Everyone is abuzz about the epic Dark Knight Rises, coming out this weekend. To prepare, here are the 5 absolutely essential Batman graphic novels to not only gear up for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight finale, but to build a fundamental knowledge base of one of the most revered characters in the game.
Batman: Year One (1987)
Frank Miller wrote this gritty, dark reimagining of Batman’s origin and breathed new life into the character. What was once bright colors, campy dialogue, and zany action was replaced with a harsh, uncompromising, realistic young Bruce Wayne trying to establish the Batman as a crime-fighting force and save a tainted Gotham. Year One was the primary source material for Batman Begins (from characters to entire shot for shot scenes including the conclusion) and established the tone and direction of Batman for years to come. An absolute essential – this story is like learning the alphabet of the language you’re about to start.
Batman: The Killing Joke (1988)
Often cited as the most important Joker story, Alan Moore’s Killing Joke actually explored Batman’s psyche just as effectively. The Joker kidnaps Jim Gordon, torturing him in an amusement park of horrors and shooting his daughter Barbara Gordon in the spine, paralyzing her, all in an attempt to prove that anyone, even the most upstanding citizen can go mad after “one bad day.” The Joker unreliably tells his own origin story (think Dark Knight), before asking if Batman himself had “one bad day” that led them to this point. The story ends with the two laughing over a joke, supporting the idea that Batman is as insane as the criminals he faces, only Batman’s insanity led him to dress up in costume and fight crime instead of committing it. Killing Joke established the idea that Batman may belong in Arkham as much as any of his enemies, a notion that was the basis for the best Batman stories to come.
Batman: The Long Halloween (1997)
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale wove this amazing murder mystery in a way that fleshed out Gotham city and defined a number of major characters (especially Harvey Dent). The closing scene of Year One implied that Batman would inspire an escalated evil (Joker, Riddler, etc). Long Halloween explored how the super-villains interact and oppose more traditional enemy – the Mafia – whilealso illuminating on Batman’s relationship with Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent before during and after Dent’s transformation into Two Face. A beautiful detective thriller that envelops the reader with every twist and image, many scenes from Long Halloween were recreated word for word and shot for shot in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
MUST READ SEQUEL ALERT: DARK VICTORY (a continuation of the Hangman Saga, Dark Victory includes the origin of Robin. Long Halloween and Dark Victory really are two halves of the same story and should be read as one.)
MUST READ FOR DARK KNIGHT RISES
Batman: KnightFall (1993)
Also known as Part One: Btoken Bat, Knightfall would be on the essential list even if Dark Knight Rises wasn’t opening this weekend – Batman finally loses and is apparently irrevocably defeated by the pitiless Bane. Chuck Dixon’s contribution to the Batman mythos runs through the entire rogue’s gallery while establishing Bane as a top-tier cerebral villain – not just the imposing physical force he appears to be. Bane was literally born and raised in a South American prison, rising from barely surviving to ruling absolutely through careful manipulation and violent ferocity. Upon escaping the prison, he orchestrates a ubiquitous attack on Batman by freeing every villain from Arkham asylum, running Batman ragged, then finally breaking him in spectacular fashion. KnightFall changed the course of Batman’s history, and will be fully featured in The Dark Knight Rises.
MUST READ SEQUEL ALERT: KNIGHTSQUEST AND KNIGHTSEND (The Bane Saga is broken into three parts: KnightFall is the initial story of Bane beating Bruce Wayne, KnightsQuest tells of Jean-Paul Valley acting as an interim Batman and KnightsEnd follows Bruce Wayne returning from a broken back and re-taking control of Gotham and the mantle of the Batman. The entire series is also referred to as the KnightFall series. All are essential)
The Dark Knight Returns (1996)
While Frank Miller turned Batman into an authentic hero in Year One, he truly created the legend of the Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Set in a dystopian future Gotham, an older, retired Bruce Wayne realizes that both the city and he himself need Batman again and sets out to return to hero form, battling old foes and new while fundamentally saving a rotten society before his aged body betrays him. One of the few Graphic Novels to make the NY Times best-seller’s list, The Dark Knight Returns is full of visceral imagery and ideals that touch on more than anyone thought a singular comic book could. Themes and ideals will no doubt appear in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises. It’s simply the most important story to read.
MUST READ SEQUEL ALERT: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES BACK (The even more outlandish sequel acts as a continuation, extension, and derivative of the issues Miller brought up in The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Back may look odd at first glance and take a few reads, but will ultimately reap the greatest of rewards.)
Consolation Prizes to: Hush, Arkham Asylum, Gothic, The Man Who Laughs, A Death in the Family, Under the Red Hood, JLA Tower of Babel, Tales of the Demon, Kingdom Come, Joker (Azzarello), and Lovers and Madmen