Once, a friend of mine told me this -"Batman is the real sh***. He's the only true superhero for one thing only: despite his high tech expensive gadgets, he doesn't need superpowers or magic to fight his enemies but only his intellect. He's the modern Ulysses". Then I mention Iron Man and he told me that Stark relies entirely on his armor and without it there's nothing left but a "a genius, billionaire, playboy and philanthropist". In the end, no Iron Man suit no superhero. I kept looking for Batman's counterpart within Marvel comics and the only one I came across was Daredevil, but his super abilities reside as well in fantastical elements.
So that is why after watching Nolan's The Dark Knight, I embarked in a mission to read as many Batman comics as possible (I was never very fond of Batman comics except for one or two) and in that venture I found that the following five choices are some of the best story arcs that any casual comic book reader should check out.
Frank Miller - Batman: Year One
The 1980's brought significant changes to the comic book industry. The Silver Age had finished and comic book writers and editorial agreed that a change was needed. If comic books were to survive the new ages they had to reinvent themselves. So that is why we got mature and darker stories and Batman was no exception. Gotham's Caped Crusader was rebooted by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli in 1987 and the result was absolutely incredible. Despite the absence of the fan favorite Batman's villains, we got to see the beginnings of The Dark Knight as a vigilante but also it's one of the first times that James Gordon is examined as a standalone character rather than just a mere sidekick.
Year One invigorated Batman with new blood and flesh but it also fills the plot with underlying themes and ideas that hadn't been present in the previous Batman comic books. Miller's approach set a new standard for the Batman stories and many thought it might take a while before somebody delivered an equally engaging and compelling story - nonetheless that one was on it's way...
Alan Moore - The Killing Joke
All the buzz surrounding the upcoming Suicide Squad movie started with the choice of Jared Leto as The Joker and later on people went crazy when Leto shared an image of him imitating the cover of The Killing Joke. Alan Moore's 1988 story took Batman to unprecedented levels of praise. What's more, The Killing Joke is much more about The Joker than Batman. Yes, Batman is the protagonist, yet The Joker has the funniest and deepest lines. It's a tale of survival and self-exploration. The Joker's idea of Batman being the outcome of an accident very much like his own tragedy serves Moore to allow readers to decide whether Batman and The Joker mirror each other or not. This one is a MUST for anyone who claims to be a Batman fan.
But if you thought that Moore had shaped the definitive Joker, wait a moment, you haven't seen anything yet. The next one, for me, is The Joker at his best.
Brian Azzarello - Joker
Wanna know what inspired Heath Ledger Joker's performance? This is it. There isn't, in my opinion, another Batman story arc that depicts The Joker as Brian Azzarello did in his masterpiece Joker. In there, he is a bloody psychopath, a maniac, a schemer and a ruthless crime lord. This one is easily one of Batman's most violent stories published and from the very moment of his appearance it divided people. You'll either love it or hate it, but there's no way it'll leave you indifferent. The art of Bermejo is beautiful and jaw-dropping.
If you are one of those, like me, who loves Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy then you should be reading this comic. I bet you'll surely find yourself watching Ledger in every vignette.
Jeph Loeb - The Long Halloween
This is basically where Nolan's The Dark Knight began. The Long Halloween is the true story that inspired Batman Begins' sequel. The narrative, the structure; motifs and characters. This is Nolan, but quite few years before. Jeph Loeb probably never imagined that his work would be retaken to redefine superheroes on screen. The plot revolves around about inexplicable and unrelated murders occurring in the city. Batman will find himself asking help from one of his foes to try solving the enigmatic case of the man behind those killings. The misleading proofs and events will intricate more and more the story and the ending is somewhat shocking because nobody could have predicted who the killer was. Not even Batman.
Geoff Johns - Batman: Earth One
The Penguin a rapist and a pedophile? Well, it's kind of scary. There are many themes and subjects within comics but at least I've never seen something like this in any other Batman comic and it was most welcomed. The last may seem an awkward assertion, but it isn't. Think about the news you watch every day and scarier things are happening in the world but we're getting so used to those that there's a point where it all seems normal. However, if you see that in a comic you might not admit it but it's only a natural evolution of comics to start dealing with those kind of things. Geoff Johns is the genius behind the resurrection of DC comics. He was responsible for the critically acclaimed Infinite Crises, Blackest Night, Flashpoint and most recently Forever Evil.
Earth One is another Batman origin story but what Johns accomplished starts questioning the morals and ethics of people embodied in the figures of Batman and Penguin. Earth One it's definitely worth reading.