Artist: Greg Capullo
As the most recent addition to our list, Scott Snyder’s expansive “Court of the Owls” storyline is among the best superhero comics to come out in the last decade. In the newly-relaunched Batman #1, Snyder introduces readers to the Court of the Owls—a secret cult that has been pulling the strings of power in Gotham for decades.
Bruce Wayne has heard rumors of its existence since he was a child, but because he could never find any evidence of the cult on his own, he dismissed it as nothing but an urban legend. He soon learns that the cult is all too real and that they have initiated their plan to take over Gotham.
Snyder’s storytelling has a visceral quality about it that doesn’t allow readers time to catch their breath or feel any sort of comfort. There is always something lurking around every corner as some of the most frightening and shocking moments in the character’s history happen here. By the end, Snyder has firmly established The Court as one of the most dangerous additions to the Batman rogues gallery in decades.
It’s not just the scripts that land this story on the list, but also the art by Greg Capullo. By meshing the twisted style he used on Spawn with the clean lines and square jaws of Batman: The Animated Series, Capullo brings a style all his own to this storyline.
Writer: Doug Moench
Artist: Paul Gulacy, Terry Austin
Taking place during the infancy of Batman’s career, “Prey” is yet another take on his first battle against Dr. Hugo Strange, but this one is completely different in both plot and tone than the aforementioned Batman and the Monster Men. In this story, Strange is a world famous psychologist who goes on a televised crusade in an attempt to analyze Batman’s psyche for the public. This seemingly accurate diagnosis impresses the Mayor of Gotham City so much that he appoints Strange as a consultant on Jim Gordon’s task force to bring down the Batman.
This story is notable because it explores the early days of Batman’s relationship with the Gotham City Police Department and the mysterious Catwoman. But it’s in the writing of Strange himself where writer Dough Moench really elevates “Prey” to classic status. By focusing on Strange’s off-the-charts intelligence and vicious demeanor, Moench transforms this often underrated foe into one of the Dark Knight’s most dangerous threats.
”Prey” is a very slow-paced, meditative read, but it succeeds in breaking down these classic characters and relating them to our own understanding of the human mind.
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Artist: Jim Lee
One of the best-selling Batman stories of all time, Jeph Loeb’s “Hush” is a globetrotting mystery that packs in sprawling fight scenes and some of the best work of Jim Lee’s career. This book is more about the blockbuster creative team than it is the actual story content, but “Hush” still manages to be a solid read despite that.
After a mysterious new villain named Hush shows up in Gotham claiming to know Batman's secret identity, the Caped Crusader must use all of the tools in his arsenal to take him down. As he does this, a childhood friend of Wayne’s reemerges and reveals more about his past than he ever knew. Touting cameo appearances from nearly every ally and villain from Batman’s supporting cast, “Hush” is the perfect story for the casual fan to begin their comic book reading habit.
The mystery that Loeb tries to weave is never really gripping—especially with an ending that is pretty obvious from the start—but the way he gets into Batman’s head is perfect. And where Loeb’s plots begin to wear a little thin, the flashy art by Jim Lee should be enough to keep you flipping the pages. Never known for his intricate storytelling abilities, Lee manages to succeed with splash pages and pin-up pieces that should appeal to most Bat fans.
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Jock, Francesco Francavilla
This entry might seem like a cheat because it’s technically more than one story, but it's simply too good to leave out. The Black Mirror encompasses Scott Snyder’s short run on Detective Comics, and it takes place during the brief time when Bruce Wayne is running Batman Incorporated, but Dick Grayson is still the Dark Knight of Gotham City. In these issues, Dick has to fight off villains such as Tiger Shark, the Dealer, the Joker, and the Roadrunner, but it’s the introduction of Commissioner Gordon’s son, James Jr., that is the most disturbing part of this story.
In these issues, Snyder turns James Jr. into an unfeeling, apathetic sociopath with a closet full of skeletons and a heart full of hatred for his family. The story deals with how Gotham seems to adapt to whatever a hero’s personality is in order to break them physically and spiritually. Dick begins his career as Batman as the eternal optimist, but as he begins to succeed, the corruption of Gotham tries to pull both him and Gordon to the depths of hell.
Snyder’s scripts are also accompanied by terrific art by Jock and Francesco Francavilla. Both men bring noir-style grittiness to the stories, while also experimenting with panel layouts and basic storytelling techniques. The Black Mirror isn’t the type of superhero epic that Snyder has since become famous for; instead, it’s a psychological thriller that never lets you feel like you’re ahead of the unpredictable plot twists.
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Brian Bolland
By putting the spotlight squarely on the Joker in this psychologically intense one-shot, Alan Moore forever changed the relationship between the Caped Crusader and his fiercest villain. By peeling back the deranged layers of the Joker’s twisted psyche, Moore succeeded in rationalizing how the senseless nature of the world could turn a seemingly normal man into a homicidal supervillain.
This is the first story to really take a look at the events in the Joker’s life before he became a psychotic menace, and there is a sense of compassion we feel for him throughout the narrative. This isn't a man born evil; instead, he simply became a victim of the random and tragic nature of the world forever twisting his mind.
In between the flashbacks to his origins, Moore also tells one of the most violent Batman stories of all time. The main plot deals with the Joker breaking out of Arkham Asylum. Afterwards, he commits one of the grisliest acts in DC's history by shooting Barbara Gordon through the stomach, paralyzing her forever. This is all in an attempt to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, insane and prove to the world that even the most upstanding citizen can be driven mad after a bad day.
If you want to see where Heath Ledger’s inspiration came from for his performance as the Joker, then look no further than The Killing Joke.