Why not begin at the beginning? Before Adam West and Christopher Reeve in their sweaty skintight spandex; before George Clooney in his toy commercial and Christian Bale in his crime saga; before Gene Hackman and his manic lunacy and before Heath Ledger and his acid green chaos.
None of it would be possible without the rich mythology of Batman and Superman that has been crafted, over decades, in the comics.
As we contain our excitement for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we look back at the comics that defined both characters. These are the books that influenced Christopher Nolan’s vision of The Dark Knight and Zack Snyder’s take on the Man of Steel.
They’re the iconic fables of adventure and fantasy that chronicle the lives of modern Gods. These are the stories that tell us the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. These are the books that inspired a universe that transcends everything.
Batman: Year One (1987)
Well, the name gives it away doesn’t it? But Batman: Year One is as good a book as any to begin your obsession with the character. It chronicles Bruce Wayne’s first year on the job, told through the eyes of one of the most trustworthy friends he’ll ever make: Jim Gordon. This is the book that inspired Batman Begins, complete with that famous tease of Joker at the end. And once you’re done with this why not check out Batman: Year 100?
The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Frank Miller’s seminal book that came out in the ‘80s, forever changed the way comics were perceived. It told the story of a dystopian future in which a 55-year-old Batman has hung up his cowl and quit crime fighting for 10 years. But he’s Batman: He simply can’t ignore the madness of Gotham. His sudden and vigorous return prods the government into sending Superman to keep him at bay. And this leads to one of the most memorable battles ever put on paper – and also the main inspiration for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
While the sheer number of characters in this run may be too much for newcomers, we personally feel that it’s still one of the most enjoyable books any potential fan can read. The most striking aspects of this story are the gorgeous artwork by Jim Lee – considered by many to be the best depiction of The Dark Knight ever, the classic introduction to a new villain – one from Bruce Wayne’s past, and the sweeping romance between Batman and Catwoman.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989)
Not only is Arkham Asylum one of the greatest comic books ever – or graphic novels (whatever floats your batpod) – it is one of the greatest works of literature produced in the last few decades. It is complex story, told in suitably complex visuals, about madness. And it explores the weird relationship between Joker and Batman like very few stories have done. For those of you who’ve been told comics are for kids, just read one panel of Arkham Asylum and have your worldview crumble before your very eyes. Also, it’s written by a man (Grant Morrison) who claims, among other things, to have once been kidnapped by aliens.
The Killing Joke (1988)
This is the first book you should read if you consider yourself a Joker fan. Well, this and Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker. The Killing Joke is the seminal Joker comic – and that’s quite true because Batman’s hardly in it. This was the book Heath Ledger locked himself up in a hotel room with to study the character. And if that doesn’t sell you on it then nothing will.
Superman for All Seasons (1998)
The legendary writer-artist team of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale take us through the life of an icon, told through the eyes of those closest to him, over four seasons. It is a beautiful story that humanises the Man of Steel unlike any other. With stunning Norman Rockwell-inspired art and splash pages that will go down as some of the best to feature Superman, For All Seasons is possibly the best introduction to the character you can read.
Superman: Secret Identity (2004)
Superman: Secret Identity is set in an alternate universe where Superman is just a fictional character – so, basically, it’s like the real world. It’s about a boy, named Clark after the superhero, who finds that he suddenly has the powers of Superman. It then plays out like the movie Chronicle, where our Clark uses his powers, initially, to ward off bullies, but as he evolves, he starts using them to help people. The book captures the essence of Superman and what he inspires in people. And while its underlying theme of ‘everyone is a Superman’ might be slightly worn out and cheesy, it’s still a great book.
All-Star Superman (2005-2008)
You’ll give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time you will help them accomplish wonders.
Written, by that famous survivor of an alien abduction, All-Star Superman is without doubt the most ambitious Superman story ever told. Informed that he has just a year to live and confronted with the mortality heretofore unknown to him, Superman sets out to tie all the loose ends in his life. How would an immortal God react to the news of his impending death? It’s the loaded question All Star Superman attempts to answer.
Superman: Red Son (2003)
Inarguably, this is our favourite Superman story. It’s set in an alternate universe where Superman’s spaceship landed not in a Kansas farm but Soviet Russia, thereby stripping away everything we’ve known about the character. But what’s so great about this story is its central theme: Superman doesn’t fight for America or Russia or any particular country. He fights for humanity. He does good simply because that’s his state of being.
The Death of Superman (1992)
Some of you might know about the entire fiasco surrounding the death of Superman back in the ‘90s. Intended as one of the most game-changing story arcs in the history of comics, The Death of Superman, quite literally, killed the Man of Steel – only to bring him back to life a few months later. He lost the battle to Doomsday, the invincible mutant who will also be part of Dawn of Justice (make of it what you will). But if you were to ignore all the controversy and look at just the story, it’s still a legendary comic tale that really captured the love people had for the character.