Batman scholar Prof. Will Brooker (author of Batman Unmasked and the sequel Hunting the Dark Knight) discusses his selections for the five best Batman comics of all-time with CT’s Drew Morton. Brooker says, “Any list of ‘best’ Batman is just a temporary capture, as I argued in a chapter many years ago (“The Best Batman Story” in the book Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, 2006). It depends on your mood, on your rules of selection, on the day of the week, and time of day. But this is a good list for now—good enough.”
WILL’S TOP FIVE
5. Batman: The Court of Owls. Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo
Will: One of the most recent additions to the Batman canon—the first major story-arc following the 52 reboot — and it may simply be with relief that I want to give it recognition here. Time will tell how it stands up, but it’s surely the best thing to emerge from the generally ill-fated 52. Following Morrison’s all-inclusive take on the mythos, with its crazy and courageous re-incorporation of the 1950s and 1960s, Snyder tries something straight, but not narrow—hard-edged, but not, thankfully, bone-headed or “grim and gritty.” His main contribution to Batman’s world is history; and not in Morrison’s sense of rediscovering and valuing forgotten tales from continuity. Rather, Snyder invents new backstory and takes advantage of the superhero rules identified by Umberto Eco and later Geoff Klock—that if you introduce something within continuity, it has officially always been there. So his “Court of Owls” literally exists on a hidden story–a secret floor across Gotham’s landmark buildings—and Batman, like the reader, first resists but then has to accept this shadow narrative haunting the city’s past. Snyder also manages to give this 73-year-old character a voice we haven’t heard before: educated, wry, informed, auto-didactic—someone who clearly reads a lot, and remembers what he reads.
Drew: I’ve been blown away by Scott Snyder’s run on the New 52 Batman and I’m so glad to see Will has included it here (I was tempted to include it as well but got cold canonizing feet at the last minute). Snyder’s title re-establishes Batman’s gifts as the World’s Greatest Detective and showcases how hard an imperfect Batman can fall when he overestimates his abilities and nearly every aspect of this new “reboot” interpretation has rung true. Moreover, I think Snyder’s ability to capture the Dark Knight’s psychological state is far more effective than Grant Morrison’s work has ever been. The most obvious example? When Snyder and Capullo pull the traditional layout of the comic book page out from under us, forcing us to rotate the book in our hands in order to keep ourselves oriented. The beauty of this formal decision stems from its simplicity: Batman is beginning to lose his bearings on what reality is and the reading experience takes us down the same path. I can’t wait to see where this creative team takes the Caped Crusader in the coming year.
4. Batman: R.I.P. Grant Morrison, Tony S. Daniel
Will: The culmination of Morrison’s wide-scale, long-term project at the helm of the mainstream Batman titles. Between 2006 and 2011, he single-handedly revised the character’s mythos and history, through the simple but radical method of imagining that every Batman story had “really happened.” So the noirish 1939 stories happened to the same guy who met space aliens in the 1950s, and went Pop in the 1960s, and became a hairy-chested love god in the 1970s. That playboy period resulted in a son, Damian Wayne, who in turn, as the new Robin, became one of the most notable new additions to the Batman cast since Harley Quinn in the late 1990s, or perhaps even since Ra’s al Ghul in the early 1970s. Morrison is arguably better with ideas, moments, and images than with storytelling, but when you have ideas, moments, and images as incredible as Batman in the ragged, ripped, multicolored “Zur-En-Arrh” outfit, with Bat-mite at his side, facing off against a ‘Thin White Duke” style Joker who tells him “you think it all breaks down into symbolism and structures and hints and clues no, batman, that’s just wikipedia”– well, who needs a coherent story after all.
Drew: As I noted above, Morrison and his “R.I.P.” arc frustrate me. I agree with Will that Damian Wayne is a hell of an addition to the Batman universe and Morrison’s ramp up to the final issues of the story arc have some dazzling moments (in particular his “prose” issue focused on a new interpretation of the Joker). However, due to Morrison’s admiration of Batman’s past and his obsession with working all these incarnations of the hero into one man, the intertextuality of the book became incredibly frustrating. Yes, I also agree with Will that Morrison has some stunning ideas but, unlike Will, I would prefer for them to be delivered within the form of a coherent story.
3. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley
Will: This was the title I chose in 2006 as the “best Batman story,” and I might not choose it again now, but it will never be far from the top five—and for the same reasons I gave in that chapter. Dark Knight Returns, for anyone who knows Batman, has become an integral part of the mosaic that makes up the character, the fractured hall of mirrors that frames him. And its contribution to that mosaic is a series of vivid, unforgettable frames, tiles, images, snatches of dialogue and iconic splash pages, strips of action that run in storyboard form and become motion. It’s a broken urban poem. “Good soldier.” “Boosters. Boosters. Peel.” “A wolf howls. I know how he feels.” I could pick up Dark Knight again anytime and become drawn into it, or I could just relive it in my head.
2. Batman: Year One. Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli
Will: Appealing because of its “realism,” its convincing sense that this Batman could actually exist; Miller’s acolyte Dark Knight is a “lucky amateur” who makes mistakes, wears the kind of costume you could pull together yourself, and constantly lives on his wits. The older Batman who can handle anything is a powerful figure, and the point of stories like Batman: R.I.P. (and indeed Knightfall) is that even this jaded, masterful expert can come close to breaking, but there’s a new edge in seeing a younger vigilante who’s kept on his toes even by policemen and gangsters, and couldn’t yet handle a psychopath like Joker.
1. Swamp Thing: Garden of Earthly Delights. Alan Moore, John Totleben
Some of the greatest glimpses of Batman are exactly that—glimpses, guest-spots in someone else’s story. Kingdom Come, for instance, is more about Superman and Captain Marvel, but its silver-haired Batman—”Batman,” even though everyone knows his secret identity—was irresistible. Morrison’s JLA included Batman as a team player, surly but resourceful, who stole the show and saved the lives of his meta-human colleagues. And when he appears for an episode of Swamp Thing, Moore’s Batman is perfect: articulate, reasoned (“Until she’s been through the judicial process, I’m afraid that’s not possible. Gotham can’t surrender to terrorism.”), driven by a passion not for a war on crime or personal vengeance, but (more plausibly) for the city, its architecture and its people. But crucially and beautifully, this Batman also adapts, compromises, and negotiates, and his victory is achieved through smart thinking and grace rather than muscle and weaponry. This, perhaps, is why Snyder’s Batman succeeds—for evoking the Batman who is, above all, committed to and invested in his town; who sees himself as Gotham’s Guardian.
Drew: I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read this but, because of Will’s recommendation, will do so immediately.
READ PART ONE HERE.