Continuing our series of favourite Bat-stories, I’m going to add my tuppence-worth to the excellent recommendations of my esteemed colleagues Jules and Gary, by adding three of my own.
The selections below might not be considered seminal or mould-breaking, but rather are stories which made an impact on me as a child or adolescent, and which I believe exemplify the attributes that make up my idea of Batman. There may also be a few you haven’t read before, and hopefully, this will prompt you to pick them up.
10 Nights of the Beast
This four part series by Starlin and Aparo is set during the cold war, and introduces readers to the KGBeast, Anatoly Knyazev, a member of a top-secret KGB cell known as ‘The Hammer’. When the Soviet government disbands his unit, The Beast is sent on one last mission to Gotham City to assassinate nine members of America’s Strategic Defence Initiative within a ten-day period.
This story made a huge impression on me as a young reader, and is still an engrossing read to this day. Its Cold War backdrop was an almost ubiquitous feature of movies and books of ‘80s, and the story bombastically reflects the zeitgeist of the time. Starlin’s cold, calculating, and unsettlingly brutal assassin presents a genuine threat to Batman, presented as dark and twisted reflection of Gotham’s protector.
Jim Aparo’s artwork beautifully emphasises the physical prowess of both combatants, each character leaping and vaulting athletically from panel to panel, and features some truly gruesome moments. One unforgettable sequence shows the Beast hacking off his own hand to avoid capture, highlighting the cast-iron mentality of the foe Batman is facing.
On a related note, you might also like to check out Batman #445-447, which features the protégé of the Beast, Gregor Dosynski, otherwise known as the NKVDemon. The story follows a similar plot to the original, with the Demon seeking vengeance for his mentor’s defeat, whilst attempting to assassinate members of the Soviet government he perceives as traitors.
A perennial name on any list of favourite Bat-stories is writer Denny O’Neil. In the early ‘70s his stories returned the character to his darker roots, and that change has informed every iteration since, making O’Neil one of the most important names in the Batman’s long and illustrious history.
His later work on ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’ produced a number of memorable stories, but ‘Venom’ is perhaps his best remembered. In it, Batman turns to an experimental steroid to increase his strength, after failing to save a drowning girl trapped under a heavy boulder. With his addiction growing, Bruce becomes increasingly violent and unfocussed, stretching the limits of his friendship with Alfred, and his sanity, to breaking point.
The series featured some truly striking imagery, like the sight of Batman laughing maniacally after mercilessly pummelling a low-level thug, and a bearded, dishevelled Bruce Wayne stumbling from the darkness of the cave after going cold turkey to rid his body of the drug. It’s pretty powerful stuff, O’Neill’s underlying commentary on the nature of addiction and its consequences pulls no punches, and highlights, perhaps more than any other story, Bruce’s ultimate weakness and greatest strength; his humanity.
Perhaps best known for their work on the outstanding ‘Strange Apparitions’ arc featured in the pages of Detective Comics, writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers re-teamed in 2005 for a six-issue follow-up titled, Dark Detective.
The story centres on the Joker’s attempts to become governor, with a campaign slogan of “Vote for me, or I’ll kill you!” compelling the electoral to vote in his favour. Many classic characters and villains of the rogue’s gallery make an appearance over the course of the story (including Silver St. Cloud, and Rupert Thorne), but Englehart’s Joker looms large over all. For me, it’s one of the best versions committed to paper, being both uncompromisingly deadly, and as mad as a box of frogs.
This particular version of Batman, too, is among my personal favourite takes, striking the perfect balance between ever-thinking detective and rational combatant, and Rogers’ masterful composition and slick storytelling effortlessly captures those nuances, evoking the spirit of his original run, and perhaps bettering it.