Goth subculture had quite a devoted fan base in the 1990s. You couldn’t miss the hordes of stylish, pretentious teens with black clothes and eyeliner back then. Tim Burton and Marilyn Manson were all the rage for a while. Bands like AFI mixed hardcore punk-rock with dark romantic motifs, while Slipknot rode the nu-metal wave. The Sandman became the backbone of DC’s Vertigo imprint (which didn’t prevent Garth Ennis from ruthlessly mocking its tone in the Preacher one-shot Cassidy: Blood and Whiskey). And, of course, the Dark Knight jumped on the trend…
Last year, I mentioned that in the seventies Batman comics were full of ghost stories. Well, by the nineties things got even more ominous, with a number of creators sharing a passion for classic horror, including Alan Grant (who clearly drew inspiration from Tod Browning’s The Unknown and Freaks for Shadow of the Bat #14-15) and Kelley Jones (whose art consistently dripped and oozed with gothic atmosphere). Hell, even if you set aside Elseworlds specials like the Batman – Vampire trilogy, just based on the disturbing ideas and beautifully surreal visuals of the main titles, most creators seemed to be looking for inspiration in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Blood!
So if you’re ever in the mood for eerie comics with some good old-fashioned Batman quirkiness thrown into the mix, then make sure you track down any of these ten cool tales of grave robbers, living gargoyles, homicidal maniacs, twisted traumas, demonic forces, and dreadful monsters:
‘The Library of Souls’ (Detective Comics #643)
Batman has faced his fair share of bizarre threats – especially when written by Peter Milligan – but ‘The Library of Souls’ and its story of Stanislaus Johns, a serial killer obsessed with the Dewey Decimal Classification System, is particularly macabre (if not without some black humor). I just love how Johns, like many Gotham City villains, is at once chilling, tragic, and pathetic.
‘A Gotham Tale’ (Batman #477-478)
This sadly forgotten two-parter could’ve been a Hammer Films production. Locked in a safe with two people running out of oxygen, the Dark Knight proposes a Canterbury Tales-style contest to decide who should sacrifice himself in order to leave the others enough air to make it through the night.
‘Boneyard Blues’ (Batman #539)
Writer Doug Moench, penciller Kelley Jones, inker John Beatty, colorist Gregory Wright, and letterer Todd Klein went further than any other team in terms of turning the regular Batman title into a grotesque, full-on horror comic. Case in point: in ‘Boneyard Blues,’ the Dark Knight investigates an undertaker who desecrates corpses in order to carve sculptures out of their bones.
‘Choices’ (Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special)
The first of a set of beloved Halloween stories written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, ‘Choices’ has a young Batman chasing the Scarecrow while gradually being consumed by fear and self-doubt. As you’d expect from Sale, it’s a feast of freakish visions. (This story was later retitled ‘Fears’ and published in the collection Haunted Knight.)
‘The Thane of Gotham’ (Shadow of the Bat #10)
The Caped Crusader has thirty minutes to find his way through a maze-like castle and fight a monstrous man-child in order to prevent an eccentric Scottish lord from enacting a decades-old revenge. A typically deranged tale penned by Alan Grant, with a touching ending.
Batman and a recently promoted Police Commissioner James Gordon investigate a series of murders apparently related to either a drug war or child abuse – a case with a heavy psychological toll on both of them. As the former chief writer and editor of the landmark anthologies Creepy and Eerie, Archie Goodwin sure knew how to spin a gruesome, atmospheric yarn. Scott Hampton painted and co-plotted this powerful graphic novel.
‘Terminus’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #64)
With expressionist art by Chris Bachalo, ‘Terminus’ is an urban horror story set in a dodgy hotel and built around depressing slices of life. It’s written by Jamie Delano in the same dark-as-hell, verbose style as his runs on Hellblazer and Animal Man, making this possibly the most Vertigo-esque Batman issue ever. (The other obvious contender for the title is No Man’s Land Secret Files & Origins, due to the moody main story by Alisa Kwitney and Michael Zulli.)
‘Sanctum’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #54)
If ‘Terminus’ feels like a Hellblazer spin-off, then ‘Sanctum’ is pretty much a Hellboy preview, with artist Mike Mignola and colorist Mark Chiarello trying out the angular, shadow-heavy approach they would develop in the acclaimed Dark Horse series. Moreover, the plot covers similar territory, as Batman is attacked (or hallucinates that he is attacked) by a blood-sucking dead man in an Lovecraft-inspired fantasy yarn.
‘Last Chance’ (Gotham Adventures #6)
I’ve spoken many times about my love for the way in which the Batman Adventures line nailed the Caped Crusader’s world at its streamlined best. In ‘Last Chance,’ Ty Templeton – one of the great unsung writers of Batman comics (and the focus of a future post in Gotham Calling, sooner or later) – presents the Adventures’ version of the origin of everyone’s favorite ghost, Deadman, who watches Batman, Robin, and Nightwing investigate his own murder.
(Like many of these stories, ‘Last Chance’ works pretty well as a standalone comic, but completists may wish to know that it is also a sort of sequel to ‘Second Chances,’ from Batman & Robin Adventures #15.)
Batman versus Predator
John McTiernan’s Predator became an instant classic, working both as a chest-beating Schwarzenegger vehicle and as an allegory about the US military involvement in Central America. The 1990 sequel Predator 2 moved the action from the jungle to a futuristic LA, pitting the titular alien hunter against the toughest thugs in town, including a loose cannon cop played by Danny Glover (doing a combination of the two leads from Lethal Weapon). The change to an urban setting and the concept of Predator trying to figure out who exactly is the best game around could’ve been clever ways to avoid repeating the original too closely, but the movie didn’t fully live up to the premise. By contrast, the first Batman versus Predator mini-series, published the following year, got all these elements just right, as the monster slaughtered his way up the Gotham chain of power until a brutal showdown against the Dark Knight. Along the way, we got compelling characters, stylish art, and gallons of horrific violence, moodily brought to the page by Andy and Adam Kubert.
NEXT: Scary visions.