Primer: Batman Comics
A friend of mine mentioned that her co-worker was starting to read Batman comics for the first time in his life, and that got me thinking about how I would approach reading Batman if I’d never done it before, and what I’d recommend to an adult new-reader (we are going to call him Seamus, because I am sick of typing “new reader”).
I’d like your help on this one. Because while I think I’m on the right track, I’d like to see what everyone else considers “essential” Batman reading.
But also keep in mind the rule here – Seamus has NEVER READ A BATMAN COMIC BEFORE, and is probably going to hit Amazon before he visits his LCS. This is the audience you have to consider.
That said, I’m all for hearing about some “deep cuts” (good runs that you can only find in the back-issue bins – or more likely milehighcomics.com and the like) that will give Seamus that treasure-hunter feeling we all get when we dig around a little.
For this experiment, I’m using the format of the AV Club’s “Gateways to Geekery,” which means starting with one essential book, then some next steps, and a few advisories on what to avoid:
WHERE TO START
To me, the obvious place for Seamus to start – since the majority of Batman comics written in the last 25 years has used this as a tonal template – is Miller and Mazzucelli’s Batman: Year One, both for its status as the “modern” origin story, and for investing Seamus in James Gordon as much as he would Batman.
I would honestly recommend Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Batman Halloween series – Haunted Knight, Long Halloween, and then Dark Victory. Good complete stories about Batman’s early adventures, with some wonderful art. And if you stop paying attention to Jeph Loeb’s work right after this, you don’t notice that he pulls the same switcheroo in every mystery story he does (which means, I’d probably avoid Hush, even though Jim Lee’s Batman is certainly robust and dynamic).
Then I’d head for some historical examples, stuff from the 60′s and 70′s – the Strange Apparitions trade collects “The Laughing Fish,” among other Englehart classics. A quick Amazon search tells me Dennis O’Neill’s work is pretty much confined to Tales of the Demon and Batman in the 70′s, but that’s not a bad representation.
It’s only at THIS point that I’d hand Seamus Dark Knight Returns, and maybe The Killing Joke. I feel like you really need to have some stories under your feet before getting into these two. Honestly, depending on Seamus’s interest level at this point, I might not recommend The Killing Joke at all. It’s a good Joker story, sure, but it’s also a pretty lousy Batman story. (It would probably be important at that point to explain to Seamus that at a certain point Frank Miller went completely off the rails, and that his follow-ups Dark Knight Strikes Again and All-Star Batman & Robin should really only be read out of strange curiosity).
If Seamus expresses interest in Robin, I’d start him off on Chuck Dixon’s Robin Year One, before having him deal with Death in the Family and Lonely Place of Dying (not that I wouldn’t pass these along, because Seamus needs to understand that Tim Drake is awesome).
The problem here is finding newer comics that encapsulate what people picture as “standard” Batman stories (weird crime happens, Batman investigates, culprit is one of his rogues’ gallery, fisticuffs and gadgetry ensues). To this end, Paul Dini’s Detective run – collected as “Detective,” “Death and the City,” “Private Casebook” and “Heart of Hush” – are probably the best examples of one- and two-issue tales of Batmannery (and once Dustin Nguyen starts on the art, it looks just gorgeous).
It’s only at this point that I’d suggest reading KnightFall and KnightsEnd (it’s really weird that none of the middle KnightQuest stories are collected – though with Bane being a featured player in Nolan’s next movie, I imagine we might be seeing some new editions in the next year), as an indicator of what comics were like in the 90′s.
WHAT TO AVOID
Sadly, most of the stuff written over the last 20 years. If you look at what’s been collected from the 90′s up to the Morrison years, we’re talking about stories like Contagion (Gotham’s torn apart by a plague), Legacy (Gotham’s torn apart by an EVEN WORSE plague), Cataclysm (Gotham’s destroyed by an Earthquake), No Man’s Land (after two plagues and an earthquake, Gotham is reduced to a third-world environment for a year), Officer Down (Jim Gordon gets shot), Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive (Batman’s framed for murder and takes it as a great opportunity to simply forget about being Bruce Wayne entirely; or as I like to call it, Batman: Total Asshole), War Games (gang war erupts in Gotham and some ridiculous character choices cause a supporting cast member’s death)…
You can argue over the relative quality of each story, but you can’t deny that they’re “event” comics that don’t really represent “regular” Batman stories. So, with that in mind…
IT’S OFF TO THE BACK-ISSUE BINS!
Sadly, the Bat-books from the 90′s I liked most – the Doug Moench/Kelley Jones*, the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle, and the Chuck Dixon/Graham Nolan runs – aren’t collected, but I imagine Seamus could scoop ‘em up at a steal.
Very surprised that despite runs on both Batman and Detective, and despite his overall popularity, Ed Brubaker’s work on the character has largely gone uncollected.
OK, so that’s my selection. What would you suggest to make Seamus a Batmaniac4Life?
* Seamus was not wild about the Moench/Kelley Batman: Vampire Elseworlds books. While I’m disappointed – they unnerved the CRAP out of me as a kid, in a good way – I get that (especially after reading some of their more recent collaborations) this creative team is definitely an acquired taste.
**Question for the audience: Should we make this “Primer” thing a fixture?