Choosing the best Batman graphic novels is some task. With at least four new Batman comics released on even a quiet month, there's so many to choose from. Plus, you'd probably die before you read every issue featuring the Dark Knight published since his 1939 debut. That's where this list comes in - here we point you to the Batman stories that hold the most significance.
UPDATE: Well, this is sad. It's been announced that DC imprint Vertigo is closing its doors, making way for a rebranding. Batman has featured several times in Vertigo and it's one of the most beloved comic lines around. The most pertinent time Batman appeared was in Dark Night: A True Batman Story. This was the true tale of comic book writer Paul Dini recounting how Batman 'saved him', after being savagely beaten one night.
Some of the books below are fixtures on any list featuring the Caped Crusader's greatest stories, but there's a good reason for that. They defined what a Batman story could be at key moments in the character's long history. We've also thrown in a couple of oddities and spin-offs that offer just a sample of the types of rich tales that can be told in Batman's universe.
Take these as just a starting point for your Dark Knight reading. Publisher DC Comics is putting out great Batman material every month these days, and there's no bad time to get involved.
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The Best Batman Graphic Novels
1. Batman: Year One
Probably still the best Batman starting point around, although it has some decent competition in the books Zero Year and Earth One, these days. Frank Miller takes us through Bruce Wayne's fraught steps into becoming Batman over the course of a whole year, dovetailing with Jim Gordon's arrival in a dirty Gotham City police force that doesn't want him there. Their partnership is thrillingly forged, and the Gordon bits are by far the most memorable parts of the story.
Writer: Frank Miller / Artist: David Mazucchelli
2. The Dark Knight Returns
A few decades in the future, a near-elderly Bruce Wayne is dragged out of retirement as Gotham City slowly slides into hell. The Joker, sensing his return, breaks out of his catatonic state and commits some of his worst atrocities yet. This famous graphic novel shaped the darker tone of the character for years and years. While it is extremely '80s - Ronald Reagan ultimately orders Superman to stop Batman - its enormous reputation is well-earned.
Writer: Frank Miller / Artists: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson
3. Batman: The Long Halloween
A year-long mystery that had a strong influence on Christopher Nolan's first two Batman films, in The Long Halloween the Dark Knight attempts to stop a killer called Holiday, who murders associates of a crime family on a different holiday each month. Tim Sale's moody art mimics the style of film noir. While the larger mystery drives the story - and is resolved terrifically - the highlight is the tragic fall of Harvey Dent and his transformation into Two Face.
Writer: Jeph Loeb / Artist: Tim Sale
4. The Killing Joke
Rightly considered controversial for its portrayal of violence towards Batgirl Barbara Gordon, this is nonetheless the definitive Joker book. At 64 pages long, it's the shortest story on this list, but its final confrontation between Batman and the Joker is unmissable. Writer Grant Morrison that Batman kills the Joker at the end of The Killing Joke, a reading that might transform the way you interpret the laughter being cut off in the rain.
Writer: Alan Moore / Artist: Brian Bolland
5. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth
The inmates have broken loose in Arkham Asylum, and the place now belongs to the Joker, a story told in parallel to that of the Asylum's founder, Amadeus Arkham. Dave McKean's scratchy and nightmarish art makes this a very unusual proposition among superhero comics, and this book undeniably influenced the excellent game Batman: Arkham Asylum. Morrison was reportedly paid one dollar per copy sold, and it shifted 120,000 copies on its first day of sale alone, at the height of 1989's Batmania.
Writer: Grant Morrison / Artist: Dave McKean
6. Batman: The Court of Owls
A lot of the best modern Batman stories are part of longer epics by writers like Tom King, Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, rather than standalone graphic novels. Snyder's run with artist Greg Capullo is perhaps the most famous, beginning with this tale of an Illuminati-like organisation that has been quietly influencing the events of Gotham City for years. This is a satisfying story about an almost unknowably powerful enemy, but the entire multi-year run is worth checking out, continuing with the excellent Joker tale Death of the Family.
Writer: Scott Snyder / Artist: Greg Capullo
7. Batman by Azzarello and Risso
There's a long history of what if-type scenarios in Batman's past.But Knight of Vengeance, contained in this volume, is the best one in years. In this reality, Bruce Wayne was shot instead of his parents, and his father Thomas became a rage-consumed Dark Knight. His mother, Martha, meanwhile, became the Joker. This novel idea is explored in with emotional depth, with writer Brian Azzarello tapping into the parents' collective grief and how it sent their lives down such different paths.
Writer: Brian Azzarello / Artist: Eduardo Risso
8. Batman: The Cult
A lot of the most influential darker Batman stories came out of the late '80s, including this oddity.A cult leader called Deacon Blackfire takes over the city. You can see its influence in The Dark Knight Rises, which borrows its grim images of bodies hanging in the streets, and the idea of a dangerous cult emerging from the sewers beneath Gotham. The Cult wins points for featuring a ludicrous sequence where Robin uploads non-lethal bullets into cultists from the turret of a monster truck Batmobile.
Writer: Jim Starlin / Artist: Bernie Wrightson
9. Batman: Black & White
This anthology book features the work of creators like Neil Gaiman and Batman: The Animated Series' overseer Bruce Timm, each delivering a bite-sized tale that offers their interpretation on an aspect of Batman's world, minus colour. There are some real gems among the stranger takes on the Dark Knight. Timm’s story of Two-Face's failed redemption is an unforgettable highlight. Black and White successfully shows how creators can make this rich character their own.
Writer: Various / Artists: Various
10. Gotham Central
This terrific series explores the cops who live in the shadow of Batman, dealing with a city full of colourful killers and feeling constantly out of their depth. It's closer to a gritty police procedural than anything, but don't let the TV show Gotham fool you.This is a much more interesting exploration of the normal people who exist in Batman's world. It's available in four separate volumes, but the complete hardcover is a treat for your bookshelf.
Writers: Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka / Artist: Michael Lark
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