Earlier this month, The Batman director Matt Reeves offered Bruce Wayne a happy birthday message (Batman's birthday is February 19). He did this by tweeting a classic extract from the comic Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, as Bruce Wayne walks through the East End of Gotham, shortly before he assumes the role of Batman.
Happy Birthday, Bruce pic.twitter.com/zJ4q9kXcInFebruary 20, 2020
There's not a huge amount of significance to this, but Reeves is making a movie set in Batman's early days, reportedly year two of the Caped Crusader's career. Batman: Year One, as the name suggests, is a comic about the origin of Batman. Over three decades after its original publication in 1987, this four-issue series is still hugely significant.
Along with Frank Miller's dark near-future Batman book The Dark Knight Returns, which explores the end of his crime-fighting career, these works still have an enormous influence on how writers portray Batman now. Following on from the excellent Batman comics of Denny O'Neill and Neal Adams in the '70s, they paved the way for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie, and moved the popular perception of Batman past the '60s Adam West version (which was subversive and entertaining in its own right).
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Reeves posting the image makes sense: like Year One, his film will be noir-inspired, which the moody Robert Pattinson costume test and score attest. Every live-action version of Batman we'll ever see in our lifetimes will be beholden to the Year One version in some way. It's that influential.
2005's Batman Begins, meanwhile, adapted key parts of the Year One story. That's why The Batman likely won't be a straightforward origin movie – it's been done. Numerous people have joked about how many times we've seen the Waynes killed in Crime Alley. Hell, even last year's Joker managed to squeeze it in.
Year One, though, is far from the only great comic about the early years of Batman. Below, we've captured some we think you'd enjoy reading before The Batman releases in 2021. You can buy and download each one on Comixology (opens in new tab), which is the best way to read digital comics on your tablet.
Batman: Earth One
Director Matt Reeves has said that The Batman is "more Batman in his detective mode than we've seen in the films", meaning we'll actually get to see the World's Greatest Detective solve crimes.
This book, by writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank, is about Batman learning to be a detective. It's a very practical depiction of the character that strips away the brooding excesses of Miller's comics. The best detail is you can actually see Batman's eyes under the mask: it makes the book feel like it's set in the real world, and that the Caped Crusader is a do-good amateur rather than the master of every discipline as he's usually depicted.
Two volumes have been published so far, with a third on the way.
Batman: Year Two
There is a far less famous sequel to Batman: Year One, not written by Miller, and instead scripted by Mike W Barr, with illustrations by Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane. Year Two actually deserves a much better reputation than it has. Batman faces off against the Reaper, a murderous vigilante who predates the Dark Knight in Gotham, and he's forced to use firearms to keep up with his new opponent. The story was later adapted into the excellent Batman animated movie Mask of the Phantasm.
Batman: Zero Year
To most modern Batman readers, the definitive Dark Knight writer is Scott Snyder. His 50+ issue run with artist Greg Capullo did all kinds of out-there stuff, most notably swapping Bruce Wayne's Batman for Jim Gordon in a Bat-shaped mech suit. Zero Year, though, was the duo's take on an early Batman story, as The Riddler turns Gotham City into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The year-long event also managed to weave in the smartest Joker origin story you'll ever read.
If you want a treasure trove of classic early Batman stories, the place to go is the Legends of the Dark Knight series that began in 1990, shortly after Batman 1989 was a huge success. Year One prompted a lot of writers to tell their own early stories with the character, many of which were fantastic, and this was the first. After Bruce Wayne nearly dies in the Alaskan mountains, a local tribe rescues him.
Soon, cultists invade Gotham City, with one bearing a mask from the tribe that saved Bruce's life. It's a great little detective story that feels like it could slide right between the pages of Batman: Year One. You can even read issue one for free (opens in new tab).
Batman: The Long Halloween
A killer named Holiday commits a murder every month on a major holiday, and Batman is on the trail. The build-up to the revelation of the killer in The Long Halloween is compelling, and this book offers the definitive modern version of Harvey Dent's origin as Two-Face.
This story by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale is almost as famous as Batman: Year One, now, and it's likely a point of inspiration for The Batman, since it's an actual detective story.
Parts of the book were adapted across both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (indeed, Christopher Nolan provides a foreword to one collected edition of the story). A major theme of this book is that the old crime families of Gotham are being phased out and replaced with Batman's impossibly colorful villains. It's essentially showing Gotham's transition from being a '30s New York pastiche to a heightened comic book world of psychopaths dressed as scarecrows and clowns.
Reeves mentioned (opens in new tab) The Long Halloween and its sequel, Dark Victory, as two of his favorite Batman comics on Twitter in 2018.
Batman: Year 100
'Elseworlds' means a Batman book that's not technically part of continuity – and this distinctive-looking work by writer/artist Paul Pope is one of the very best. As the name suggests, it's set 100 years after Batman's debut in 1939, where the Caped Crusader reappears in a dystopian world. It's unlikely to be an influence on The Batman – but it'll show you just how much breadth there is to the Dark Knight, and how that origin can be reshaped into fascinating new stories.
Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles
In terms of stories set in that 'second year' of Batman, where the Dark Knight is still getting started while iconic villains begin hitting in the streets, the definitive modern tale is The War of Jokes and Riddles by writer Tom King and artist Mikel Janín. The title says a lot about what the story is: the Joker and Riddler's gangs are at war, and Gotham City is caught in the middle, with Batman trying to mediate the chaos.
In studying for the role, Robert Pattinson has apparently been reading King's Batman comics (opens in new tab), which represent the most ambitious recent interpretation of the character.
The Batman is released on June 25, 2021.