What pairs better with “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told” (the last trade I completed)than a companion book about Batman’s greatest adventures?
Nothing, that’s what.
Why? Because Batman and The Joker go hand in hand. Each has existed without the other (Batman has hundreds of stories that don’t feature The Joker, and Joker had his own short-lived comic that saw him matching wits with other heroes) but each is best when sparring with the other. Surprisingly, The Joker only appears in one of the stories in this trade. I would have assumed the greatest Batman stories would inevitably feature Joker in all of his psychotically hilarious glory in a handful of issues.
Alas, Batman is the star of this particular trade (obviously), and in it he faces off against a host of his most well-known foes. Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, Catwoman, and Man-Bat all make appearances here. What’s more, the collection spans numerous decades, pairing some of his earliest appearances from the 1930’s with more recent publications from the 1980’s (this trade was released in the late 80’s, so unfortunately there’s nothing beyond that decade.)
As is to be expected, the stories are presented in order of publication, which gave me the pleasure of watching the character of Batman evolve and change with the times. I was pleasantly reminded of Batman’s dark, somber beginnings, issues which featured dark, gray-cast panels with truly ominous life and death situations, such as one moment when Batman faces off against a pack of wolves:
Missing here are the bright neon colors that would flood the Batman series in the 50’s and 60’s. Instead, we are presented with Batman as he was originally intended, dark, intense, and facing a series of frightening foes.
As the years (and the issues) progressed, the stories shifted away from this original interpretation and moved to more elaborate plots with plenty of excitement, but less of a deadly overtone. These stories were still entertaining, and sometimes downright funny, as can be seen when Joker and Penguin make an ill-fated attempt to pair up and destroy Batman:
One of my favorite issues from this time period included in this trade was a story featuring Catwoman.
In this story, Batman and Robin track Catwoman to a remote island where she is hiding with a host of lions, panthers, and tigers. In the depths of the jungle, Batman is captured by Catwoman’s henchmen. In a move reminiscent of Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game”, Catwoman gives our heroes a ten-minute head start before she will release her cats and begin hunting them.
(As an aside, why is it that whenever Batman and Robin are captured and/or forced to change clothes, they’re always allowed to keep their cowls/masks? No one is curious as to who they really are? Not that I’m really complaining. It makes for some of the weirdest images ever. See above if you don’t believe me.)
As the stories moved to the late 60’s and 70’s, Batman began morphing back to his darker, more threatening ways.
Although we know Batman doesn’t actively try to kill people, it was still rather jarring to see Batman make such an overt threat. Even if such threats are all bluster, they add to the overall image of the character and make him far more menacing than he was in previous issues. Images like these make those scenes in which bad guys flee in terror that much more believable.
Along with this darker image, the stories presented also began to have more substance. One such poignant issue consisted of Batman revisiting Crime Alley, the location where his parents were murdered, on the anniversary of their deaths. On this night, Batman prowls the streets, stopping common criminals from committing petty crimes. At one point, a thug pulls a gun on Batman, to which he reacts quite strongly:
The raw emotion in Batman’s response is unmistakable, and makes this already touching story that much more real. It was refreshing to see Batman take a break from twarting major super-villains and return to his roots of helping the everyday citizen. This story was moving enough, but Batman’s motive for performing these kind deeds made the story so much more powerful.
Another such story expands on the multiverse, in which Batman must visit another Earth and prevent the death of his parents in that world.
This issue deals with the moral struggle between deciding to save a person’s life or letting history repeat itself so that the same hero can emerge from the tragic event. Had this story been written a few decades prior, it probably would have been a very cut and drive “Batman Saves the Day” type of story. I found the fact that Batman and Robin actually debate whether to save the Waynes’ lives in this alternate world to be quite intriguing, and added a whole new layer to the story. I’m hoping as I move into the 80’s and future decades that he stories continue to pair this exciting action scenes with these more reflective moments.
That being said, I hope the comic doesn’t entirely lose its sense of humor either. Batman can be dark and brooding, but that just makes it all the more hilarious when he cracks a joke. For instance, in one issue Bruce Wayne is put on bed rest by his doctor, and Alfred staunchly refuses to let him go out and fight crime. As a result Bruce, in very un-Batmanlike fashion, pouts.
This is my favorite Batman face everrrrrr. Batman, feared by criminals all over Gotham, can be controlled by a single no-nonsense butler. I love these moments when we get to see such lauded superheroes overpowered by the most unlikely of characters.
The issues collected in this trade quite obviously encompass a vast array of Batman stories. Some are absurd, some are thoughtful, but all are entertaining. After reading all of these “Greatest” trades back to back, it seems it could be very difficult to come up with a best-of-the-best list that fully encapsulates the character in question. These heroes have been published continuously for decades, meaning there is a plethora of stories for the editors to choose from. I’m sure some were easy to eliminate from the running, but there must have been plenty that were mentioned that invariably got cut. I’m sure most fans can think of at least one story they wish was included here that wasn’t (a handful of O’Neill/Adams collaborations come to mind for me). Still, I think those collected in this trade are a fair representation of Batman as a whole. Sometimes he’s silly, sometimes he’s mysterious and brooding, sometimes he’s downright terrifying; all of these traits combine to make the Batman who he is – a complex, ever-evolving character. I can’t wait to see what character developments occur next.