Want to get into Batman but not sure how to begin? The dude's got 70+ years of comics under his belt, after all! Let us help you with this list of must-read graphic novels and trade paperback collections.
For the best origin story… look to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One, a four-issue story that shows us the earliest days of the Dark Knight's crimefighting. Here, Batman hasn't yet met any of his colorful cast of villains (though Catwoman's lurking about); instead, we see him take on street-level crime as a relatively untested avenger of justice. It's said that Year One provided serious inspiration to director Christopher Nolan when he crafted 2005's Batman Begins.
If it's those crazy villains you care about… you can't go wrong with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. This book promises to show us (through flashback) the beginnings of Batman's greatest foe, although whether or not it truly does that is up for debate. What Killing Joke does accomplish, though, is portraying one of the Joker's most twisted schemes yet, as he plots to destroy Commissioner Gordon by proving to him that all it takes to end up insane is one bad day.
Another great '80s Joker story… is the graphic novel Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth, written by Grant Morrison with art from Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum is less of a standard comic book than a collection of free-associative collages that document Batman's descent into madness as he's forced to quell an uprising of his worst villains led by the Joker himself. It's a deeply psychological book with highly unorthodox art and some really strange presentations of familiar characters, but it's also one of the books credited with bringing serious literary attention to Batman's two-dimensional world.
And for one more spotlight on the Clown Prince of Crime... we should look at Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke's The Man Who Laughs, a 2005 graphic novel that shows us the first actual encounter of Batman and the Joker. Mahnke's vaguely grotesque, disturbing art makes the Joker look more twisted than ever, and this whole book's worth it for a scene where Batman (still relatively new to stopping psychotic criminals) decides to expose himself to Joker's toxin to feel what it's like to be crazy.
If you want to see Batman's detective work at its best… you'll want to check out Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's The Long Halloween. Despite being named for an October holiday, this 12-issue miniseries takes place over the course of a year. Every month Batman has a new murder to solve, and every month he runs up against one of his major villains only to find they're not responsible. It's classic noir storytelling complemented wonderfully by Tim Sale's moody art, and it's also a great tour of Batman's substantial rogue's gallery. If you really like Long Halloween, there's also a sequel called Dark Victory that acts as an origin story for Robin.
If you wonder how well Bruce Wayne plays with others... check out Mark Waid and Howard Porter's JLA: Tower of Babel, the only book starring Bruce Wayne's superpowered buddies to make this list. Here, Ra's Al Ghul breaks into the Batcave and steals Wayne's files on how to take down the other members of the Justice League in case they ever went rouge. Meanwhile, Ghul distracts Batman by threatening to, of all things, bring his parents back to life using his restorative Lazarus Pits. This book shows how well (or poorly, maybe) Batman fits in with actual superhumans and is mega-entertaining to boot.
If you grew up on the Batman cartoons… you can't miss Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's Mad Love. This graphic novel, drawn in the style of the '90s animated series, presents the origin of Harley Quinn, Joker's right-hand lady. Despite its kid-friendly visuals, though, there's some really disturbing stuff here about criminal pathology and abusive relationships. This book was later adapted into a much-praised episode of the cartoon.
If you're looking for something a little different and a bit less Batman-y… try Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker's series Gotham Central. This comic, which focuses on the Gotham City Police Department, ran from 2003-2006 and is currently being collected into four trade paperbacks (the first three are out now). Though Batman makes occasional appearances, this book is more about what effects a character like the Caped Crusader—and his enemies—might have if they existed in the real world. In this book, an encounter with Mr. Freeze or the Joker isn't some colorful brawl; people get hurt and die. Like, routinely. Gotham Central's a brutal but always interesting look at the "real" people of Batman's city… or as real as you can get, anyway.
For some crazy mind-bending action… look no further than Grant Morrison's recent run on Batman, which starts with Batman & Son and runs through landmark stories like RIP and The Return of Bruce Wayne. Throughout the course of this saga (which ran four years in total), Batman meets his long-lost son, ends up lost in time, and battles his ultimate enemy, a guy who alternatively refers himself the Devil and Bruce's dad (though neither is strictly true). Though not for the faint of heart (or the short of time!), Morrison's Batman has proven one of the most controversial and compelling runs in the character's long history.
Speaking of history… give a look to Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins and Trevor McCarthy's Gates of Gotham, which we recently gave some love to. This newer miniseries cuts back-and-forth between a present-day terrorist trying to blow up Gotham's landmarks and scenes of the city's construction over a century ago. In doing so, this book both literally and figuratively lays the groundwork for the current line of Batman books, and it's one that shouldn't be missed.
And finally, if you want to follow the comics as they come out every month… you can do no better than Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman. Currently on its fifth issue (thanks to DC's line-wide reboot in September), this book has so far followed Bruce as he investigates a group of killers called the Court of Owls who've "nested" inside Gotham City for centuries, secretly controlling its destiny. Snyder's writing is the perfect mix of disturbing, innovative and downright cool; check out a scene in issue #2, for instance, where Batman defeats a group of thugs by magnetizing their teeth fillings and brass knuckles to a passing bullet train. Awesome.
Which looks the best to you?