Friday’s The Dark Knight is shaping up to be one of the best portrayals of Batman in any form–perhaps even Oscar caliber. However, there have been a lot of classic appearances of the Caped Crusader in comics, on TV and in Theaters.
So, if The Dark Knight inspires you to investigate more of Batman, the Joker, and even Two-Face, here are what we think are some of the best representations of the characters. Think of this as your essential reading and watching list for the cast of the movie. (And if you don’t have any of the titles recommend, just click on the link to order from Amazon.)
1. The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller made his move from Marvel to DC in a big way, with a miniseries that set the stage for all Batman tales for the next three decades.
Miller’s story takes place in the dystopian future. Bruce Wayne has long given up the mantle of the Batman, and Gotham City has suffered for it. However, the long dormant Bat has awoken in him. He is compelled to take back his city. Pity anyone who gets in his way.
This is one of comics’ seminal works, and is almost single handed responsible for the whole “grim and gritty” trend in comics. It a no-brainer for inclusion on this list.
2. The Killing Joke: If there is a definitive Joker story, then this one has to be it.
Legendary comic scribe Alan Moore is joined by his fellow Brit Brian Bolland on a tale that is dark and disturbing, yet sad and melancholic. The creators present the Joker at his most vicious and brutal, but yet turn him into one of comics’ most tragic figures.
The term “master” is often overused, but it definitely applied to both Moore and Bolland. This story illustrates that they deserve that title, as Moore’s brilliant yet controversial script meshes with Bolland’s absolutely gorgeous artwork to create a comic book masterpiece.
3. The Long Halloween: Two-Face gets less use than the Joker, so there is less choices to pick from for an essential story for him. But this one definitely counts. Fans of The Dark Knight might be particularly interested in this one, because, like the movie, it traces Harvey Dent’s journey from crusading D.A. to scarred criminal mastermind.
But the series, set in the early days of Batman’s career, is also a pretty good mystery. A serial killer named “Holiday” murders his victims once a month around national holidays. The killer leaves trinkets behind and he might just have connections to organize crime. And he might also be more than a match for the novice Batman.
This is the series that put the creative team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale on the map, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one great story.
4. Batman (1989): The first Bat Franchise has been tarnished by Joel Schumacher’s rubber nipples, neon lighting, and corny puns. It’s hard to remember how well it all began.
I’m old enough to remember controversy leading up to film. You had Tim Burton, known for comedies such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, directing Michael Keaton, and actor known for comedies such as Mr. Mom and Gung Ho. Fans expected a big screen rehash of the campy 60s TV show.
What they got was a dark, moody, and atmospheric adaptation and a virtuoso performance from Jack Nicholson as the Joker. It might not have been the comic book Batman, but it was close enough, and a great movie to boot.
Some people claim that the movie has not aged well. Whether that is true or not, it defined Batman for a generation and helped people forget the Adam West version for a while.
5. Batman: The Animated Series : You’ll have Batfans who will argue that this cartoon is, hands down, the best interpretation of the Batman mythos. To them, Kevin Conroy is the Batman, Mark Hamill is the Joker, and that is all there is to it.
The funny part is that they actually have a really strong argument. This art deco meets film noir masterpiece is pretty darn close to the comic book, and Hamill and Conroy are great providing the voice for the iconic characters.
Sure, Batman has been animated before and after, but this time they got it right.
6. Batman: Dark Detective : Before Frank Miller, before Alan Moore, the definitive version of Batman and Joker were done by the team of Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin. Unfortunately, the trade paperback of their legendary 1970s run on the character is out of print. Lucky for us, they reunited in 2005 for this miniseries.
Where they excelled was in their portrayal of the Joker. Whereas most people portrayed the homicidal jester as a serial killer who looks like a clown, Englehart, Rogers and Austin captured the insanity of the character to a T. This is evident perfectly in this series.
It is a election time in Gotham, and the race for Governor is on. There is a new candidate in the running–the Joker. His platform? “Vote for me or I’ll kill you!” And he goes to great lengths to prove that he means it.
7. The Joker: Greatest Stories Ever Told: One of the reasons why the Joker is a popular Bat villain in just about every incarnation of the property is the way he’s been portrayed in the past.
The late Heath Ledger’s performance is supposed to revolutionize the character, and it’s supposed to be fantastic. But it’s only the latest interpretation of the character.
This collection acts as a history textbook for the comic book incarnation character and shows how he’s changed over the years.
From is his first appearance in Batman #1 to the Englehart/Rogers/Austin classic “The Laughing Fish”, this paperback collects the best stories to feature the character. If you want to read more about the Joker, look no farther than right here.
8. The Batman Chronicles: This is DC’s ambitious project to reprint every Batman story in the character’s almost 70 year history in strict chronological order.
You can see the evolution of Batman pretty much the way it unfolded. Witness Batman carrying a gun! Watch as Batman tosses bad guys to their deaths off of roofs! Observe as he faces Joker, Catwoman and Penguin for the first time! Look on in horror as he tones back his harshness as Robin is introduced.
If you are interested in the history of the comic book icon, then this series of trade paperbacks is for you. DC has published 5 volumes to date, but all volumes are still in print.
9. Batman: Year One: The success of The Dark Knight Returns and DC’s mid-80s revamping of their entire comic line opened the door for Frank Miller put his own spin on Batman’s origin.
Aided and abetted by artist David Mazzucchelli, Miller hit the reset button on what we all new about Batman. This series retold the classic origin with a new layer of grit and grime on it. We see Bruce Wayne’s first forays into crime fighting and his creation of the Batman persona.
If you liked Batman Begins, then this trade paperback should be interesting for you. You can draw a straight line from a lot of scenes in this book to what you saw on the screen.
10. Batman Begins: Warner Brothers was faced with an awesome task. Joel Schumacher left a bad taste in fans of the Batman franchise. They needed to clense the audiences pallets and hopefully bring them back to the Bat.
They hired a one of the best young directors of the day in Christopher Nolan, a screenwriter with experience in comics in David Goyer and a dream cast featuring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was a can’t miss combination.
And what do you know? It didn’t miss! The franchise was rebooted and revitalized. Batman took on a French Connection-esque realism that we never before seen in a Batman adaptation.
They breathed life into a dead franchise, and the result is this week’s The Dark Knight.