bruce Wayne during his first days under the cape and cowl. He hasn’t mastered his skills yet, not as a detective, not as a combatant, and not as a friend to Gotham. But he’s trying. He’s trying really damn hard.
Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli approach Batman: Year One with an uncompromising earnestness. Their Gotham City is Hell on Earth, festering with corruption, poverty, and despair. In this light, a Batman vigilante makes total sense. Only madness can fight madness.
What folks sometimes forget is how Year One is as much Jim Gordon’s story as it is Bruce Wayne’s. The detective is at the end of his rope. His marriage is failing, and his job threatens to poison his soul. When Batman enters his life, his purpose is reinvigorated, and the two men feed off each other. This relationship is also very much at The Batman‘s core, with Jeffrey Wright as Gordon.
Batman: The Long Halloween
Set a short time after Year One, Batman: The Long Halloween opens at a wedding, with Bruce Wayne telling mob boss Carmine Falcone (John Turturro’s role in The Batman) that he “believes in Gotham City.” You only need a passing notion of The Godfather to spot its sway. The billionaire playboy refuses to launder money for the criminal, and the rejection ignites a cataclysmic murder spree over the course of 13 months, from one October to the next.
Who is killing the goons and politicians of Gotham? The mystery thrusts Batman through his entire rogue’s gallery, putting us in close contact with Joker, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Penguin, Scarecrow, and the rest. Authors Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale weave a compelling mystery, dropping clues that the reader could assemble into an answer if they are up to the challenge.
The Long Halloween is the comic I often give to those curious about Batman. It’s a tour through Bruce Wayne’s psychology as well as Gotham City’s most notorious. Every villain gets a moment to shine while showcasing how the ultimate evil always spreads from the selfish money men perched on their ivory towers.
The Batman‘s mystery certainly cribs from The Long Halloween without stealing it. The relationships between Batman, Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), and Falcone are lifted straight from this tale as well. But the Dark Knight in the new movie lacks the confidence of his Long Halloween counterpart. The Batman‘s Bruce Wayne has his origins in the next comic on the list.
Darwyn Cooke is a legendary creator, and if you are into comics at all, you should seek out every story he’s ever worked on. His version of the Justice League, as seen in The New Frontier is the definitive take on the characters. His adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels are better than John Boorman’s Point Blank, Brian Helgeland Payback, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Made in the USA combined. He is a master cartoonist who helped shape Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and the Men in Black children’s show.
His Ego is a tiny tale tracking Batman during one of the worst days of his life. And that sure as hell is saying something. Before the comic begins, Joker has murdered 27 civilians. The getaway driver Batman manhandled into snitching is on the run, and a wounded Dark Knight is in pursuit. Before Batman can capture him, the wheelman offs himself. The death renders Bruce Wayne into two separate entities: the masquerading man playing vigilante and the Bat-Monster thirsting for revenge.
As Batman bleeds to death, we enter his mindscape and encounter a crumbling failure. Bruce Wayne must defend himself from his darkest desires. Somewhere along his journey to justice, he lost his purpose, his need to help those who cannot help themselves. His fear and anger became hate. Emotions that were once tools are now perverted into toxic aggression. He must reclaim mastery over his monster.
Catwoman: When in Rome
Another tale from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Catwoman: When in Rome leaves Gotham City and Batman behind, dropping the reader into Catwoman’s morally gray perspective. Set shortly after The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory, When in Rome follows Selina Kyle and The Riddler to Italy, where they get up to no good with the Falcone crime family.
This comic is a slick, noirish story that frees Catwoman to be her own person away from the Dark Knight’s popularity. Like Bruce, however, her pain is a family pain, and whatever interest you gain from their portrayal in The Batman will be fully satisfied here. The answers are obvious but tragically rewarding.
Batman: Zero Year
Decades removed from Year One‘s publication, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo attempt their own origin story with Batman: Zero Year. Set during Batman’s early period, Gotham City falls into ruins after The Riddler detonates the reservoir, flooding the city. In the wasteland, Bruce Wayne grapples with his vigilante intention. He’s molded himself into a perfect crime-fighting specimen, but he could not have possibly predicted an apocalypse such as this. Can he save the city alone?
The Batman positions The Riddler as a nightmarish psychopath. If Frank Gorshin and Jim Carrey are your references for the character, the new Paul Dano iteration will knock you back a bit. Zero Year helped redefine the gimmicky crook as a genuine threat, exposing proper motivation within his insanity. He achieves what many of his more popular co-workers could not imagine. His genius transformed into a deadly weapon.
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