growing up, i was a big batman fan. the first tim burton movie was one of the few movies we had on vhs that i was allowed to watch during my younger days, i saw all the subsequent live-action movies (plus mask of the phantasm) in theaters, i was a religious viewer of the animated series, and you could scarcely walk through my bedroom without tripping over batman action figures.
thing is, batman was never my favorite batman character? it was robin. (and nightwing.) more recently, i discovered the character of bluebird and i freaking love her. so now that i’m getting back into comics, i figured i should do a sidekick-centric readthrough of batman over the years. i’ll hit all the major solo batman stuff, too, but i’m going to be extra sure not to miss any quality sidekick content.
batman: year one (1987)
the nice thing is, the whole story is kind of batman punching cops. and yeah, ok, it’s the “these are bad cops” bullshit (i remember there being some kind of throwaway line about gotham’s pd just being extraordinarily corrupt)… but it’s still like almost 100% of the cops that are bad? even jim gordon’s “i’m gonna fix it from the inside!” kind of story was kind of good?
even though it’s been shown over and over again that that isn’t a thing and we need abolition… there was still plenty of stuff in this story line that i highly approved of. like the commissioner dismissively telling him “you kept the media away from it, that’s all that matters” when gordon references a past mistake, and when gordon vows that he won’t have to worry about dishonesty from him, the commissioner says it’s “the last thing on [his] mind.” which makes even more sense when we later see the commissioner dining with literal mob bosses.
gordon’s primary antagonist is even the perfect representation of the worst kind of cop, a white guy who peaked in high school. dude’s off-duty uniform was a letter jacket for the gods’ sake.
the only real frank miller bullshit on display here was his misogyny. well, ok, and also his usual weird depictions of masculinity (like gordon randomly using the barbell in harvey’s office in the middle of a formal conversation where they’re both dressed in suits???), but those are surely related.
as far as misogyny, there’s especially a lot with how sex workers are portrayed here that’s just… ick. but probably the most frustrating thing is when gordon’s hypercompetent coworker detective essen looks like she’s gonna be a great supportive friend for him but they end up having an affair because of course they do. it’s just so frustrating.
also, on a very petty/whiney note: this needed more catwoman!!!
but, yeah! i think this is the least bad frank miller story i’ve ever encountered. so that’s something. c–rank
batman: the man who laughs (2005)
early on, while he’s trapped in a conversation with another billionaire, bruce expresses disgust that he’s the kind of man who’s “had everything in his life handed to him and who still manages to find ways to make poor people poorer.” it’s absolutely a fantasy that bruce can be a billionaire and not do those things even incidentally, but i still appreciate that these are at least his stated values.
as for the main body of the story, it’s a modernized retelling of batman’s first encounter with the joker. i’m generally not the hugest fan of batman solo stories (not that there aren’t great ones, they just aren’t my preference) or the joker, but this is pretty well done. it’s just a pretty straightforward story of the joker trying to cause chaos and murder a bunch of people with his characteristic death smile-inducing poison and batman stopping him. just a pretty good all-around story. b–rank
batman: four of a kind (1995)
this graphic novel collects four year one annuals featuring batman’s first encounter with four different villains.
the first comic featured is batman: shadow of the bat annual #3, chronicling batman’s first encounter with poison ivy. if you happen to know that poison ivy is absolutely on the list of characters i would simp myself into oblivion for (and if you don’t, trust me, it’ll come up later in these reviews), you probably expect me to like this one.
unfortunately it’s written by alan grant, who i know was in the news recently for tragically passing away, so this is very awkward timing. but it’s just… look, i don’t know anything about his non-batman career, but his writing on batman has been… unenlightened on social issues and diversity to say the least.
this comic in particular is painfully heteronormative, which is always a shame with poison ivy. it’s also extremely unsympathetic to ivy. she comes off more as petulant and moody than righteously angry like she does in other appearances. the whole thing feels way more about men’s anxieties about women than it does about anything else.
like, don’t get me wrong. i enjoyed it in spite of the bad writing. even someone doing an awful job of writing ivy being dommy and threatening can’t make her completely unsexy. and the art was frequently… extremely nice. definitely a lot of feminist brain/dumb lesbian brain dichotomy happening here.
unfortunately it was just all kinds of distractingly male gazey, and hard to really enjoy as much as i would have liked to have. let’s generously give this a c–rank, because again it’s hard not to enjoy poison ivy even when she’s handled badly.
mercifully we get an immediate change of pace as the second issue collected here is detective comics annual #8, the riddler’s origin story as written by the amazing chuck dixon. this is not going to be the last time in this marathon that a graphic novel makes me slog through an alan grant issue or arc only to deliver a sigh of relief in the form of a chuck dixon issue or arc.
it’s funny how this issue manages to include overtly sexy women without it feeling like it’s leering at them? when riddler–having been laughed off by everyone he’s tried to recruit for muscle and/or funding–has resigned himself to being a solo criminal, he ends up finding two accomplices in a rather unlikely way.
the two ladies who would later be known as query and echo actually show up to mug him wearing bondage gear and fishnets, each pointing a gun at his head. he apparently talks them into joining him, and their manner towards both him and their victims continues being very dominant without much being made of it. it’s just very matter of fact. there’s a panel of them casually looming over him and touching him while they plan, and another later of them bullying a tied-up victim. just really great stuff if you’re, y’know, like me (aka a subby little bitch).
the comic as a whole is narrated by riddler, and it’s told in a series of flashbacks dating back to his days of being bullied in school, continuing through how he became a criminal and how he ended up on batman’s radar. there’s a brief mention of the fact that the riddler considers batman a worthy adversary when it comes to matching wits with him, and i really do enjoy when writers go out of their way to emphasize what it is about batman that each villain challenges, since all of them really do serve as foils for a particular aspect of batman’s personality. it’s just always nice when a writer gets that.
on the whole, this is a pretty great read. not the best dixon comic i’ve read or anything, but pretty easily at least a b–rank.
the penultimate issue collected here is batman annual #19, relating batman’s first encounter with scarecrow. it’s not awful or anything, but it’s for sure not one of my favorite scarecrow stories. i actually don’t have much to say about it, so let’s just give it a c–rank and move on.
the graphic novel concludes with batman: legends of the dark knight annual #5 which gives us man-bat’s origin story. man-bat is not really a villain that has ever interested me, but fortunately this story was in the capable hands of chuck dixon, so despite my lack of interest in the subject it was still a pretty pleasant read. i’d still probably give it a c–rank, which i hate doing to a chuck dixon story, but i just find man-bat pretty boring, i’m sorry guys.
batman: haunted knight (1993-95)
this collects the three legends of the dark knight halloween specials written by jeph loeb and illustrated by tim sale, both of long halloween and dark victory fame. in fact, this was more or less what inspired them to go on to make the long halloween, so at the very least batfans owe these specials a debt of gratitude for that.
if you know anything about me you know i love halloween, it’s not only my favorite holiday but there’s quite a bit of daylight between it and my next favorite. so it’s probably no surprise that i really enjoyed the theming in these specials. the first and third are also thematically linked as they both deal in one way or another with bruce’s bat/life balance.
the first story is a fairly straightforward scarecrow story with the usual ruminations on the nature of fear and whatnot. the second is an alice and wonderland-themed story featuring the mad hatter kidnapping various children including a young barbara gordon. one thing i loved about this is that we actually got some flashbacks about martha wayne and some details about bruce’s relationship with her for once, which is so refreshing compared to the neverending parade of details about his daddy issues.
the third story has got to be one of the most unique a christmas carol pastiches i’ve ever seen considering it sets it on halloween rather than christmas. i suppose that works rather well for batman given that halloween is for sure the holiday that fits our angsty cosplaying goth boy’s vibe quite a bit better. it was kinda corny doing as direct an adaptation of dickens’ novella as this did, but i actually really enjoy that kinda stuff sometimes. ymmv.
overall, while this certainly doesn’t hit the heights of the long halloween or even dark victory, it was a perfectly enjoyable read and one i’m glad to have finally gotten to. b–rank
batman: the long halloween (1996-97) & batman: dark victory (1999-2000)
i went through a phase in the mid-2000s (which i seem to be going through again) of wanting to actually properly get into comics instead of just watching all the cartoons and half-remembering a few well-marketed issues i read as a kid. i was mostly into x-men and spider-man at the time, but given that i had been a massive batman fan as a kid i did find time for a few major batman storylines and the long halloween and its sequel dark victory were two of them.
i remember finding them exceptionally well-written and thinking “wow these would make better batman movies than most of the actual batman movies,” considering long halloween was basically a better version of the dark knight and dark victory seemed like the perfect way to get the batman movies over the idea that they were too serious and dark to have robin in them.
revisiting them now, while i am certainly less than thrilled with the undercurrents (overcurrents, really) of copaganda i am pleased to find that yeah they still totally kick ass. batman doing an actual murder investigation is always going to be fun for me given that him being a detective first and foremost is one of my favorite things about his character. him having to run through basically his entire rogues gallery in the process, while occasionally aided and abetted by an enigmatic catwoman and briefly enslaved by poison ivy to boot just really pushes these over the top as two of my favorite batman stories.
not to mention that the art is just freaking fantastic. everything is so highly stylized, so much story is told through color and lighting choices. there’s nothing subtle about it, but there doesn’t have to be. it is iconic.
as far as robin specifically, dark victory retells the origin story of dick grayson. he’s actually only in a few issues of the limited series, but he’s nevertheless a massive part of the story. one of the things that keeps coming up is that batman can’t keep doing this alone, he’s just one man, etc. alfred is trying his best to help, but he knows batman needs a real partner. so when dick grayson comes along, him becoming that partner makes a lot more sense than if it had just happened out of the blue.
dick’s introduction in dark victory is as skimpy on characterization as the robin costume is on covering skin, which is definitely not my preference (the characterization thing that is), but i think it works really well for the kind of story being told in this comic. and my original opinion holds: chris nolan and all the other people who want a very serious batman just need to read this to see how robin can fit in literally any kind of batman story. a–rank
batman chronicles: the gauntlet (1997)
i used to have this comic as a kid!! like, before i even got into my aforementioned “wanting to get into comics properly” phase in the 2000s. i got this around when it came out because i saw it at a comic shop and, as already mentioned, i’m a huge robin fan.
this is the story of robin’s “final exam” before becoming batman’s full-time partner. the idea is originally to basically play a high-stakes, citywide game of hide-and-seek with batman, and robin adds a twist of taunting him with clues that would theoretically have batman criss-crossing town in search of him if bruce didn’t characteristically find a way around playing robin’s game. but all of that becomes moot when robin finds himself embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a much less friendly adversary, the mob.
robin kicks all kinds of ass in this, and it’s great seeing him be the primary antagonist the mobsters are focused on. he effectively needles them to frustration, with a lot of great moments of them growling in frustration about the “little brat” or “twerp” besting them. even once they manage to capture him at gunpoint and–they think–bind him securely, he wiggles out when they’re not looking (according to batman it takes him less than 90 seconds thanks to his training) and uses the rope they used on him as a weapon against them. a lot of this story is absolutely carried by robin’s bratty, exuberant personality. i love it, and i wish i still had a hard copy of it. a–rank
robin: year one (2000-2001)
i thought i had read this before, but it turns out i hadn’t! large portions of this one are narrated by alfred, and we see the depth of his care (and concern) for bruce and dick. it’s clearly trying to be something of a spiritual sequel to long halloween and dark victory, but it’s much more robin-centric than dark victory was. the broad strokes of the plot weren’t my favorite, especially batman temporarily firing robin, but i really appreciate where everyone lands by the end of it.
out of all three of these modern reintroductions to dick grayson’s robin, though, if i were going to recommend any it would probably be the gauntlet. despite being by far the shortest, and not dealing with any of batman’s rogues gallery, i think it’s the one that showcases dick’s personality and his relationship with bruce the best. a–rank
batgirl: year one (2003)
i wasn’t really expecting this to overtly be a sequel to robin: year one, but it actually kind of goes out of its way to establish itself as that. there are several specific incidents from robin: year one that are referenced here, and towards the beginning we even get some continuation of alfred’s diary from robin: year one to further drive the point home.
there are a lot of things i liked about this, but i think my biggest frustration and what makes me like it ever so slightly less than its robin-centric cousin is that batgirl is constantly struggling. i know that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it can help you empathize with a character more when things don’t go right for them, but given that one of the big narrative thrusts is that she’s fighting to be taken seriously and she’s justifiably upset about being dismissed as a “silly little girl,” it would be nice if she were given a bit more narrative cover on that front.
granted she does eventually rise above all that, and ends up becoming a part of the bat family, but i don’t know. it just felt like the way we got there undermined her quite a bit and i would have liked a slightly different approach.
like, a lot of other versions of batgirl (think batman: the animated series) have done a better job of showing her as an ally of batman and robin’s, and even sometimes pretty directly part of the bat family, while still retaining a lot more independence than she seemed to have here. i just would’ve liked to have seen something more along those lines, i guess.
something i have mixed feelings about is firefly being heavily implied to have sexually sadistic feelings towards her. i mean, on the one hand, hot. (get it? hot?) on the other hand, despite everyone joking about dick running around in a skimpy costume there’s never nearly as much direct sexualization of him or batman by villains. even the ones that clearly have some psychosexual shit going on with batman are never so straightforward about it, and i’m not saying that i don’t want firefly to be this way because again i find it kind of hot, i just hate that it’s such a double standard y’know?
at least batgirl gets to point out that robin has sexy legs, though. i really liked that.
oh also robin totally steals a kiss from her and i had feelings about it. good feelings about it. jealous feelings about it.
it’s okay, though. i ship them. b–rank
batman: tales of the demon (1971-1980)
this graphic novel collects batman’s first several run-ins with ra’s al ghul. i won’t discuss all of the comics because a lot of them are just adventure yarns where batman has an uneasy alliance with ra’s and ra’s is being sneaky or betraying him in some predictable way, or else it’s talia doing that, and a lot of them are kinda samey.
only talia appears in the first issue collected in the graphic novel (detective comics #411), with ra’s’ first appearance coming in the second story (batman #232). i think there’s a batman: the animated series episode based on this issue if i remember correctly? this story sees robin kidnapped, and talia supposedly kidnapped by the same people, but ra’s staged the whole thing to test batman to see if he’s a worthy heir. of note in this one is ra’s’ first actual appearance, where he just shows up at the batcave having deduced batman’s secret identity, which is a pretty serious power move.
the fourth story (batman #240) actually has kind of a lot in common with the star trek tos episode “spock’s brain,” so that got a good giggle out of me. also collected is an underwhelming three-issue arc (batmans #242-244) where batman goes to war with ra’s al ghul. this arc does introduce the lazarus pits, so it is of some historical importance to the franchise, but the story as a whole is just kinda nothing.
the only remotely interesting part was batman being stung by a scorpion during his duel with ra’s, and talia saving him by kissing him with the antidote on her lips. the rest of the graphic novel is kinda more of the same. my attention honestly wandered. there was one subplot where talia kidnapped batman and ra’s performed a wedding because apparently only the bride needs to consent to a wedding in his (unspecified) country. that was pretty hilariously bad. but it was also weirdly half-hearted, like the comic didn’t even really try that hard to make it a whole thing.
given that these stories largely spanned the 70s it’s perhaps unsurprising that the writing is a bit corny, even in the better issues. more annoyingly, there’s (also unsurprisingly) enough orientalism in these pages to choke a camel.
there are nevertheless the occasional flashes of good action and story in the first few issues, and it’s understandable that ra’s and talia became enduring adversaries for the dark knight. i do like some of ra’s’ quirks, like referring to batman as “detective.” i wish we got to see more of him being an eco-terrorist in this rather than just being kind of generally all-purpose evil and scheming, but i guess that aspect of his character developed later.
on the whole, the first few issues are probably the most enjoyable, but it rather quickly turns into a slog and at the end of the day i just really don’t think it’s worth anyone’s time. d–rank
batman confidential, vol. 4: the cat and the bat (2008)
this graphic novel features batgirl’s first encounter with catwoman. i enjoyed it for the most part, mostly because i really love both of these characters. the narration style is sort of similar to the batman/superman comics where you get both characters’ internal monologues and oftentimes they’re basically having metatextual arguments with each other and/or thinking about similar things at similar times such that their thoughts play off of each other well.
i also enjoyed the riddler appearing in this as a villain, especially him taking over arkham asylum and having batgirl run a gauntlet through it, only to have catwoman take him out before batgirl could get to her.
my biggest complaints largely arise from this being a spiritual sequel to batgirl: year one, and it continued batgirl: year one’s rather frustrating habit of trying to make batgirl more “relatable” by having her constantly getting humiliated, including in explicitly sexual ways. at one point she has to strip off everything but her mask to follow catwoman into a “hedonism club.”
just… i like stories having a lighter tone and having heroes face “peril” that amounts to embarrassment rather than gritty painful stuff. i really wouldn’t mind this kind of thing if it didn’t only happen to batgirl. the comics just don’t put batman and robin through this kind of stuff, so it’s frustrating that they keep inflicting it on batgirl.
on a positive note, another thing this inherits from batgirl: year one is that robin gets objectified (despite not even appearing in this arc). when batman asks catwoman her opinion of batgirl, catwoman gives her a glowing review, but adds, “robin has better legs.” having overheard her, batgirl expresses vehement disagreement in her internal monologue, but adds that robin does have a “tighter butt.”
yeah, it’s annoying that the writers probably think this “balances out” the much more egregious treatment they consistently subject batgirl to, and it super, super doesn’t. nevertheless, i demand more objectification of boy sidekicks. it’s really the least they can do imo. b–rank
batman: batgirl (1997)
so in 1997 they released four prestige-format comics to promote the release of the batman & robin film. these comics took place in the standard comics continuity, not the movie’s, but they all showcased characters that were making their first batman movie appearance in batman & robin. specifically, the film’s three villains (mr. freeze, poison ivy, and bane) and batgirl.
i didn’t realize they had done the same thing when batman: forever came out in 1995, releasing prestige-format one-shots starring the riddler and two-face. sadly they didn’t do one for robin (which would be the equivalent of doing one for batgirl for batman & robin), but oh well.
i read the four that were released for batman & robin, and i was feeling nostalgic for them, so i decided to go ahead and order all six on ebay. and i’m pretty glad i did! because they’re all actually pretty great stories in their own ways.
the rest of these will be covered in the next part of this megareview–they all seem to have happened much later in the timeline, closer to when they were all released–but there are several context clues that the batgirl one is set very early in her crimefighting career, so i’m placing it here.
anyway, yeah. this is a pretty good story with a pretty big scope. in a way i’m a bit annoyed that a comic that’s meant to showcase batgirl has her ending up as a damsel in distress that needs batman’s help to escape, but also if you know anything about me you probably know i like bondage and peril, so obviously on that level i enjoyed it regardless? and yeah, having her take on the joker early on in her crimefighting career is a pretty big deal to put in a promotional one-shot, so that’s pretty cool to get here. it would have been nice if batgirl had gotten to kick a bit more ass, but i still enjoyed this well enough. b–rank
teen titans: year one (2008)
this one was extremely meh. it’s all rather superficial. i don’t mind that the villain is kinda nothing, you’ll often get that in an origin story like this, but usually you do that so you can spend extra time characterizing the team and making it more about them. that… didn’t happen here. at all. all of the characters are painted with very broad strokes (when they’re painted at all).
i don’t hate it or anything, but i don’t really feel like i got much out of it. it’s just sorta there. c–rank
nightwing: year one (2005)
i used to own a copy of this and was happy to reacquire it. i really enjoyed it back when i first read it, to the point where it actually led to me writing some embarrassing dick/jason slash.
as a fan of batman’s sidekicks, this had pretty much everything for me. this retells (and modernizes) the story of dick grayson becoming nightwing (and imo does a much better job than new teen titans: the judas contract) and the story of jason todd becoming robin.
the interactions between nightwing and the new robin are pretty great, and we get a bunch of nightwing and batgirl stuff on top of that. it even references batman chronicles: the gauntlet, a fairly obscure one-shot that i happened to read as a kid because i love robin. it feels like this comic was directly targeted at me, guys.
i’d really like to see a direct sequel to this that was just all of batman’s sidekicks kicking ass together with the man himself playing only a peripheral role. s–rank
batman: the killing joke (1988)
i mean, there’s not much i can really say about this one at this point that’s going to be remotely surprising, right? it’s well-written enough for what it is i guess. i’m glad joker’s “one bad day” theory is resoundingly defeated, though there are times when lesser writers seem to buy into it wholeheartedly. the actual confrontations between batman and joker are pretty good.
but, y’know. there’s the treatment of barbara gordon. the way she’s literally objectified by the story. i think a lot of people associate this story with her, but the story treats her as nothing more than the knife to be twisted in her father as part of the joker’s plan.
i also think a lot of people who haven’t read this are under the impression that this story is oracle’s origin story, but again nope. alan moore was under the impression that he was writing a non-canon side story, and had no plans for what would happen with barbara after the story. he has publicly stated that he thought canonizing the story was an absolutely awful choice. which is nice, but it doesn’t actually make the way he treated her in this not horrible? so, you know.
again this isn’t the worst batman/joker story if you look at their actual interactions in it, but on balance there is just pretty clearly more bad than good here. c–rank
batman: a death in the family (1988)
i’ve read this before, so i didn’t really expect to tear up when i got to the third part–batman discovering robin’s body and just completely coming apart for a moment. but i did. no matter how cynical you want to be about the circumstances surrounding jason’s death, the death itself and the way it just totally destroys batman is some of the most effective writing i’ve ever seen in a comic book.
i remembered that there was some political weirdness that i noticed even when i was less politically aware, but wow i was not prepared for exactly how bad it was. by the time the joker became iran’s u.n. ambassador (i repeat because it bears repeating: the joker becomes iran’s u.n. ambassador) the bad politics were so intrusive you couldn’t ignore them no matter how hard you tried.
that this manages to be a pretty good story in spite of all of that is something of a minor miracle. this is basically the worst backdrop you could give this story, but in spite of that it’s perfectly understandable that it remains one of the most enduringly memorable batman stories. b–rank