Let’s set the stage: your curiosity has been piqued about a super hero, and that same curiosity has led you down the graphic novel section of a bookstore, or through the front door of your local comic book shop or library. You’re anxious for more to read, there’s a Wikipedia article open on your phone, and you’re eager to start filling in some gaps in your knowledge. But when you finally come to a stop in front of the shelves or the spinner racks, you freeze. You have to take it all in. Suddenly, the knowledge that there are hundreds upon hundreds of comics written about these characters you love starts to feel less like a fact you already knew and more like a staggering realization.
We’ve all been there.
So what do you do? Where do you turn?
Honestly, these are probably some of the most asked and answered questions in all of comics for new readers and long time fans alike. What’s more, they’ve become especially loaded for a hero like Batman who has, in the course of his nearly 80-year history, only had three issue #1s on his main title. Ever. In almost eight decades. That’s a lot of books and a lot of numbers. It can get intimidating.
Fortunately, one of those issue #1s came out this very year with BATMAN: REBIRTH and provides a perfect jumping on point for any readers who are looking to hit the ground running in the new status quo with a current ongoing book. In fact, you can even get a free copy of it this Saturday for Batman Day. But a new status quo and a new #1 doesn’t, in point of fact, delete the hundreds upon hundreds of books that have come before it. The history of the Caped Crusader is still rife with stories that influence him and his legend to this day; stories that are very worth reading.
So, what’s an aspiring Gotham City historian to do? Where to start when faced with one of the largest archives in comic book history?
Well, never fear. Like the Dark Knight himself swinging into action from the nearest gargoyle, help is on the way. This list has been designed with history-hungry fans in mind to be a tour of some of the most easily accessible and important, if not slightly buried, chapters in Batman’s past.
BATMAN: SECOND CHANCES
Travel back, way back, to 1987, just one month after the original publication of Frank Miller’s iconic BATMAN: YEAR ONE, and you’ll find a bit of Bat-history that continues to haunt Bruce to this very day.
Collecting up BATMAN #408-416, BATMAN: SECOND CHANCES tells the story of Batman discovering a young Jason Todd while he’s attempting to steal the tires off the Batmobile. Rather than punishing him, Bruce sees an opportunity. Dick Grayson has recently gone off to join the Teen Titans nearly full time, leaving Batman in want of a new partner, and Jason has more than enough raw courage to fit the bill. With some training, some discipline, and some self-control, Bruce believes that Jason has what it takes to be the new Robin.
And he’s right… For the most part. Jason’s impulsive, headstrong roots prove to be a challenge to the Dark Knight, and one that will, inevitably come back to haunt him in the future. Fans interested in the history of Jason Todd, or familiar with A DEATH IN THE FAMILY will find this story arc very enlightening!
Second Chances is a great first read for classic comics fans for its charmingly retro visual aesthetic, slow burning drama, and resonance in future storylines. Current readers of RED HOOD & THE OUTLAWS will recognize a great deal of the current story’s roots in this arc!
BATMAN: FACE THE FACE
Published in 2006, BATMAN: FACE THE FACE is an 8-issue story arc spread over DETECTIVE COMICS #817-820 and BATMAN #651-654. It deals with “One Year Later,” the aftermath of the year-long absence from Gotham that Bruce, Dick Grayson, and Tim Drake took in the fallout of INFINITE CRISIS. During their year away, Bruce entrusted the city’s safety to a handful of Gotham’s lesser-known heroes with the cowl itself being picked up by the surprise choice of a healed and (relatively) sane Harvey Dent.
Now that Batman, Robin, and Nightwing have returned, they find themselves desperately needing to acclimate to their city but find that, unsurprisingly, a lot can change in a year—and some of those changes leave behind a trail of bodies.
Face the Face is a great hopping on point for any Bat-historians looking for stories that feature both Tim Drake and murder mysteries. Its position as the kick off of the Bat-books in “One Year Later” makes it especially easy to pick up for new readers.
BATMAN: THE BLACK MIRROR
Enter into a chapter of the Dark Knight’s more recent past with 2011’s BATMAN: THE BLACK MIRROR, which collects DETECTIVE COMICS #871-881. This story stands apart from the others here in that it’s not, actually, Bruce Wayne under the mask this time around, but Dick Grayson, who has stepped up to fill the role thanks to Bruce’s alleged death.
The Black Mirror is unique among Batman stories, not just for Dick Grayson’s starring role, but also for its narrative reflection on Gotham City itself. It’s also known for being writer Scott Snyder’s first substantial Batman story. Fans of his work in The New 52 Batman series, which kicked off immediately after this storyline concluded, will recognize The Black Mirror as a genesis point for a lot of the themes in his legendary run on the title.
This story focuses on the even darker side of Gotham’s underbelly, drudging up skeletons from any number of closets; including a figure from Jim Gordon’s past that would probably be better left forgotten. Come for the prosaic ruminations on the cyclical nature of evil, stay for the high-flying, quip-slinging acrobatics of the Dark Knight like you’ve never seen him before.
After a disastrous earthquake rocks Gotham City to its core, the Bat family is left to pick up the pieces in this story arc that swept across the Bat family titles through 1999. BATMAN: CATACLYSM pulls from the far reaches of the family to bring otherwise second-string characters into the spotlight, as well as lay the ground for one of the most iconic cross-title events in Batman history: “No Man’s Land.”
Cataclysm is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of Gotham City itself, as it literally and figuratively shapes the landscape for nearly every Bat-title published for around a decade after it hit shelves back in 1999. Its expansive, cross-title status also gives an easy point-of-reference and hopping on point for every ongoing comic it splashes across. Anyone looking to pick up back issues of ROBIN, NIGHTWING, or CATWOMAN will do well to use Cataclysm as a touchstone.
BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD
Remember how we said Second Chances might come back to haunt the Dark Knight? BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD cashes in on that promise. This story arc features the return of Jason Todd to Gotham City after a long, tragic absence care of The Joker (which you can read all about in A Death in the Family).
Collecting BATMAN #635-641 and #645-650, published between 2005 and 2006, Under the Red Hood is as much a deeply emotional mystery as it is an action thriller with not only Bruce, but the Bat family at large each having to confront long buried demons—some with more success than others. In 2010 it was adapted into an animated feature film and just last year it provided the narrative inspiration to the video game Batman: Arkham Knight.
The events of Under the Red Hood are some of the most consistently recounted plot points across all Batman media to this day and a definite must-read for fans of any corner of the Caped Crusader’s topsy-turvy history.
Batman Day may not be till Saturday, but here at DCComics.com, we're starting the celebration early. Look for special Batman Day articles all week long, and be sure to join us this Saturday, September 17 as the entire world celebrates the Dark Knight!