I have a ridiculously large Batman comic collection. It’s embarrassing. But of all the different eras of Batman material I’ve been amassing, I’ve always been most fascinated with trying to gather and assemble all the trade paperbacks relating story arcs from the Caped Crusader’s “formative years”; basically, Years One, Two and Three. I love this era for its modern take on Batman’s first encounters with his infamous rogues, how he builds his tech and how his relationships with the Gotham PD slowly develop, to say nothing of the gradual recruitment of the Bat Family.
Now, even after all these years, I don’t have everything. So if you notice something you own that I haven’t listed, then rest assured it’s because I don’t own/haven’t read it yet and feel free to determine on your own where it slots in, if my reading order can be of any use. And, naturally, if you think I’ve gotten any order of events confused, let me know in the comments. This article is meant to be as informative as it is a time-killer while you’re supposed to be getting work done on company time.
Before we get started, just some quick background about the nature of the “DC Comics Universe” and how their timelines tend to work.
I’m compiling this chronology based on the “Post Crisis” Batman era. Prior to 1985, Batman stories were separated by Earth-2 (Golden Age) and Earth-1 (Silver and then-modern Age). The line-wide reboot event “Crisis on Infinite Earths” started Batman’s history over from scratch, leaving all his earliest adventures to be retold by new authors and artists with modern takes on the material.
While some of these stories were published in the main Detective Comics and Batman books, most were run in the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight ongoing (the purpose of which was to tell these now-untold stories of Batman’s early years, though not in a linear fashion). Still others were reserved for miniseries or graphic novels and some of the same events were retold multiple times, giving you a choice of modern reinterpretations of important Bat-Milestones.
With that in mind, you should know that all of these stories were written out of chronological order, over the span of decades, and by multiple creative teams often not working with or referencing back to one another. Other “Crisis” events have also since occurred in the DC Universe, such as “Zero Hour: Crisis in Time”, “Infinite Crisis” and “Flashpoint”, which have messed with the continuity and histories of the characters within. Contradictions and errors are unfortunately going to be frequent and unavoidable, but I’ll list them for posterity’s sake.
Now, let’s get started…
Batman: Year One
Well, that was easy.
Frank Miller’s and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One is, of course, the foundation on which all these early stories are built from. Being the “first” story, I can’t really list any contradictions within it, as it’s every other author that messed things up from this point on.
Year One gets things started, offering us Batman’s origin, his first encounter with Lieutenant Gordon and Harvey Dent, the origin of Catwoman and the introduction of Carmine “the Roman” Falcone. Spanning several months, the story ends with Gordon getting promoted to Captain and a threat to poison Gotham’s reservoir from someone calling themselves “the Joker”.
Those last two things I mentioned? Yeah, they’re gonna make things a little hairy in a minute.
The purpose of this article isn’t so much to critique the volumes listed, so I won’t spend a whole lot of time talking about the specific pros and cons of the stories. However, and I really shouldn’t have to tell you this, but Year One is definitely must-read material. Just an excellently crafted story, even if Selina Kyle is a prostitute for no good reason (other than Frank Miller’s undying preoccupation with ladies of the night, I guess). Kevin Smith can’t ruin this no matter how hard he tries.
Batman: Monsters (“Clay”)
Monsters collects three different stories from Legends of the Dark Knight, each with a theme of Batman battling monstrous foes. The only one I want to focus on (because it’s the only one with any semblance of long-term repercussion) is the third: “Clay” by Alan Grant and Quique Alcatena. This story covers Batman’s first encounter with the Matt Hagen incarnation of Clayface and little more than that. Alcatena’s art is pretty great, but Grant’s script is hammy as all heck. None of the stories collected in Monsters were particularly well-done, even the Warren Ellis one, so this is really just an “including it because it counts, not because it’s any good” sort of deal.
Anyway, this story opens with the statement that Batman is only three weeks into his career, so yeah. That would pretty much mean it has to happen “between the pages” of Year One and I’ll let you determine how well that works. Batman also has no Batmobile in this story and Alfred comments that he could use his own vehicle, further solidifying its “very early” placement. Gordon appears briefly, but his rank (either Lieutenant or Captain) is never addressed.
As an aside, Matt Hagen, even in the Post Crisis DC Universe, has always been the second Clayface; the first being a masked murderer named Basil Karlo (who later became a shape-shifter like Hagen, but let’s not go down that road). As it happens, the story of Batman’s first encounter with Karlo has only ever been told twice: originally in Detective Comics #40 and a retelling in Secret Origins #44. Both versions feature Robin. Uh huh. Figure that one out.
Dark Moon Rising, Vol. 1: Batman and the Monster Men
Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men is the first immediate follow-up to Year One and part of a two-volume Dark Moon Rising saga that retells a pair of Batman’s earliest tales from the Golden Age. In this storyline, Batman has his first encounter with Professor Hugo Strange and his Monster Men and begins his romance with Julie Madison, a love interest from the Golden Age comics. We’re also introduced to Sal “The Boss” Maroni, who will play a larger role in the second year of Batman’s career. And on top of all that, Batman builds his first Batmobile.
This story seemingly takes place “within” the events of Year One, sometime before the final page where Captain Gordon mentions the Joker, as Batman and the Monster Men opens the morning after Batman’s fateful encounter with the Red Hood (but after Gordon is promoted from Lieutenant, obviously). Either that or it contradicts that ending entirely, negating its events. We’re also going to be dealing with a recurring problem involving the level of tech Batman has developed fluctuating back and forth between many of these volumes.
Most perplexing, though, is that Wagner wrote this story to be both a replacement and a lead-in to Prey, an earlier Legends of the Dark Knight story arc that reintroduced Hugo Strange to the Post Crisis universe. It hits a few of the same beats as Prey, such as dealing with Batman building his first Batmobile and Strange’s obsession with becoming the Dark Knight and kidnapping women for his amusement. However, the plot is entirely different and it ends with Strange becoming a pop psychologist, setting him up for his appearance in Prey.
Dark Moon Rising, Vol. 2: Batman and the Mad Monk
Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Mad Monk shows us the end of Batman’s romance with Julie Madison as well as his encounter with Golden Age villain the Monk. We’re treated to more mythology-building of this first year, as Carmine Falcone and Catwoman make appearances, Captain Gordon struggles with the corruption in his police force (a theme continued from Year One), there’s a reference to Haley’s Circus and Harvey Dent’s friendship with Batman continues to grow. The story ends with Batman leaving to investigate several dead bodies with rictus grins on their faces, leading directly into The Man Who Laughs.
This volume of Dark Moon Rising has less active contradictions than the last installment and segues into The Man Who Laughs quite nicely. Though again, there’s that issue with the last page of Year One and how everything either fits around it or replaces it entirely.
I also feel compelled to mention that both volumes of Dark Moon Rising are fantastic and you really ought to pick them up. They were a bit overlooked, but they really do a great job of retelling those Golden Age stories, adapting them to the modern interpretation of Batman (the Dark Knight doesn’t defeat the Monk by shooting him in the face with a pistol, for instance, but the overall story still stays true to the source).
Batman: The Man Who Laughs
This graphic novel by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke deals with Batman’s first encounter with the Joker. Commissioner Grogan takes over after Commissioner Loeb steps down, Arkham Asylum gets its proper introduction and there are references back to the Red Hood incident briefly mentioned in Batman and the Monster Men. The story ends with Gordon turning on the Bat Signal for the first time.
The only real contradiction in this (fantastic) story is that the Joker is already an established threat and killed many people before he initiates his reservoir-poisoning scheme. The Joker is also dubbed as such by the media and it is not a moniker he gives to himself, as Gordon stated at the end of Year One. The creation of the Bat Signal would also once again contradict Prey, a story written before this one that takes place afterward and deals with the creation of the Batmobile and the Bat Signal as side items.
Regardless, this is a terrific one-shot and readily available thanks to numerous reprints in soft and hardcover. I’ve adored Doug Mahnke’s artwork since his days on The Mask for Dark Horse and this is a positively brutal story that captures the essence of the Joker quite well. Very epic and worth picking up.
Venom by Denny O’Neil and Russell Braun introduces the titular super steroid along with the island Santa Prisca, both of which would later factor into the origin of Bane. Venom sees Batman’s first major failure as a crime fighter and his subsequent addiction to steroids as a means to overcome his human limitations. It is ridiculous.
You could possibly place it earlier in the timeline, between the pages of Year One, as there doesn’t appear to be a Batmobile in this story (Batman getting rides from Alfred) and the Batcave is mostly just a desk and some weights, but that would interrupt the rather tightly paced narrative going on between Year One, Dark Moon Rising and The Man Who Laughs (Clay is already an awkward fit).
Gordon’s also a Captain, so it would have to take place between his promotion at the end of Year One and the last page of that story and I’d rather not try to cram too many stories in that little gap. Then there’s the matter of Batman spending a whole month locked in the Batcave to “detox”, which cuts 31 days (exactly 31, the story stresses) out of his first year on the job.
This is not Batman’s finest adventure, all things considered.
Batman: Four of a Kind
Four of a Kind is actually a collection of four Batman Annuals released in 1995 with the unifying theme of there being year one tales that involve Batman’s first encounter with one of his rogues. As such, each story takes place at a different point in that first year. The stories introduce Poison Ivy, the Riddler, the Scarecrow and Man-Bat.
Poison Ivy’s chapter (by Alan Grant and Brian Apthorp) has Batman riding a motorcycle because he has no car and introduces Gordon as a Lieutenant. As a result, her chapter has to take place during Year One, before Gordon is promoted at the end.
The Riddler’s chapter (by Chuck Dixon and Kieron Dwyer) likewise features Gordon as a Lieutenant, putting it in the same timeframe. It’s also my favorite of the bunch; Chuck Dixon’s one of the better retroactive writers of Batman’s early years, as you’ll find out in stories like Robin: Year One, Batgirl: Year One and Nightwing: Year One.
The Scarecrow’s chapter (Doug Moench, Bret Blevins and Mike Manley) sees Gordon as a Captain, so that bumps us ahead to after The Man Who Laughs or thereabouts. Two-Face is referenced twice (and even shown in one panel) when he cannot yet exist due to the Scarecrow’s presence in “The Long Halloween”. So that’s a problem. Also, a later miniseries titled Batman and Scarecrow: Year One tried to retell Scarecrow’s origin again, with the major change being he didn’t hit the scene until after Robin had joined the cause. That constitutes an even bigger headache than Two-Face appearing in one panel, so I’d prefer to stick with this version as the lesser of two anachronisms.
Lastly, Man-Bat’s chapter (Chuck Dixon and Quique Alcatena) features no appearance by Gordon to help figure out the placement with his rank, but there is a Batmobile. Additionally, the Batcave is almost fully-formed (giant penny, giant playing card, robot t-rex, etc.), so it looks to take place closer to the end of the first year. It’s the best-looking story in the volume, too. I didn’t mention it so much on Clay, but Alcatena is a hell of an artist.
Batman: Prey and Batman: Terror
The 2012 trade paperback edition of Batman: Prey contains both of Doug Moench’s Hugo Strange stories: Prey and its sequel, Terror.
In Prey, Batman comes into direct conflict with Hugo Strange, as he manipulates Captain Gordon into creating an anti-Batman task force (under orders of the Mayor). He then uses his psychological manipulation skills to turn police officer Max Cort into a murderous vigilante called the Night Scourge. The story sees the first appearance of Catwoman since Batman and the Mad Monk, developing the romance between her and Batman. It also delves into Hugo Strange’s obsession with becoming Batman and possessing women.
I mentioned earlier how Batman and the Monster Men presents problems with Prey and one may be inclined to drop it. The subplots dealing with the creation of the Batmobile and the Bat Signal are now completely incongruous with earlier explanations, yet the story for Strange still bridges from where Monster Men left off really well. I suppose it’s a “take it or leave it” deal, but I’m inclined to go with the former because of the aforementioned continuation of Hugo Strange’s story arc as well as the introduction to Batman and Catwoman’s love-hate relationship.
The sequel, Terror, takes place sometime after Scarecrow’s chapter of Four of a Kind and involves Batman’s second encounter with the Master of Fear (being sprung from Arkham by a vengeful Hugo Strange). It involves a mansion full of deadly traps and is not a very good story (whereas Prey was excellent). Still, it covers more of the Batman-Catwoman romance, gives us the Scarecrow’s second major appearance and leaves Hugo Strange in a “missing but presumed dead” position that will conveniently play into his big return a ways down the line.
Batman: Haunted Knight
Haunted Knight (by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale) takes place on or just before the Halloween of Batman’s first year, telling three separate stories (these were originally Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween specials).
The first chapter, “Fears”, deals with Batman battling the Scarecrow and Bruce Wayne getting snookered by a gold digger named “Jillian”. As with the Man-Bat story from Four of a Kind, the Batcave has the T-Rex and the penny and all that, meaning this one has to take place later on in that first year. Not much else that’s significant about this one, though it is a good one-shot adventure and I love Sale’s art.
The second chapter, “Madness”, gives us a first look at the Mad Hatter (though he’s addressed as though Batman is familiar with him) and introduces us to Barbara Gordon (not Captain Gordon’s wife, but his niece-turned-adopted-daughter) as well as Leslie Thompkins. There’s a one-panel name-only reference to Two-Face, who cannot exist yet due to “The Long Halloween”, so you just sort of have to ignore that. Sam Kieth would later write and draw a graphic novel called Batman: Through the Looking Glass which would retell Batman’s first encounter with the Mad Hatter. But it includes Robin, so…
The third chapter, “Ghosts”, sees Batman having a “Christmas Carol”-style hallucination featuring Poison Ivy, the Joker and the corpse of himself as the Three Spirits. The beginning has Batman dealing with the Penguin, our first look at the villain who at this point is nothing but a gimmicky criminal and not an underworld boss (as with Hatter, he is introduced as though Batman has already dealt with him before). Lucius Fox also makes a first appearance.
The problem with these stories is that they all seem to take place on a different Halloween… yet they all take place in the first year of Batman’s career. That doesn’t make any sense. So putting them all in the same “week” or just a few days leading up to Halloween works a lot better.
Snow by J.H. Williams III, Dan Curtis Johnson and Seth Fisher sees Batman putting together his own secret police unit within the Gotham PD without Gordon’s knowledge. At the same time as this, Victor Fries begins his descent into madness, becoming Mr. Freeze. The story ends with Bruce Wayne looking at a newspaper ad for the Haley Circus and the Flying Graysons (first mentioned in Batman and the Mad Monk).
This story’s placement is a bit problematic, as Gordon is only ever referred to by the rank of “Detective”… one he never had during his time in Gotham (he started out as Lieutenant and worked his way up the ladder from there). Because it takes place in winter, though, it must occur either near the very beginning of Year One or after Haunted Knight. I chose the latter, as Bruce didn’t take the Batman persona until between February and April of Year One and his working relationship with Gordon didn’t begin until well after that, so this has to be the next winter at the end of that first year. There’s still the matter of the Batcave being mostly barren, but I can’t think of a way around that; it is what it is.
Also, this is a great story with some really lavish page layouts and action staging. The cartoony effects (like smoke blowing out of Gordon’s ears when he’s angry) can be a little much, but the arc is the best retelling of Mr. Freeze’s origin outside of Batman: The Animated Series.
To Be Continued
That’s what I’ve got for Batman’s first year, which as you can see, contains a lot more stories than just Year One. There are contradictions galore, but if you can overlook them, it’s actually a pretty good narrative that sees the introduction of most major characters and the gradual development of Batman’s mythology.
Still, if you’d prefer to go with the “streamlined” version of years one through three then just nab Year One, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. They’re all good and they’re written to flow from one to the other without incident or contradiction.
But, if you’re looking to try and piece together Batman’s more-or-less-complete early adventures in trade paperback form, with any luck this and the next article will be able to get you started. To take a look at Years Two, Three and “Beyond,” click here.