If you’re going to dare going to a midnight screening of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, watching director Christopher Nolan‘s first two films might not be enough preparation. You might have to do some reading as well. Not only to appease the caped and cowled fanboys who will surely be staking out the multiplex, but also so that you’ll have a deep understanding of the film’s characters, where they came from, and just why Anne Hathaway feels compelled to act like a cat. So here are some graphic novels (and a real actual book or two without pictures) to pick up at your local comic shop before you buy your ticket. Don’t worry, this is homework you’ll enjoy for a change.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: Frank Miller’s book is not only a classic Batman tale, but a classic of the comics genre in general. In it, Bruce Wayne lives in a world that is completely decimated, without heroes or hope. This seems to be more in line with The Dark Knight, Nolan’s last movie, than the upcoming one (just as there are echos of Miller’s other classic Batman: Year One in Batman Begins), but you need to know where the story has been to fully understand where it is going.
Batman: Knightfall!: It’s not a spoiler to say that this is the collection where DNR baddie Bane breaks Batman’s back, since it’s on the cover of the book. This incident is also hinted at in the trailers, so it would seem that this is the tale that had the most influence on the plot of the new movie. We’re going to have to wait and find out, but it’s better to be prepared.
Batman: The Complete History: This is a real, actual book without pictures. Well, there are lots of pictures, but there is a lot of plain text too. If you want to know every detail about the caped crusader, from his first comic books to the movies in which the Batsuit had nipples, this well-researched tome is just the thing for you.
Batman: Killing Joke: Frank Miller may have revived the Batman myth, but another famous comic writer did something amazing with the villains. Alan Moore (of Watchmen fame) tells the Joker’s origin story from his perspective while also telling a story about how he tries to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. Of course, Batman figures into it eventually, but like The Dark Knight movie, the real emphasis is on the baddie.
Batman: Vengeance of Bane: This compendium of stories about the mumbling baddie featured in the movie includes his first appearance in the comics, his origin story, and a tale about how he teamed up with the creatively spelled evil doer Ra’s Al Ghul, the villain from Batman Begins.
Batman Vs. Dracula: Vampires are so hot right now.
Batman: Arkham Asylum: We caught a glimpse of this Victorian-style sanitarium where the Scarecrow worked in Batman Begins, but this is the book that made it famous and very, very creepy. The institution where all of Batman’s bonkers villains are all housed together (who thought that was a good idea?) is taken over by the patients and Batman has to go in and take them out one at a time. The super-creepy artwork only adds to the mythology.
Batman: A Death in the Family: When I was in grade school, everyone was talking about this story, in which Robin actually dies. Yes, Robin dies! (Again, it can’t be a spoiler if it’s on the cover of the gosh darn book.) Of course, it’s the Joker’s fault and the young crime fighter’s death sends Mr. Wayne into an awful tailspin. There’s no Robin in Nolan’s Bat-iverse, but there certainly is a lot of mourning.
When in Rome: Finally, a story that has nothing to do with Batman! This one is all about Catwoman, who travels with the Riddler to Italy to find her father, who she thinks is mobster Carmine Falcone (who was stashed away in Arkham in Batman Begins). That the artwork is inspired by French and Italian fashion magazines is just a stylistic bonus.
Back to the Bat Cave: When you think of Batman, who immediately comes to mind? No, not Christian Bale. No, not Michael Keaton either. God, will you just shut up about George Clooney?! No, the man that comes to mind is Adam West, the actor who played the caped crusader on TV in the ’60s. Here is his memoir about his years in the tights.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan