More than any other character in the history of comics, Batman has a ridiculous amount of classic stories behind him.
Everyone knows about the big guns, such as The Dark Knight Returns, Year One and The Killing Joke, while other books such as The Long Halloween (an excellent whodunnit) and Hush (the worst whodunnit ever, but beautifully drawn) always come up in any list of Batman stories.
But there are countless other stories that are every bit as essential as the established classics, though it’s only in recent years that DC has started to give them the treatment they deserve by reprinting them.
DETECTIVE COMICS 569-575
In 1986, the Crisis On Infinite Earths had been and gone, leaving Batman with a new origin (brilliantly defined by Frank Miller in Year One) and a new focus on the darker side of the character.
With Year One happening over in the main title, writer Mike W. Barr teamed up with the amazing Alan Davis and Paul Neary for a short but incredible run on Detective Comics.
Straddling the gap between the lighter pre-Crisis continuity and the grittier new direction, issues 569-575 saw Batman and then-Robin Jason Todd laughing and joking, with Bruce very much a mentor to his young “chum”.
These stories felt like a throwback to an earlier age, helped in no small part by the regular use of Sprang-style giant props and Jason’s Robin being written as an enthusiastic, nice kid and not the angry moaner who fans were so keen to have bumped off a few months later.
The stories are straight-up fun, but not without an edge. This was the point where The Joker had Catwoman brainwashed into being a villain again after years of her pretty much being a love interest for Batman.
As great as the scripts are, this is really the Alan Davis show. His always-superb art is really on fire here, with great renditions of characters like Scarecrow, The Joker and Mad Hatter, while his Batman is just beautifully iconic.
Sadly it didn’t last and Davis quit one chapter into Batman Year Two, though the team reunited for its sequel, Full Circle.
A few years later, the Tim Burton movie had made Batman more popular than it had been in decades, but the real good stuff was happening in the comics, namely Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s run on both Batman and Detective Comics. I could drone on at length about how great this team were, and I will in a future Unknown Pleasures, but for now this is about classic stories. Alan and Norm have plenty to choose from, but for me, there’s one that stands above all the rest, The Mud Pack.
Running in Detective Comics 604-608, the story saw Basil Karlo, the original Clayface team up with the insane Preston Payne (Clayface III) and the most recent incarnation, Sondra Fuller aka Lady Clay.
The Grant/Breyfogle team was well-established by this point, so both men were at the top of their game here. Alan’s scripting was typically character-focused, drawing no small amount of empathy for the child-like Payne and his romance with Fuller, while clearly relishing the theatrical evil of Basil Karlo, an old-school villain phone to monologuing to himself.
Grant’s Batman was perhaps one of the most pure definitions of the character we’ve ever had. A hero first and foremost, one who balanced being a dark and terrifying presence to criminals with a normal, well-adjusted individual with everyone else. At a time when most comic characters were becoming ever more grim and gritty, Alan Grant’s Batman was so much more than that.
Of course it helped massively he had the genius talent of Norm Breyfogle to bring his ideas to life. An absolute master of the form, Norm was equally at home with regular talking heads scenes as he was with psychopathic supervillains and the wild variety of architecture on Gotham’s mean streets.
It was Breyfogle’s dynamism that really made The Mud Pack stand out though. His cinematic approach to storytelling meant his characters felt like they were actually moving from panel to panel, with his action sequences as exciting as any live action scene on the big screen.
A four-part mini-series folded into the regular Detective series, The Mud Pack was the first Batman comic for thousands of new readers intrigued by Burton’s movie. I can’t think of a better introduction.
Certainly not a good introduction, but no less essential is 1990’s Dark Knight, Dark City, running across Batman 452-454.
On the surface, it’s another one of those stories so prevalent in the era where a previously tame villain steps it up a gear with regards to violence and nastiness.
In this case, it’s The Riddler who puts Batman through the wringer, showering him in blood, hanging a security guard after shooting his partner in the head and blocking a baby’s windpipe with a ping-pong ball, thereby forcing Batman to perform an emergency tracheotomy.
Brilliantly, Pete Milligan’s script takes a sharp turn away from the gritty 90s and ends up being about the hidden history of America and Gotham in particular, with secret societies, Thomas Jefferson and a sect of Devil-worshippers who’s occult ritual sets a demon at the very heart of the future Gotham City, a city that in this story at least, is a sentient one.
That demon, Barbatos, would appear years later in Grant Morrison’s Batman run, but it’s here that it really makes the most impact with Milligan writing a proper horror story that just so happens to have the Batman at its centre.
Wrapped under incredible covers from Mike Mignola, this three-parter looked wonderfully creepy, thanks to Kieron Dwyer and Dennis Janke’s atmospheric art.
THE DEADMAN CONNECTION
In what will be no surprise to anyone who read my Unknown Pleasures on the subject, my last choice has to be something from the wonderful Doug Moench, Kelley Jones and John Beatty (collectively known as Da Boyz) run that ran in Batman between issues 515-552.
Coming late in the run in issues 530-532, the three-part Deadman Connection both played to Jones’ macabre stylings and allowed Moench to experiment with his storytelling techniques.
When the dead seem to be up and walking around Gotham, Batman teams up with Deadman to investigate, leading the pair to Peru, where they encounter the spirits of the dead, an enslaved tribe and a shaman who sees Batman for what he really is. It’s a rollicking adventure, but with Moench’s cerebral touch all over it, not least during the conversation between Batman and the shaman, told as a full page of text with only one image of each character to illustrate it.
Jones, as always, just goes to town on everything he can here. No stranger to Deadman after drawing his prestige mini-series not long before, Kelley’s take on Boston Brand is beautifully horrific, but humorous at the same time, while his expansive jungles and ziggurats of Peru are as alien as they are spectacular.
I could go on endlessly, with stories like the plague in Gotham horror of Contagion, the ludicrous but gripping earthquake of Cataclysm or the year-long epic that was No Man’s Land, but even these few are the tip of the iceberg.
When it comes to stone-cold classics, there’s no character in comics that come close to the Batman.
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Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy