You know who Batman is. At least the gist of it. You’ve seen him in books or in films or on television, hopefully at his best. Probably, you’re even familiar with some of his supporting cast and rogues gallery, not to mention other heroes in the DC Universe. And even if you’re not necessarily willing to dive into the sprawling, entangled continuity of the regular Batman comics, you may still wish to visit this weird, fascinating world and have a good time…
With this in mind, every once in a while I recommend a selection of diverse worthwhile collections for readers who are just looking to get their hands on a sample of solid standalone tales starring the Caped Crusader. Here are some more options, all of them highly entertaining:
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD – THE BRONZE AGE OMNIBUS: VOL.1 (2017)
Let’s start with the most expensive suggestion… The Brave and the Bold – The Bronze Age Omnibus: vol.1 is a monster of a book, collecting 34 issues of Bob Haney’s legendary run on The Brave and the Bold (plus one written by Dennis O’Neil and one by Mike Sekowsky), originally published between 1967 and 1973 (specifically, issues #74 to #109). Ostensibly, the high concept of this series was that each issue told a self-contained yarn in which Batman joined forces with another hero, but the true appeal was Haney’s carefree approach to storytelling, constantly shifting gears and throwing surprises at the reader. At the turn of every page, there could be a shocking reveal and a dramatic change of stakes. Without losing a beat, a gritty crime story would morph into a supernatural horror story, a character would suddenly turn out to be an alien (or the Devil, or Hitler), or – as pictured above – an issue would kick off with the proudly anti-gun Dark Knight viciously charging against criminals while shooting a weapon, John McClane-style!
The ensuing comics were fiendishly fun, ferociously paced, and sometimes freaking bizarre – especially the ones in the final third of this collection, after the iconic Jim Aparo took over the art duties and filled the thing with tilted angles (again, check out that title page!). You can see Bob Haney’s gonzo imagination filter both pop culture (the chase scene through Vienna’s sewers in ‘Count Ten… and Die!’ pays homage to the film noir The Third Man, ‘A Traitor Lurks Inside Earth!’ is a madcap version of the sci-fi thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project) and contemporary anxieties (besides the ubiquitous Cold War politics, there are several references to the civil rights’ struggles, including a couple of baffling takes on the youth movement in ‘Rebels in the Streets’ and ‘The Commune of Defiance’).
To top it off, not only did the Caped Crusader team up with A-list superheroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman (during that phase when she became a mod martial artist), but Bob Haney also threw in quirkier DC properties such as Metamorpho and the Metal Men. In particular, it was a hoot to see Haney play with the oddball creations of Jack Kirby, which is why the second ombinus will be even more amazing, as it should contain the issues with the super-escape artist Mr. Miracle and the creatures from Kamandi – The Last Boy on Earth! (Kirby’s post-apocalyptic comic that makes Escape from New York, The Omega Man, and the Mad Max saga look like grounded visions of the future).
(By the way, if you’re curious about Bob Haney’s early work on this series, you can also find it in Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams: vol. 1.)
THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD: THE FEARSOME FANGS STRIKE AGAIN! (2011)
In 2008, DC revived the idea of an over-the-top adventure series in which Batman teamed up with other heroes, blowing fans’ minds with both a memorable TV show and a colorful funhouse ride of a comic. The Fearsome Fangs Strike Again! collects six issues written by J. Torres and Landry Walker, who totally go for broke as they embrace the wondrous goofiness of the material, maniacally brought to life by the cartoony art of J. Bone, Carlo Berberi, and Eric Jones.
Working alongside wacky versions of the Doom Patrol, Green Arrow, the Atom, and Adam Strange (plus a number of priceless cameos), throughout the book the Caped Crusader faces the villainous fashion designer Mad Mod, gets turned into a giant mutant monster, and saves the universe more than once. Along the way, we also get a surprising allegory about Tibet and the Christmas story to end them all!
Unapologetically cheerful and kid-friendly, this iteration of The Brave and the Bold is about as far from Zack Snyder’s self-important, grim this-is-not-your-daddy’s Batman crossover as you can get, even if it also bursts with action-packed fantasy!
FOUR OF A KIND (1998)
Four of a Kind collects four annual issues from 1995 reimagining Batman’s first encounters with notorious members of his rogues’ gallery, namely the seductress Poison Ivy, the puzzle-obsessed Riddler, the frightful Scarecrow, and the deformed Man-Bat. These are nifty, well-crafted tales with plenty of wit and excitement, fleshing out key villains as they face a still relatively fallible Dark Knight (the stories take place very early in Batman’s crime-fighting career).
The tales in this book are written by Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, and Doug Moench, the trio responsible for the majority of the Batman output in the nineties. Here, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel or anything… Instead, they take the neatest ideas from the old comics that originally introduced these characters and confidently deliver smart, satisfying remakes. (I love how Dixon – unlike many other writers – doesn’t spell out the answers to the Riddler’s clues, he just casually integrates them into later panels, like in the excerpt above.)
And don’t be fooled by the book’s ugly cover – the inside art is as sleek as the writing, with Kieron Dwyer and Richmond Lewis giving the Riddler story a particularly cool look. The Poison Ivy one also stands out, as the art team of Brian Apthorp, Stan Woch, and Linda Medley put together one stunning sequence after another, including an unforgettable double page splash of a kiss (which really drives home the point that some people are poison).
LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT: MARSHALL ROGERS (2011)
This book collects the various Batman comics illustrated by the brilliant artist Marshall Rogers, who – between 1977 and 2005 – worked with several great writers in the field, including Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Dennis O’Neil, and Archie Goodwin.
I’ve already written a bit about these issues in the past, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that Marshall Rogers’ appealing designs and graceful pencils are a pure joy to behold – especially when they’re inked by Terry Austin – and that here his art is at the service of some of the finest damn Batman stories out there!
SHADOW OF THE BAT: VOL.1 (2016)
With art by Norm Breyfogle, Dan Jurgens, and Tim Sale, this is the first collection of the early ‘90s series Shadow of the Bat, which supposedly pointed the spotlight at different heroes and villains who crossed paths with the Dark Knight. In fact, the series seemed more like an excuse to let writer Alan Grant go wild and do whatever he felt like after having bonded him to the continuity-heavy regular Batman title for a while. The results were lively and edgy and, often, mystifyingly twisted.
The two main stories here are ‘The Last Arkham’ and ‘The Misfits.’ In the former, unorthodox psychiatrist Jeremiah Arkham becomes the new director of Arkham Asylum and has Batman committed to the institution (besides Jeremiah, this tale introduced what would become two recurrent Arkham inmates: the sinister Zsasz and the brutish Amygdala). In the latter story arc, a group of notoriously lame villains – including Killer Moth and Calendar Man – set out to prove themselves by kidnapping Gotham’s Mayor, Commissioner Gordon, and Bruce Wayne, so it’s up to Robin (Tim Drake) to save the day!
In addition, you get to read a couple of jabs at social relevance (such as the unbelievably gritty drug tale ‘The Black Spider’) and a couple of outlandish adventures (including ‘The Human Flea,’ in which Mortimer Kadaver – a villain with a death-fetish – tries to turn Gotham City into a giant mausoleum), all written in Alan Grant’s bombastic, in-yer-face style.
THE STRANGE DEATHS OF BATMAN (2009)
I’ll end with a recommendation for those in the mood for something even more offbeat: riding the wave of 2008’s Batman R.I.P. storyline, DC put out this collection of zany superhero tales about the Caped Crusader kicking the bucket. Bear in mind that these are not the only comics in which Batman apparently dies – we’ve seen it happen plenty of times, from the self-contained issue ‘You Only Die Twice!’ (The Brave and the Bold #90) to the mega-crossover event Final Crisis, from the fake-out twists of ‘I Died a Thousand Deaths!’ (Detective Comics #392) to that time the Electrocutioner did clinically kill Batman, only to then defibrillate him back to life (Detective Comics #645). Regardless, for the most part this book does live up to its title: there are some magnificently strange stories in here!
To kick things off, we get a 1966 gem with a pop art look and a metafictional edge, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Giela – basically, a confrontation between the Dynamic Duo and a new villain, the Bouncer, shifts into an imaginary tale halfway through on a whim of the writer, who directly addresses the readers before reinventing the Batman & Robin team. Next, there’s another Silver Age fever dream (by Cary Bates, Curt Swan, and Jack Abel) in which the Boy Wonder sets out on an years-long revenge quest after the Dark Knight gets himself killed by some guy called the Automator, who is succinctly described as “a master in the creation of robot crime machines.” Then we move on to a typical slice of craziness from the aforementioned Haney/Aparo run on The Brave and the Bold, in which the Atom uses his shrinking powers to reduce himself to a molecular level, sneaks inside Batman’s dead body, and jumps up and down on the brain area, manipulating Batman’s corpse like a zombie puppet in order to complete one last mission.
The high point of the volume is the 1977 epic ‘Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?’ Written by an inspired David V. Reed, with art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell and colors by Jerry Serpe, this is an amusing spin on the whodunit formula: following rumors of Batman’s demise, several criminals claim credit for it, so the underworld bosses set up a trial in Gotham City to settle the matter, with Two-Face as prosecutor and Ra’s al Ghul as judge. We end up with a reverse courtroom drama, in which the defendants (Catwoman, Riddler, Lex Luthor, Joker) all claim they’re guilty and it’s up to the prosecutor to prove their innocence against their will. The result is at once quite clever (Two-Face pierces holes in the testimonies through the kind of factoids Reed was so fond of, like the properties of dynamite or the density of Brazillian pepperwood) and hopelessly silly (Luthor’s plan is particularly preposterous).
These tales more than justify purchasing or borrowing The Strange Deaths of Batman from your local library. And while the last stories in the book aren’t nearly as wild as the initial ones, at least one of them has a pretty badass opening: