Batman has long been one of DC’s most enduring heroes and one of the most recognizable characters in American pop culture. He’s also one that is ripe for examination, parody and re-appropriation. What makes this more and more interesting is the way in which different authors have used the Batman archetype to explore different universes and to examine the character in ways that he hadn’t been looked at in his own universe. Some great books even manage to spin the character into someone that could be interpreted far differently than the hero we all know.
1. “Astro City: Dark Age Part 1”
In Kurt Busiek’s epic retelling of the way that comics evolved from the late silver age into the hyper violent and complex bronze age, Street Angel plays a moderately small role. A vigilante battling crime in the streets while the more powerful heroes battle against the intergalactic enemies that are taking on the city, Street Angel is hoping to keep his moral code against killing as the city descends into chaos but as Silver Agent begins to make the difficult choices, Angel has to face that the pain he brings criminals may not be worse than killing them. When we last see him, he’s sitting in his misery, not knowing whether his future in Astro City will be an accommodating one.
2. “The Duck Knight Returns” – Darkwing Duck
Frank Miller is may be my favorite comics writer ever but he’s really easy to mock. If you know his best known work, “The Dark Knight Returns,” you’re going to have a lot of fun with Darkwing Duck’s take on the story. When he finds his city completely under the control of publicly traded organizations with businesses even controlling the police force. He’s driven to put back on the cape and sombrero and bring justice to St. Canard. Making everything more fun, classic “DuckTales” characters contribute to the Darkwing Duck adventure in major ways.
3. “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Three Times” – The Simpsons
Bartman has been aluded to many, many times in “The Simpsons” but in a direct parody of “Batman Begins,” Bart tells a story about how awesome and useful revenge can be. It might be worth watching just to see Snake taking the role of Joe Chill.
4. “Showdown” – Batman: The Animated Series
Batman and Robin both show up briefly in “Showdown” but most of the episode is a flashback about one of Ras al Ghul’s sons being defeated by one of Old Gotham’s best killers, Jonah Hex. Its an invigorating episode, filled with great fights, an awesome plot and a great peak at the relationship and respect that Batman and Ras have for each other, despite being enemies.
5. “Asro City: Confession”
Busiek’s written Batman for the Justice League as well as in his exceptional “Trinity” series but its clear that he has a soft spot for the violent hero that could face down anything and anyone. “Confession” stars Astro City’s other Dark Knight analogue, the Confessor, and is told through the voice of his sidekick, describing a series of slayings in Shadow Hill, a bizarre storyline featuring alien invasions and corrupt government officials and a hero in black who’s controlled by his own moral code as well as struggling with who he is. This is less of an analysis of Batman and more of an engaging what-if story, but it does delve into the mindset of the teenage Robins who give the dark knight their allegiance.
6. “Holy Terror”
By no means is “Holy Terror” a good book. Its misogynistic, utterly dark, misanthropic, overly violent, overly masculine and jingoistic. Frank Miller’s mess of a 9/11 graphic novel was meant to be about Batman’s hunt for Osama bin Laden but ended up being a book about dull Batman and Catwoman analogues shooting terrorists. On its own, “Holy Terror” is an utter failure but it does almost make one consider what it was that Miller was really intending to communicate in the thematically similar “The Dark Knight Returns.”
7. “Battle for the Cowl”
Sadly, Grant Morrison will probably be best remembered for killing Batman in the frankly, pretty terrible “Final Crisis.” That being said, he was able to craft much more engaging stories about the Dark Knight, namely “Batman Incorporated” but “Battle for the Cowl” is an enormously engaging series about the future of Gotham. As Bruce Wayne battles his way through time, the Bat-family engages in a city encompassing war for who will wear the cowl. Morrison is obsessed with Robin and he shows it here, developing Dick Grayson into an adult hero as well as showing the future role that Damian would play in fighting for the future of the city. Much like Jeph Loeb’s “Dark Victory,” “Battle for the Cowl” explores the ways in which the Robins have to accept power and what the future of holding this power can hold.
8. “Kabuki: Circle of Blood”
Perhaps the best comic series of the ’90s, David Mack’s “Kabuki” is an enthralling fusion of neo-noir, international espionage, World War II fiction, metatextual analysis and “Alice in Wonderland” imagery. The story, initially a battle between the agents of the Noh and a terrorist group, the narrative blooms into a story about Japanese trauma, living up to the memories of a parent and leaving a better world than the one you came into. The story of Ukiko, a child orphaned after her mother’s murder, and her eventual transformation into the assassin Kabuki borrows heavily from the Batman mythos and repeated uses of Alice and Wonderland imagery, particularly borrowed from Grant Morrison’s “Serious House on Serious Earth,” ties Kabuki very strongly to a certain Western hero. However, the way that Mack grounds his hero in real world trauma and extistential angst makes us view both the minds of Bruce Wayne and Batman in a considerably more nuanced and fractured way.
9. “Death of the Goon” – The Goon #39
The list of characters, writers, artists, trends and storylines that are skewered in Eric Powell’s delirious parody issue of superheroes is nearly endless and he manages to mock the Batman/Catwoman relationship mercilessly. In a series of panels where Goon decides to become an interracial street avenger who stops people who realized that “hanging out in an alley would really pay off,” he saves a woman only to go into a long monologue about why he can’t fall in love. Meanwhile, Franky checks “angst ridden monologue” off the list of tropes that need to appear in their superhero issue. Of course, that’s all before Goon and Franky decide to become gay Republican Puerto Rican socialist transvestites from space who believe in Jesus. You know, solely for the media attention.
10. “Sin City: The Hard Goodbye”
After smoking his 400th cigarette of the day and fucking a hooker with a heart of gold, Frank Miller spits on the piss slick floor of his apartment, swallows a mouthfull of whiskey, curses and wonders whether there’s a way he could add more hardcore violence to neo-noir. After “The Dark Knight Returns,” Miller devoted himself to putting even more violence into a story about a man with nothing to live for, trying to save a city that long ago lost its’ soul. This is the Batman that Miller wishes he would have written and it serves as a better companion piece to “Year One” and his other works than “The Dark Knight Strikes Again.”