“That’s what’s fun about doing this kind of work. All [sic] of it is organic. One idea suggests another, and it does grow.” –Denny O’Neil, Amazing Heroes #50
The concept of maintaining continuity in the representation of a character as simultaneously malleable and iconic as Batman seems like a lost cause, but it’s a noble one. No matter how much Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego have changed over the decades, the character’s various incarnations are all related, in a sense. So there’s no point in complaining that Neal Adams’s “photo-realistic” style, to borrow Bat-guru and writer Grant Morrison’s description, has been aped by a neophyte penciler. In that sense, Batman is a great symbol of modern pastiche. His best creators routinely borrow elements from the stories that have preceded them to create something new, or startling, or both. The evolution of Batman as a character is thus dependent on creative incorporation, repetition and re-invention: it only looks improvised if you don’t know your history.
This list of the best interpretations of Batman is intended to reflect that key aspect of the character. I have my personal preferences, just as anyone else does. If a major name or artistic creator is not on this list, their contributions are most likely discussed within the body of the text. So never fear, there’s a good reason why Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are not prominently displayed on this list. I’ve also agonized over which stories to highlight for certain creators as sometimes it’s impossible to choose a story representative of a writer or artist’s talents at their peak. In these cases, I have chosen stories or collections which best show what makes that creator unique.
In making this list, I’ve found that that the aspects of the character I prefer are the kind that skew more closely to what Morrison identifies in Supergods, a history of comics, as the more surreal, gothic aspects of the character: “convention has it that Batman’s adventures work best when rooted in a basically realistic world of gritty crime violence […] but from the very start of his career, he was drawn into episodes of the supernatural, uncanny and inexplicable.” This aspect reflects what I like about Batman: the sheer weirdness of seeing a noble hero like Batman protect a city as crime-ridden and routinely besieged by pathological freaks and super-powered monsters. Also, did I mention that the said noble hero is a guy who dresses up as a bat to avenge the death of his parents? Modulation of tone and style is key here because, well, these are stories about a rich guy who fights crime because of a vow he made as a child to spend his adult life avenging his dead parents. If you exaggerate one aspect of the character, you can easily lose sight of that character’s greatest attributes.
Many of the comics I’ve chosen try to make use of established notions of who we think Batman is in order to get a better understanding of what he says to us. I hope you enjoy reading this list as much as I enjoyed making it.
J.M. DeMatteis’s superhero comics are atypical in that they question the validity of solving conflicts through violence. In his most famous Spider-Man story, “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” DeMatteis forces Peter Parker through a draining gauntlet that makes him empathize and even go mad from burrowing so deep into the heads of two super-villains, Vermin and Kraven. “Going Sane” achieves a similar affect but through different means. In it, both Batman and the Joker believe that they’ve defeated each other. DeMatteis’s comic thus assumes that, as is shown in the 1989 Batman movie, the Joker was the man whp killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a boy.
So, thinking that the personified reason for why they respectively fight and commit crime is gone, the Joker and Batman try to lead “normal” lives. Joker settles down, gets a day job, finds a girlfriend and Batman recuperates from his fight with the Joker upstate with the help of a nurse he falls in love with. Both men try to forget their pasts but suffer from recurring nightmares. Because they can’t forget what they mean to each other, they eventually wind up sparring again.
The sincere belief in reform driving DeMatteis’s exploration of this fundamentally goofy “What if” scenario is what makes it such a winner. It’s uniquely surreal to see someone like the Joker, a man we can’t help but consider a freak because of his white face and green hair, trying to lead a normal domestic life. But “Going Sane” is that much more effective for trying to introduce that level of normalcy into these characters’ lives: what if archetypal arch-enemies designed to hate each other tried to change their established personalities completely and forget that they existed?
Along the same lines, novelist Joe R. Lansdale wrote the teleplay for an episode of Batman: The Animated Series called “Perchance to Dream.” In that episode, the Mad Hatter brainwashes Batman into thinking that he’s living a normal life in which he never became Batman and his parents never died. Lansdale and the episode’s two story-writers, Laren Bright and Michael Reaves, come to the same conclusion that DeMatteis does: despite everything, Wayne would find a way to remember his obligation and would not rest until he could. His obsession is just that all-consuming and character-defining (more on this later).
Another thoughtful story that similarly makes light of Batman’s perhaps-myopic need to fight crime first and protect the citizens of Gotham City second is “The Night of Thanks but No Thanks” (Detective Comics #567), a story written by Harlan Ellison in which Batman constantly misreads situations and tries to give help where it’s neither needed nor wanted. In one scene, an old, handicapped woman beats up a mugger by herself, while in another, a car-jacker turns out to have locked his car keys inside his vehicle. As Batman jokes to Alfred at the end of the story, this is “the worst night of [Batman’s] life.”
Many pencillers have put a definitive stamp on Batman, the prime example being Neal Adams. Morrison aptly describes Adams’s well-known Batman as “grown-up and contemporary:” “Adams combined slick Madison Avenue photorealism with the power of Jack Kirby in a way that made comic-book characters more naturalistic than before.” This added “naturalism,” which emphasizes dramatic poses and the athletic physique of the character, is what makes Adams probably the most influential artist to draw Batman. But Gene Colan, working with inker Klaus Janson, took the foundation of naturalism that Adams established in key stories like “The Demon Lives Again” (Batman #244), and made Batman look more like a character with one foot in a Gothic horror story and another in a modern-day superhero story.
After hyper-popular comics like Tomb of Dracula helped re-establish the prominence of horror in superhero comics, Gene Colan and writer Gerry Conway re-made Batman as a monster-fighting detective. Colan’s version of the Dark Knight certainly looked like Adams’s iteration of the character, complete with pointier ears and a gymnast’s physique. But Conway, Colan and Janson’s take on the character depended far more on the creatures inhabiting the inky shadows and psychedelic zip-a-tone fog of Gotham City at night. Batman not only fought monsters like the Mole and the Man-Bat, the latter of which was an Adams creation—he also became a vampire himself in stories like “Nightmare in Crimson,” featured in Batman #350 (August 1982).
The blurring of the line between Batman and the monsters he fought to keep Gotham safe is weirdly fitting. Since the character’s inception, Wayne’s always affected the look of a monster in order to frighten the criminal element, which co-creator Bob Kane called a “superstitious, cowardly lot.” Or as Morrison puts it in his description of an early Batman story where he fights the Mad Monk, “It was Batman as Dracula, the vampire as hero, preying on the even more unwholesome creatures of the night.” Conway and Colan’s Batman was still a detective and a physical, martial artist-trained crime-fighter. But while their Bruce Wayne had a well-adjusted aspect of melodrama to his life—more believable love interests, the return of now grown-up ward Dick Grayson—their Batman was now more than ever a creature of the night.
Writers and artists have taken many cues from Conway and Colan’s version of the characters. Writer Doug Moench and penciller Kelley Jones would later write a trilogy of stories set in an alternate reality, in which Batman becomes a vampire, stories that were unquestionably influenced by Conway and Colan’s own Bat-vamp stories (Moench began writing Detective Comics soon after Gerry Conway and even collaborated regularly with Colan). Furthermore, writer/penciller/painter Matt Wagner’s revisionist take on the old Mad Monk story, fittingly titled Batman and the Mad Monk, would almost certainly not exist were it not for Colan’s stylishly moody emphasis on monster-men.
It seems illogical to put Batman, a character who preys on the fear of criminals and is universally understood to be a loner, in a team setting. And yet, opposites frequently attract in Batman stories. Take the World’s Finest title that paired Batman together with Superman. In Amazing Heroes #50, quintessential Bat-writer Denny O’Neil described the pairing shrewdly but imperfectly by saying that Batman is the logical left brain to Superman’s can-do right brain (the right brain typically being defined as the center for creativity). Then again, Batman also has a history of teaming-up with just about every superhero in his The Brave and the Bold title; the series featured many incongruous pairings with the likes of WW2 hero Sgt. Rock, super-sleuth Elastic Man and even the Frankensteinian Brother Power the Geek.
So when J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen had Batman lead the newly reformed Justice League in 1987, Batman was already traditionally a team-player. The writing duo’s (now famous) irreverent take on DC’s biggest superhero team franchise made good use of Batman: he was both the voice of experience and pathological reason for the group and the hall monitor for the team’s mix of unruly newbies and aimless veterans. So on the one hand, Batman lead the group in order to keep loose cannons like Guy Gardner, a raging narcissist, and Green Lantern, too, in line, but also to make sure the team functioned as a group until they could find a good leader.
Still, DeMatteis and Giffen were both clever enough to know that Batman is a counter-intuitive choice to lead such a high-profile team. He routinely barks at Guy, and the first time he makes a joke, the Blue Beetle is so shocked that he has to ask his fellow team-mates if they heard it, too. Batman is the group’s stop-gap solution, a character who takes the role as leader until he can appoint someone who’s not only more comfortable in a position of power but also a good fit for this particular team to lead. Martian Manhunter soon took Batman’s place as the group’s leader but for a little while, Batman remained with the group, helping them as best as such an authoritative outlier could. This would not however be the first or last time Batman would lead a team: Mike Barr, the writer who conducted the aforementioned interview with O’Neil in Amazing Heroes #50, gave the Caped Crusader his own team to lead in Batman and the Outsiders.
One of the most refreshing things about the two Batman movies that Tim Burton directed is the fact that he was not, before helming either film, a fan of the character or of comics in general. That lack of familiarity gave Burton the confidence he needed to futz around with the character and remake him using Burton’s idiosyncratically macabre sense of humor. Though Burton would become frustrated with mandates imposed on him by studio execs during the making of Batman Returns—he has said many times that he was unhappy with being forced to make the characters more accessory-friendly and thus more marketable for kids’ Happy Meal toys—his second attempt is much more tonally consistent and uniformly brazen in its take on the character.
Which is somewhat ironic, considering that Batman (Michael Keaton) is barely present in Batman Returns. Though he has some compelling scenes where he confronts both the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), he’s only vestigially important to the film’s plot. This is mostly because Batman is, both thematically and narratively, caught in between these two characters, one an outsider who has fooled himself into thinking he wants to be an insider (Penguin runs for Mayor of Gotham City but winds up trying to blow the city up) and the other disgusted with anything vaguely associated with the city’s patriarchial hierarchy.
When the film was initially released, many critics complained about Batman’s reduced status. But that’s part of what makes Batman Returns so exciting: it’s every bit the movie its (then) outré filmmaker wanted to make. It also doesn’t hold uninitiated viewers’ hands too much. Batman Returns is a film whose interests and sense of humor are hyper-specific to its creators: who else would have DeVito bite a man’s nose until he bleeds or have Catwoman grope Batman’s crotch while purring about how his penis is what really defines him? It’s too bad that Burton didn’t get to make a third Bat-film. It seems like both Burton and the Warner Brothers execs were sick of each other by the time it came to realize Burton’s tentatively planned third film. With Batman Returns, it looked like he had really hit his stride and was onto something.
Batman: Year One’s biggest triumph is establishing the importance of Commissioner James Gordon, then only a Lieutenant—this development is part of what made it a milestone comic book, and one of the major influences on Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. In Miller and Mazzuchelli’s comic, Gordon, a tough, aspiring cop who refuses to be bribed by Gotham City’s corrupt politicians or their hirelings, helps to establish a much-missed human element in Batman’s story. Gordon’s obsession with protecting his pregnant wife Barbara and raising his unborn child in a crime-infested city makes him the personification of what Bruce Wayne returned to Gotham City to. He’s the core of humanity amidst so much squalor, characterized in Year One by pimps, mobsters, bent elected officials and crooked cops.
Miller and Mazzuchelli’s greatest innovation was establishing Gotham City as being more than just a dense labyrinth for Batman to run around in. That approach would rub off on creators like John Ostrander and Mary Mitchell in Gotham Nights or Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen in Streets of Gotham, two short-lived titles focusing on the various different people living in Gotham, from rival superheroes to citizen shop-keepers. And it’s telling that “Gotham Noir,” the only time to date that writer/artist duo Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have put their film-noir-influenced spin on Batman and his world, centers on Commissioner Gordon. Also, Gotham Central, one of the best Batman-related comics in recent memory, follows the misadventures of a group of cops that just happen to work in the same city as the shadowy Batman.
I’ve singled out The Return of Bruce Wayne as Morrison’s best story so far because it’s simultaneously his most ambitious and accomplished work. In the six-issue mini-series, Morrison has Bruce Wayne re-incarnated six times before he returns to his life in the present-day. Stories like the one where Batman, as a pirate or a witch-hunting pilgrim or even a caveman, retains his moral compass and learns more about himself in the process are inspiring for their simultaneously bugfuck crazy and gratifyingly character-driven spirit. Oh, and did I mention that Batman’s friends are trying to find a way to stop him from being reborn in the present, as he’s been implanted with a futuristic bomb that will blow up when he is reborn one more time? Return really does have something for everyone: romance, time travel and Batman dressed as a Blackbeard-style pirate, complete with fire in his beard.
No comics writer has approached the character of Batman with as much ambition as Grant Morrison. Morrison’s often-psychedelic takes on the character prove just how deeply invested in the character and the world he is: he views Batman as a heroic archetype unto himself. No matter the form, Morrison’s comics insist that Batman will always be a heroic presence. In “Batman R.I.P.,” Morrison creates a villainous group that nearly destroys Batman, causing him to revert to a back-up personality that he created years ago just in case his psyche was ever destroyed by a villain (in these cases, Batman becomes “the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” a purple, yellow and red-costumed hero that Morrison repurposed from Silver Age comics where Batman inexplicably visits the alien planet of Zur-En-Arrh). In Batman and Robin, Morrison and penciller Frank Quitely did a nightmarish riff on the Adam West-era Batman stories but, as filtered through, as Morrison put it, a David Lynch-style sensibility. And in Batman Inc., Batman unites with the various different countries’ answers to Batman, including England’s Knight, and Argentina’s El Gaucho.
People often take for granted just how much Bruce Timm, along with his stable of voice actors and writers, did to modernize the character of Batman, as we know him today.Both the multiple Emmy-Award-winning Batman: The Animated Series and its one theatrical incarnation, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, achieved a tonal balance with the character that no live-action film has ever been able to beat. With show-writers like Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and voice talent like Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hammill (the Joker), animator and director Bruce Timm found a great middle ground in appeasing both child and adult audiences looking for a good Bat-story. The stories were consistently well-told, juggling Bruce Wayne and Batman’s various and sometimes contradictory character traits. He’s a womanizer, a detective, an athlete, a symbol, and yes, a cartoon character that does things no human man could ever do. Mask of the Phantasm, a film Timm co-directed and co-scripted, is probably the best Batman film to date: its narrative juggles two villains and features a strong love interest for Bruce without ever seeming over-burdened.
Batman creators owe an untold debt to Timm and company for modernizing the Batman and making him both more believable and kid-friendly. He turned a goofy villains like Mr. Freeze into a credible, sympathetic character by giving him a backstory (Freeze now commits crimes to find a cure for his wife, who suffers from a mysterious illness) and modernizing the character’s look. In that way, he also helped to expand the cast of characters that Batman fans would associate with the character to the point where they could not only easily identify a vast “rogues gallery” unique to Batman, but also a regular roster of sidekicks and allies, including two different incarnations of Robin. If any one creator can be credited with helping to build the foundation that has made Batman the most popular superhero film franchise to date, it’s Bruce Timm.
Comics writer Denny O’Neil is probably the most influential writer to ever take on the character. Stories like the now-canonical re-imagining of Batman’s origin story, “There is No Hope in Crime Alley,” and the formally innovative prose story “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three” set the pace for what scads of writers and artists felt they could do with the character. O’Neil’s take was grounded in Wayne’s obsessive nature. Romance, like the one Wayne briefly shares with Talia Al Ghul, was marginal in O’Neil’s Bat-stories because of the character was so mission-oriented. His most formative Bat-stories were written, as O’Neil described them in Amazing Heroes #50, as “pure comic books:” “It never occurred to me to plot social issues into these stories.”
At the same time, O’Neil’s take on Batman was semi-realistic, making his teaming with penciller Neal Adams a good fit. O’Neil treated the character as a real, psychologically understandable character, someone whose actions and world could make sense within a quasi-realistic context. His villains were not as flamboyant as the ones featured in the campy Adam West TV show from the ‘60s, a conscious decision that O’Neil has since expressed regret about (“I think it was also, however, a mistake on my part not to put more colorful, flamboyant villains in more of the stories.”). This is striking since Christopher Nolan similarly was hired to take on the Bat-film franchise because his take stridently opposed everything the two West-era-inspired Joel Schumacher-directed films offered viewers.
“Venom,” a relatively recent Batman story by O’Neil, is a very good example of what O’Neil could do with the character. In it, O’Neil takes the social-issues-centric, anti-drugs stance that he famously pursued in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up comics and applies them to a rather moving Batman story. After he’s incapable of lifting a piece of debris trapping a small child, Batman resorts to experimental steroids to help make him as physically capable as he is mentally adept. The way O’Neill merges his psychologically rich understanding of the character, as shown in Wayne’s daily setting of the grandfather clock leading to the Bat-Cave to the time of his parents’ death, is remarkable. And more importantly, the plot, which takes Batman to the fictional South American island of Santa Prisca (the island where, in the comics, The Dark Knight Rises’ villain Bane originated), is a good mix of detective story and action-adventure.
With The Killing Joke, British New Wave writer Alan Moore and 2000 A.D. artist Brian Bolland put a definitive spin on the Joker as Batman’s mirror image in a story that’s still considered one of Moore’s best stories. Like “Going Sane,” Moore and Bolland’s story starts from the premise that Joker and the Batman can’t stop the cycle of violence that keeps them at each others’ throats. But unlike that later story, The Killing Joke really drives home the psychological violence that drove the Joker to drop out from society and turn to crime. “One bad day,” as the Joker puts it, is all it took to push an otherwise sane man over the edge, turning him into a monster.
Normally, the idea of giving a villain like the Joker a specific origin (in this case, the Joker is a failed comedian who gets involved with gangsters in order to help buy a better life for his pregnant wife) seems tacky. But that’s the crux of what makes Moore and Bolland’s Joker so sympathetic: his madness is a product of his refusal or perhaps inability to stomach the random injustices of life, the kind that made his life determined by a series of circumstances that were well beyond his control. What makes The Killing Joke a great Batman story is its taking advantage of the notion that Batman’s villains are just reflections of his personality, versions of what might have been, had Bruce Wayne’s life been determined by completely different forces.
No one take on the Batman character and his development as a modern hero is as influential as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ eight-issue run. The pair left their indelible mark on the character in mystery-oriented stories like “The Laughing Fish,” a story that was the loose basis for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, and with villains like Hugo Strange, a psychologist who became obsessed with revealing Batman’s identity after trying to recreate the conditions that made Bruce Wayne Batman. With Silver St. Cloud, Englehart and Rogers were the first team to give Batman a memorable independent love interest. And the pair’s treatment of the Joker is equally crucial to the character’s development as a lethal psychopath and the most dangerous of Batman’s villains.
Though O’Neil readily admitted that there are similiarites between Englehart’s and his own vision of the character, he also correctly identified what separated his Batman from Englehart’s: Wayne was a more emotionally well-balanced character under Englehart and Rogers’s stewardship. He was more understandable, too, perhaps because he had functional social relationships and could still be defined by his extra-curricular obsessions as a super-rich, tights-clad vigilante. Here was a recognizably human Batman, one that should be looked on as the Platonic ideal whenever superhero skeptics wonder how a superhero comic can be simultaneously pulpy, thoughtful and character-driven.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.