Saturday, December 17, 2011

The 12 Days of Blogs-mas: Four-ever

A dear friend of mine suggested that I should take a look at the best of the Batman graphic novels and rip on them for a bit. Well one 'challenge accepted' later and two days of research and I'm finally ready to put it up for consumption. I did, however, have certain criteria for the choices I made for this list.

1) These books were either all stand alone issues/limited series or secondary book lines that were cancelled before reaching 50 issues printed. With that said this will eliminate such fan favorites like Batman: Year One (which were single issues printed in 1987 in Batman #404-407), Batman: Hush (Batman issues #608-619), No Man's Land, Knightfall, etc..

2) These are also not 100% Batman specific books (i.e. he's always the main character) but ones that can expand and enhance the Batman 'universe' so to speak. So some might feature ones that are villains that are the primary focus.

My first thought was this will be a cool assignment. Almost like an awesome college paper that I've always wanted to pen. Then after revisiting criteria number #1 I thought....."Oh shit. I'm screwed. I eliminated most of every Top 10 Batman Books lists. Shitballs.". And the brainstorming commenced. I won't lie when I say it was grueling to come up with this but for me I am very satisfied with what I've chosen as the ones I would recommend to anyone. Each has added some kind of value to my comic reading experience, whether through artwork or excellent and creative storytelling. So lets begin this shebang.

These books are in no particular numerical order.

Starting with the obvious...
 Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Yeah. I know. This one was an easy choice. Frank Miller's seminal epic of an elderly Batman coming back out of the shadows for one last romp to deliver his brand of justice to Gotham again. From how his relationships with friends like Superman have changed over time to how Batman deals with the Joker its all told through a grim and gritty crime soaked lens. I remember reading this back in junior high and it was the best and most awesome thing I've ever read. So I do feel that this is required Batman reading for any fan entering into the fold.

I will also say after revisiting this it doesn't hold up in my opinion. At the time it was unleashed there was nothing like this out on the market. Truly taking an established icon and turning the character upside down. Today there are numerous books out there like this all with much better artwork and writing. Proof of that came years later when Frank Miller went back and wrote the sequel to this book and it was ghastly. But this book was a game changer for the industry and for that will always command my respect. It was also one of the books that totally hooked me on comics and made me want to draw them professionally. But that is another story for another time.

Fear the beard of Alan Moore!

Batman: The Killing Joke

Alan Moore. The Joker. The capture and torture of Jim Gordon. The paralyzing of Barbara Gordon and loss of Batgirl. Batman laughs. Anytime I look at a picture of Alan Moore I think he is going to murder me and eat my head.

I think I shit myself in terror posting this...
I cannot ever doubt that he is one of the finest comic writers of all time. For me he's up near the top of my list and I can't say I've ever disliked one of his stories. My favorite comic author though is probably crazier and more deranged looking than Moore but I'll save that for later*. Back to Batman.

The Killing Joke added layers and depth to THE villain of the Batman universe not seen before. While some writers played up the Joker as the 'clown prince' Moore made his ruthless and evil. And he made us love Mr. J even more in the process. I would pay money to see this book turned into a feature film. It is this good.

Oh and this one holds up for me over time too. Bonus.

Batman: Arkham Asylum
Sanitarium....welcome home...

The inmates are running the asylum. The medical staff are being held hostage and the freaks are daring Batman to come save them. The criminals then come to realize that he's not locked in there with them, they are locked in with Batman.

I loved the artwork of this book. It gives the insanity of the setting a palpable feel and its visually stunning. Grant Morrison's writing here was considered to be some of the best of his career. For the overall story to the little touches like the 'rehabilatation' of criminals like Two-Face (given items that give more choices, like dice and decks of cards, only to have it backfire as he now can't function because he has too many choices).

Its a jarring book, it can be difficult to read due to the art at times but its a rewarding experience and helps to add to the mythos of Batman.

Now lets start adding some less obvious ones shall we?

A Tale of the Batman: Gotham By Gaslight

A Victorian age Gotham City is the stage for this Elseworlds story about Bruce Wayne returning from England from training as Batman and upon his arrival a series of brutal murders begin akin to those of Jack the Ripper's. Bruce Wayne is now a prime suspect due to circumstance and that he cannot account of his whereabouts at night or he will expose the secret that he is Batman. Now Batman must catch the killer and clear his name before more people die.

If that blurb doesn't make you say 'damn' I don't know what will. Its an imaginative take on the mythos by setting it in the past and re-envisioning the familiar. Its also just damn cool to see how a Victorian age Batman would look like. Kind of like Sherlock Holmes with a cape and cowl apparently.

Batman: War On Crime

Alex M.F. Ross!

DC released a series of over sized one shot stories all featuring a specific hero to basically show off just how amazing the art of Alex Ross can be. Batman War on Crime was my favorite out of the bunch. Ross has always managed to make his creations look photo realistic as possible and its no different here. But its the smaller details shown over the course of the day in the life of Batman. The scars on his back from the years of doing this, the shadowing and lighting that gives you a good visual as to what 'evil-doers' in Gotham see, hell just the eyes behind the cowl! Those tell more of the story than the words them self. I have this book here primarily for the art alone and the art is very enriching and sometimes looking at it you can *almost* envision that Batman is real. And that is cool.

Batman: The Long Halloween

Within this limited series we see a Batman earlier in his career forging a pact with Jim Gordon and (at the time) D.A. Harvey Dent to bend but never break the rule to bring the criminal element under control in Gotham (more specifically the organized crime families). Then we are introduced to a serial killer named Holiday who goes around an various holidays and starts killing off influential people in Gotham's crime family and the city descends into chaos.

There is another story here too. This is an expansion to the origin of Two-Face and you get a better sense of just who he is and why he's this way by the end of the series . I also want to mention that climax to this story is one worth not spoiling and it took me off guard and stuck with me. And coming from Jeph Loeb, one of my *least* favorite writers (who in my opinion fucked up the Ultimate Marvel Universe completely), that makes it worth checking out. This story surprised me.

The Batman Adventures: Mad Love

Of course I was going to be here right Mr. J?

Har-LEEEeeeeeee! I can almost hear Mark Hamill bellowing that out in his Joker voice right now. This is the introduction to the DC universe to one of the most well loved maniacs of the rogues gallery. It also doesn't hurt that Harley Quinn is the Joker's number one squeeze.

She started as a throw away character on Batman The Animated Series but both Bruce Timm and Paul Dini saw potential and kept her going strong. Years later she's as recognizable as any of the major DC characters. With Mad Love you see how Dr. Harleen Quinzell goes from lab coat to lunacy in a very fun romp told and illustrated by the animated series creators. This was also the kick off to seeing Harley appear in the main Bat-universe titles where her popularity is still growing. She's gotten her own series, has appeared in two of the BEST comic book video games of all time (Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City) and the juggernaut of red, white and black isn't slowing down. Here is the start of it all. I love Harley and I loved this story.

Batman & Superman Adventures: World's Finest

The Icons Meet for the first time.

Ok this IS an adaptation of three episodes of the 'Superman Adventures' TV show but not only was that a great storyline there it was adapted into one of the BEST Batman related adaptations of a TV show or movie. It maintained the great story of how Bruce and Clark meet and begin their life long friendship, it kept the spectacular art style of the show, it also added to the story by making it more grown up than the TV show. The dialogue was written with a more mainstream Batman comic feel than cartoon, it expanded on relations between the characters (Bruce, Clark & Lois Lane) with my favorite being the absolute dislike and distrust between The Joker's girl Harley and Lex Luthor's chauffeur/body guard Mercy. There was a palpable friction between the two here that you only glimpsed in the TV show but was brought up front in the comic.

This and most stories coming from the 'animated' lines created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm I generally hold as the gold standards for the characters. Watch Justice League and then tell me I'm wrong. Go ahead. I don't think its possible. Because of Timm & Dini's work this story is my gold standard for how two icons should meet.

Gotham Central Volumes 1-4

I have been kicking myself for finding this series only last year and not jumping on it when it was in print in comic book form. It really pissed me off I missed out on this book. I feel alot of people missed out on this too so its worth putting on my list and if I was putting this in numerical order this series would be number one.

Number one?!?! Yes, number one. This isn't a story about Batman or his freaks. Don't get me wrong they are present but they are in the background. This is about the Gotham City Police Department: Major Crimes Unit and the detectives that deal with the aftermath and have to clean up the mess left behind. This book is about how the lives of the people in Gotham are irrevocably changed because of the freaks running about in the shadows. Friendships formed, lives lost in the line of duty, detective work on par or better than the BEST Batman book. All told through the eyes of the GCPD's finest in a post-Commissioner Gordon's reign. Det. Renee Montoya (who was a beat cop at first in Batman the Animated Series! Natch!) her partner Det. Crispus Allen, Det. Marcus Driver and his partner Det Josephine "Josie Mac" MacDonald and the rest of the MCU are written as real people with real lives and problems. Compiled with the 'normal' cases they deal with then add ones that involve Batman and his rogues (one with Mr. Freeze early on was disturbing with showing how fragile these cops are) and you have a series that was cut short before its time.

This book is also better than any crime drama on TV. The characters feel like ones you would know in real life. The stories are hard edged crime stories with real detective work. Hell the writing in some of its softer trades (note I said softer not bad) is leaps and bounds above the writing in the standard Bat-books and is on par with the best stories out there in Batman's world. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker worked magic with the stories and these guys can write crime fiction like masters. The art is also very fitting to the setting with a gritty realism to it in lieu of the flamboyance of the costumed heroes and villains.

I can't recommend picking up Gotham Central enough. Its not just one of the best in the Batman mythos, its one of my favorite comics of all time.

Now for my final choice and bear with me on this. I might catch flack on this one but I feel its warranted, fresh and just cool too.


Superman: Speeding Bullets

Calm the hell down internets and let me talk here. I know it says 'Superman' on it but listen to me. This is a true Batman story set in an Elseworlds setting. This is the 'what-if' story of what happened if baby Kal-El was found by Thomas and Martha Wayne instead of the Kents. He grows up as their son and on the fateful day when The Wayne's were gunned down in front of young Kal-El his powers manifested in anger as heat vision, incinerating the criminal who killed his adoptive parents. Shamed by this burst of power he hides it away but still follows the path that leads him to become Batman and save Gotham from crime.

Except he's the Man of Steel under the suit. Super strength, speed, bullet proof, can fly.....but with Batman's mindset. It also takes one of Superman's greatest foils, Lex Luthor, and throws him into an industrial accident where the aftermath drives him insane and he becomes The Joker. Think about that...The Joker with Luthor's intelligence and drive. Yes, you should be scared. Lois Lane is in there too as the person who eventually helps the tormented Batman become the beacon of hope that Gotham truly needs not the Dark Knight they have.

Its a journey through hell until at the end the Batman is retired and Superman is born. And you get to follow along on the trip. Seeing how a similar circumstance could still possibly turn an established hero in the DCU into a Batman. That the need for justice and, to a degree, vengeance is within us all and its how we deal with it that is the key.

More so for me I found this take refreshing and has stuck with me through out the years. I actually think about this when I create a character for a tabletop RPG I'm playing in that has a dark and tragic past but is a good person. I use this to see how 'redemption' could come about.

And just the thought of Superman being Batman makes me smile. All the powers and the brains to go with it. Its fanboy-tastic.

So there it is folks. Bob, what did you think? And my fellow adventurers was there any things within my criteria you'd recommend to me? Keep in mind these are the ones I've read over the years. I probably missed reading one or two here or there. Also the 12 Days of Blogs-mas rolls on....I got two more suggestions but I want more. Leave them in the comments.

* THIS is my favorite comic writer: Warren Ellis

and this is how Warren Ellis says hello, good bye and I need whisky....