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BATMANWriter/Artist: See Below. Batman created by Bob Kane.
Synopsis: Stop me if you've heard this one: the death of Bruce Wayne's parents when he was ten drove him to become a brilliant inventor, peerless detective, and deadly martial artist, and then use those talents to fight crime in his new superheroic guise.
How Is It?: Batman is pretty much my favourite superhero, which is why I've read enough of his stories to make a page worthwhile. When written properly, the Dark Knight is psychologically complex, iconic, and just plain cool. That, plus he's got some of the most famous nemeses in all of pop culture-dom, the foremost one being arguably the best villain ever created. Add to that a carefully created and striking world and memorable conceits, and you've got a hero who remains vital and interesting 70 years down the line.
The Dark Knight ReturnsWriter/Artist: Frank Miller
Artists: Brian Bolland
Synopsis: It's been 20 years since Bruce Wayne decided to retire as Batman. It's not that Gotham doesn't need him more than ever--there's a brutal new gang in town called The Mutants, for instance, and Harvey Dent has just been released from Arkham Asylum after a facelift--it's just that he's too old...and maybe Batman wasn't a completely benign influence after all. But when someone commits a suspiciously Two-Face-like crime, the pull of the cape and cowl proves too strong.
How Is It?: The story widely held as reimagining and revitalizing the Dark Knight for the 80s (without it, we probably wouldn't have the movies, or at least they would have been radically different) and which also happens to be one of the most acclaimed comics of the time, sometimes held up alongside Watchmen. And yet...I'm not the biggest fan of this supposedly Earth-shattering epic. To be sure, there's fun to be had in watching the Batman mythos reach an "end" with closure for Bruce, Alfred, the Joker, and everyone else. Fans of Miller's artwork will also be pleased, as it's possible to see him evolve from the rather sketchy style of Ronin to sharper and somewhat more humanized linework. His composition and storytelling have improved, too. But as with much of Miller's work, this story is not only graphically violent, it's downright mean-spirited, often wallowing in horror for horror's sake. His portraits of ineffectual leaders and peacekeepers are simplistic and strident, such as the ppsychologist who keeps getting Batman's archnemeses released from jail. And though one of the themes is the struggle to define heroism, there's very little I would call "heroic" going on (Bats even uses a gun in this story, which seems off-kilter considering his later characterization on the animated series as a gun-hater). Some claim "Dark Knight" and Miller's other work (like Sin City) are intended as parodies of the exploitation and noir genres, but it doesn't seem to have much ironic distance to me. Still, for comics completists this is an essential read, whether you enjoy it or not.
The Killing JokeWriter: Alan Moore
Synopsis: The Joker's out to prove a point by kidnapping Comissioner Gordon--so you know that can't be good. But buried under a particularly viscious atrocity seems to be a motivation tied in with the Joker's mysterious past. Is one bad day really all it takes to create a monster? If Batman doesn't hurry, he may find out.
How Is It?: The Joker is possibly the greatest comic-book villain, and maybe the best villain, ever created. He's had as many styles and incarnations as Batsy himself, from the enigmatic but bizarre themed villain of the early stories, to the campy Joker of the campy TV series, to the violent psychopath we're familiar with. He's even, at his best, managed to evoke a certain tragic poignancy (see Mad Love), despite the impossibility of making the Joker sympathetic. And this is perhaps the classic example, as Moore comes as close as anyone ever has (outside the movies) to giving the Joker a history, and providing a glimpse of what might have once been an actual human being. Despite Batman's abundant rogue's gallery, his struggle with the Joker has always been at the heart of the Batman mythos, taking on a towering iconic status, and here we get one of the first reflections on just how it must feel for the participants, locked in this endless struggle. It's also witty, with a memorable ending. This kind of deconstruction of Batman and his villains would provide much of the tone for the superb animated series.
Mad LoveWriter: Paul Dini
Artist: Bruce Timm
Synopsis: The Joker's always been a charismatic presence, and nowhere is that proved more horrifically than in Harley Quinn, the Clown Prince of Crime's tragic would-be lover and henchgirl. But the Joker can't really love; there's only room in his life for crime, murder, and matching wits with the Batman. The only way Harley can ever be happy, she thinks, is if she rubs out this competition for her "Pudd'n"'s affections--so that's what she's going to do, using one of the Joker's own schemes...
How Is It?: This comic was written and drawn by the creators of the animated series, which for many is the gold standard for Batman, equal with the best comics adaptations. Timm and Dini even added to the overall mythology by creating Harley Quinn, who's gone on to become a character in the comics and is certainly one of Batman's most memorable (if generally comedic) villains. She even adds to the character of the Joker by providing him with a twisted mockery of a "domestic life". But here we get a glimpse of the true tragedy of the character, in love with a monster who will never love her back, and who indeed has completely destroyed her life without her even realizing it. This is a fantastic story, funny, exciting, and poignant. Timm's artwork, as on the show, strips down the characters and the setting to a highly stylized and extremely elegant "dark deco" look, with each panel bursting with action and energy. And the writing follows the same lead, being spare and without a wasted line, yet still managing to bring incredible new depths to characters who've been around for decades. Eventually turned into an episode of the show, this is Harley's finest hour.
Year OneWriter/Artist: Frank Miller
Synopsis: We follow Bats on his first case, as he meets Lieutenant Gordon and Selina Kyle aka Catwoman.
How Is It?: A companion piece to "Dark Knight Returns", works somewhat better than the aforementioned story. (More soon.)
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