1. Batman (No. 495, June ’93, DC) – Doug Moench, Jim Aparo & Bob Wiacek
The caped crusader is turning 75 years old this week. DC is celebrating the character’s anniversary with a short by the talented “Batman: The Animated Series” animator Bruce Timm; “Batman Strange Days” is to air this Wednesday at 6:30 PM on the Cartoon Network. All of the fanfare got me thinking about my own adolescent attachment to the Bat mythos. To boil it down: Why am I emotionally invested in such a dopey, disposable cartoon image of a man in a mask? Why do I still, at the age of 32, find that my heart soars and my eyes tear up when sitting in a darkened room to watch yet another dumb incarnation of Bruce Wayne up on the big screen?
In part I think it has to do with the fundamental frailty of Batman as a larger than life superhero figure. All throughout the 1990s Knightfall storyline Batman is physically exhausted and psychologically spent. So much so in fact that in the beginning of Issue 495 Batman finds himself unable to dispatch minor villains such as the pyromaniac Firefly. Even Bane, from a distance, seems to have an upper hand as Batman finds himself burnt out and utterly swamped by the seemingly endless waves of sociopaths and maniacs from Arkham Asylum. And yet Batman goes on. Perennially on trial and targeted. Simultaneously tired and tireless. He goes on. Grant Morrison probably said it the best when Kevin Smith asked him what he thought made us fall in love with Batman:
Christ is God made flesh. . . . It’s the same as Batman – it’s not historical. But it’s a story that makes us feel something, it presses a fucken’ human button. And the button that Christ presses is basically this: They took God and nailed him to wood. . . . But Christ the great symbol says: “No matter how much you’re hurting, no matter how bad the flesh is hurting you, no matter what the disease is, no matter how old you are, no matter how much you’re losing it – I am here with you. Suffering.” And that’s the beauty of Christ. . . . “No Matter how dark it gets, I’m at the darkest. I’m hung here coughing my fucken’ lungs up with you.”
Batman is another thing like that, it’s a human conception. It’s the idea that I can watch my parents shot dead in the streets and everything can turn to chaos – and I will make meaning of it. And I will use all my resources to make meaning and change that and make it into something positive and good. . . . No matter how cynical we get, no matter how shitty it gets, there’s some part of us that says, “Well, I want to make meaning out of this. I’m going to be a hero in this.” Batman will always speak to that.
2. Harley Quinn (No. 4, May 2014, DC) – Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti & Stephane Roux
A fan favorite, the new comic book reboot of Harley Quinn will surprise those of us who know the character primarily from Fox’s Batman: The Animated Series. After falling out with her old flame Mr. J, millennials of all stripes will identify with Harley having to find steady employment in the city and figure out how she’s going to feed all her strays. I love that they got comic book artist Amanda Conner for this book. Conner studied at The Kubert School, which is prominently advertised in DC comics, and worked in a comic book store in her early career. In 1994 she did her first Vampirella work in a mini-comic for an issue of Wizard magazine. Don’t you miss Wizard? The following year she would pencil issues 2 – 11 of Marvel’s Gargoyles. It’s amazing to see how far she’s come. And the fact that she’s been able to work creatively as part of a husband and wife team is equally heart warming.
3. Swamp Thing (No. 53, Oct ’86, DC) – Alan Moore & John Totleben
If you ever have the chance to listen to Kevin Smith talk about his love affair with Batman, you’ll find that he will inevitably bring up the Swamp Thing-in-Gotham storyline. And for good reason. Prepare to be dazzled once again by the psychedelic brilliance of Alan Moore. If you’ve ever wondered how a comic book authored by Will Alexander would read – pick up any volume of Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing. They’re widely available and written with such cosmic pathos. Moore just has a way of writing seriously about stupid things and writing stupidly about serious things. It will capture your imagination and potentially change the way you view the craft of storytelling.
4. Batman: Shadow of the Bat (No. 74, May ’98, DC) – Alan Grant, Mark Buckingham & Wayne Faucher
All of the recent earthquakes in Southern California have frayed my nerves. Is it silly of me to comfort myself by rereading the Cataclysm storyline where Batman is looking out for the helpless earthquake victims of Gotham? Yes. Am I going to stop reading? No. One inconsequential thought that did dawn on me as I was immersed in it was how close Christopher Nolan’s Batman is to the comics, especially the third movie. Though fans tend to shit on The Dark Knight Rises (2012) as the worst of the trilogy, it’s remarkable how faithful it is to both the Knightfall and Cataclysm storylines.
5. Batgirl (No. 13, Oct 2010, DC) – Bryan Q. Miller & Pere Perez
Though Batgirl, like Bat-Mite, is hardly the high water mark of the Bat mythos, this particular issue of Batgirl illustrates perfectly what was so heart wrenching about both the comics and Fox’s 1992 animated series. The story opens with Clayface, a shapeshifter, violently murdering a number of bank employees to take their form. Because he desires access to a vault, Batgirl naturally assumes that bank robbery is Clayface’s main motive. After the monster’s final ploy to access the vault is foiled by Batgirl, it is discovered that Clayface (a.k.a., Basil Karlo) had an old safety deposit box down in the aforementioned vault. What was inside? A photo of his dead wife. To quote Batgirl from the last panel: “So he did all of this just to get a look at his wife again?” The detective: “Apparently.” It’s that pinch of sentimentality, sometimes followed by a dab of baroque melodrama, that makes Batman so delicious and ultimately worth savoring.