Hola! Donovan here, formerly of the Comic-Cast and the Gotham Chronicle Podcast. After seeing Ed’s Top Ten Favorite Batman Comics, I thought I’d contribute as well, albeit in a different way. Instead of listing off a series of story-arcs, graphic novels or collections, I’ll be recommending various single issues throughout Batman’s history that are not only some of my all-time favorites, but are ones I’d highly recommend to Bat-Fans of all walks of life! Some are more iconic than others, but that’s the fun in going through the Caped Crusader’s History! These are in no way ranked, only descending in chronological order. To the Batmobile!
Batman #251 “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge!” 1973
In-arguably the most premiere Batman comic of the Bronze Age, the iconic duo of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams reintroduce the Joker during their dark and gothic stint on the Batman title, restoring his killer roots and adding a darker sense of menace to the character. The issue consists of Batman matching wits with the Clown Prince in order to save the Joker’s own former henchmen from their previous employer’s murderous revenge!
This issue serves great examples of Batman’s dark mystique as well as the Joker’s. Both men are supremely intelligent and one-up each other, with Batman playing catch up for the majority of the issue. There’s not an appearance of either character in the decades since that’s not inspired, indirectly or directly, from this story here. This is easily found in the modern collection “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told”.
Batman #232 “Daughter of the Demon!” 1971
This first appearance of Ra’s Al Ghul was adapted almost word-for-word by the Batman: the Animated Series episode “The Demon’s Quest Part One”, and it’s easy to see why it was so faithfully retold. The original appearance of the Demon’s Head, told again by the classic team of O’Neil and Adams, sends Batman on an international quest to retrieve Robin, from Calcutta to Tibet. Along the way we see Batman utilize his detective skills, his espionage skills, and his fighting skills against a diverse set of opponents, before being led to Robin and revealing he knew he was being set up as a rube the entire time. The climax of the story is one of my favorites. This is an arrogant, cocky Batman who shows off his brainpower with a sense of impatience and frustration before exclaiming “I’m tired of talking! You ready Robin?” and proceeds to beat up every hood in the room. Batman’s often been portrayed as the master of everything in the last decade or so, but you see elements of that way back in this issue, and you appreciate it more because the storytelling is on a much more epic scale. This is found in “Batman in the Seventies” and “Batman: Tales of the Demon’s Head” collections respectively.
DC Special Series #15 “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three!” 1978
This might be the best Batman story ever told on this list, from a writing standpoint. With collage-like splash illustrations from the maestro Marshall Rogers, Denny O’Neil writes a prose story in which Batman must prevent a murder in only a few hours’ time without the knowledge of who, where or why, only when. O’Neil’s taste for old-school pulp mysteries is on display, and marries with the format of a Batman story beautifully. Batman stories aren’t told like this anymore, where there’s a mystery to solve and he pulls it off with almost Sherlockian flair. All of the stories on this list are must reads but if there’s one you run into, make it this one. Both 80s and modern versions of “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told” include this story.
Batman Special #1 “The Player on the Other Side!” 1984
A One-Shot by Mike W. Barr and Michael Golden, this hidden gem has seen a relatively recent re-print in the “Batman: The Wrath” collection which includes this original story and the sequel done years later in Batman Confidential. This initial story though is one of my all-time favorites, and is hardly ever remembered or talked about. The premise is admittedly comic-booky: On the same night that Batman’s parents died, the child of two thieves who were killed in a heist by a cop who later grew up to become Commissioner Gordon. Years later on the anniversary, he’s back for revenge. Armed with a costume similarly designed like Batman’s and a personal armory, the child has become the Wrath, a master hit-man. Equal to Batman in every way, the story plays out like a violent chess match that ends in death. I would highly recommend picking this story up as it can be found in either the “Batman in the Eighties” collection or the aforementioned Wrath collection.
Batman #416 “White and Gold Truth” 1987, New Titans #55 “Transition” 1989, Batman #442 “A Lonely Place of Dying Chapter Five: Rebirth” 1989
This is where the cheating begins. These three issues connect in a type of ongoing subplot that directly confronts the issue of the Batman needing a Robin. In the Post-Crisis continuity, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s relationship was considerably strained in the transition from Dick’s costumed identity into Nightwing and Bruce’s adopting of Jason Todd. With these issues, you can see the thread ebb and flow through a series of events. The first issue, Batman #416, is a must-have for fans of the Dynamic Duo. Nightwing saves Robin from a bungled drug bust and gives Robin a message that he and “Bruce” need to talk. This sets the then-modern Caped Crusaders on-edge, with Jason worried that Nightwing wants his old job back and Bruce completely stressed about seeing his old ward again. The issue ends up taking place in the Bat-Cave and consists of a conversation between Bruce and Dick where the former Boy Wonder asks why he was replaced with a comparatively inferior partner. Bruce is put through an uncompromising interrogation until finally he confesses his true feelings. It’s an emotional rollercoaster than I won’t spoil, you have to read it for yourself.
New Titans #55 sees the Titans return off planet (referenced incorrectly in Nightwing Annual #2) and each of them deal with issues in their personal lives. Dick learns of Jason’s death and completely breaks down, heading straight to Wayne Manor to give his condolences. The conversation with Bruce turns ugly fast, devolving into a screaming match that ends with Batman banning Dick from the premises of his former home. This issue is a strong one for Titans fans, but a must-see for Batman and Robin fans and the relevant sequel to Batman #416.
Batman #442 “Rebirth” is the final chapter in the “A Lonely Place of Dying” five-part saga that introduces Tim Drake. In it, Tim saves Batman and Nightwing from a deathtrap by Two-Face, and for his trouble is rebuffed by an insulted Batman who is appalled that another teen boy dared to wear the Robin costume. The story stops and confronts Batman on the need for a partner and is impressively honest about it. Batman doesn’t want to put a child in danger anymore, but Tim doesn’t think that shuts the door on Robin altogether. With Jim Aparo on art, this serves as a fitting conclusion to the Robin “problem”, appropriate closure for the death of Jason Todd (at the time) and sees Nightwing and Batman working together after their dust-up in New Titans. Bruce and Dick would completely settle their differences at the end of the Prodigal storyline, but that’s for another day. Batman #416 was recently reprinted in the “Second Chances” trade paperback, while Batman #442 can be seen in the recent reprinting of “A Death in the Family”, conflating that story with “A Lonely Place of Dying”.
Batman #493 “Redslash”, Batman #496 “Die Laughing” 1993
“Knightfall” is my personal favorite Batman crossover, and these two issues are in large part why that is. For one thing, it was a great time to be reading the books. You had the talent of Doug Moench, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle delivering chilling, dark stories that felt in-line with the character. The first part of Knightfall involves Batman being systematically torn down physically, mentally and spiritually as Bane destroyed Arkham and set the rogues gallery free. Early on, Batman confronts classic 90s villain Mr. Zsasz in a Women’s School, and is put through the mental wringer trying to apprehend one of Gotham’s deadliest serial killers. Breyfogle crushes the artwork and it’s a great issue that ends with you thinking to yourself “How can he go one after this?”
Batman #496 is the next-to-penultimate chapter in the first third of Knightfall, perfectly showing right at the start how beaten and broken Batman had become. And he hadn’t even faced Joker yet! This issue is notable for being an early re-match with the Joker after the death of Jason Todd, and includes a memorable scene of Batman gassed up on Fear Toxin seeing images of Jason dying, which only serves to make him mad. The rest of the issue is pure catharsis for anyone who wanted to see the Joker get what was coming to him, and has a terrific cliffhanger into the next chapter of Knightfall.
Legends of the Dark Knight #17 and #18 “Venom” parts 2 and 3 1993
The five-part “Venom” saga is another diamond in the rough of forgotten Batman stories, but parts two and three really make the story memorable. This is actually one of the darkest, bleakest Batman tales of all time, told by an uncompromising Denny O’Neil with great art by Trevor Von Eeden and inks by Joe Luiz Garcia Lopez. After failing to rescue a kidnapped girl from drowning, Batman is talked into using the Venom drug (in pill form) to increase his strength and become a more efficient crime-fighter. As a result, his mental and emotional state withers down to a cruel bully. An intriguing premise made terrifying in execution, this story sees Bruce Wayne at his absolute worst. No story, be it A Lonely Place of Dying, Knightfall or R.I.P. has come close to portraying Batman as low and pitiful as this story does, and it’s quite scary. Batman is scary in this comic, and not in a good way. This also has some of the most evil, detestable villains to ever be written in a DC Comic Book. This story was reprinted when “The Dark Knight Rises” came out, so it should be easy to find. As grim as this story it, it’s honestly a must-read for Batman fans and those interested in seeing the origins of the Venom drug.
Also, Batman fights a shark to save Alfred. That’s awesome too.
Batman #600 “The Scene of the Crime”, Batman #605 “Courage” 2002
Both the end of the “Bruce Wayne: MURDERER” storyline and the end of the “Bruce Wayne: FUGITIVE:” storyline shows more of the modern take on Batman in his paranoia and psychological complexity. Coming apart after the resignation of Jim Gordon, Batman is confronted by the death of an old girlfriend and is framed as Bruce Wayne for her murder. Breaking out of prison to continue his crusade, he abdicates personal responsibility to clear his name and breaks away from the Bat-Family. Batman #600 features another stormy confrontation between Bruce and Dick in the Bat-Cave, culminating in a blow-for-blow fight between the two, with Robin and Batgirl looking on and Oracle watching through Skype. It’s a shocking and thrilling end of the “MURDERER” arc and leads directly into the “FUGITITVE” arc, which ends with Batman #605. That issue sees the natural conclusion to Batman’s rift with the Bat-Family and brings everything full-circle. I won’t spoil much of that issue, but for those who still need to read these arcs, both stories have been recently reprinted. Both issues were written by Ed Brubaker with art by Scott McDaniel.
Batman: Gotham Knights #32 “24/7” 2002
Serving as an epilogue to Bruce Wayne: FUGITIVE, this issue of Gotham Knights (Written by Devin Grayson with art by Roger Robinson) shows a regular 24 hr day/night for Bruce Wayne and Batman. Portraying how Bruce begins his day and interacts with the people of Gotham, through the nighttime when he’s the Batman, this also shows the effects Wayne has on the city, all positive for citizens and even criminals. A terrific breather after such a heavy story, it’s a great done-in-one that it appropriately included in the second modern volume of “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told”.
Harley and Ivy #3 “Hooray for Harleywood!” 2004
Speaking of ending on a lighter note, the three issue miniseries “Harley and Ivy” by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm is one of my all-time favorites. Above everything else one can say about the series and its protagonists, it’s easily the funniest “Batman” story that’s ever been done. After a failed heist that leads to their typical capture by Batman, Harley and Ivy travel to the Amazon Rainforest before hitting up Hollywood to make a movie…about themselves. All three are hilarious, but the third issue really takes the piss in sending up classic Hollywood tropes with particular needling at the Schumacher Batman franchise.
Poison Ivy is a great “straight man” for Harley, being portrayed as a badass in issue #2 and the overall brains of the duo throughout the miniseries. However as the character’s creators, Dini and Timm go to town with Harley’s antics. Issue #3 sees Quinn at her zaniest, from hiring studly stuntman after stuntman to writing scenes in their movie’s script where Batman blows up again and again. The ending comes about as naturally as one would expect, but the realization of the two leads never fails to make me laugh out loud. This is a must-own for fans of the duo, and for Bat-Fans in general.