By Ricky Church (@RICHARDCHURCH16)
Obviously it is a very difficult time for all of us right now with the current health crisis and the change in our day-to-day activities. It’s hard not knowing what news the next day might bring and being unable to turn to our usual hobbies to take our minds off things with theaters being closed down, movies getting delayed (including the one we’re all looking forward to) and no new comic books coming for the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, we can only turn to the sources of entertainment we already have at our disposal. As many of us Batfans know, Batman would persevere through the situation and find a way out. Since we don’t have a secret multi-billion dollar cave equipped with a laboratory and supercomputer at our disposal, we’ll just have to turn to the next best thing: reading plenty of Batman graphic novels.
Batman can be many things. But what he’s known for mostly — both within pop culture and the DC Universe — is being the “World’s Greatest Detective.”
Since we’re all in isolation, what better way to distract us from the worries of the outside world than a good mystery? I’ll be recommending Batman stories that lean more into the Dark Knight’s detective side rather than his superhero one. Whether you’ve read these before or are looking to read one for the first time, here are some great Batman detective stories to help you right now. – Ricky Church
BATMAN: YEAR ONE – Frank Miller and David Mazzuccheli
A good place to start is always at the beginning. BATMAN: YEAR ONE looks at the beginnings of Bruce Wayne’s war on crime when he returns to Gotham City and first dons the cape and cowl. The story from Frank Miller and artist David Mazzuccheli helped reinvent Batman by bringing him back to his darker roots at the time of his creation rather than the bright and campy ’66 TV series. YEAR ONE and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are pretty much Miller’s legacy in the world of Batman.
Though YEAR ONE may not have as strong of a mystery lean as other Batman stories, it’s still a great look at how Bruce developed the identity of Batman as well as his playboy persona. What is also notable is how it features no classic Batman rogues, but instead focuses on his battle against Gotham’s mob and corrupt police force. A strong argument can also be made that this is more of a Jim Gordon story than it is Batman as Gordon is trying to clean Gotham as well from inside the system rather than out, forging a lifelong partnership and friendship with Batman in the process. It also helps that YEAR ONE served as inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS as well as possibly Matt Reeves’ upcoming THE BATMAN.
BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN – Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN is a classic Batman story if there ever was one. It’s a whodunit featuring nearly all of Batman’s rogues gallery while telling a very engrossing and complex mystery that to this day people debate over. It is often seen as a spiritual continuation of YEAR ONE as Jeph Loeb references that story many times, using it as the backbone of this story.
Someone in Gotham City is killing off members of its mafia, but only once a month on its specific holiday, dubbing them “Holiday,” Batman, Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent work to uncover Holiday’s identity while at the same time trying to finish off the Falcone crime family for good. Even then though, the city is going through a shift in power as the mob seemingly becomes less significant as more and more supervillains rise.
TLH is undoubtedly one of the greatest Batman stories ever. It’s rich with character development and mystery as you question nearly everyone in the story. What also makes it so worthwhile is telling an emotional and gut-wrenching origin for Harvey’s turn into Two-Face, one that served as a basis for Nolan’s second Batman film THE DARK KNIGHT. Tim Sale’s artwork also evokes the film noir genre, adding even more to the whodunit element at play. Once you’re finished, you can read DARK VICTORY from the same team which I find is more of a continuation of the same story rather than a sequel as it continues Batman’s early years amid new murders and introduces Robin into his life.
BATMAN: EGO – Darwyn Cooke
I was finally able to read this story last year and upon finishing I agreed with what many people, several of them from BOF too, have said that it is one of the best Batman stories ever made. It may not be a detective story like many of the others on the list, but it is quite a compelling tale in the vein of a psychological film noir as the late and great writer/artist Darwyn Cooke takes a deep dive into Batman’s psyche.
One of the most intriguing aspects to the character of Batman is wondering where Bruce Wayne ends and Batman (ahem) begins in his personality. When Batman comes face-to-face with the consequences of his actions in his fight against crime, he considers hanging up the cape and cowl only to be confronted in his mind by the Batman persona, a vengeful demon that has finally had enough of Bruce’s moral code. The whole episode sees the personas of Bruce and Batman debating over their methods and the Batman’s desperate need to be uncaged and set loose. It’s quite an intriguing look into how Bruce differentiates his two personas and finds common ground between them.
BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN/MAD MONK – Matt Wagner
Another set of stories set within the YEAR ONE era, utilizing some of the same characters and continuity, is writer/artist Matt Wagner’s BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN and BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK, or also known, together, as DARK MOON RISING. The books are a modern re-telling of classic Batman stories that takes place during YEAR ONE, but rather than fighting mobsters as Batman expected he comes into contact with the first of his supervillain variety, namely a group of mutated monster men and a possible living vampire.
MONSTER MEN is probably the best of the two since it highlights Batman’s rookie status, but even though he’s still green in his crime-fighting career he can still outthink a set of super-powered monster men towering over him. It’s also a great spotlight on Dr. Hugo Strange, a Batman villain who doesn’t get near enough credit for being one of the most interesting rogues Batman has fought. His growing obsession with Batman is clear and creates a fresh take on their rivalry.
MAD MONK, meanwhile, plays up the supernatural aspect of Gotham City as Batman’s cases start turning from something seemingly simpler to straight up out there. Like THE LONG HALLOWEEN, Wagner focuses on how Batman’s presence has caused a shift with the city, a point emphasized by the next case Batman races off to at its conclusion.
BATMAN: HEART OF HUSH – Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen
I’d include Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s BATMAN: HUSH on this list, but since it is already considered one of the definitive Batman stories I thought I’d exclude it from the list because of that reason as well as how I also believe Paul Dini’s BATMAN: HEART OF HUSH is a superior story that features Batman’s old childhood friend-turned villain. With art from Dustin Nguyen, HEART OF HUSH is a great story.
When Tommy Elliot, aka Hush, returns to Gotham City he does so with the intent of dealing Bruce a huge emotional blow. His target, rather than Batman or any of his closest allies, is actually Catwoman, Batman’s longtime on/off-again romantic partner. Hush goes so far as to remove her heart, leaving her on a sophisticated life support system in an effort to torture and break Batman before stealing his life as Bruce Wayne.
It’s a pretty twisted story that delves much deeper into Hush’s psyche and motivations than his introduction did, one of the reasons I find HEART OF HUSH the better story of the two as Dini works his Batman magic that makes this so very compelling.
BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME – Paul Dini and Alex Ross
Speaking of Mr. Dini, very few creators have a better understanding of Batman than he does. Whether it’s through his work on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, DETECTIVE COMICS, the first two ARKHAM video games or his own semi-autobiography DARK NIGHT: A TRUE BATMAN STORY, his grasp on who Batman is and the power he has as a symbol is pretty clear. That is particularly true in his prose story BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME.
The story follows Batman on his nightly routines of preventing crime as he comes across a very familiar sight of a young boy who has just lost his parents. Dini focuses on the balance between Batman and Bruce Wayne, making Bruce wonder if he might have done a better job-fighting crime on a social level through donating to charities, rebuilding neighborhoods and fighting poverty than dressing up as a bat to fight criminals. It’s a good reflection of how his parent’s murder has shaped his whole life and whether or not it turned out for the better, but where the story really succeeds is showcasing Batman’s compassion. A lot of writers tend to place more importance on the dark and vengeful aspect of Batman, but Dini completely understands that Batman is not a soulless and uncaring vigilante, exemplified in one of the final scenes where Batman talks to the now orphaned child.
With absolutely gorgeous artwork from the legendary Alex Ross, WAR ON CRIME may not be a straight-up detective story, but it sure does highlight why Batman is a hero.
BATMAN: THE BLACK MIRROR – Scott Snyder and Jock
During a point in Batman’s recent history, former Robin and Nightwing Dick Grayson donned the cape and cowl when it was thought Bruce Wayne had died. When it became known that wasn’t the case, Bruce allowed Dick to remain Batman in Gotham City while he traveled the world recruiting other heroes in a worldwide organization. What many thought to be a placeholder story until Bruce returned to Gotham turned out to be one of the best modern Batman stories told in BATMAN: THE BLACK MIRROR.
BLACK MIRROR focuses on Dick and the challenges he faces as Batman, but it becomes a hard-boiled crime story as he investigates super-villains, former mobsters and hunts down a serial killer he, Jim and Barbara Gordon all have a personal connection to in an overarching plot. It’s surprising to remember that this was writer Scott Snyder’s first foray into the world of Batman, but he knocked it out of the park with his psychological horror slant and the balance between Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon’s intertwined stories. Jock’s visuals give the book a very creepy atmosphere, making it a compelling and unsettling read.
BATMAN: THE COURT OF OWLS – Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
After Snyder’s magnificent BLACK MIRROR, he was handed the keys to the kingdom when DC rebooted their line with the New 52 and was made the writer for the main BATMAN series. His opening story, THE COURT OF OWLS, became an instant classic and he showed no trouble switching his perspective from Dick Grayson to Bruce Wayne.
When Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham, he uncovers a mystery that points to the Court of Owls, a mythical secret society that has been rumored to be controlling Gotham for centuries, though everyone believes them to be an old folktale. It’s not long before they’re proven to be very real and more than a match for Batman as Snyder strips away Batman’s superior skills and shows him as a much more vulnerable man, examining his hubris in thinking he knows Gotham better than anyone while building him back up. The central mystery over the Court’s existence delves fairly deep into Gotham’s, and the Wayne family’s, history and is quite captivating. Greg Capullo’s artwork is excellent, particularly in one chapter where Batman is put through some extreme mental torture. Re-reading it now, it’s no wonder why Snyder and Capullo were the only team to remain on a book through the entirety of the New 52 and why their run has been so celebrated.
Those are my recommendations for some good Batman mysteries! What are your favorite Batman detective stories? – Ricky Church
Ricky Church is a lifelong Batman fan. He loves a variety of movies with his favorite a tie between THE DARK KNIGHT, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and LORD OF THE RINGS. Outside of Batman, he enjoys chatting about Superman, Star Wars and Star Trek and plays plenty of video games. You can find him on Twitter @RichardChurch16 and his other writings, including film and comic reviews, at Flickering Myth.