Primer: Batman Comics

Posted: August 26, 2011 in Batman, comic books, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

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”).

Which is to say, if Seamus were just buying collected editions that were readily available online, rather than going to a comic store every Wednesday in the 90’s and early 2000’s.

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 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:

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.

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…

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.

And I cannot believe that Peter Milligan’s Dark Knight, Dark City hasn’t gotten a fancy hardcover edition yet. That shit was crazy enough that Grant Morrison tied it into his run.

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?

  1. Kelly G says:

    Yes, I think you should make this “Primer” thing a fixture. I’m just starting to get into reading comics after having read The Watchmen and a few Superman books and I have absolutely no idea where to start. This post helped me pick out a few Batman books to get. Thanks!

  2. Erin says:

    My first question for people newly interested in Batman is whether they’ve seen The Animated Series. If they haven’t, that trumps any and all Batman comics.

    If they HAVE, I agree with most of your list (though I’d skip Year One: it’s historically important, but it’s not as interesting a read as Long Halloween). Likewise, I’d never hand anyone who hasn’t been reading comics for years The Laughing Fish or any of the 70’s stories. Great stories, but not for beginners with modern sensibilities.

    I’d actually add some peripheral books, as well. Gotham Central, while not featuring Batman as anything more than a bit character, is a must read and is very accessible. Likewise, Simone’s run on Birds of Prey and the first 2 books of Johns’ run on Teen Titans do a fantastic job of flushing out Barbara and Tim, respectfully. And the recent Batgirl run starring Stephanie Brown written by Bryan Q. Miller is absolutely amazing and easily digestible by someone without a lot of background in the DCU.

    I’d also throw in the first volume of Batman: Black and White. Sure, there are some bad apples in there, but I can’t think of a better demonstration of the character’s range than that.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: Absolutely, any Batman newbie should just go ahead and watch the animated series, but my goal here is actual comic books, so that people can experience the form and understand why that source material is so meaningful to its readers.

    And I definitely would recommend peripherals like Birds of Prey and the early Robin issues, along with the first couple years of Nightwing (I seem to have a fondness for Chuck Dixon), but again, the aim here was Batman first – once you’re invested in Batman, the spinoffs are a much easier sell. (And I am really sad to admit I’ve never read the Bryan Q. Miller Batgirl series, since that seems to be so close to a lot of fans’ hearts. At some point I will rectify this.)

    In fact, the spinoffs might themselves be a good candidate for a Primer series, since the sheer volume of them may be daunting for a new reader.

    @Kelly: Excellent, glad this worked for someone! My next thoughts were Wolverine (another ubiquitous character that deserves a best-of list) or Superman (a tougher nut to crack, since it’s hard to get fans to agree on which are the “good” ones).

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: Also, having recently read “Strange Apparitions,” which collects “The Laughing Fish” and the Hugo Strange stories, they hold up a lot better than I would’ve expected, while also appealing to what a lot of non-comics-readers remember comics feeling like (in that they’re not experimental or edgy, they’re just…comics). I might not be explaining that right.

  5. John Jackson says:

    I’d like to vote for making the “primer” a fixture. I may be a lazy, slow reader, but checking here before I shop is a lot easier than annoying my friend in Ohio.

  6. road waffle says:

    As far as back issues are concerned, I’ve always liked the short run of stories Peter Milligan wrote on Detective with Jim Aparo, following on from “Dark Knight, Dark City”. Spooky done-in-one tales invloving cursed grass, golems, Siamese-twin hitmen… the weird subject matter met a divided reaction when released, but the stories really hold up.

    Another short run worth checking out is the Mike Barr/Alan Davis Detective, up to but not including “Year Two”. These issues combined gritty 80s Batman with campy 60s Batman effortlessly. Lots of fun and lovely to look at!

  7. Tommy says:

    I have always loved batman, as a little kid I watched the animated series , have seen alll the movies and used to watch the reruns of the 1960 batman show. I am 22. I want to get into reading modern day comics so I an working my way up.

    I started three days ago. I started with long halloween because I saw the animated series. Read it in one day. Loved it. Then yesterday got dark victory, and read it yesterday. What should be my next book? And does anyone know somewhere cheap to get the comics?

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    @Tommy: You’re probably best served using for now, if you’re buying online. Decent prices, easy selections.

    If you like that stuff, I’d point you to Nightwing, Robin all grown up. The first trade – “A Knight in Bludhaven” – is a Batman comic if Batman had to start from scratch, and it’s pretty great.

    You can follow the character from there, and it’s like three great years of comics.

  9. Tommy says:

    Thanks, so I should read those next and I like all the characters, not just batman. So thanks for giving me some other stuff

  10. […] generally enjoy doing a little comics primer for whatever character‘s currently popping up on the screen, and I really wanted to do one for Avengers, but […]

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