So everyone knows about Year One and the Dark Knight Returns. A lot of people know about The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, and most people who have ever read a Batman comic know about the Killing Joke (after Year One, my personal favorite). But those have been discussed, dissected, and praised into the ground.
I’d like to tell you about 5 Batman stories that you probably have never heard of, much less read before. One of them is an “Elseworlds” story, which was an imprint DC Comics used to tell stories about their characters in completely different situations than you would normally find them, much like Marvel’s “What If…?”. For instance, in an Elseworlds story you might see Batman become a vampire and fight Dracula, or see what would have happened if Kal-El’s rocket ends up being discovered by a young Gotham couple before they ever have a son of their own, a couple named Thomas and Martha Wayne… Another of the stories I’m going to talk about isn’t an Elseworlds story, but it doesn’t really ‘count’ in the Batman continuity, as it takes place 100 years after the Batman first showed up in Gotham. The others take place in completely different periods in Batman’s career, from the beginning to the ‘dark period’ of the 1980’s to more or less the present.
I present my 5 Batman stores you’ve probably never read.
5. Batman: Year 100
100 years after Batman first began stalking the streets and rooftops of Gotham city, and things aren’t so great. Big brother is watching everyone all the time, everything is run by gigantic corporations that own and control governments, and there isn’t anybody standing up for the people in Gotham. The police have the capability, but are largely crooked beyond belief. One of the honest Gotham cops, a Lt. Gordon (the great grandson of the Commissioner) does what he can, but it’s not enough. Then there is a gun fight, and a federal agent turns up dead, and the police are shut out of the case. Nothing adds up from the outside, and Gordon can’t figure out what’s going on. Everything seems strange, especially when you add in the bizarre reports of some kind of creature with giant, leather wings that can’t be killed by bullets, is inhumanly fast, and impossibly strong.
We all know who that sounds like….
Paul Pope writes and draws this entire story, and his artwork is incredible. You see every wrinkle, every fold in Batman’s suit. When he uses gadgets you can see every nut and bolt. The details are great.
The story is a little strange as you get into it, as you don’t really know who Batman is until the end, and while it’s a cool reveal, it’s also a bit of a head scratcher, because it’s hard to believe that this person would still be alive after all this time. Regardless, it’s a really interesting take on the Batman mythology, and in my opinion every bit as valid of a possible future for Batman as the Dark Knight Returns was.
4.Batman: Arkham Asylum
Written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean, Arkham Asylum is freaking bizarre. It’s a story about madness, and what happens to someone who looks into the void for too long (the void looks back).
Arkham Asylum, for those that don’t know, is the high-security mental institution that many of Batman’s most dangerous villains are placed in when they are apprehended. In this particular story some of the inmates that are notable are Killer Croc, Maxie Zeus, Two-Face, the Joker, Scarecrow, and the Mad Hatter.
Essentially the inmates have taken over the asylum, and the Joker threatens to kill each and every employee inside, unless Batman comes and joins the party. When Batman gets to the Asylum, the Joker and the others tell him that they are going to play a game of hide and seek. They’ll give him a head start and then they’ll come looking for him. One by one Batman comes across his villains, and each is shown as a twisted perversion of some aspect of his personality. They have prepared a gauntlet for him that tests him physically, but more importantly, tests him mentally to his breaking point. By the time of the big showdown he is practically broken, and is also really messed up physically (fighting Killer Croc will do that).
The story isn’t really about any of that so much, though. The story is really about madness, whether it’s the doctors, the lunatic villains, Batman himself, or the other main character, Dr. Arkham. We see his horrific family history, and learn that Arkham isn’t just a nightmarish place because of the inmates, but it might have something to do with why they are as bad as they are…..
3. Batman: Nine Lives
An Elseworlds tale, the story here centers on the investigation of the murder of Selina Kyle, a nightclub owner who was not only sleeping with different, powerful men, but was blackmailing a few, too, so there is no shortage of suspects.
There’s Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, that was seeing her, seemingly unaware that she was also seeing the mobster Oswald Cobblepot, mob accountant Richard Nygma, and the private investigator she had working for her, Richard Grayson. Other characters of note are Commissioner Jim Gordon, Wayne’s attorney Harvey Dent, Grayson’s secretary Barbara Gordon, and Cobblepot’s assassin Victor Frieze, as well as a down on his luck wannabe gangster that goes by his nickname, the Joker. There is also the rumors of some kind of crocodile monster in the sewers…
What makes this story so great, besides the fact that it’s totally a noir story featuring recognizable Batman characters, is that it shows these characters flexibility. They can really work in any setting, as long as you stay true to the character. For instance, Grayson is a scrappy fighter, a quick thinker, and doesn’t back down from anyone. That sounds like Grayson, all right. And it’s that way for everyone. Barbara wants to get out of her father’s shadow, but rather than doing so by dressing up like Batgirl, she does it by working for his biggest failure: disgraced former cop turned P.I. Richard Grayson.
Batman is involved in the story, as well, but it’s really more about Grayson than anything. He works with Batman by the end of the story, which is kind of funny (universal constant!). Batman gets to do some cool stuff, but that’s not the appeal of this story. The appeal, like I said, is seeing all of these recognizable characters moved around into completely different roles, and watching it work.
The story has twists and turns, and when they murderer is revealed it makes complete sense (unlike the Loeb stories).
2. Batman: The Man Who Laughs
The unofficial sequel to Batman: Year One, this story is the first time the Joker terrorized Gotham City and ran into the Batman. Written by Ed Brubaker with art by Doug Mahnke, The Man Who Laughs is a seminal Batman story, but even more-so a seminal Joker story, earning its place alongside Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke”.
The Joker kills a reporter and her cameraman, and takes their equipment and van. He then broadcasts a warning: one of Gotham’s elite will be murdered at midnight. When the clock strikes, Batman and the GCPD are horrified to learn that the man was poisoned with slow-release Joker toxin, and that they are too late to save him.
Joker continue on his spree, threatening more and more of Gotham’s power base, including one Bruce Wayne!
Eventually Batman begins to see what Joker’s master plan is, but not before he has to see the world the way the Joker does, which nearly kills him. Once he figures it out they have their first real fight, and while the outcome is never in doubt, it’s a great story that foreshadows the numerous conflicts these two opposing forces will have in the years to come.
1. Batman: The Cult
Written by Jim Starlin with art by Bernie Wrightson, the master of horror comics, The Cult is very much an adult Batman story. It has murder, torture, brainwashing, cursing, more murder, riots, murder, a giant tank Batmobile, murder, Batman with a gun (!!!), and murder. So much murder.
A man named Deacon Blackfire has come to Gotham, and he claims to be thousands of years old. He gathers an army of the destitute and the homeless and sets up shop in the sewers and subway tunnels of Gotham. He then sends his groups up to the surface to kill and terrorize. When Batman and Robin (Jason Todd, in the only story I’ve ever read in which he was actually pretty cool and not a little bastard) get into the fight they are quickly overwhelmed, and Batman is even captured and brainwashed into joining Blackfire!
Robin is forced to go on a suicidal rescue mission, which nearly fails, in order to reach his mentor. Batman snaps out of it, but is incredibly weakened by the experience and they are forced to retreat and lick their wounds. Once Batman has regrouped and is ready to rejoin the fight, it looks like it might be too late. In a shockingly short amount of time Deacon Blackfire and his army have turned Gotham into a horror show. The streets are literally running red in areas. Batman is forced to test how far he is willing to go in order to protect his city.
Besides the adult nature of this story (someone says “Shit” at least 3 or 4 times, and the violence is damn graphic at times) the real draw is actually Jason Todd. He has his shit together here for maybe the only time ever. About 18 months after this story was published he met his end (at least for about 20 years) at the business end of a crowbar and a bomb, courtesy of the Joker. Jason isn’t portrayed as a petulant child, but rather a guy that, despite having a ton of rage built inside him, is a more than capable partner for Batman and replacement for Dick Grayson. It’s very interesting to see, especially for me, whose first exposure to Jason Todd was the whiny little bitch Jason in “A Death in the Family”.
I highly recommend all of these Batman stories. Each shows a different aspect of the character, his world, or his villains, and are all well told stories with terrific artwork.