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The Dark Knight Reads: Fifteen Essential Batman Graphic Novels

The Bat-books that formed a hero

batman dark knight rises

Ron Phillips/Warner Bros.

The Dark Knight Rises may mark the end of director Christopher Nolan's preposterously successful movie trilogy but, in the comic book world, Batman's battle never ends. Over the course of his 83-year history, the Dark Knight has racked up one of the strongest assortments of stories in all of supercomics and become the world's most popular hero. The 15 titles below are essential to understanding why.

The list includes undisputed classics and offbeat personal visions, old-school adventures and state-of-the-art superheroics. Some are practically perfect, some are deeply flawed, but put them together and a complete picture of the Dark Knight emerges. If you want to know who he is, how he came to be and where he's headed in the future, these 15 Bat-books belong on your bookshelf.

By Sean T. Collins

knightfall

™ & © DC Comics

8. ‘Batman: Knightfall’

This was Bane's big break. This very, very 1990s crossover event by a small army of writers and artists was the come-up for the future Dark Knight Rises villain, created by Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench and Graham Nolan. The masked muscleman on super-steroids softens Batman up by freeing all his enemies from Arkham Asylum, then swoops in to finish the job by breaking the Dark Knight's back; an armor-clad replacement Batman is left to take up the fight. Beyond the back-breaking gimmick and the typical mainstream superhero-comic cheesiness, though, you'll find crackerjack pacing, a slew of Batman's best bad guys and a surprisingly effective exploration of a hero pushed past his breaking point.

a death in the family

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7. ‘Batman: A Death in the Family’

Democracy in action! When a new Robin proved unpopular in the 1980s, DC gave its fans a 900 number and a choice – should the Joker kill him? The fans spoke, and this angsty melodrama is the result. It's earnest to a fault but transcends the stunt nature of the story with rock-solid art from definitive 1980s Bat-artist Jim Aparo and with the inspired lunacy of writer Jim Starlin's version of the Joker. Case in point: dude beats a teenage boy to death with a crowbar, then seeks refuge from Batman by becoming Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.

the untold legend of batman

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6. ‘The Untold Legend of the Batman’

The writing by Len Wein is of the "Robin, old chum" old school, the art by John Byrne and Jim Aparo follows suit and the origin stories it contains for Batman and his allies and enemies have all been rebooted half a dozen times since its 1980 release. But thanks to a black-and-white paperback re-release following the blockbuster Tim Burton Batman movie, this compulsively readable mystery-cum-guide to the Dark Knight showed a lot of kids just how wide and wild Batman's world could be. It's still a fascinating, kaleidoscopic read, even though that world has changed.

batman chronicles

™ & © DC Comics

5. ‘The Batman Chronicles Vol. 1’

A foundational text for the entire superhero genre, Chronicles collects Batman's first year of adventures in order, from his creation by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in Detective Comics #27 through the debuts of his sidekick Robin and nemesis the Joker, courtesy of co-creator Jerry Robinson. You'll be surprised by how dark the Dark Knight started out – he packed heat and didn't mind killing the occasional criminal – and how quickly he transformed into the more wholesome Caped Crusader.

arkham asylum

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4. ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’

Tarot cards, occult symbolism, abnormal psychology, Aleister Crowley, Christian iconography, Psycho references, sick jokes – when young, weird Scottish writer Grant Morrison and daring visual artist Dave McKean were tapped to explore the insanity of Batman's enemies and the mental institution where they're imprisoned (not to mention the insanity of Batman himself), the resulting graphic novel wasn't so much about madness as a simulation of it. Somehow, it became the best-selling graphic novel of all time and indirectly gave birth to the massive video game hit.

the killing joke

™ & © DC Comics

3. ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’

Watchmen writer Alan Moore has disavowed this nasty little number about the Joker's origin, centered on his attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by crippling and sexually assaulting his daughter Barbara (a/k/a Batgirl). That didn't stop Heath Ledger from citing Moore's Batbook as a touchstone for his performance in The Dark Knight, nor prevent artist Brian Bolland's cackling portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime from becoming the character's most iconic image.

batman year one

™ & © DC Comics

2. ‘Batman: Year One’

In retrospect, it's an unlikely collaboration: the operatic grandeur and bombast of Frank Miller in a writer-only role, wedded to the stylishly minimal art of David Mazzucchelli, who'd soon retire from superheroes entirely and reinvent himself as an alternative-comics trailblazer. But their definitive account of both Batman and Jim Gordon's earliest days as crime-fighters is the perfect blend of pulp and poetry; Nolan all but used it as proof of concept for his franchise reboot, and many fans and critics consider it the best superhero comic of the modern age. (Note to Marvel movie fans: Miller and Mazzucchelli's Daredevil: Born Again is arguably modern Marvel's best book, too.)

dark knight returns

™ & © DC Comics

1. ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’

There's no competition. Frank Miller's grim but ultimately celebratory vision of a dark, depraved future Gotham City and the grizzled old Batman who comes out of retirement to save it made Miller a legend. In tandem with Watchmen, it transformed the landscape of superhero comics forever. Forget Chris Nolan or Tim Burton, cartoon or comic book or video game – without the original TDKR, Batman as you know him would not exist.

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